STA 03 – Oral History

The purpose of this STA is to get you thinking about the possibilities inherent in the practice of oral history, by briefly undertaking an oral history interview and reflecting on the experience.

Lead a brief Interview

Find a friend and take about 20 minutes to ask him/her some questions about her/his life growing up. Before the interview, review what you know about this person and what are likely to be the most interesting topics; be prepared to elicit conversation about those topics, perhaps by making a list of questions in advance.


After you’re done, write a brief (500 wordish) report on the experience. Do NOT post it to the web, as it will be almost impossible for your to say anything of substance without making some reference to the content of the interview, and there are strong ethical reasons not to do that in a public forum without permission. Instead, bring it to class and we can perhaps take a few moments to discuss these next week. In your response, consider the following questions:

  • what was the interviewing experience like? Did you enjoy it?
  • how reliable a source is your friend? Did you retrieve the kind of information you wanted to?
  • how might you make use of an oral history in a digital format, like a website?
  • any further methodological/epistemological/ethical concerns that you have post-interview.

Further Notes

Preparing for the Interview

You should know the following going into the interview: -Name of interviewee -What do you already know about their experience -Dates and times of events in question- when did it occur, when were you there. -Think about how to create rapport or trust- make it clear why are we doing this interview, what are they consenting to, a contract; During the interview, ask set questions, broad questions first, then follow up on answers in order to show you’re listening, to obtain details and to clarify and build rapport, then return to your questions.

Interview length and format

Be careful not to let the interview go on too long, as you’ll need to listen to it later! 30 minutes will be more than enough; 10 minutes is probably a minimum length to get something interesting out of the interview.

Remember that your questions are just a guide – be attuned to moments of engagement on the part of our subject, and follow them up when they occur. Re-read Anderson and Jack, “Learning to Listen.” If you have time, also read Elizabeth Arnold’s Interviewing Manifesto and any other great guide you can find on the excellent on Transom.

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