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Oral History Project


Professor John Hyman suggested this great idea:


I ask students to write an "oral history" based on an interview with someone (over the age of 30) about how that person experienced a public event.


This gives us the opportunity to practice a lot of skills without sounding pedantic or "jargony" about those skills.


  • First, they have to work on, of course, summary and paraphrasing.
  • Then they need to focus on how to smoothly integrate quoted material into the narrative.
  • Perhaps most importantly, we start talking about "thesis" without having to use that mysterious (to them) word. Students know instantly that a paper would not succeed if it reported that someone was alarmed by the 9/11 attacks.


The angle is what matters -- the message. I also am able to show them that it might make more sense to pursue a smallish public event instead of an iconic one. Some of the best papers tell the stories of small hometown events -- things like local censorship cases or the like.


I end the assignment by saying something like this:


When I get done reading your paper, do I walk into the next room and tell my wife: 'Hey I just read this cool paper where a student interviewed someone. It gives me a totally new way to understand [fill in blank.]"

Not all of the students, of course, rise to the challenge. That is, I will occasionally read papers whose controlling idea is something like: "It was a real shock when JFK was assassinated." But I also will get papers such as the one last year where a student talked -- for the first time -- with her dad about his experience in Vietnam. She reported that he had always closed off those memories -- even from his wife. This student actually thanked me for prompting the conversations.


That was a good day.


Thanks to Professor John Hyman of American University --  Washington, D.C. for sharing his favorite assignment!