- Teaching with Oral Histories
Oral histories are invaluable primary sources that have the potential to enhance students’ understanding of the historical period. As Glenn Whitman asserts,
Students are engaged by reading interviews because the historical actors become more real as opposed to the processed heroes students often encounter in their textbooks. Such sources provide another perspective when evaluating the past and are often more engaging because … the narrative form is the best medium “in which to contain, transmit, and remember important information.”1
Oral history provides us, as historians of health care, with an enriched opportunity to expose our students to what it meant to live through a particular time period, to experience illness or childbirth, to work with or encounter new medical technologies, and to confront the changing healthcare system
There are two pedagogical approaches to using oral history in teaching. Passive oral history “is the presentation of oral history sources from which students will learn” and is “accomplished by integrating ‘ready-made’ sources of oral history into existing curricula.” This can include the use of audio or video recordings, websites, transcripts, and other electronic media “containing renditions of oral history … that can expose the student to [oral history] methodology as well as provide content for the curricular area of study.” Active oral history refers to “the role of students as ‘novice researchers’ collecting their own oral histories. The student, accordingly, engages in researching a topic, interviewing respondents, comparing other historical documentation, analyzing and interpreting data, developing narratives, producing products, and presenting the finished work.”2 Although I use both pedagogical approaches in my teaching, for the purposes of this article, I focus on the passive approach. While there is an extensive body of scholarship within the oral history literature on how to incorporate active oral history into undergraduate teaching, barely any exists on developing passive oral history in the curriculum.3 In my teaching, I integrate oral histories in two ways: (1) I use oral histories as supplements to lectures and assigned reading of secondary literature, and (2) I have students analyze oral histories as a graded assignment. [End Page 128]
I have found that assigning oral history transcripts as class reading or using audio excerpts of oral history interviews in classroom lectures has the potential to transform students’ experience of the history they are learning about as well as providing me with excellent opportunities to teach about the methodological challenges of doing history. By hearing people describe the history as they experienced it, oral histories humanize, bring to life, and make real for the students the history that is portrayed in the assigned secondary literature and lectures. Oral histories provide students with the opportunity to explore the many sides of a historical issue or event through first-hand accounts. Oral histories literally give voice to individuals and groups not otherwise depicted in the secondary literature. And they allow students to assess and compare the ways in which an individual’s experience of a given historical issue or event may correlate, enhance, challenge, or conflict with historians’ interpretations of that history.
We are fortunate as historians of medicine that there are a number of excellent online and published oral history resources that we can draw upon in our teaching;4 this is particularly the case on the topic of gender, women, sexuality, and health. Using examples from my course, Women, Health, and History, I want to highlight, in particular, the use of oral histories to teach students about women’s experiences as physicians and nurses in the twentieth century (the course syllabus is online at https://www.hopkinshistoryofmedicine.org/content/syllabus-archive). In Her Own Words: Oral Histories of Women Physicians edited by Regina Markell Morantz, Cynthia Stodola Pomerleau, and Carol Hansen Fenichel, is a collection of edited oral histories of women physicians who trained from the mid-1930s through the 1970s, that offers firsthand accounts of women’s experiences as physicians during the twentieth century.5 In Her Own Words is organized generationally into three sections: part I includes interviews with physicians who trained before [End Page 129] World War II, part II includes interviews with physicians who went to college or medical school...