Oral Historians in the Classroom

On November 19, three OHMAR board members Skyped into my Introduction to Oral History class at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ. Harnessing internet technology in this way is not only easy and free — it’s consistent with OHMAR’s strategic plan! So please, reach out if you’d like to bring some oral historians into your classroom in this way—we are open to all ideas.

First up was Molly Graham. Molly is a professional oral historian and documentarian. She trained at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine where she produced the award-winning radio documentary, Besides Life Here, which has been licensed by several National Public Radio affiliates. She has her master’s degree in Library Science and Archives Management from Simmons College in Boston.

Molly is the former director of the oral history program at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum and Assistant Director of the Rutgers Oral History Archives. In 2013, she cofounded Oral History & Folklife Research, Inc., with the mission of preserving the stories, voices, and cultural traditions of Maine and beyond.

She is currently the project manager for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Voices Oral History Collection, where she collects, preserves and curates oral histories documenting historical environmental change.

Molly spoke eloquently about how an oral history is the narrator’s “version of their life story; I am just the midwife to guide it out.†She gently warned the students that “interviews can be tense and emotional, and you are along for the ride. It’s a visceral experience.†The class was fascinated by the fact that she’s interviewed everyone from Vietnam vets to those who purport to have been abducted by aliens. She noted that while she is proud of all the work she has done, her favorite projects, if she had to pick, would be a collection of interviews related to the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a project on immigrants in Maine.

Our second speaker was David J. Caruso, Director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. In his position as director of the Science History Institute’s Center for Oral History, David is establishing new projects that focus on the relationship between science and disability, on the role that presidential science advisers play in science and technology policy in the United States, on the ways in which LGBTQ scientists and engineers navigate professional structures, and on minorities in science and engineering. Caruso also conducts the center’s biannual Oral History Training Institute, a week-long workshop designed to introduce historians to the oral history methodology; is the immediate past president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region; and is the editor of the Oral History Association’s journal, the Oral History Review.

David really set the students at ease when he confessed that, even though he has done hundreds of interviews, he still gets nervous before each one. He noted, “being nervous, being uncertain about yourself is not an uncommon experience…it’s part and parcel of the work we do.â€

Our last speaker was Abigail Perkiss, an Assistant Professor of History at Kean University in Union, NJ. Her first book, Making Good Neighbors: Civil Rights, Liberalism, and Integration in Postwar Philadelphia, examines the creation of intentionally integrated neighborhoods in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Abby completed a joint J.D./Ph.D. in U.S. history at Temple University. She also trained at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. She is the Managing and Pedagogy Editor of the Oral History Review, and current Vice President of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

She is currently directing Staring out to Sea: The Story of Superstorm Sandy in Three Bayshore Communities, an oral history project documenting the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in three neighborhoods along the Sandy Hook Bay. An outgrowth of the project, Staring out to Sea: Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey’s Forgotten Shore, is forthcoming with Cornell University Press in 2020.

Abby established an immediate rapport when shared that she started doing oral history as an undergrad, just like the students listening to her! She had all types of advice to share on everything from informed consent to recording equipment.

At the end of the class, the students all agreed they felt better prepared to complete their capstone project—conducting oral histories of their own for either the Ocean County Historical Society or Christ Church, Shrewsbury. This is my 4th time teaching oral history to undergrads, but my first time Skyping in speakers. It will not be my last!

Melissa Ziobro is OHMAR’s president and the Specialist Professor of Public History at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ.