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History speaks

Students use interview techniques get to the heart of personal stories
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Tom Gaffey, 87, an Osher Lifelong Learning Institute student, participates in a history class at Southern Oregon University that teaches interviewing skills and the value of recording personal history. Jamie Lusch / Daily TidingsJamie Lusch
 Posted: 2:00 AM April 19, 2013

At the end of a long academic day, 18 undergraduate students enter Dr. Suzanne Marshall's Southern Oregon History 251 class at Southern Oregon University. Three guests, students from Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), have walked over from their class, Writing Your Life, to help out today.

Marshall opens the blinds and lets the world in, setting the stage for today's workshop. She begins, "Oral history is a valuable source for understanding the past through the experiences of the people who lived it."

Today's lesson: How to conduct an oral history interview with a focus on a particular historic event/time period using the Minnesota Historical Society's "Do's and Don't When Interviewing."

Don't talk too much. Do ask open-ended questions. Don't rush the interview. Do listen quietly and carefully and actively. Don't interrupt. Stick to subject, get specific details. Don't challenge a story. Keep the interview brief. Great communication reminders for us all.

Now it's time to have a brave student model newly learned skills. Ian Rogers volunteers to interview OLLI student Lynn Ransford. Up to the front of the class they go, with Ransford carrying a large, framed picture under her arm.

"What was one of your first childhood memories?" asks Rogers. Ransford holds up the framed picture and we discover it is Franklin D. Roosevelt. When she was in kindergarten, Ransford would give a silent wave to this image of FDR as she walked by him in the hallway of their house. One day following the wave she heard her parents crying in the other room. FDR had died. She will never forget that day and neither will history.

Next the class pairs up to hone students' interviewing skills. "Tell me about your childhood" easily opens the door to the important stories that each student has to share. The room comes alive with personal history.

The oral history project begins. Students' hands go up as Marshall calls out a list of people to be interviewed: 1960s feminist, Peace Corps volunteer, a 90-year-old who will talk about anything in the 20th century, Nuclear Age environmental activist, child during World War II in Europe. Each student leaves today's class with a pink index card with the name of an OLLI student's contact information. Appointments will be made and professional, historic interviews conducted.

New historical information will now be recorded and never forgotten.

— Heidi Monjure

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