The history of journalism and communication is a colorful one, populated by innovators and imitators, crusaders and scoundrels, heroes and villains. Whether their careers have been lionized or demonized in literature and film or they have toiled in obscurity, these figures have been present at “the first rough draft of history,” to witness and record epic events, give voice to the voiceless, and speak truth to power. Among many accomplishments, they have pioneered changes in the ways that information is gathered and reported, harnessed the powers of persuasion for good and for ill, and advocated on behalf of news workers around the world.
The purpose of the class was to introduce students to the theory and practice of oral history, the “systematic collection of living people’s testimony about their own experiences.” Oral history interviews
are a crucial way to document the past and understand the present. Our focus was the history of mass communication and where permissible, as it relates to the University of North Carolina, which, in 2009, commemorated the centennial anniversary of the institution’s first journalism course. All of the narrators selected have had lengthy careers in journalism; some are members of the North Carolina Hall of Fame.
In the first part of the course, students read about and discussed methodologies and practices developed by scholars to gather historical recollections from a range of groups. They heard from journalists past and present, and had opportunities to practice interview skills. They explored notions of memory—how it is constructed, altered, and forgotten; they discussed the relationship between oral history and journalism; considered prevailing critiques of oral history and contemplated methodological challenges.
In the second part of the course, students applied what they had learned. They conducted and transcribed interviews with selected journalists, interpreted and assessed evidence in relationship to primary/secondary research, and conceptualized this archive.
In the 2014-2015 academic year, interviewees were invited to attend a live performance of oral history interviews. Students worked in small groups to tease out themes in the interviews they had conducted, and scripted an original performance incorporating their narrators’ words into a larger narrative about the history of our field.