Dialogue of Violence: Oral History Assignment

Monday, April 8, 2013

Author: Abé Mark Nornes
Author email address: amnornes@umich.edu
Institution: University of Michigan


  • To put you in touch with a living history that will soon disappear.
  • To experience the flux of power in the interview scenario.
  • To become cognizant of the multiple levels of mediation involved in writing this kind of history.

Ground Rules:

This assignment is probably more complex than you imagine. As a historian you have many decisions to make before and after you conduct your oral interview. Reading this carefully should prepare you for what to expect.

It is due on March 17; there is no limit on length, but a minimum of 10 pages is required.

In addition to this you must include a private “Afterthoughts” section, minimum 2 pages, as described below. Grades will be marked down 1/3 per day of lateness (including weekend days).

This is not a simple transcription of a conversation. You will have to edit and annotate the final text. The annotation can be footnotes, parenthetical remarks like Studs Terkel uses, an introduction or conclusion or both. Your annotations can be restricted to the questions and remarks you make at the scene, and can also be added after the fact. They can be in a third person or first person voice, personal or professional in tone. These are some of the many decisions you will have to make.

These oral histories will be put on the internet at a site devoted to this class. Make sure the person knows this, and get permission from him or her in writing (hand this in on March 17). Ask for any photographs of them (present-day and/or wartime) that we could include with their history; it doesn’t cost us to scan these for the internet, so any number of photographs is fine. Keep in mind that anything can be converted into an image for the web, so if certain objects or documents come up in your conversation you might ask if you could borrow them so we can include images of them with the text. This can include motion pictures (Hollywood or home movies), as well as objects that are not flat. If you want, you could even videotape your interview and conceptualize a way to integrate short quicktime excerpts into your piece-on the web an oral history has the potential to be truly oral! If you plan to use images that we must digitize, please alert me ahead of time; we should try to do this before March 17 if possible.

When you hand in the oral history you must include both paper and electronic versions. As for the latter, Microsoft Word for Macintosh is preferable. If you use another word processor see if you can save the document as a MS Word file. If this is not possible, save it as text and give it to me on floppy disk or by email. I will return your disks. I will do the html programming for WWW, but you are welcome to do your own if you wish. I will keep a copy on our class site, but you are welcome to put it on your own home page as well.

When you sit down to talk, do a test to make sure your tape recorder is actually working. Never trust it, and always bring extra batteries!

Budget your time: 1) to find a subject, 2) to formulate strong questions, 3) to transcribe, and 4) to edit. Start this NOW.

Strategies (in no particular order):

  • Listen carefully, take them places they haven’t thought of for 50 years. You will probably find that they have a repertoire of war stories they have told for half a century, but there are many other significant stories which they probably never considered worth telling anyone. Try to crack these open.
  • Go prepared. When you initiate the contact, talk to them a little to find out basically where they were and what they were doing. Refresh your sense of history and geography before you meet.
  • Recognize the fact the you have tremendous power as interviewer-the power to change the topic, dig deeper, rephrase questions that are dodged or misunderstood. The interview is often the scene of a power struggle over knowledge, and you will palpably sense this.
  • Think about issues we are exploring in class-race, propaganda, movies, enemy representations, violence, patriotism, resistance, history, writing, memory-and how you might craft questions to broach these themes, some of which are terribly delicate.
  • Don’t underestimate the powerful relationship between memory and the material world. Use physical objects as a mnemonic crowbar. Touching or seeing or even smelling an object from half a century ago can stimulate long-dormant memories and emotions, especially if it is something they have saved for themselves: photographs, home movies, mementos, clothing, official documents, diaries, letters, and the like. Ask for permission to scan these for the web version.
  • How does your relationship (stranger? grandchild?) affect your work as a historian collecting “data”?
  • Be prepared not to accept “I don’t remember” as an answer. Think beforehand how to deal with non-responsiveness.
  • By all means, use Studs Terkel’s work as a model, but feel free to approach this assignment in any way you wish. You should be aware that just as film uses naturalized conventions, so does the oral history; both have historiographic and ideological implications. Note that the “ground rules” section above is decided free of instructions on how to approach the issues of transcription and form. You do not have to restrict yourself to the pattern that everybody else is using!
  • Imagine how you would deal with potentially offensive comments. For example, much of the race hate of the war lingers…
  • Think about where to conduct the interview and how this physical context will affect your conversation. How will the tone change, depending on if you do it in a living room, bedroom, coffeeshop, workplace, church, school, or the very site where that history unfolded 50 years ago?
  • Lay out your plan as best as your are able, but be prepared to depart from your “script” of questions at any moment. Many interviewers like to keep their questions on index cards so that the order can be easily shuffled on the fly; however, keeping these under control also requires skill!
  • Before you go in, imagine what you will do if your subject becomes uncooperative or combative. Prepare for the unexpected!
  • As for topics, the assignment is 100% open-from combat to the atomic bombings to mundane, everyday life under total war. However, I do have one request: ask them about movies. What did they see during the war, and do they remember their reactions? Do they remember the documentaries they saw and what they were like?
  • Don’t limit yourself to 1941-1945, nor to the Pacific Theater. Don’t forget the homefront.
  • Ask what they understood about the enemy, the reason for the war, their thoughts about war in general at this point in their lives.
  • Spend considerable effort phrasing your questions. How you pose a question often determines what kind of answer you get, and this grants you a great deal of power over the conversation.
  • When you read Terkel’s oral histories, imagine what his questions/comments were at the time of the interview. He leaves only a small fraction in his final text.
  • After you prepare your questions, step back and ask yourself why you have structured them the way you did. Do they progress temporally, thematically or what? Why did you write them the way you did?


Be aware of your powerful mediating role in this oral history. As you can see, you will have a plethora of decisions to make from the get go. What do you exclude? How do you convert speech into writing? Do you include something very important to that person that seems trivial to you? Do you correct grammar? Do you faithfully transcribe dialects or forms of speech other than so-called “standard English”? Do you include your questions or not? Do you forground your own presence and mediation or suppress it? Speech can often be fragmentary and rambling, so how do you structure the oral history-“cut and paste” or preserve the natural flow of the original conversation? How do you deploy the various devices of written language to produce specific effects: italics, boldface, and punctuation like “quote marks”? How might you use (parentheses) to describe body language or add commentary? Note what choices Terkel has made, and how that has affected your reading of the original verbal storytelling. If you interview someone in a foreign language, these issues are all compounded by the problem of translation. Be self-conscious about how your editorial decisions as historian (and your subject’s answers as well) are affected by the fact that this will be made available globally via the internet.


After preparing your oral history, record your thoughts about the entire process, about oral history as a form of history writing. How will you read oral histories (or history relying heavily on oral interviews) now that you have done it yourself? These afterthoughts may be personal in tone, but must be thoroughly thought out. They could even be in the form of a journal if you like. In any case, I suggest you keep notes starting today and start working on this as you prepare. This part will be private, read only by me and returned to you with your grade.

Afterthoughts length: at least two pages/no maximum.