Oral History: Undergraduate Research Assistant Reflection

Addison Glenn
Addison Glenn

Addison Glenn is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the Youth and Social Innovation Program at UVA's School of Education and Human Development.


I first learned about oral history while taking “Introduction to African and African American Studies” during my first year at the University of Virginia (UVA). As part of that course, we discussed the origins of oral history and its importance in African and African American culture. We talked about griots and their role in preserving history within their communities; this tradition of storytelling as a method of collecting history has been passed down from generation to generation and remains an important part of African American communities.[1]

I was reintroduced to oral history while taking a course called “Civil Rights Movement and Education” with Dr. Derrick Alridge. In his class, we also discussed the origins of oral history and its role in Black culture, but then talked about oral history in a research context, using the Teachers in the Movement (TIM) project as an example. Prior to this class, I had never thought of oral history as a research method; I typically associated research with quantitative methods. Learning about oral history as a research method and the TIM project helped me understand that meaningful research does not have to be quantitative; it can be personal and engaging. Impactful research, like that of the TIM project, has the ability to tell new narratives, while also rewriting and preserving existing ones. Through my work with the Teachers in the Movement project, I was able to grasp an even better understanding of the importance of oral history, specifically when related to Black history. I learned I was able to be a part of the oral history process. My biggest takeaways are as follows: oral history can 1) create space for new historical perspectives, 2) add a more personal element to pre-existing narratives, and 3) allow interviewees, interviewers, and others engaging with the oral history time for valuable reflection.

1. Oral history creates space for new historical perspectives.

History has often been subjected to whitewashing and partial versions of the truth being shared. With a focus on educators during the civil rights movement, TIM is able to use oral history to share stories of interviewees’ experiences that may differ from the current narratives surrounding teachers, the civil rights movement, and activism. In interviewing educators that grew up and/or taught during the civil rights movement, those engaged with their oral history are able to gain insight from people who lived through significant historical events, while also hearing the perspective of educators, who are often dismissed and undervalued in historical contexts. In my history classes growing up, the conversations surrounding civil rights were limited to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The Teachers in the Movement project is able to shed light on educators whose stories have not been given the platform to be shared.

Secondly, by having interviewed a substantial number of Black educators, the TIM project is actively able to uplift Black voices. When talking about the civil rights movement or issues or civil rights, there can be a focus on the oppression of Black people. While the educators interviewed often share their experiences of hardship and challenge during this difficult period, they also share positive memories from this time. Oral history, as a research method, allows for the educators’ differing experiences and perspectives to be the focal point of the project.

2. Oral history adds a personal element to pre-existing narratives.

The nature of oral history makes it a more intimate form of research. The interview style of TIM makes the oral history process feel comfortable and conversational; the questions given to the educators are there to guide the subject matter being discussed, but do not overtake the conversation. These former educators are able to share their stories and experience, and often add funny anecdotes from their college years and classrooms that I found made me feel more connected to the information I was taking in. Hearing firsthand accounts reminds those engaged with the oral history that real people lived through the events of the civil rights movement. When learning about history, I have often felt disconnected from the matter I was learning. With the TIM interview process, there is more opportunity for personal connections to be made to the research.

3. Oral history allows interviewees, interviewers, and others engaging time for valuable reflection.

Each person involved in oral history has an opportunity to reflect. The more obvious reflection takes place for the person being interviewed. With the Teachers in the Movement project, many of the educators state that they had not thought about some of their past experiences in years. This research allows these teachers to recall important moments from their lives and reflect on how things have changed and how their past may have impacted their present. For the interviewer and others engaging with the oral history, there is an opportunity to reflect on how the stories from the interviewees are connected to their lives and their knowledge of the history being discussed. In my experience as an interviewer and someone observing interviewers, I was able to reflect on the importance of educators and the impact that the civil rights movement has had on my education experiences.

Working with the Teachers in the Movement project has been a wonderful learning experience. Each educator being interviewed has something valuable and important to share with the project. The usage of oral history in this project gives these former educators a platform to share vital information about the civil rights era. Their stories and memories highlight aspects of the movement and the civil rights era that often do not get attention. Being a part of the Teachers in the Movement project has shown me how culturally rich oral history is; it is a research method unlike others that creates space for new perspectives, adds a personal element to existing narratives, and allows time for all participating to reflect.

[1] Derrick Alridge writes, "The griot in West Africa is the storyteller, poet, musician, and preserver and disseminator of knowledge. The term griot is derived from the French word guirot, which means 'storyteller.'” See Alridge, Derrick P. “Teachers in the Movement: Pedagogy, Activism, and Freedom.” History of Education Quarterly 60, no. 1 (2020): 1–23. doi:10.1017/heq.2020.6; Hale, Thomas A., Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).