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HIST 2020 – Modern U.S. History

Historians frequently wish they could ask questions of people who lived through particular historical periods so that their thoughts and perceptions could be better understood.  In dealing with the relatively recent past, however, it is possible to do so by using a technique called oral history.  Oral history–interviewing people about their lives and the events they observed and participated in–can greatly enrich our knowledge and appreciation of the past.  It helps to understand the “spirit of an age” by seeing it through the eyes of an average citizen.  It can also bridge the gap between impersonal forces and the personal and individual responses to them.  Oral history is fascinating and challenging, but not easy to do as it seems.  There is always the danger that the interviewer will “lead” the interviewee through the choice of questions, that the interviewee will stray from the subject, or that the interviewer will miss the subtleties in what is being said.  Some people like to tell only the positive side of the story, while others dwell on the negative.  Some actually forget what happened, are influenced by what they read or see on television, or want to send a message.  To be valuable, oral history has to be used carefully.

Your assignment, then, is to conduct an oral interview with a person(s) who lived through one of the many important events of our times (eg. the Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Civil Rights Movement, Student Movement of the 1960s, Vietnam War, Persian Gulf War, etc.)  You are restricted to writing on a topic or time period prior to the early 1990s.  After selecting a topic and having it approved, write a 5 page paper analyzing and discussing the topic and place the interview source in the proper social and historical context.  Your essay will be graded on content, organization, grammar, and style.  If you have questions or problems, please feel free to ask me for help.


A.  Paper should be five, typed and double-spaced pages.

B.  A minimum of five secondary sources in addition to the interview are required.  Among the five sources, web page sources can be used but you MUST email the web address for approval.  IN ADDITION, YOU MAY NOT USE EITHER YOUR TEXTBOOK OR GENERAL REFERENCE MATERIALS (ENCYCLOPEDIAS or WIKIPEDIA, ALMANACS, ILLUSTRATED HISTORIES) AS SOURCES.  You are encouraged to use as many primary sources (photographs, documents, letters, historic newspapers, etc.) as needed.

C.  The paper will be graded based on organization, grammar and syntax, and the integration of source materials (interview, books, newspapers, etc.), in addition to the inclusion of the minimum requirements.

D.  When using a quote or paraphrasing from a source, cite it immediately.  The citation format to be used is the Chicago Manual of Style (Turabian).  If you are uncertain how to cite sources, be sure to ask.  

G.  In preparation to complete the interview, be sure to follow these instructions:1.  Establish the date, time, and place of the interview well in advance.  You may want to call and remind the interviewee a few days before your appointment.2.  Clearly state the purpose of the interview at the beginning.  In other words, explain why you are doing this project.

3.  Prepare for the interview by reading background information about the subject of the interview and by writing down and arranging questions you will be asking.

4.  It is usually a good idea to keep most of your questions broad and general so the interviewee will not simply answer with a word or two.

5.  Avoid loaded questions or questions that might lead the interview in a certain direction.  Instead, keep your questions neutral.

6.  If any of your questions involve controversial matters, it is better to ask them toward the end of the interview.

7.  Always be courteous, and be sure to give the person enough time to think, remember, and answer.  Never argue, even if he/she says something with which you personally disagree.

8.  Always take notes, even if you are tape recording the interview.  Notes will help clarify unclear portions of the tape and will be essential if the recorder malfunctions or the tape is accidental erased.

9.  Try to write up the results of the interview as soon as possible after completing the interview.  Even in rough form, these notes will help you capture the sense of what was said as well as the actual information that was presented.Suggested Interview Plan:

Remember that the person(s) you have chosen to interview is/are a person(s) with feelings, sensitivities, and emotions.  If you intend to tape/record the interview, ask permission first.  If you believe that a tape recorder will inhibit the interviewee, then just rely on taking notes.  People usually remember the personal aspects of their lives more vividly than they remember national or international events.  This can be an advantage since you are trying to find out how they lived during a particular period/event.

Begin your interview by getting the following important data on the interviewee:

1.  Name and age at the time of the event/period
2.  Race, sex and location where the person lived at the time and what the area was like then.
3.  Family background (parents occupations; number of brothers/sisters; whether interviewee considered himself/herself rich, middle class, poor)
4.  Educational and occupational backgroundThen move on to questions that cover more directly the era/event under discussion.
For example, if a person was writing about the Great Depression, you might ask such things as:

1.  What did you do for a living?
2.  Were you unemployed during the depression? How did you cope?
3.  If the interviewee was young during the depression, what about his/her parents?
4.  How did you spend their leisure time? If single, what were the dating practices like?5.  How important was the family? church? school? other institutions?
6.  Did you know other people worse off? Did you help them? If so, in what ways?
7.  Was your life altered by the depression? How? In what ways?
8.  Did you go to the movies? What did you see? What about the radio and radio programs? How much did it cost to see a movie? How much were other items?
 9.  Did you get employment through programs such as the WPA or CCC? If not, did you know others who did?
10.  Do you remember important political events or controversies of the depression era?
11.  What was your view of Franklin Roosevelt? of the New Deal?

In your analysis of the interview(s) you conduct, look for the personal impact of events on your interviewee(s) and discuss them.  Also look for any political or social viewpoints that indicate the nature of the person’s perceptions and feelings.  What significant things did your interview(s) reveal about the U.S. at that particular time?  What companions can you make with the present? Did these interviews help you better understand an historical period or events?  If so, how?  If not, why not?

BE SURE TO SUBMIT YOUR PAPER ON TIME.  YOU WILL LOSE 10 PTS. PER DAY THAT THIS PAPER IS LATE!!!!!!!  The paper should be turned in by uploading it to the DROPBOX.  Refer to the course schedule for the submission date.



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