Considering oral history as scholarship: Comments welcome


By Selena Wilke.  Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Selena Wilke. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2007, a professor at a Texas university began a thread on H-Oralhist, the oral history listserv.  “I am up for tenure next fall,” she wrote, “and am struggling to prove to my dean that the gathering, transcribing, editing and archiving of oral history is ‘scholarship.’ I am regularly applauded for the fact that I have begun an oral history program, trained forty undergraduate and graduate students in oral history methodology, gathered and processed over eighty-five interviews (in the past three years), and reconnected dozens of former students with our university (I began a ‘former student’ oral history project). Despite all of this, the dean of my college does not seem to recognize this as valuable, original scholarship. She is very supportive and enthusiastic about the oral history program, it just seems I need to help her redefine it.”

She continued, “Am I getting it wrong?  I believe the work we do as oral historians to be just as valuable ‘research’ as the work the scientists across campus complete. How should we be defining ‘scholarship’ and how does oral history fit?  Many of my issues of concern are specific to my scientifically oriented campus as we go through the challenges of redefining tenure guidelines and other growing pains, but I know that I am not alone in this struggle.”

No, she was not alone.  There exist numerous instances where oral history practitioners have had difficulty convincing their colleagues, chairs, and deans of the value of their work or finding appropriate evaluative criteria for the myriad things which oral historians do.  Building upon more than a decade of engagement with this issue, since February 2014, the Oral History Association, the national professional organization in the field, has embarked on an initiative to develop a document on oral history as scholarship, with particular implications for promotion and tenure.  The OHA intends to complete the document and have kindred organizations endorse it by its 50th anniversary in October 2016.

Obviously, this effort has not emerged out of a vacuum.  The OHA’s initiative joins a longer conversation about evolving definitions and evaluations of scholarship that includes the 2010 report “Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian: A Report by the Working Group on Evaluating Public History Scholarship,” issued by the National Council on Public History (NCPH) in conjunction with the Organization of American Historians (OAH) and American Historical Association (AHA); the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) “Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion”; and the current work of the AHA’s Ad Hoc Committee on Professional Evaluation of Digital Scholarship by Historians.  It also dovetails with a broader discussion about the mission of universities, particularly with regard to community engagement, as manifested by Imagining America’s report “Scholarship in Public: Knowledge Creation and Tenure Policy in the Engaged University”.

The OHA has moved forward on the initiative in part through gatherings at various scholarly conferences, beginning with the OHA annual meeting in October 2014 and continuing with the AHA and NCPH meetings this year.  A number of conclusions about the document have emerged through these meetings:

  • The document needs to be written with multiple audiences in mind–practitioners themselves, along with departmental colleagues, chairs, deans, and provosts.
  • It needs to address the multiple things that oral historians do–from the planning of an oral history project; to the conduct of interviews; to their processing, curation, presentation in a variety of media and platforms, and interpretation–along with associated evaluative criteria.
  • It needs to address multiple tiers of colleges and universities and multiple disciplines beyond history.
  • It should offer recommendations for each stage of a scholar’s career.

Even as we’re developing a document flexible enough to address a variety of situations, we would also like to populate it with concrete examples from practitioners’ actual experience.  How have people been able to successfully draw upon their oral history work in the tenure and promotion process?  What challenges have scholars faced in getting their colleagues, chairs, and deans to value oral history work with regards to promotion and tenure, and what strategies have they employed to successfully meet these challenges?  Conversely, what have been the most enduring areas of resistance to oral history work being considered for promotion and tenure?

As we hope to have a draft of the document ready for discussion at this year’s OHA annual meeting, we are actively soliciting your input at this time.  If you have suggestions or can share your own experiences about effective language and strategies, extending the notion of peer review or evaluative criteria, or any other aspect of the consideration of oral history with regard to promotion and tenure, please do so.  In addition to commenting directly to this blog post, you may direct all communication to Cliff Kuhn at [email protected].

Thanks in advance for your cooperation.  I hope to hear from a multiplicity of individuals from a variety of settings.

~ Cliff Kuhn is Executive Director of the Oral History Association



1 comment
  1. Modupe Labode says:

    Cliff–I applaud this effort; it is really important to have as many organizations weighing in as possible! I think that the OHA may try to address two areas of confusion when it comes to thinking about oral history as academic scholarship.

    One area is (tactfully) addressing the relatively common misconception that oral history as “simply interviewing” someone (and I won’t engage with the assumption that interviewing is an easy, straightforward process). It may help to make the scholarship inherent in an academic-based oral history project visible. This may include documenting the rationale for choosing narrators, emphasizing the ethical approaches to oral history scholarship, describing the development of research questions, and how questions are informed by theoretical approaches. Perhaps the OHA can emphasize the role of oral historians in creating accessible primary sources (an analogy may be made with how documentary editors create accessible primary sources).

    The second area of confusion is the reviewers’ understanding of “scholarship” (or “scholarly work”) and, by extension, products of scholarship. Some of our colleagues are hesitant to define “scholarship,” yet have unstated ideas about what constitutes scholarly work which often make it difficult for them to recognize oral history as scholarship. FYI: In 1993 the AHA issued a report on “Redefining Historical Scholarship.” I don’t know if the AHA has revisited this report, but much of the language may be useful in your project.

    Good luck!

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