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Featured Institutional Member: Baylor University Institute for Oral History

Located in Central Texas, USA, the Institute for Oral History is a freestanding research department within Baylor University’s Division of Academic Affairs. The Institute was created in 1970 by and for Baylor faculty from across academic disciplines. Over its forty-four years, the Institute has maintained a position at the forefront of best oral history practices. Together with our interviewees, we document memories representing the diversity of American society and encompassing varied topics of social and historical significance. Our oral history research assists scholars in such specialized areas as religion and culture, civil rights, music and theater, historical preservation, rural life, US veterans’ history, and women’s studies, as well as selected topics in economics, law, education, and politics. In addition, our oral history collection provides essential primary information for research concerning the history of Baylor University, Baptists, and Central Texas.

We encourage oral history scholarship among seasoned scholars through our Charlton Research Grant and novices, as well, through our Community Oral History Grant. Our outreach to new and developing oral historians includes training workshops on the local, regional, and national level, plus our popular Workshop on the Web and biannual online, interactive workshops. We share the outcomes of our research through publications and public programming.

Having provided leadership among organized oral historians since our inception, the Institute for Oral History is a sponsoring member of the Oral History Association, hosts the Texas Oral History Association, assists H-Oralhist, and participates in the International Oral History Association.

Learn more at

OHA Annual Meeting: Spotlight on Keynote Speaker John Biewen

John Biewen will be the keynote speaker at the Friday luncheon on October 10.  Biewen directs the audio program at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University.

Since 1983, Biewen’s public radio reporting and documentary work have taken him to forty states and to Europe, Japan, and India. He worked as a reporter with Minnesota Public Radio, then with NPR News, for which he covered the Rocky Mountain West. For eight years he produced one-hour specials as a correspondent with the public radio documentary unit, American RadioWorks.

At CDS since 2006, Biewen continues to make radio for national and global audiences. Recent projects include Little War on the Prairie, a one-hour documentary about the 1862 U.S.-Dakota War for This American Life; Travels with Mike, a series retracing John Steinbeck’s 1960 Travels with Charley journey, which aired on Studio 360 and the BBC World Service; Nuevo South, exploring the cultural response to Latino immigration in Siler City, NC; and the five-hour series for Public Radio International, Five Farms: Stories of American Farm Families.

Past projects that were grounded in oral history include Korea: The Unfinished War; The Hospice Experiment, a look at three key founders of the hospice movement; Days of Infamy: December 7 and 9/11; and Oh Freedom Over Me, the story of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.

Biewen’s work has received many honors, including two Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Awards for outstanding coverage of the disadvantaged, the Scripps Howard National Journalism Award, and the Third Coast International Audio Festival’s Radio Impact Award.

He teaches undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education students at CDS. With co-editor Alexa Dilworth, Biewen edited the book, Reality Radio: Telling True Stories in Sound, which was published in 2010 by The University of North Carolina Press.

Blog: Education Committee

“Oral History and Personal Connections”

Written by Lisa Thyer, English Teacher at Amos Alonzo Stagg High School in Palos Hills, IL

Oral history is an extremely attractive and powerful teaching tool to many educators. When my colleague, Mary and I sat down to write a grant proposal that aimed to bring in writers, editors and publishers that could work with our students to show them the “real world” applications of the writing, speaking, listening and critical thinking skills we emphasized in our English curriculum, we had oral history in mind. In many ways oral history provides the perfect amalgamation of so many common core standard skills—as readings it provides our curriculum with the much needed bolstering of non-fiction writing, allowing students to engage with and analyze the text on a primary source level; as a writing or interview assignment it forces the student to practice listening, speaking and writing skills and then to become meticulous editors of their own writing. More than anything, to us, oral history emphasized the importance of social justice and helped to show students that the common core skills we taught in our classrooms were only as valuable as the endeavors for which they were applied.

Upon receiving our grant, Mary and I reached out to Voice of Witness and after a wonderfully conducted workshop by their educational outreach facilitators, Mary and I wanted our students to apply the empathetic interview skills they learned in hopes of beginning a larger project. We asked our students to interview and write an oral history essay of someone they believed to be an “Everyday Hero”, a person defined by a Langston Hughes quote as “[…] the living heroes who are your neighbors—but who may not look or talk like heroes when they are sitting quietly in a chair in front of you […]” and conduct and craft an interview into an oral history essay that accurately shared their Everyday Hero’s story. The project went well, but seemed to just be any other school assignment until we received an email from a student after the passing of his grandfather:

“Also, when the class was assigned the interview project at the beginning of the semester, I interviewed my Grandfather. I am glad I did too, because I now have his whole life story because of it. My Grandfather really enjoyed reading that essay. Also, a good friend of the family read it at his funeral for me. Everyone loved it. I am glad I had the opportunity to do that project. So thank you for it.”

Brian’s simple thank you helped Mary and I to realize the genuine impact of oral history in the classroom—the personal connection to memories and to people whose experiences and stories truly change us. Sadly, this realization took on a new meaning for me personally when Mary was hospitalized in the spring. After being diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that caused her to need a liver transplant, Mary contracted an aggressive infection while awaiting her transplant and at the age of only 33, she lost her fight with her disease. Mary’s loss was devastating—our students lost a beloved teacher, our school lost one of its most dedicated and passionate faculty members, and I lost one of my closest friends. In dealing with her loss the students and staff turned to stories for comfort. We shared stories about Mary, about her influence, her wisdom and her love for education and life.

In memory of such an integral part of our Stagg High School family our students and several teachers in the English and History departments have begun to plan the creation of an oral history collection from our Stagg family that centers around building a connection between our history and our future as a diverse school and community. Ideas include interviewing staff, former students and community members that were present during such major events as September 11th, when our school gained national attention for coming together to protect our Middle Eastern students in the face of violence and hate crimes in the community, or the overwhelming student and staff response to helping a Stagg teacher’s family that was displaced during Hurricane Katrina. And of course, we plan to include the stories of those touched by such amazing teachers as Mary. It is our hope that with this oral history project we can personally connect to our shared past as a school and, in remembering the legacies and struggles of those that came before us, we can continue to support one another to build a stronger future for those that are to follow after us. In the end, fostering a personal connection and sense of community is the true value of oral history, not only in the classroom, but anywhere that people need to be reminded of the potential we all have when we come together to share our stories.