Take a Moment to Listen: Using Oral Histories to Preserve Individual Experiences

Oral traditions long preceded written records. Legends, myths, histories, and cultural traditions were passed from generation to generation through the spoken word. Historically, these orations served to preserve the traditions of entire civilizations. Today, oral histories are used to preserve the experiences of the individual. Oral histories detail individuals’ personal experiences, capturing their memories and perceptions through audio, video, or written interviews, and allowing these stories to be shared with future generations.

Doyle (left) interviews a crew member of the William A. Thompson, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge, in 1982.
Michael Doyle, associate professor of history, has been conducting oral histories for more than 30 years. However, his journey into this field diverges from the normal road of academia.

Doyle began his training as an oral historian with a 90-minute workshop at the Wisconsin Historical Society in the late 1970s. This workshop, presented by Dale E. Treleven, who became the president of the Oral History Association and the director UCLA’s Oral History Program, gave Doyle grounding in the basic technique of conducting oral histories. “The method I teach in my course is nearly identical to what I learned from Dale,” Doyle says.

As Doyle became more engaged with oral histories, he realized that advanced academic degrees would be important to his success in this field. At the age of 32, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Four years later, he graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts in history and history of culture. As an honors graduate, he was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. Doyle attended Cornell University on a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities and earned a master’s and doctorate in history.

Michael Doyle joined the Ball State faculty in 1996, and currently serves as director of the public history program. He is still actively involved in conducting oral histories, even leading immersive learning projects and workshops.

When conducting oral histories as a part of his own research on American cultural radicalism during the Vietnam War era, Doyle looks for interesting people who were activists at the time. When teaching his Oral History Workshop, he looks for topics that will engage the students’ interest, as well as be attractive to funding sources.

Herbert and Doyle talk with Hibler.
A recent immersive learning project featuring military personnel has evolved from a topic that reaches both of those audiences. This opportunity came about in 2007, when former Ball State colleague Dave Ulbrich contacted Doyle. Ulbrich asked Doyle to co-lead a project that would seek grant funding to conduct interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division.

“My expertise as an oral historian complemented his specialization in U.S. military history,” he says. “Initially we planned to conduct the interviews ourselves with World War II veterans, since both our fathers were combat veterans of that conflict, and we were aware that their generation of veterans was dying out.”

However, the scope of that project, which is now in its fifth year, was modified, due to the sponsors’ emphasis. The First Division Museum at Cantigny and its parent organization, the McCormick Foundation, asked Doyle and Ulbrich to identify veterans who served since WWII and to train and supervise college students to conduct the interviews. This would give students the opportunity to learn about America’s military heritage directly from those who had made that history.

Students had a chance to meet some of those soldiers, as well as the project’s sponsors, when Ball State hosted a reception for members of the Army’s 4th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB), 1st Infantry Division in November 2012. Those attending the reception and participating in the immersive learning project included Lieutenant Colonel Steven Hibler, chair of Ball State’s Department of Military Science, Sergeant Kelly Malone, 4th MEB Public Affairs Office, and retired Colonel Paul Herbert, executive director of the First Division Museum at Cantigny.

“These firsthand accounts will be of enormous value to historians, military personnel, family members, genealogists, and teachers and their students. For the last two groups in particular, my colleague Sarah Drake Brown and pre-service teachers in her Social Studies 395 course, have prepared curricular materials based on these successive Cantigny Projects that meet national standards for the teaching of U.S. history at the secondary level.”

Doyle speaks with Malone.
Through the Cantigny First Division Oral History Projects, Doyle, Ulbrich, and the students have completed more than 100 high-definition digital video interviews with U.S. veterans from nearly every major military conflict since 1946. The recordings are available, at no charge, through the Ball State University Libraries’ Digital Media Repository. Verbatim transcripts, prepared by the students, are also accessible.

“I learned how to be a public historian before starting college,” says Doyle. “I learned how to be an academic historian in college and graduate school. Ball State gave me the opportunity to combine both professional modalities in a single position. The Oral History Workshop has allowed me to bring these two parts of my career together in a single endeavor—practicing and teaching history in, with, and for the public.”