HST61007: Oral History

15 credits

Module Leader 2020-21: Andrew Tompkins

Module Summary

'Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did'. Alessandro Portelli

Oral testimony has established itself as a vital source for historians of the modern world, but its value is still widely contested. This module introduces students to the practice of oral history and the debates surrounding it. We will examine the different ways in which historians have used oral testimony and how this evidence has shaped our understanding of the past; explore the relationships between memory, narrative and meaning; and introduce students to the ethics and practicalities of interviewing. The module will equip you with the tools to conduct your interviews, and to use oral history testimony critically and sensitively.


Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Introduce you to the debates and criticism surrounding oral history
  2. Provide you with a framework for understanding and interpreting oral testimony
  3. Provide you with an understanding of the ethics and practicalities of conducting oral history interviews
  4. Evaluate the relationship between history writing, memory, and narrative
  5. Enhance your ability to develop independent interpretations and judgements, and to present scholarly arguments.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should (be able to):

  1. Demonstrate familiarity with significant scholarly debates and criticism relating to oral history (Aim 1)
  2. Demonstrate the ability to discuss the use of oral testimony within a critical framework informed by an appreciation of relevant scholarly literature (A2)
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of ethical and practical issues around using oral history evidence in historical research (A3)
  4. Engage with existing debates on the relationship between history, memory and narrative (A1, A2, A4)
  5. Show the ability to develop independent interpretations and judgements, and to present scholarly arguments, orally and in formal written prose (A5)


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two-hour classes. The two initial sessions will introduce the key debates around oral history, and discuss the ethics and practicalities of it. (LOs 1, 3). In the following three session, students will identify, discuss and evaluate different ways in which historians have used oral history evidence. (LOs 2, 4). Students will also have an opportunity to practice interviewing each other, to take the first steps in developing useful skills (LO3). The classes will enable you to share knowledge, debate controversial issues and listen and respond to the views of others in a structured environment. You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your written work for this module (LO5).



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a 3,000-word paper critically assessing the ways in which historians have used oral history evidence in relation to a particular topic or field (LOs 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).


Selected reading

  • Donald Ritchie, The Oxford Handbook of Oral History (2012)
  • Robert Perks and Alasdair Thomson, The Oral History Reader (2006)
  • Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past (fourth edition, 2017)
  • Donna DeBlasio and Charles Ganzert, Catching Stories: A Practical Guide to Oral History (2009)
  • Alessandro Portelli, The death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories. Form and meaning in oral history (1991)



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.