Case Study: Columbia University Oral History Master’s Program and Digital Projects

Case Study: Columbia University Oral History Master’s Program and Digital Projects

by Marie Scatena

My experience with oral history and digital humanities originated in public history projects at the Chicago History Museum.  Privileged to have had the support of  colleagues and mentors there including the legendary Studs Terkel, I was eager to be part of one of the first oral history graduate programs which debuted in 2008 at Columbia University—also the home of the oldest oral history archive in the U.S. The Oral History Master’s Program aka OHMA, was founded and is co-directed by Oral Historian Mary Marshall Clark and Sociologist Peter Bearman.  In terms of oral history assets, OHMA offers students access to a trove of 8000 aural and visual oral history interviews as well as Columbia University Library’s diverse digital resources.

The yearlong OHMA Fieldwork seminar course challenged me to draw on my background teaching the practical aspects of oral history interviewing—providing instruction in audio recording and editing, digital archiving practices, camera techniques, video production and uses of computer assisted qualitative data analysis software. Having graduated in the first OHMA co-hort, I felt strongly that OHMA students needed to graduate with digital portfolios. This would not only help to garner professional work after graduation and explain to friends and family their degree; a digital portfolio containing a couple of meaningful projects with high production values would help to counter a definitive StoryCorps model many students bring to their graduate work in OHMA.  I was eager to see what using backward design and infusing public history into the curriculum might demonstrate to students about academic oral history.  How would students address questions of audience, emotional resonance, and intellectual rigor to conduct life history interviews in which historical context emerge from memory and stories— and in what digital formats?

OHMA’s born-digital pedigree derives in part from an open source web platform called Media Thread which has been used in all of the core courses of the program from its inception.  Since most students complete coursework in one academic calendar year, the opportunity to respond to each other’s work in a variety of ways, elaborating on class discussion and creating community, Media Thread allows to learn how to negotiate perspectives, biases and inter-subjectivities, especially when challenged by narrators, as well as technical challenges of early fieldwork attempts inn a secure, 24/7 space.

Working with inclinations to explore space and place, it was natural for me to think about contributing to OHMA’s commitment to move the field of oral history beyond digital preservation in the archive by intentionally focusing on oral history narratives for public presentation.  In thinking about what this course might cover I asked myself questions about genres of oral history, and the ways project designs might reflect the iterative nature of the oral history interview itself.   How can we tell if a meaningful exchange, and/or a transformation or change has occurred as a result of the interview?   How can we craft interpretations so new historical material will be  of interest to a wide range of publics without diluting narrator’s voice, intellectual  rigor—and the  experience of the interview?  Is it possible to weave digital practices and fieldwork practices holistically within and across the OHMA curriculum?

OHMA’S Fieldwork course is primarily an experiential, nuts and bolts course. Readings are minimal by Ivy League standards.  Students continuously generate source material as they conduct, transcribe and analyze interviews, and write field-notes.   We read Alessandro Portelli, Valerie Yow, Michael Taussig, Daniel Cohen and Roy Rosenzwieg, and Studs Terkel [1]among others, and we listen—to each other, to a wide range of exemplary audio on-line and from the archives and we interrogated each other about our perceptions, biases and notions of what constitutes good fieldwork.  Although aurality is prioritized in this course, camera and lightning techniques and video production are also eagerly absorbed by students.  I encouraged students  to develop a rapport not only with  narrators, but  also with the digital recording equipment—and was rewarded with field-notes  in which a student describes  using  audio set-up time including sounds checks,  to establish rapport and a more equitable dynamic with her narrator. The class thought deeply about context, the public, and collaboration vis a vis ideas about place, audience and community. Another student used social media (Twitter and Flicker accounts) to gauge audience interest in her topic and to attract potential narrators to her project.  Assigning required collaborative projects might seem antithetical to graduate study which typically focuses on producing a singular thesis for an academic audience. Although the co-hort seemed attuned to documentary work, I worried my approach might not be well-received.

Oral Historian Steven High, defines digital storytelling as a “multi-valent term,”  encompassing  “the act of narrating one’s self through multimedia….to create short, evocative and informational multi-media pieces…. usually produced through collaboration. ” [2]These same terms were explored, negotiated and experimented with throughout the year—and were the criteria for the final group assignment we began working on at the end of the first semester.   After an initial bit of reluctance, OHMA students embraced the idea  of group work and produced digitally-conveyed  stories based on focused, research interviews using a life history approach;  describing  causes and consequences of hydraulic fracking in the northeastern United States, paying tribute to avant garde jazz musician Cecil Taylor, and rendering insider’s perspectives on Occupy Wall Street.  In particular, the Occupy Wall Street video montage of activist’s stories highlighted competing priorities of access versus privacy integral to oral histories in public presentation.

An upfront challenge faced in teaching project-based oral history fieldwork relates to being mindful of the end product throughout the oral history interview process without sacrificing the organic, iterative nature of oral history interview or compromising the integrity of individual voices.  As their year in Fieldwork progressed, students valued the practice of simultaneously holding and working with different perceptions of time; providing narrators with as much space as the telling of a life story requires, and collapsing time to complete the rest of their interpretation which occurs in digital spaces.

Transcribing afforded students the opportunity to use visual elements found in graphic novels and graphic design, software such as Transcribe! NVIVO,  and Atlas, ti., and to investigate’ multi-vocal’ dimensions of Portelli’s interview transcripts exploring memory and language. Employing multiple strategies helped transform what is regularly perceived by students as a tedious, unwelcome step of the practice. After a semester of experimenting with transcription, students understood transcription to be an extension of the interview, sometimes a vibrant art form itself, and critical layer of interpretation which is vetted—or not—by narrators before the final permissions are granted. Developing best transcription practices, including careful audio editing if a service is used, gives students the opportunity to counter the fragmentation sometimes ascribed to interpretations of digital oral histories.

Coding interview material in computer assisted qualitative data analysis software(CAQDAS) forces students to think about stages of analysis and levels of interpretation, revealing subjectivity and narrative structures and connecting  interview transcripts, audio, video, and images.  I found OHMA students equally curious and cautious about CAQDAS.  NVIVO, as well as digital archiving is taught in the Butler Library’s Digital Humanities Center by generous staff, and it is being used by students to augment thesis research. It will be interesting to see how students in the future use CAQDAS to exhibit work, inform web projects and digital platforms.

The selection of audio editing software is an on-going debate in OHMA’s Fieldwork course which illustrates both the personal nature of interpretative tools, and the constant changes in technology.  In past years students lobbied for ProTools citing its status as industry standard and OHMA has taught this software in response. Students with expertise in editing software are encouraged to continue, however students typically arrive eager to gain proficiency.  Next year, the innovative, versatile Hindenburg Journalist software will be taught. Two crucial aspects of digital editing software are related to naming and storing audio files.  Group projects often generate hours and hours of material and demand clear organizing structures, requiring students to devise rigorous and constant practices, so students will be able to access multiple interviews from various points. Additionally, when working in video, it may be necessary for students to purchase additional costly hard drives to accommodate large files. Because digital material may seem infinitely  expansive, it is important for students working in audio or video to be mindful of interviews they will conduct, and the amount of material they collect for group projects—and how and where it will be housed.  To help students develop strategies for managing their personal digital resources I advocate taking small steps in audio editing software, and thinking globally and hierarchically drawing on the expertise of a digital archivist to address; what kinds of processing and organizational frameworks will help researchers in the future to use your work? Where will your interviews be housed and in what formats? What steps are needed to preserve your interviews in an institutional or organizational archive?

Digital projects along and theses may be deposited at the Columbia Center for Oral History. As part of my responsibilities, I enjoyed advising OHMA theses—formats to date include a documentary film, and WordPress sites, and an exhibition and audio documentary to come. It is gratifying to see students are making thesis more visible by housing their work on Columbia’s Academic Commons which accepts a wide range of formats from written research paper to multi-media, film, audio and websites.  My wish list for future thesis formats include; iPhone audio tours, podcasts, Omeka and Drupal websites, animated multi-media, visual musical compositions and digital platforms beyond my imagination. It has been such a privilege for me to teach and learn with passionate, committed and creative OHMA students. Oral History and technology represent a nearly ideal opportunity for students to experiment with narratives building new stories, new spaces, and new worlds.

[1] Even though some students found Cohen and Rosenszwieg’s Digital History; A Guide to Gathering, Preserving and Presenting the Past on The Web dated, all appreciated reading the historiography of the field of oral history and for George Mason University Center for History and New Media’s early efforts to digitize history.

[2] ‘Telling Stories: A Reflection in Oral History and New Media,’ (105) by Steven High Spring 2010 Oral History 105 describes oral history practice in a long-term research and public history project at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling based at Concordia University in Montreal.

Citation for Article


Scatena, Marie. (2012). Case study: columbia university oral history master’s program and digital projects. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from


Scatena, Marie. “Case Study: Columbia University Oral History Master’s Program and Digital Projects,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012,

This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project ( sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).  Please consult for information on rights, licensing, and citation.

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply