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Course trains students in oral history as part of University effort to archive pandemic era

| Wednesday, January 26, 2022

A Notre Dame history course offers students an opportunity to train in the field of oral history as part of a University-sponsored project to chronicle life on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The course, titled “Chronicling COVID: Oral Histories of the Pandemic at Notre Dame,” meets once a week and culminates with a final project in which students put to use understanding of oral histories developed throughout the semester. For the final project, each student will conduct a roughly hour-long interview with a member of the Notre Dame community outside of class about their experience at the University during the pandemic.

The first half of the semester focuses on understanding oral history as a discipline, postdoctoral research associate Anna Holdorf, who teaches the course said. Holdorf aims to provide students with an overview of different methods of oral history methods and practices oral historians undertake. At the halfway point of the semester, the course transitions to a more practical approach where students start to interview each other. 

Junior Tilly Keeven said the class has begun by introducing students to not only the discipline of oral history but how people view history both as it is taking place and later on in the future. Last week, the class studied interviews with civil rights figures to examine oral history and how the movement is viewed today.

“We spent time out of class going over interviews with Martin Luther King and other people in the civil rights movement and sort of reflected on how what is now a very famous historical movement is memorialized today versus how people thought about it then, so sort of setting the stage for our own experience with oral history,” Keeven said.

A key moment of the class is students are tasked with choosing an oral history interview of interest to them and evaluating it before presenting to the class.

The whole class is a build up to the final project, which Holdorf said she hopes will help the students feel that they are working toward something bigger than themselves. She said she hopes that as history students they will feel that they are making a difference when their interviews are potentially assessed by future generations of historians and students. After the course concludes, Holdorf will gauge interest in students to see if any are potentially interested in working on the project on an ongoing basis.

“They’re all mostly history majors and minors and so I’m hoping that they’ll take away the feeling of having helped build something for future historians like them to use and, in addition to that, just more broadly, a tangible way to do something that makes a difference,” Holdorf said.

The course is part of a larger University-sponsored project to assemble a pandemic-related collection in the University archives. Part of the collection consists of memorabilia from the pandemic — namely HERE signs, masks and other staples of the pandemic era. Additionally, the University is archiving administrative data and correspondence related to the pandemic.

As project coordinator, Holdorf is in charge of the oral history side of things, by conducting interviews and then transcribing them to be archived.

Holdorf said the project began as a joint effort between the history department and the Office of the President with the intention of drawing student participation.

“From the beginning, the president’s office and those who came up with this idea in the history department really wanted undergraduate students to be involved,” she said. “So that was always the goal. And so this class is a way to train and get students involved so that they can conduct a lot of these interviews themselves.”

The project is in its early stages, as Holdorf is beginning to interview administrators this month, but she hopes to gauge student interest in participating in the project with the goal of completing it by next spring.

Keeven said the course and its unique opportunity to learn about oral history appealed to her because it can provide her with a new understanding of history and appreciation for living through a historic era.

“I think that most people when COVID first hit and we all went home for the quote unquote Eternal Spring Break there was a lot of sense of, ‘Okay, this is a big deal,’” Keeven said. 

The course offered Keeven an opportunity to develop a deep and nuanced understanding of the pandemic-era before she hopes to eventually become a teacher, she said.

“I think that the course appealed to me because it played directly into those questions of how are we thinking about it now,” she said. “How is it going to be remembered and how can we influence that in the interim?”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Tilly Keeven’s name. The Observer regrets this error.

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About Ryan Peters

Ryan is a sophomore in Knott Hall from Lake Forest, Illinois. He is majoring in business analytics and minoring in constitutional studies. He currently serves as Notre Dame News Editor for The Observer. Follow him on Twitter @peterrsryan.

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