Select Page

Course Oral History and Life Stories

Dates: 10, 17, 24, 31 January & 7 February 2019
Time: 13:30 – 17:00
Venue: University of Amsterdam, Oudemanhuispoort E 1.07 (10, 17, 24, 31 January) / PC Hoofthuis 6.25 (7 February)
Candidates: PhD candidates and advanced RMa students
Credits: 3 ECTS
Fee: (non-members): € 250
Max. number of participants: 15
Coordinator & lecturer: Professor Selma Leydesdorff and selected guest speakers
Registration: Register and send in your motivation letter before: 20 November 2018

The course

Historians and others who interview about the past often talk about memory and how they are informed by memory, while they know memory is a difficult and problematic source for historical knowledge. During this course we shall concentrate on the use of memory in historical research and look at the kind of knowledge we get when we interview. We will investigate various efforts to create a more systematic and theoretically grounded approach than ‘just talking about days long gone’ or ‘having a chat about the past’. How can we create a research pattern that overcomes the incidental and replace it by an integration of the changing character of spoken narratives about the past? When can we trust a story, why? And if we can not, why can it still be important to listen. And how do we listen?

We shall also compare spoken memories with other ego-documents, bearing in mind the many other existing and valid ways of interviewing about personal experience and analyse when and how we produce alternative and unfamiliar viewpoints. Because historical interviews ask a lot of research time, participants in this course will involve in questions like: Do I really need interviews, what do I want to know, are there other ways to get this kind of knowledge?

General starting-point for discussion is the study of life stories in oral history as a tradition in the humanities and in the social sciences. During the course additional attention will be given to alternative modes of in-depth interviews. Issues to be investigated in particular concern the questions of intersubjectivity; (self) reflection; identification with the Other and her/his past; and the interviewer’s role in the process of meaning/knowledge production. What are our responsibilities towards people we interview, do we have particular responsibilities in our research communities? What does it mean to be close to an interviewee, what happens if there is distance or when we don’t like what we hear? Do we have to agree with our interviewees?

Part of the teaching will be done by looking at oral histories made by oral historians who published their interviews on websites.

Testing and evaluative criteria

Presence during class is obligatory including collaboration on preparing the discussions. Rema students are requested to write a 4 page paper on one subject in the literature or about the integration of the course in their own work. PhD students who need credit points are requested to present a 7 page paper on how they will use the literature.

Preparation, literature and assignments

The literature is composed of various articles, informing on how to organize a larger interview project, or discussing how to analyse interviews. The various stages of larger projects will be followed. The list of literature is updated annually. Guest lecturers are invited to explain how they overcome difficulties during their research, while the course also discusses more theoretical approaches. Since the use of websites for the dissemination of narrated accounts and the making of interviews with the help of a camera has become more and more important we’ll follow up some ethical and practical issues.

As usual advanced researchers who want to refresh their knowledge with recent literature and who want to bring their problems and subjects to the discussion will be welcome. They are asked to accept a status in which they are equal with other participants.


Every meeting the literature will be discussed. The last hour 15.15 till 16.30-45 guestspeakers will tell about their own work and use the literature of that particular session.

10/1: Prof. Selma Leydesdorff and Aysenur Korkmaz MA
Introduction, the many ways to interview, the ways memories are stored in our brain and change, Visual and audio interviews. How to make a video with a historic interview. During the last hour of this session, Aysenur Korkmaz will lecture on how she has set up her research and the difficulties she faced.

17/1: Prof. Selma Leydesdorff and Prof. Nanci Adler
Interviewing traumatized people, what is trauma, distortions after long imprisonment, concentration camps and the Gulag.

24/1: Prof. Selma Leydesdorff and Dr Sanneke Stigter
Working with modern art collections in a museum. What is auto-ethnopgraphy? When the object moves, how important is the interview.

31/1: Prof. Selma Leydesdorff and Dr Marie Louise Janssen
Interviewing in ‘other worlds’, Interviewing about secret knowledge. Interviewing in another culture, Chinese women in massage parlours.

7/2: Prof. Selma Leydesdorff and Prof. Fridus Steijlen
Large collections , how to set up a large project, what are the consequences of digitalization, the Indonesian decolonisation and oral history. How to orden a large collection of different parties and make the interviews available. Fridus Steijlen will speak about his participation in the project ‘Decolonization and Violence and War in Indonesia’where he interviews.

14/2: Extra session if, due to ice or illness, one session is cancelled.