Read the August 2008 Columbia Alumni
This month's edition includes features on the Big Book of Columbia Alumni, the latest job-hunting tips and the results of a survey of Alumni about their experiences at Columbia and afterwards.
Aug. 14, 2008
This fall, Columbia welcomes the first class of students pursuing a master of arts in oral history—the newest graduate degree at the University and likely the nation's first master's program in this field of study. With a focus on the documentation, preservation and interpretation of historical information based on personal experiences, it will be only the third such program in the world.
Oral histories typically begin as recorded face-to-face interviews. The field traces its existence back to the ancient Greeks and the writings of Herodotus, but it did not gain traction until the advent of the portable tape recorder in the early 20th century. Because of its longitudinal approach to documentation, the practice of oral history plunges deeper into subject matter than standard journalistic procedures.
"We're detectives of change over time; we're not stuck in the present," said the program's director, Mary Marshall Clark, who also directs the University's Oral History Research Office and recently completed a major archival project on 9/11. "We seek to preserve collective memory."
In addition to preparing students for careers in oral history, the Columbia program will provide training for careers in human rights, public health, historic preservation, journalism, museums and literature. It is co-sponsored by the University's Institute of Social and Economic Policy Research and the Oral History Research Office. Professors specializing in library science, political science, public health, the social sciences and the humanities will teach the courses.
The program's multidisciplinary approach "is one that no one in the field has ever seen before," said Clark. "The living world is too complicated to be interpreted through the lens of one discipline."
Students enrolled in the Columbia program will learn interviewing methodologies and interpreting skills. They will develop their own fieldwork projects and "blaze their own research" in both historical and contemporary issues, said Clark.
The University of Sussex and the University of Huddersfield, both in England, currently offer similar degree programs.
Columbia's one-year, multidisciplinary degree program is built on the foundation of the University's oral history archive, believed to be the world's first, according to Alistair Thomson, president of the International Oral History Society. Created in 1948 by historian Allan Nevins—whom experts say coined the term "oral history"—Columbia's archive includes more than 8,000 interviews and nearly one million pages of transcripts. It is one of about a dozen major oral history archives in the country.
"Columbia's Oral History Research Office is legendary as a founding institution in the field, and a leader, still today, in setting standards for scholarly practice," said Margaretta Jolly, director of the Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research at the University of Sussex. Jolly directs Sussex's pioneering Master of Arts Program in Life History Research.
A master's degree in oral history "provides essential training" for anyone interested in becoming an oral historian, said Thomson. He plans to launch another oral history master's program next year at Monash University in Australia.
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