2010 Winner: Gretchen Case

Oral History and the Stories of Medicine

The Duke University Medical Center (DUMC) and its associated clinics boast a rich and fascinating history, some of which is well documented and plenty of which is not. In my Fall 2009 Writing 101 (20) course, “Oral History and the Stories of Medicine,” my students uncovered and circulated some of the previously unrecorded histories of the DUMC. They conducted oral history interviews with more than a dozen of Duke’s outstanding medical professionals. The interviewees were a distinguished group representing a range of specialties, among them a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, a physician assistant, a nurse, a dentist, a pharmacist, a medical geneticist, and the co-creator of the measles vaccine. One of the unique writing goals of this course was to learn how to write with subjective primary sources. Another important goal was to connect my students and their writing to a wider community of oral historians. Thus, our readings for this course encompassed research ethics, oral history methodology, and examples of scholarly writing that integrate oral histories with other kinds of historical documentation. I drew on the many resources available across and beyond the Duke campus to help my students increase the intellectual sophistication and the public impact of their writing.

While the course remained focused on practices of academic writing, it also allowed us to explore both history and medicine—concepts that students often accept as fact rather than as paradigms in constant flux. I took them through a stepwise process of understanding the research and writing practices of oral historians, what we mean by history of medicine, and how they could contribute to existing scholarly conversations. Because I wanted my students to understand that their work can have real impact, I emphasized the ways in which our coursework reflected ethical research practices and professional writing traditions in the fields of history and medicine.

Early in the semester, we visited the History of Medicine Collection at the DUMC library. Librarian Suzanne Porter guided us through the collection, where we discussed what constitutes an historical artifact or document and how each one originates with individual stories. We explored the website of the DUMC Archives, and worked closely with Archivist Jessica Roseberry to learn interview skills and to appreciate the oral histories already collected from DUMC medical professionals.

These previously collected interviews became the focus of the first major writing project (see attached prompt for Major Essay 1). Acknowledging that oral histories give only one view of an historical event, we discussed the methodology of oral history and why these interviews are often revelatory when used in context with other historical resources. Students chose one or more interviews posted as part of the DUMC Archives online exhibit, “Women in Duke Medicine,” reading carefully for the ways in which an individual story can have broader historical significance. Then, drawing on examples provided by scholarly texts that employ oral histories as sources, students conducted library research and developed arguments inspired—sometimes quite creatively and indirectly—by the interviews they had read.   

For the second major writing project (see prompt for Major Essay 2), my students became the oral history interviewers. Most students conducted interviews in pairs, for a total of fourteen interviews. Although I identified and made initial contact with the interviewees, my students scheduled their own interviews and composed questions based on their library research into the interviewee’s career. We used the “life review” model of interviewing, asking for rich descriptions of careers in medicine. Using the interviews as a starting point, each student again developed an argument about the historical significance of these individual lived experiences. As in Major Essay 1, students conducted extensive library research to contextualize the interviews. I made sure that my students were good ambassadors for the Thompson Writing Program by providing them with intensive training about the best and most appropriate ways to conduct interviews. I also enforced two small, but important, research practices: students offered copies of their completed essays to their interviewees and sent thank-you notes promptly.   

My students showed exceptional respect to our interviewees. Early in the semester we discussed informed consent, the tragedy of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, and the importance of protecting the rights and safety of human subjects of any kind of research.  

With the help of Lorna Hicks, director of Duke’s Program for the Protection of Human Subjects in Non-Medical Research, I secured an Institutional Review Board (IRB) exemption for all of my students, something that had not been done previously at Duke. Although I composed and filed the application for exemption, I walked students through the exemption process, explaining the details of each of the application documents. Most students had no previous experience with an IRB, although many indicated that they anticipated going through the IRB for research projects at some point in their Duke careers. The release and consent forms I created for the interviews, once approved by the IRB, became part of my students’ responsibilities: they completed and signed the forms, made sure that the interviewee completed his/her portion, and left a copy with the interviewee as well as returning one copy to me for the archives. Without these forms, the interviews would be useless for scholarship, and my students took this responsibility seriously.  

Indeed, one of the best outcomes of this course was how deeply my students engaged with the ethics of academic writing, a consideration easily overlooked amidst pressing concerns like clarity and conciseness. We surpassed the usual discussion of plagiarism by reading and writing about the collaborative nature of the interview process and of writing with oral histories. In fact, we referred to our interviewees as “narrators,” remembering that stories can be shared but that the person who told the story remains an author. A final group presentation and a visit from a dynamic guest speaker (Chicago oral historian MK Czerwiec) further reinforced the importance of collaboration in all scholarly work.  

We made good use of the technologies available through Duke for real-time and virtual collaboration. In addition to learning new uses for familiar technologies, students discovered the extent of the equipment available for loan at the Link and the support available from CIT, neither of which, as first-semester students, they had yet explored. The students borrowed iPods with accessory microphones from the Link and we practiced recording interviews during class time before they headed out to meet their interviewees. With the assistance of CIT’s Shawn Miller and Amy Campbell, we designed a wordpress blog for our class, where students uploaded audio files and shared information about their interviews. We used this blog as an intermediate step, keeping it “private” in order to allow students to work with the interviews in draft form before they were fully transcribed and processed for public use.    However, our goal was always to make sure that these interviews would be available for use outside our classroom. At the end of the semester, my students transcribed their interviews (no small task!) and donated the audio files and transcripts to the DUMC Archives for use by future scholars. The work these students did as part of a Writing 101 (20) course has now become, officially, part of Duke University’s history.