Using Oral Histories to Create Campus Collaborations, by Beth Ann Koelsch

Using Oral Histories to Create Campus Collaborations


Beth Ann Koelsch, Curator of the UNC Greensboro Women Veterans Historical Project


The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project (WVHP), part of the University Libraries at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG), recognizes the contributions of women veterans with an annual November luncheon. The purpose of the event is to honor the service of women who served in the United States armed forces and the American Red Cross, to serve as an educational forum focusing on women veterans, to engage the veteran community at UNCG and Greensboro, and to highlight the work of the WVHP and its ongoing oral history project.

WVHP websiteThe luncheon programs have featured women veterans speaking about their lives and careers, author talks, and panel discussions. For the 2015 program, I wanted to try something different. There have been a lot of discussions within the oral history field about using oral histories in creative ways. Having a theater background, I know the emotional power of live performance. I am also always looking for ways to raise the profile of the WVHP in the UNCG community. With these thoughts in mind, I contacted the head of UNCG Theatre Department and asked if they would be interested in creating a dramatic piece for the luncheon using our women veterans’ oral histories. I met with one of the instructors and talked about the histories from WWII WASP pilots, Army nurses in Vietnam, recent UNCG student veterans who had served deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and American Red Cross workers who set up recreation clubs close to the front lines during wars.

The instructor agreed that this could be a project for one of her classes. I was very excited about this collaboration and wish I could report that it was an unqualified success. What it turned out to be was a valuable lesson in making certain that all parties involved in this type of creative collaboration are on the same page.

I did not want to micromanage the project, nor was I looking for a whitewashed patriotic extravaganza, but based upon the discussions I had with the instructor, I assumed that the theater pieces would be an amalgam of quotations and/or paraphrases from the oral history interviews. I would periodically check in with the instructor to ask how the pieces were evolving, and she replied “Great!” As the date of the luncheon approached, I requested to see a draft of the scripts. When the instructor sent them, I read them with increasing levels of consternation and panic. Her class had used the oral history transcripts for “inspiration” rather than using them literally, and the resulting student pieces she sent to me included a monologue of a civilian woman suffering PTSD from her sexually abusive marriage, an insulting satire about the gender constrictions of women in WWII, and a piece containing both gratuitous obscenities and descriptions of combat that neither were described in any of the WVHP’s oral histories nor in any stories I have ever read.

Dramatic readingIn my conversation with the instructor, she agreed that these student pieces were inappropriate for the event. In the short amount of time left before the luncheon, we decided upon a dramatic reading of selections. On the day of the luncheon, I had no idea what would happen, but the five student actors who performed the pieces pulled it off. The power of the oral histories, as well as the talent of the actors and the graduate student director, made the event a great success. The women veterans in the audience loved the program, and many have encouraged me to do it again. If I can gather the resolve to repeat the process, I will be sure to be more explicit in early collaborative discussions and to be more actively involved throughout.