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Oral history class preserves history, promotes community

May 21, 2009

The SOS is the universally recognized Morse Code distress signal.  Consisting of three dots, followed by three dashes, followed by three dots (. . . - - - . . .), the SOS has come to stand for everything from “Save Our Ship” to “Save Our Seamen,” and from “Survivors On Shore” to “Save Our Souls.”

Add to the list “Save Our Stories,” a new Communication Studies degree course in Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.  Designed to preserve the stories of a diverse community while teaching students communication skills and research applications, the SOS course is directed by Meg McConnaughy, who is also the director of the Department of Communication Studies’ Communication Assessment Learning lab (CALL) at ASU’s West campus.

“Community embeddedness and community support are effective only when there is an understanding its members, including those who have come before,” says McConnaughy.  “By connecting our students with Valley residents to share and record inspiring stories and personal histories that offer insight and hope for the future, we become more deeply involved with the community.

“Students develop an appreciation for the variety of stories available throughout the community.”

Oral histories are not anything new.  From the dawn of mankind, cultures have preserved their histories through the telling of stories – tales of great battles, destructive diseases, times of prosperity, and how periods of history have shaped their character.  More recently, oral history gained traction during the Great Depression when in 1935 U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Federal Writers’ Project (FWP) that compiled oral histories, local histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works.

“Storytelling is an ancient tradition of human interaction and interpretation of events that reflect perceptions, sensibilities and values,” says McConnuaghy, who is working to build partnerships throughout the Valley that will help provide a source of storytellers.  “Oral history is a significant part of human interaction and ensures cultural survival.

“What our students will learn is that everyone has an important and unique story to tell, based on their life experiences, and each story speaks and moves each person differently.”

Students in the storytelling class (CMN 394 Storytelling and Oral History) have been given a jump-start as they consider the significance of the storytellers’ stories.  Among those who have visited the Kiva Lecture Hall on the West campus to share their histories are Holocaust survivor Alexander White, who worked in Oskar Schindler’s Płaszów factory; Mary Jo West, the first female TV network affiliate anchor in Phoenix; and Clay Dix, an African American who overcame racial prejudice to become a professor of social work at ASU.

“This course takes our students step by step through the process of storytelling and what I call ‘storycatching,’” says McConnaughy.  “The goal is to bring about in our students an appreciation for the art of storytelling and understanding the significance of oral histories.

“The overall end product is a public university archive of local stories.”

And while McConnaughy coaches students on how to draw out stories through their own communication skills, she also has advice for the storytellers she hopes will support the course by offering their personal oral histories.

“Stories are welcome on any subject or topic,” she says.  “There is a great value and even a life lesson in the story of a native Arizonan.  We have so many veterans of World War II who live with us in this community.  There are stories about the Great Depression that are waiting to be told.  Your story could be about gardening in the desert or how your gardening has changed over the years.

“Storytellers have so much to offer our students as they study the art of communication.”

McConnaughy’s student storycatchers meet with storytellers – she has currently lined up oral historians through partnerships with the Beatitudes and residents of Sun City – and draw out unique experiences and significant life landmarks.  The storycatchers guide the storytellers through their stories, recording them onto a professional capture disk (CD-R).  The documented stories, when agreed to by storytellers, will made available for academic research and examination.  Storycatchers also have the ability to photograph and record personal artifacts.  Storytellers will receive a copy of the finished product and are invited to return in the future to share other stories and personal histories.

“Our students, who aspire to careers in communication based on human interpretation and interaction, engage in hands-on interview training,” says McConnaughy, adding, “They are developing their own communication skills, broadening their horizons in a number of intellectual ways, and they are connecting to the community.

“For our storytellers, they are contributing to our greater understanding of our community – past, present and future.”

Storycatchers and storytellers can obtain additional information about the Communication Studies oral history program by contacting Meg McConnaughy at 602-543-6627 or via email at