Interviewing the Past: Developing a Sense of Place through Oral Histories

Bob Abel, Olympic College
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Discerning how one's environment is changing is difficult without a longer-term perspective. In this activity, students conduct interviews with long time locals (e.g., with friends, relatives, tribal elders, or nursing home residents, etc.) to obtain first-hand anecdotal accounts of how the area has changed and what has remained constant. Students recount their interviews based on a sample set of questions, summarize their findings and provide their reflections on what they learned. This could also be an excellent assignment for discussing the benefits, disadvantages, and proper use of anecdotal, qualitative data.

Learning Goals

Students will have the opportunity to learn what first-hand witnesses to climate change and the availability of various resources have observed, providing context for their own observations, reading or other class work, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of anecdotal data.

Big Ideas: The assignment is designed to help students:

  • develop a sense of timescales longer than one's own lifetime, using a familiar environment;

  • develop intergenerational perspectives, particularly in terms of environmental and cultural factors;

  • develop an appreciation for the rate at which one's own environment can change;

  • learn through informational interviewing.

Context for Use

This assignment can be conducted by students of nearly any age, and by classes of nearly any size. Students can work individually or in teams. Teams can either conduct joint interviews or conduct them separately and synthesize the results. Possible courses in which this would be applicable include English, English as a Second Language, Communications, Journalism, Speech, History, Geography, Meteorology, Environmental Sciences, and Biology.

The data obtained is largely anecdotal; it must be recognized that biases and inaccuracies are inherent in such information. On the other hand, the information gathered can be richer and more diverse than quantitative data. This exercise can be an excellent discussion point for discerning between quantitative and qualitative data, and the relative merits and disadvantages of each.

Description and Teaching Materials

At least six interviews should be conducted with longtime residents, but the more the better. With some guided prompts, students can obtain first-hand accounts of how their area has changed. They can compare what they hear with data, newspaper articles, or other written accounts (optional), but they should start with the oral histories. Additional references supporting the students' interviews, if any, must be properly cited. The questions, age group, time period, etc. can vary depending on what the instructor wishes to focus on. Sample questions are provided below, but they can be changed or added to. The students should find out what people remember and what stories they've heard. Interviewees should not be rushed - listening and letting them talk will often produce more information than expected. Memories can be conflicting, but multiple interviews will often lead to consensus in some areas.

Potential sources include relatives, friends, rest homes/nursing home residents and senior centers. People who grew up in a rural environment often pay more attention to their natural environment than those who grew up in cities. Local Master Gardeners, hiking clubs (like the Mountaineers), tribal elders, members of the local Audubon society, geological society and mycological (mushroom) society, and those who have fished and hunted for a long time are good subjects. What do they remember about the area and what did their parents, grandparents and others tell them? Students are more likely to remember these conversations, and their syntheses will be unique. Both interviewer and interviewee almost always enjoy the experience. The instructor will also learn more about the subject with this technique (multiply the number of inverviewees for each student by the number of students in the class!).


Introduction - in which the student describes the region of interest, whom they interviewed, and what common questions were asked.

Interviews -in which the interviewees responses are recounted.

Summary and Analysis -in which the responses of all interviewees are summarized and synthesized in terms of the specific goals of the assignment (e.g. "Determine how the food we eat has changed", or "Determine what changes in the climate have occurred"). As an alternative to this section, especially for younger students, a set of questions could be prepared that help them focus on the learning objectives of a specific assignment.


Sample interview questions for different types of analyses are provided below. Some questions are more direct, such as "Were winters colder or warmer when you were growing up?" These types of questions may be more difficult to answer accurately than related questions, such as "Do you remember ice skating on lakes much during the winter when you were growing up?" The sample questions here have been separated into three groups: Climate, Flora and Fauna, and The Human Population:

Were winters warmer, colder, or different in some respects?
Did the lakes freeze over more often in the past or less often?
Was there more or less snow?
Does it rain more or less now than you can remember in earlier decades?
Were summers warmer, colder, or different in some other respects?
Did you swim in lakes in the summer? How was the water quality, the water temperature?
How about spring and fall?
More clouds or less?
Was the air different?
Anything else?

Flora and Fauna
Did you garden?
What were people planting back then and when?
Did they plant the same crops earlier or later?
Are the locally grown plants and foods at all different than in the past?
What wild plants were here that aren't around anymore, or how have they or their population changed?
What did people forage for?
Are the berries different?
Is the fishing different, the clamming, the hunting, the shrimping, the crabbing, the oysters, etc.?
Are there foods you got locally that you can't get anymore?
What foods did you eat then that you don't eat now, and vice versa?
How did the vegetables, meat, etc. taste then, compared to now?
Were there more or fewer forests? Do you remember old growth? How have the current forests changed?
Where did your water come from?
Did it taste different?
What wild animals were more prevalent back then, and how much more prevalent?
How has the presence of marine mammals (whales, seals, otters, sea lions) changed?
Are there more or fewer fish - which fish?
How has the bird population changed?

The Human Population
Were there more or fewer people in the area (e.g. your town or county)?
How did that affect the way you lived?
Did the area seem safer or more dangerous?
What peoples were in the population? Native American component, European, Asian, African, etc.
Where had they come there from?
What diseases were people getting?
Were there outbreaks of certain diseases that you remember?
How did people get around? Did they use the Puget Sound more? Did they walk more?
Have you noticed a change in the number of people who have allergies?
Were people more or less obese?
Were people taller, or shorter?

This requires no special equipment other than pen and paper, or some other type of recording device. Interview time is variable. An example of a completed assignment, in which all of the above questions were used, is provided as an attachment Interviewing the Past - Sample Student Paper (Acrobat (PDF) 135kB Aug1 11).The article by Susan A. Crate in the references provides another excellent example of information interviewing with respect to climate change.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Teaching notes and tips are included above. The instructor's highest priority is to ensure that each student understands proper etiquette in terms of the interviewing process. For example, interviewers should always make sure they have the interviewees permission to take notes, recordings, pictures, etc, they should always be courteous and appreciative, and the subjects should be thanked for their time and perspectives at the end. Students should also receive instruction in qualitative research methods and know how to search for themes and perspectives that are common throughout the series of interviews. See Seidman (2006), listed below, for a much more in-depth discussion of qualitative research techniques. I should add that in some instances, interviewers may require permission forms for interviewees to sign. Check with your institution's human subjects research policy to determine the level of assent interviewees must provide.


Feel free to use your own rubric for grading the assignment. Addressing the learning objectives is important, but the range of coverage will be a function of the specific issues to be discussed, the specific course and the level of the students.

References and Resources

Crate, Susan A., "We Are Going Underwater: Siberian Villagers Show the World What Global Climate Change Means", Natural History,119, 5, 20-29, 2011.

Seidman, Irving. Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education and the Social Sciences. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006.