Academic Skills, Pedagogy, teaching, Writing

Finding Venues for Authentic Research: The Family History Paper

Bound oral history transcripts

Image by Kennesaw State University Archives via Flickr

I’ve been unfortunately quiet of late and have decided that rather than attempt (unsuccessfully) to complete the variety of half-baked posts that sit in my “Drafts” folder, I’d find other ways to get new material up here. With this post, I think I’m going to adopt a strategy to generate content that I’ve seen on other education related blogs: use material that you’re creating for a student audience and share that same material with others.

This post focuses on an assignment that I distributed to my U.S. History students today, but is one that I adapted from a professor of mine in my Master’s Program at UT-Arlington, Dr. Gerald Saxon. In Dr. Saxon’s Texas and the Spanish Borderlands class all students wrote a family history about one of their sets of grandparents. These papers were based on oral interviews and other written and photographic documentary evidence. I had the good fortune of interviewing my grandparents in Richmond, VA, and in the course of preparing the paper collected 5+ hours of interviews with them on my computer. It was a great experience to research and write and was an assignment that felt more authentic than more traditional research questions (not that there’s anything wrong with those).

My colleague (who took the same class in an earlier semester with Dr. Saxon) and I are hoping that this assignment will not only allow students connect with their family in a unique way, but will also help them reinforce the research skills they’ve developed in the first semester by using a topic that has inherent interest to them — their families and themselves. I’d like to thank Dr. Saxon for allowing me to adapt his assignment and borrow much of his language in this assignment sheet.

Below I’ve copied the (rather lengthy) assignment sheet I distributed to my students. Feel free to offer me whatever thoughts or feedback you have. Also, if anyone has done a similar project with high school students I’d love to hear about your experiences and what made the project successful and rewarding.


U.S. History Research Project – Family History Biography

For this assignment each student will write a social history about the lives of one set of grandparents. Writing a family history requires interviewing family members, searching for old family records, and perhaps doing other research as well.  However, a family social history is much more than a genealogical chart of names, dates, and significant events. Rather it is an attempt to reconstruct the lives your grandparents led, and your paper should have in it information on jobs, living arrangements, major problems, migration from place to place, social activities, personal relations, family information, and socioeconomic status. In addition to documenting and creating a narrative of the lives of your grandparents, you also need to contextualize their lives within the larger historical developments of the era(s) in which they lived. In other words, work to answer the question of how your grandparents’ lives were shaped by the surrounding events and developments they experienced in their lives. This question will require you to do background research on, analysis of, and writing about the broader cultural and social events of the 20th and 21st centuries and how those shaped your grandparents’ lives.

We will spend the bulk of the third quarter working on this assignment, much of which will be done independently while you’re working on other assignments. Therefore, it is vital that you be well-organized and diligent in completing the various steps of this assignment before it is ultimately due at the beginning of March. However, this flexible time-frame should also allow you to complete the steps of the process at times that are convenient in relation to your other obligations and allow you to conduct your interviews with family members at various times.

Oral History and Ethical Issues:
Please know that there are ethical considerations you must take into account when doing oral interviews. No one can be interviewed against his or her wishes. Also, you must explain the purpose for asking the questions and that the information is intended for use in your U.S. History class. No other use of the material should occur unless you have the approval of the individuals you interviewed.

How to Collect Information:

  • Which families?

Any family is a good subject. Whether your family was wealthy or not, powerful or not, all families have a history. To make research and writing easier, I suggest you select the set of grandparents on whom you have the most information, whether this information is in documents, scrapbooks, family photos, or in the memories of your grandparents themselves or their kin. Also, be sure to collect evidence and include in your paper something about the lives of your parents, especially as they relate to your grandparents.

  • Interview techniques and considerations?

First find out if your parents and grandparents will cooperate. Even if all of your grandparents are deceased you can interview your own parents about their parents. You can also interview and gain valuable information from aunts, uncles, and cousins. I would suggest that you tape record the interviews because these will become important family resources now and into the future. As you move into writing your paper and incorporating quotations, you may find that having a transcript the tapes makes it easier for you to access to the information and use it argumentatively.

Check out the questions below. I am providing them as a guide. You do not have to ask all of them. Draft your own set of questions and be sure to follow-up with additional questions during your interviews. We’ll also spend some time in class working on drafting questions. Moreover, I encourage you to check out this site for some helpful advice regarding asking questions and capturing the responses.

Once you’ve asked the questions, listen very carefully to what your interviewees are saying. This is hard work. Try to get the exact words if they use unfamiliar terms; clarify spellings of names and locations if you are not sure of them. If you have to obtain information by letter or email, do so as quickly as possible to avoid any problems with deadlines for this project.

As you ask questions, be sure to make them as specific as possible. For example, ask for exact dates, amounts paid in wages, full names, and feelings and motivations. Ask about the problems your relatives faced and how they may have overcome them. Give as complete a picture as possible. Not only concentrate on the positive, but be realistic and objective about their lives and work your hardest to tell the “truth” that your research reveals. Check stories with other relatives to verify the information and/or get another perspective.

  • What kinds of questions to ask?

The questions you ask will determine the quality of your family history. Below are some questions you might want to pursue. You will probably think of others more specific to your family and more relevant and interesting. Do not be bound by asking only the questions below.

  1. How did your grandparents meet? Where/when? What attracted them to each     other? How was marriage decided upon?
  2. Ask about dating and courtship practices. What kinds of dates did they go on?
  3. Ask about their backgrounds. Where did each grow up? What kind of families did they come from? What were their parents like? Did they live on a farm, in the city, or a town? Describe the communities in which they grew up.
  4. What about their educations? Where did they go to school? When did they—or did they—graduate from high school? What about college, trade school, or other training?
  5. After they were married where did they live and what did they do for a living? Be specific and have them tell about their jobs. Also, if someone stayed at home to raise a family ask about his/her routine.
  6. Did other relatives live with them? Talk about children. When were the children born? What were their names? Where were they born? Were any lost to accidents, miscarriages, illness, etc. How did having children change their lives?
  7. Did the family consider itself poor, average, well-off? Why?
  8. What were the daily routines of family members? How did they spend time at home and on holidays? Who visited whom and how often? What kinds of family celebrations were held? Any reunions? What are the family traditions?
  9. What did they do for entertainment?
  10. What part did religion play in family life? What is their religion and why?
  11. How were key decisions made on moving, schooling, occupations, and approval of marriages?
  12. Have them discuss child-rearing. Who raised the children? Disciplined them and how? Helped with homework?
  13. What were some of the problems and conflicts the family faced? How were they dealt with?
  14. When were the first radio, TV, washing machine, car, and other gadgets of modern life purchased/acquired? What difference did they make in the life of the family?
  15. Describe the community in which your grandparents lived and raised their family. How big was it? What was it like? Why did they settle there?
  16. How important was politics to the family? What political parties did they belong to and did they change affiliations? How did the family react to major events in American history such as war, depression, civil rights, hippies, etc.?
  • Records, diaries, letters, and other primary sources

Your paper will be even richer if you are able to locate and examine photographs, letters, family Bibles, scrapbooks, and other family sources. Use these to help fill in the gaps in your research. Also, please include illustrations in your paper where possible, like photos of your grandparents, their house, and children or maps marking the locations where they lived and raised a family. You are only limited by your imagination and the historical material that you can find.

  • Resources on the Internet

The Internet may contain many resources for researching your family history, but I will assure you it will not answer all, or even most, of your questions. It is a tool, nothing more. It does not contain a database on everyone who ever lived (that is wishful thinking!). It may help point you in the right direction or put you in contact with an individual or institution where you can get help. In the end, however, like all research projects, it is up to you to find the information that you will need for this paper. Like most papers on recent history, your research will take you to web resources, archival and library resources, and oral history interviews, to mention only a few varieties.

There are literally thousands of web sites relating to genealogy. What follows are a few links that you might want to investigate:

  1. [This is the genealogy site for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormons, the most active individuals in the preservation of genealogical resources in the world.]
  2. [Genealogy home page for the National Archives and Records Administration.]
  3. [Site for Texas genealogy.]
  4. [Excellent commercial site but you have to pay to conduct serious research on the site.]
  5. [Family Oral History Using Digital Tools; lots of good advice and suggestions regarding how to use digital recording resources to conduct oral history interviews.]
  6. [ allows searching of U.S. Census Bureau records for 1790-1930]
  7. Proquest Historical New York Times [accessible via the FWCD Libraries webpage; good resource to establish historical context and broader cultural development that surrounded your grandparents’ lives]
  8. Google Books [This resource contains a large variety of secondary sources, which will also be helpful in provided a broader historical background for your grandparents’ lives.]
  9. Google News Archives [This resource, much like the Proquest Historical New York Times, provides primary sources from various newspapers and other online sources about key events immediately after they happened and can also be helpful in establishing context.]

Mechanics and Format:

  • Proposal due

Turn in a proposal for your family history project on the date specified on the syllabus. Your proposal should be typed, double-spaced, and 1-2 pages. Please include the following information: 1. Your name; 2. The names of the grandparents on whom you plan to focus; 3. A paragraph about your grandparents; who they are and where they are from; 4. The sources you plan to consult for the project; and 5. Any questions you have for me. I will keep your proposals unless there are problems with your project. The due date for the proposal is Monday, Jan 10.

  • Original copy and title page

Turn in one copy of your paper typewritten, double-spaced, with one-inch margins all around. The length of your paper should be 5+ pages, not including the standard heading, the cover page with a creative title, and the bibliography. Check your paper for grammatical problems and spelling mistakes. We’ll spend some time peer-editing in class, which will hopefully draw attention to common grammatical and stylistic errors and give you plenty of opportunity to correct those before the final due date (March 7).

  • Bibliography

After the narrative, please include a page of bibliography. Your bibliography should include every source you consulted for the project, such as books, letters, scrapbooks, family Bibles, and interviews. For interviews, be sure you include the complete name of the interviewee and the date/s of the interview/s. We’re going to gain an introduction to the Chicago Manual of Style during the course of this project. I believe that NoodleTools has the capacity to create footnotes and a bibliography in the Chicago Style, but if you have questions about specific bibliographic formats, you can also consult a recent edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) or Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also experiment with the really excellent Firefox Plug-in called Zotero, which offers the ability to digitally take notes, capture meta-data about sources, and generate citations and bibliographies within Microsoft Word.

  • Organization and style

You can organize your paper any way that you wish. For those of you searching for a way to organize, however, you might consider the following as a guide: 1. Life of your grandfather up to marriage; 2. Life of your grandmother up to marriage; 3. Their life together; 4. Maps and illustrations; and 5. Bibliography.

  • Maps and illustrations

As stated above, your report will be enriched by adding illustrations, maps, and photos to help reflect your narrative. Your report must include a map or maps showing all locations of towns and cities mentioned or of farms and homesteads referred to in your paper. You may use a gas station map, a map from the Internet, or one of your own making. Describe locations carefully so that someone from New York would know where to find Cut and Shoot, Texas, for example. Include copies of family photos where possible to add visual documentation and interest. When using illustrations, be sure to place a caption under each one giving dates, persons included, or locations.

  • Careful descriptions

Keep in mind that contemporary readers need to be told how even simple tasks were performed years ago. Most people today know nothing about farming. Who knows what it was like to hitch up a horse to a buggy, or start an old car, or get ice from an iceman, or take a bath before indoor plumbing? Explain these things carefully if they are relevant to your family history project. Write as if your reader knows nothing about these activities.

Learning Objectives and Standards:
This essay will be evaluated on the following standards. Each of these standards will be evaluated on a 1-5 scale (5=Outstanding, 4=Good, 3= Competent, 2=Approaching Competency, and 1=Unacceptable).

  • The essay clearly details and explains the lives of one set of grandparents.
  • The essay draws on oral histories and interviews conducted by the student, which are based on a prepared set of questions with appropriate follow-up questions.
  • The essay uses written primary source materials (letters, photographs, journals, etc.) to help supplement the oral history component of the paper.
  • The essay effectively draws on appropriate primary (newspapers) and secondary sources to help contextualize one’s grandparents’ lives in the larger developments of U.S. and (potentially) world history during the 20th and 21st centuries.
  • The essay includes an appendix including map(s) and other images to help supplement and enrich the overall paper and documentation.
  • The essay employs proper grammatical constructions, stylistic conventions, spelling, and strives to avoid the use of the passive voice and vague pronouns.
  • The essay employs Chicago Manual of Style footnotes and bibliography in an appropriate and accurate way.

Calendar and Due Dates:
Click of the following link to find the due dates for the Family History Paper project. Check this link frequently, as it will be updated and possibly amended as we move through the project.

This assignment has been inspired by and adapted from an assignment created and given by Dr. Gerald Saxon at the University of Texas at Arlington.


6 thoughts on “Finding Venues for Authentic Research: The Family History Paper

  1. Mylynka says:

    Hi Nate,

    I took that very class from Dr. Saxon and did a report on my paternal grandparents (both from Ft. Worth). It was one of the most rewarding research assignments I have ever done. I loved the time spent with my grandmother (my grandfather died when I was 10) hearing her stories of their childhood, schooldays, and their running off (by city bus)to elope at the Weatherford Court house at age 17 (1944) because Parker Co. didn’t verify age and Tarrant Co. did (you were supposed to be 18 to legally marry with out parental consent). I am so glad I have the video tapes of my Granny Kilgore telling me hours of stories & wish I had taken the time to do the same with my maternal grandmother as she is now in the early stages of dementia and her memories are jumbled.

    I think this is a fantastic assignment for your students and one they simply cannot Google or use Wikipedia for their research. 🙂 Can’t wait to hear how they turn out & your students’ reactions.

  2. Western Dave says:

    Okay, a set of pretty complicated questions here:

    1) I’m doing oral histories in my Honors 60s class as a major theme. Before students take an oral history we are going to do practice oral histories and watch some available on the internet. One of the key themes follows Allesandro Portelli’s ideas from The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories, in which the key moments of oral history come from the moments or leakages where the narrators get stuff wrong. These are usually the most important moments of the interview.

    2). I don’t believe in scheduled oral histories in my own practice (that is, I don’t use an interview schedule but use a couple of open ended questions as warm ups to get the subject talking and then move into the nitty-gritty of what I’m looking for.

    3) You have to teach students how to handle transitions. Generally when somebody in an interview says something important that they didn’t mean to say, there is this awkward silence as they realize they let something slip. The key to keep the interview going is to put the subject back at ease by saying something like, “that’s very interesting but let’s get back on subject.” This put’s the subject at ease and doesn’t judge them in the moment.

    4) If you can, put together some census data for the time period on average income, family size, etc. And maybe some stats on prices and wages. When I TAed at Michigan, Terry McDonald did a project like this at Michigan. He put together a computer disc for each student with census data from 1900-1990. The census website is very good these days. www.

    5) Tape record? Digital audio at the very least, and video is even better, because the eyes tell.

    • Nate says:


      Thanks for your ngreat suggestions! These are all really helpful. This is really only my second foray (well, third if you count an eighth grade project I did) into oral history, so it’ll definitely be a learning experience for me along with the students. I think the census data is probably the most telling material to share with then kids as that will help them understand this issue of contextualization that I’m going for. I also think that I’ll have them all create audio recordings at the very least, but video is a great idea if their grandparents are local and willing to be videotaped.

      I’m interested to hear more about how you “practice” these oral interviews. I fear that any simulation of this activity will quickie turn hokey for the kids as they’ll feel it isn’t authentic. Any suggestions on how to structure this component? It isnt something we workshopped in the class I took, but would, I think, be immensely helpful for the students (if I can carry it out in a serious manner).

  3. Thanks for the links to my site (Family Oral History Using Digital Tools) as a resource for your class. I’m interested in knowing what the common questions are about digital recording technology use is among your students. Feel free to let me know via comments here (if that’s okay by you) or by going to my site and clicking the Contact link.

    (note: I ask this so I can learn better what topics to cover on my website. I am not volunteering to, well, ‘do your homework.’)



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