HM 272 A - Topics in Humanities: We are What We Tell: Family Stories and Cultural Identity 


Winter Intensive 


This course explores how families (as well as communities) serve as sites for cultural transmission by gathering and studying family and community stories.  Focusing on various traditions or a “tradition bearer” in students’ families (or in the local community), we will collect oral histories and consider how these traditions contribute to our sense of individual, regional, and cultural identity.  Students will also be introduced to methods of folklore and ethnography, including interviewing, collecting, and other forms of documentation.  This course satisfies two credits of a student’s writing-intensive requirement.

We Are What We Tell: Family Stories and Cultural Identity 

Winter Intensive 2013

Instructor: Carol Dickson        586-7711, x110

Goals & Objectives

  • to explore oral history as a means to understand culture, society, and ourselves;
  • to explore our unique family, cultural, and ethnic histories and traditions and the role these play in our sense of individual identity;
  • to learn basic methodologies of ethnography and oral history (including interviewing and transcribing);
  • to analyze examples of oral histories and to synthesize collected stories with larger theoretical and historical issues;
  • to strengthen our writing, speaking, and self-expression skills;
  • to gain confidence in our written and spoken voices;
  • to continue to develop analytical and critical thinking skills;
  • to make connections with the broader Craftsbury community.

Texts & Materials

Required Readings and Materials

    Peter Bartis, Folklife and Fieldwork: An Introduction to Field Techniques (distributed in class)

    Jane Beck & Gregory Sharrow, Recording Words: Collecting Oral History and the Art of Interviewing (distributed in class)

    Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds.  The Oral History Reader—recommended purchase (also on reserve)

    Vermont Folklife Center, Visit’n: Conversations with Vermonters (on reserve)

    Linda Goldberg, Here on This Hill: Conversations with Vermont Neighbors (on reserve)

    Vermont Folklife Center web site:

    Taylor Knopf, An Oral History of Town Hill and East Hill in Wolcott, Vermont (Sterling College SARP,on reserve and

    Sterling College, Digital Communities Project:

    Digital recording device (optional)

    Digital camera (optional)



Supplemental Reference Material on Reserve:

    Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History

    Sherna Berger Gluck & Daphne Patai, eds.  Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History

    William Schneider, So They Understand: Cultural Issues in Oral History


Additional Web Resources:

    The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress web site (

    American Folklife Society web site (

    The Southern Oral History Program (

    Zora Neale Hurston, Mules and Men (



Daily one-page reflection papers, responding to daily questions (posted on class Google site);

Class and field notebook (for in-class writing, observations on field trips, reading notes, and field notes from interview)—collected at the end of class;

Final project.  This may take different forms but will include a transcript and audio of an interview with selected subject, a 5-page introductory essay that gives background and analyzes the interview, and a 15-minute presentation.

NOTE: You are expected to use our Google site daily and to be able to print written work.


Daily Schedule (subject to change)

Homework for each class includes reading and listening, writing a reflection paper (posted on class Google site), and project work.  Specifics of daily reading and writing assignments will be announced in class.


January 28

 Introduction: Why oral history? Theory & Background


 Developing a Project


 Interviewing Techniques & Using Technology

 Project Proposal Due


 Field Trip to the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury (7:45 am-4:00 pm)


February 1

 Listening to Stories

No class meeting.

2 & 3



 Transcriptions & Editing

 Interview Completed


 Analysis & Interpretation

Transcript Due


 Synthesis & Writing



Draft of Introductory Essay Due


 Presentations & Course Evaluation

Project Due 



Final Project

We will be working on the “final” project throughout the two weeks of the course.  At its center is an extended, recorded interview with your chosen subject (approximately one hour).  Steps in the process include:

  • writing a project proposal
  • identifying a subject and setting an appointment
  • completing a release form
  • developing interview questions
  • becoming familiar with recording equipment
  • conducting the interview
  • transcribing the interview
  • editing the recording
  • analyzing the interview transcript
  • presenting the interview in writing and orally


The final product will include:

  • a typed and printed transcript of the interview
  • an audio recording of the interview
  • a 5-page introductory essay that gives background and analyzes the interview
  • a 15-minute presentation talk



  • Class participation (including active contribution to in-class and on-line discussions, engaged participation on field trips, initiative in pursuing course work)—30%
  • Reflection papers—20%
  • Class notebook—10%
  • Final project (including process) and presentation—40%


Academic Honesty

You are expected to be familiar with Sterling’s Academic Honesty Policy, found on pages 44-45 of your student handbook.  It reads, in part, “all students are expected to exhibit honesty in completing classroom and laboratory work.”  In addition, “plagiarism will not be tolerated.”  If the concept or words you are using are “borrowed or copied from any source, whether electronic, print, recorded, or spoken word, the original source must be acknowledged.”  If you are ever unsure about when and how to cite another’s ideas or words, please ask me.

A Note on Learning Styles

Students bring a variety of learning styles to class.  We do our best to support different learning modes by mixing lecture, discussion, hands-on work, and visual information.  Please feel free to let me know which modes work best for you—I will do my best to accommodate your learning style.   If you have a learning challenge or documented disability, please let your teacher know and check in with Leland Peterson, Learning Support Coordinator.  Leland can help you determine accommodations that can be helpful in this course (adapted from the Sterling College Student Handbook, page 46).  For more information about learning support resources on campus, see pages 58-59 in the Student Handbook.