All entries for December 2015
December 08, 2015
Grace Huxford, University of Bristol
In 2014-15, I managed Warwick’s ‘Voices of the University’ oral history project, designed to capture the memories of those who worked at, studied at or lived nearby to the university since it opened in 1965. Funded by the Institute of Advanced Study, the project (previously led by April Gallwey and Richard Wallace) interviewed over 260 people.
In conducting this project, our team of student and postdoctoral interviewers met with people from across Warwick’s 50-year history. Interviewees discussed a range of topics: university administration, relationships with local communities, student and staff protest, teaching and learning, music, politics, money, manufacturing in Coventry and more. The interviews, deposited in Warwick’s Modern Records Centre, are a useful resource, revealing the history of post-war Higher Education and wider social, cultural and economic change.
Yet throughout the project, we were aware that we were far from alone in conducting such a history. An astonishing number of the ‘plate-glass’ universities have commissioned oral histories to mark their 50th anniversaries. The University of Sussex’s ‘Fifty Voices: Fifty Faces’ project captures the memories of 50 staff and students, aiming to find out ‘what Sussex meant to them’. The University of York’s project similarly interviewed 50 former staff and students. The University of Essex’s oral history project was structured around a series of podcasts on themes relating to the university’s history, using archived interviews from the Wivenhoe Oral History Project. By contrast, the University of East Anglia’s ‘Making Of’ anniversary project was largely led by undergraduates and not just focused on the ‘founding fathers’. A similar breadth was achieved in the University of Winchester’s oral history project, interviewing 360 alumni who attended the institution when it was King Alfred’s College. Many of these projects reflect upon the changing landscape of Higher Education in the UK. But university oral histories are not restricted to newer universities. In her study of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, Laura Schwartz used oral history alongside a range of archival sources to explore the history of gender and education in 20th century Britain. And there are many more oral history projects taking place within universities which one might analyse.
Confronted with these numerous, vibrant and far-reaching projects, the glaring question is – why? Why have increasing numbers of universities sought to mark their anniversaries with institutional oral histories? Why are they so appealing and what function do they serve? And, significantly, what challenges and opportunities do they pose? These questions underpinned the Warwick Oral History Network June 2015 Workshop on ‘University Oral Histories’ and, together with Richard Wallace, I am currently co-writing a reflective piece on Warwick’s ‘Voices of the University’ project answering some of these issues. Julia Horne, based on her experiences of Australian university oral history projects, notes the passing of the ‘founding fathers’ of universities has necessitated a new kind of interview. Researchers have also begun to realise that oral history research can enliven histories of universities. The dynamics of these projects are not only of relevance to historians of Higher Education. Linda Sandino has recently written about institutional oral histories with curators from the V&A Museum reveal the entanglement of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ memories.
The many vibrant university oral history projects taking place in the UK at present can therefore add to our growing understanding of the role and perception of oral history within the 21st century university and beyond.