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Oral history and the professor: an academic epiphany.

The events precipitating me into the then unknown realm of oral history include a happy pair of intellectual coincidences occurring in 1986. At that time I was completing studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. Co-located with the War College is the U.S. Army Military History Institute, which hosts the Senior Army Oral History Program. Through initial contact as a student, followed by a series of brief tours of duty with the institute, I came to appreciate and value the ongoing work of the oral historians connected with the project.

Soon after returning to civilian service as a professor at Virginia Tech, I came in contact with a well-known Harvard professor, Roland Barth, who suggested during a formal presentation to a local Phi Delta Kappa chapter the need for more in-depth and less superficial research

in professional education generally, and on the public school principalship in particular. The question then raised in my mind concerned how to go about gathering in-depth information on the principalship. In a flash the answer came--through the use of oral history techniques. This idea appealed to me, since I'd become disenchanted with traditional quantitative data-gathering techniques and was casting about for alternative, and potentially more useful, approaches to the act of research.

Convinced of the "rightness" of the approach and excited at the possibilities, I set out to create a valid interview protocol. Working with current and retired principals and with graduate students and faculty members from Virginia Tech, I assembled a 53-item question set, and following field testing and "tweaking" of the instrument, set out to gather first-person accounts of principals' professional lives. The rest, as the cliche goes, "is history." In 1987 Mrs. Carlton and I underwent oral history training with Charles Morrissey at one of his well-known Vermont College workshops. (1) This training provided the basis for subsequent collection efforts.

Starting from a small beginning in late 1986, my graduate students and I engaged in oral history interviewing for the next 15 years. By the year 2000, we collected, transcribed, and deposited 316 interviews in the Special Collections Department of Virginia Tech's main library. In addition, we made the full text of all the interviews available worldwide through creation of a Virginia Tech-based website. The interviews address a wide variety of personal and professional topics of use to those taking advanced work in public school administration.

Due to funding limitations, collection during the early years was limited almost exclusively to the four-state area around Washington, D.C. (Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and North Carolina). Later on, collection expanded to Colorado, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Respondents were elementary, middle, and secondary school principals who retired during the decades extending from the fifties to the year 2000. They vary in age from the mid-50s to over 90. They are male and female, black and white. Their academic training varies from the baccalaureate to the doctorate. Interviews vary in length from 15 to 110 pages.

While most respondents enjoyed and valued their administrative experiences, some are quite bitter about the conditions under which they labored and were outspoken in their denunciations. The comments of some black principals who served before, during, and after desegregation in Virginia are particularly impressive, filled with unusual insights into the "separate but unequal" school settings in which they were forced to serve during part of their professional careers. The sense of hopefulness, coupled with a recognition of and resignation to political realities of the day, presented in these transcripts is noteworthy.

In 2000, I accepted a new assignment with the Department of Educational Leadership, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In that capacity I continue to work with advanced graduate students in the collection of oral testimony from experienced former principals who served in Nevada and surrounding states. A UNLV-based website houses the additions to the collection, which is linked to the Virginia Tech material. This connection helps insure that researchers will continue to have convenient access to the entire body of data. To date, several important research studies have used the database, which comprises a rich body of information of great use to doctoral students in educational leadership and other interested researchers.

It has become apparent to me that the importance of this type of historical documentation cannot be overemphasized. The office of public school principal is among the most influential of local level public service positions. The public schools have long served as a major repository for American values and have served to transmit these values to succeeding generations of young people. As guardian of this process--keeper of the flame, as it were--the public school principal has long been an extraordinarily influential--if relatively unknown and uncelebrated--societal contributor. Documenting the contributions of these great Americans has been a remarkable and gratifying experience.

(1) Patrick and Janet Carlton repeated this Morrissey training in 2001 at his San Francisco oral history workshop. Charles felt constrained to ask why the Carltons were participating in the training again, to which Patrick replied that he "wanted to see if Charles said the same things the second time around!"

Patrick W. Carlton holds a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from the University of North Carolina and an M.A. in History from Shippensburg University, Pennsylvania. From 1974 to 2000, he taught at Virginia Tech, with a three year sojourn as professor with the College of Education, Youngstown State University, Ohio. In 2000 he accepted an appointment as professor of Educational Leadership, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, his present assignment.
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Title Annotation:practice of oral history
Author:Carlton, Patrick W.
Publication:The Oral History Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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