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cademic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies
© 2020 Laura M. Strachan and Carmen Winkel.
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Oral History: An Unpredictably Effective Strategy for
Teaching ESL to Saudi Arabian Students
Laura M. Strachan
Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd University,
For more than thirty years, collecting oral histories has been recognized as an effective teaching strategy in
the West. Although it is rare in Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) countries, the authors adopted it to bridge
knowledge gaps they observed in their Saudi Arabian students. The reclamation of familial stories and tribal
information using oral history methodologies reconnected students to their past while facilitating a unique
learning experience. This paper describes how an oral history project was created for undergraduate students
in Saudi Arabia to help them move beyond the hard science approach supported in the Arabian world to one
that embraces a narrative based methodology. Historically, oral histories – an important pillar of Arabian
society - were used to transfer significant tribal information, customs, traditions and stories from one
generation to the next. Since the discovery of oil, the kingdom has undergone dramatic societal and lifestyle
transformations resulting in the loss of some traditions, namely oral history. Consequently, younger
generations know very little about their Arabian heritage. The fundamental goal for this project was to
improve the students’ comprehension of humanities and social science courses by reconnecting them to their
past using oral history methods.
Keywords: Oral History, Saudi Arabia, Higher Education, Arab Tradition, Teaching Methods
Teaching at a university in the Arab world is unique experience. It provides expatriate educators with
the unique opportunity to be submerged in a rich and dynamic culture that differs in countless ways
from their own. But beyond the charm and intrigue, the experience also offers a host of unanticipated
complexities that can challenge even the most experienced instructor.
It is assumed, and one could even say expected, that any student entering into a university
degree program has achieved the minimal foundational skills to build upon in their quest to fulfill
their degree requirements. The authors discovered that this was often not the case while teaching in
the Sultanate of Oman, China, and more recently at an English medium university in the Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia. In fact, they quickly learned that a large percentage of their students, regardless of
country, lacked the basic skills required to meet the challenges of a mainstream western university
curriculum. It was observed that many students had a limited understanding of the English language
despite the best efforts of their foundational and/or preparatory programs and their instructors. To
complicate this further, it was revealed that the students’ knowledge of Social Studies was
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exceptionally weak. The students were not prepared for an education that included humanities and
social science courses as degree requirements.
Within the Arab world, the hard sciences are highly regarded and sought after.
Mathematics, Natural Sciences and Engineering, in particular, are respected more so than
Psychology, Anthropology, or History (Smith & Abouammoh, 2013). They constitute the majority of
degree programs in universities and colleges whereby students’ foundational knowledge in other
areas tends to be less of a priority hence less developed. This ideology is pervasive in the majority of
institutions of higher learning and has contributed to gaps in knowledge required for students to
move forward in their studies. Students are less interested in the humanities and social science
majors as career options and/or unable to attain a degree in them because very few are offered in the
This was especially the case for the two instructors while teaching at a Saudi Arabian university.
They discovered that courses in their department, Core Humanities & Social Sciences (H & SS), were
especially problematic for the majority of their female students. Courses such as World Civilizations,
World Regional Geography and Leadership & Teamwork, for example, caused unexpected difficulties
for a large percentage of their female pupils. The instructors’ “assumption” that their students had the
basic knowledge and skills to move forward was quickly questioned. They also learned that few of
their female students knew about their own Arabian past outside of their religious and Arabic
language studies. Surprisingly, there was a measurable alienation from local, national and regional
history including familial knowledge.
As educators hired to follow an assigned curriculum, their task became complicated. How can
one be an effective instructor when students do not have the basic skills for their growth and
development? How can one successfully teach humanities and social science courses to students who
do not understand the world outside of their own culture? Lacking the foundational skills, how were
these students ever going to pass these courses? How were they going to become competitive in a
global economy? The instructors had no choice but to make the necessary adjustments and
adaptations to facilitate enhanced learning to those students who were experiencing educational gaps
while maintaining the integrity of the university curriculum and fulfilling their contractual
In the fall of 2014, the instructors embarked on a joint initiative. Drawing from their respective
areas of expertise they blended anthropological theory and methods with those of history. They
developed a new assignment, “The Oral History Project,” to foster enhanced learning through
familiar ideologies and materials amid a less stressful and intimidating environment. The primary
objective was for each student to learn about their familial past and culture to help them bridge their
humanities and social sciences gap. The orientation focused less on memorization and non-critical
thinking to one that promoted self-discovery, personal awareness and local, regional and national
While adhering to the university’s syllabi so as to not circumvent the required Course Learning
Objectives (CLOs), the new project promoted a unique learning strategy based on what was
considered to be an accepted Arabian tradition. Collecting oral histories was meant to increase the
students’ understanding of the Middle East in general and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation
Council (GCC) more specifically while preparing students for the global marketplace. What was not
anticipated was how effective the project would be in helping students improve other skills.
This paper will explore how an oral history project was developed to help students improve
their knowledge of humanities and social science courses. The primary focus is not so much on the
project, but how the initiative contributed in unanticipated ways to an unexpected outcome. It
showcases how the innocent and benign incorporation of an Arabian tradition into three university
elective courses inadvertently facilitated the growth and development of students’ English language
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skills while enhancing their general knowledge of their family’s past. The discussion will begin with a
review of the university, local Saudi Arabian culture, Arabian oral history, and difficulties of teaching
English as a Second Language (ESL) in Saudi Arabia. The paper will then highlight The Oral History
Project followed by a discussion showcasing the unexpected results.
The university is located in an affluent region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The students are
of various ages and, in general, come from families that are financially well off as is evident by their
ability to pay the tuition fees. It is a respected, private institution of higher learning that offers both
bachelor and master’s degree programs taught primarily in English. As is the case in most Saudi
Arabian private and public universities, it is segregated having both male and female campuses
(Jamjoon & Kelly, 2013). The curriculums are virtually identical for both genders with some
differences based on Saudi Arabian rules and regulations. Male instructors teach male students, while
the female student body may have either a male or a female teacher.
Since its inception twelve years ago, the university has followed a Texan model of education
that provides a two-year Preparatory Program and a mandatory Core Curriculum Program as
foundational to all degree majors. Some students enter the university after graduating from Saudi
government high schools. The Saudi Arabian public school system uses Arabic as its medium of
instruction and adheres to a Saudi curriculum. Many of these students have an acceptable command
of the English language and of the hard sciences. A smaller proportion of the students come from
international high schools in the kingdom where the curriculums are based on western ideologies
and are taught primarily by native-English speakers. Then there are those who have studied abroad
most often because their parents work and/or go to university overseas and/or their affluence has
facilitated international travel both inside and outside the GCC. Both instructors observed that
students from private schools within the country or with an exposure to language teaching abroad
had better language skills than graduates from the Saudi public high schools. In general, these
students benefited from these experiences and were better prepared for the transition into higher
The most common method of registration is direct entry into the university’s Preparatory
Program. It focuses on providing foundational knowledge for incoming students to succeed in their
chosen major. It offers instruction in language acquisition, mathematics, and study and computer
skills. After passing, students automatically enter into the Core Curriculum, which consists of two
distinct programs of study - Mathematics & Natural Sciences and Humanities and Social Sciences.
They also begin introductory courses in their major.
All degree programs include a core of academic subjects in the areas of English communication,
mathematics, laboratory science, behavioural science and social studies. They all support defined
competencies as per the Texan model. There are two divisions within the Core Curriculum -
Undergraduate and University. Each one offers an array of courses designed to meet the
requirements of individual degree programs. The University Core Curriculum consists of four courses
in written, oral and professional communication, as well as three courses including Arabic Language,
Islamic Studies and Physical Education. Students are also required to take courses from the
Assessment Capstone Series.
Textbook selection is based on the Texas curriculum. This has generated a host of issues for
both faculty members and their students. Firstly, the textbooks are written in academic English and
were designed for American university students. As Omedo (1993) suggests, they are often not
suitable for second language learners, even if they have a good command of the English language.
They are too sophisticated for the average Saudi Arabian female student resulting in a large
percentage of the student body ignoring assigned readings. By the end of the semester, many
students have not picked up their textbooks or have left them in their original packaging. The cost of
textbooks is automatically included in the students’ tuition fees. Secondly, the textbooks deal with
concepts that are alien to second language English speakers and use examples that are meant for
western audiences. For example, the notion of diverging discourses in History and Geography where
academics have opposing points of views about events and their impact on human development is
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something most of the Saudi students are not accustomed to. It is difficult for the instructors to build
upon baseline theories when the foundation has not been laid and critical thinking skills are
imperative and introductory information is essential. The third issue pertains to the content, which is
often from an American viewpoint. Americentrism focuses exclusively on American ideologies,
history and theories over others. Examples such as abortion, drug and alcohol abuse, and dating do
not support local traditions and customs and are considered controversial in the Islamic world. Arabs
also view questions about the conflict between Palestine and Israel as incendiary. Political and
economic responses can be very different from those of westerners. Geography suffers from the same
complexities that support diversity in opinion and ideologies such as the Big Bang Theory, the origins
of the earth and its Homo sapiens sapiens. Fourthly, the opposite is true whereby regional context is
not included and often omitted from the western textbooks. They lack cultural intelligence. Outside
of Arabic Language and Islamic Studies courses, Arabian examples are only prioritized if the
instructor choses to focus on localized issues.
3. Oral History: An Arabian Tradition
Arabian history is unambiguously diverse and complex. For millennia, the people who called the
Arabian Peninsula home, Arabs, shared many traditions and customs, but differed from region to
region, tribe to tribe, and family to family. Historically they lived a sedentary or nomadic existence
and at times a combination of both. “Sedentary dwellers resided primarily in villages and towns, often
associated with oases, wells or other permanent sources of water, and made their living in
agriculture, craftwork and trade” (Wynbrandt 2010, p. 15). Nomadic populations were primarily
livestock breeders raising sheep, goats and camels. They conducted annual migrations in search of
natural browse and water to sustain their large herds. Some groups practiced a combination of both
with sedentary living and pastoral nomadism as their chosen livelihood strategy.
Today traditional ways are succumbing to the enticement of modernity. In particular, newer
modes of communication are increasingly replacing one-on-one interactions. Technology has become
the main source of information and communication usurping established customs. This is especially
the case where literacy was historically uncommon and the method for transmitting important
information including familial or tribal legacies was oral. But of late, Arabia is abandoning these
practices for the convenience of cell phones and the Internet (Winder, 2014). Texting, emailing,
Twitter, Facebook, and other methods of social media are growing in popularity lifting the veil on
once taboo practices amid guarded societies.
The historical method of communicating important information in the Arab world was by oral
history. In lieu of a written history, oral histories were a mechanism used by complex societies and
smaller social units to pass on significant knowledge from one generation to the next to safeguard
traditions, customs and knowledge deemed worthy of safeguarding. It was a tried and true practice.
Groups, families and individuals focused on the preservation of dates and historical events in their
retelling of stories, songs and even poetry. The transference of cultural nuances was the glue that
bonded families and tribes through shared knowledge and experiences. It remains an important
Arabian tradition to this day, but on a much smaller scale.
It is important to note that many oral history scholars associate folklore with oral history.
Reynolds (2007) suggests that it mirrors oral history in many ways, “It is usually oral, and often a
local, phenomenon, and it is nearly always created and performed in one of the colloquial dialects”
(p. 18). It solidified familial connections and identity over time. “The Arab culture is permeated and
held together in many different ways by its folklore” (Reynolds, 2007, p. 26).
Today oral histories or folklore are not only for tribesmen and women, the illiterate and the
historical. Although they are diminishing in their local usage, they have come to serve as an
important tool in academia for gaining firsthand knowledge while conducting research.
Anthropologists and historians, in particular, have used oral histories for decades as a tool for
investigation and data collection whereby first-person accounts broaden the scope of an inquiry as
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they cast a spotlight on a personal or lived experience providing nuanced understandings of lifeways
and events both past and present. Maynes, Pierce & Laslett (2008) suggest that when “eliciting facts
about people’s lives they get answers that are shaped in terms of the cultural conventions of
storytelling, often reflecting the sharing, telling, and retelling of self-narratives in many settings and
over a lifetime” (p. 72). In this sense, as also noted by Reynolds (2007), oral histories and folklore
provide a personalized accounting of lived experiences:
Folklore is the songs we sing without reference to printed music, the bedtime stories we tell our children
without reading from a book, the family histories or experiences we recount at the dinner table over and
over through the years, the jokes we hear and passion at work….In short, folklore is all of the many
different ways we express who we are as members of a particular group, a family, an ethnic group, a
fraternity, a religious community, and so on, but which we have learned directly from other people
rather than from books, televisions, or movies. One way of conceiving of and defining folklore is to think
of it as the multitude of artistic forms of communication that we learn directly from other people and
then perform and transmit repeatedly over time. (p. 25-26).
The collection of folklores and/or oral histories thereby adds the breadth and depth that is
required for a thorough analysis. They reach beyond the conventions of quantitative methodologies,
but cannot, as highlighted by Alessandro Portelli (2013), “….be reduced to any single meaning….” (p.
The collecting of oral histories has also been used as a teaching strategy. Clary-Lemon &
Williams (2012) stated, “Since the 1950s, oral history has been recognized for its strong teaching
approach” (p. 6). Within ESL, oral history methodologies, according to Montero & Rossi (2012), have
been used for developing language skills in general and writing skills in particular. Olmedo (1993)
argues that oral history approaches help teachers and students in the ESL classroom to see
viewpoints from multiple cultural perspectives. They focus on the collection of personal narratives
that have been proven to be very successful. Maynes, Pierce & Laslett (2008) suggest that, “Personal
narrative analysis produces a different type of knowledge than do many other approaches to social
sciences and history” (p. 126).
4. Research Design
The germination of an assignment that focused on the collection of familial oral histories was an
accidental response to an unanticipated situation and set of circumstances. Both instructors were
struck by how little their students knew about Social Studies and the Arab world. They routinely
discussed these deficiencies with one another contemplating various remedial strategies to bypass the
gaps in the students’ knowledge of Arabian culture, history and genealogy.
This unfamiliarity was surprising in light of what was understood by the anthropologist and
historian about Arabian culture prior to working in Saudi Arabia. According to the authors, they had
assumed that oral history was a method for transferring knowledge from generation to generation
and that it was a well-established Arabian tradition - but this was not the case. The majority of their
students lacked information about their own past. They were not as connected to their ancestors as
witnessed elsewhere in the Sultanate of Oman and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Without a
sound foundation to build upon, the teaching process was impeded and certainly the students’
abilities to achieve their degree requirements were questionable. How then were the instructors
going to overcome this knowledge gap? How could they proceed with so many students lacking
foundational information? How could they achieve their CLOs? Over the course of their first working
semester, the instructors eventually agreed to offer a blanket assignment to students enrolled in three
elective Core courses.
The Oral History Project assignment also allowed for ease of adaptation. It was a comfortable fit
for the objectives of the three Core Undergraduate courses -World Regional Geography, World
Civilization and Leadership & Teamwork. The objective was for each student to collect “local
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knowledge” as conveyed by his or her family members. This would enhance the students’ local,
regional and national knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula and their family’s role in its development
past and present. For the students who came from non-Arabian countries, the exercise focused on
their family’s experiences within their country of origin in addition to their journey to Saudi Arabia,
and their experiences as expatriates in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By virtue of adhering to the
assigned rubric, each student was guaranteed a unique learning experience that would include
inquiries into familial roots.
The course CLOs provided the overarching template for the assignment. For example, in the
case of Geography they helped to expose historical human-environmental interactions and how these
relationships have changed over a continuum. Students in World Civilizations gathered nuanced
information about families in the past. The Leadership & Teamwork course focused on the collection
of familial leadership styles belonging to ancestors, grandparents, as well as mothers and fathers to
understand their impact upon the student’s leadership style. It was assumed that different
generations would highlight transformations from various perspectives showing change over time.
Suggested subtopics for all courses included work and business, former jobs, relationships with the
land, familial movements, education and mobility, family and traditions, life before and after Saudi
Aramco, and women and society.
The assignment consisted of five sequential steps – acquisition, transcription, translation,
reflection and presentation. The steps were designed to foster the growth and development of the
humanities and social science perspectives through key-informant interviews or firsthand accounts.
The students followed the syllabus, the instructor’s directions and the university’s code of conduct.
Respectable approaches were prioritized during all phases of investigation. “Oral history is not just
about studying people; it is also about valuing them, according to Sheftel & Zembryzycki (2013), this
makes our work difficult and emotionally demanding, but it is the only way that we can try to truly
understand people’s lives” (p. 16). Students conducted themselves according to established protocols
while practicing ethical and accepted standards. They had to navigate cultural norms and established
restrictions such as those faced by women in the kingdom.
The first stage or acquisition phase focused on the selection and coordination of qualified
participants for scheduled interviews to collect stories and memories. Each student was responsible
for conducting two to five separate interviews. In this way, there would be multiple perspectives to
draw from when creating an overview of the past. According to Sheftel & Zembryzycki (2013), “Oral
history is grounded in the relationship between the interviewee and interviewer—without both, there
is no oral history. Furthermore, the quality of this relationship, the nature of the interviewee-
interviewer interaction, has a determinative effect on the interview itself” (p. xxi). This perspective
supported focussing on familial narratives not because they would offer superior results for the
students, but because they would provide a more comfortable first-time experience for the novice
interviewers. It was imperative that the selected participants were family members and were older
than the students and were willing to share their stories. This meant that fathers, mothers and
relatives once removed such as aunts and uncles were primary candidates. Grandparents were viewed
as key informants because they could provide reflections on ancestral generations and insight into
historical perspectives. Combined, all would provide a broader range for the investigation.
The students were required to compile a list of interview questions that could be divided into
two subcategories. The first category focused on general information questions that were to be asked
of all interviewees. They were designed to elicit background information such as the participant’s
name, tribe, age, marital status, children, gender, and other case specific questions. The second
category allowed for greater freedom whereby the interviewer was not chained to prescribed
questions that limited the scope of the interview. Students could formulate their questions based on
context specific queries using the interviewer’s knowledge of the situation and the discussion at
hand, course topics and subtopics, and textbook themes. The goal was to allow for flexibility while
maintaining basic topics for inquiry.
It was mandatory for the students to record all of their interviews. This served three purposes: 1.
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to provide evidence that they had completed original work, 2. that they had received approval from
their informant to record the conversation, and 3. they had verbatim responses that could be
transcribed, translated and analyzed at a later date. Students were also instructed to take notes
during their sessions to capture the nuances of the interview process. As Sheftel & Zembryzycki (2013)
suggest, what happens “off the record” in our projects is just as important “because these encounters
help us understand the humanity of interviewers, interviewees, and the process itself” (p. 16).
After the interview phase, the recordings were transcribed either in totality or partially, as per
their instructor’s directions. As first-time folklore researchers, the transcription of a two to five page
document in multiple languages was beyond the scope of the assignment and the students’ abilities.
The university demographic is primarily Saudi Arabian, but there were many expatriate students
whose parents’ worked in the kingdom. During the interviews, some relatives communicated in their
native tongue – Arabic, Urdu, and Hindi. The students had to transcribe these interviews from non-
English recordings to written text. English responses made the transcription task less daunting for
the students. Once all of the interviews had been transcribed and translated, the next phase was for
the student to reflect and analyze their findings and present them in an abbreviated written report.
The students were asked to consider how their family members and their familial ideologies have
influenced how they are navigating their world, how they lead, how they interact with the
environment, and how they use past events to inform their worldviews. Most importantly, the
exercise exposed personal narratives about, for example, in Leadership & Teamwork how family
members worked in the past, contemporary changes, and “local knowledge” including personal
memories, past lifeways, and cultural and physical transformations. The final analysis was presented
as a PowerPoint presentation or a video with an English voice over.
The assignment was meant to accomplish yet another goal. The intention was to introduce the
students to qualitative research methodologies and to show them how they work in situ. One-on-one
interviews based on open-ended questions facilitated this investigative style.
Faced with the realization that hard science courses and quantitative research are preferred in
the Arab world, collecting oral histories offered a unique opportunity to introduce an alternative
source of data collection that reached beyond numbers, formulas, and calculations. The lesser-known
and practiced qualitative research provided a more all-encompassing or holistic research perspective
to tease out the “grey areas” such as memories, intangible evidence, explanations, and personal
interpretations of humanity as very seldom presented in mathematical equations.
At no point did the instructors consider the assignment to be an exercise in English skill
enhancement. It was strictly designed as a social science experiment to engage the students in their
own culture and familial awareness. Developing the students’ English skills was an accidental by-
product that added value to the activity. Interestingly, and most surprisingly, each of the five stages
inadvertently helped to accomplish this goal.
5. Discussion and Findings
Collecting oral histories is an interesting, enlightening and delicate academic line of inquiry. The
benefits of an oral history move beyond the constraints of generalized history books, databases, and
contemporary interpretations. By conducting interviews with people who have firsthand experience
and knowledge, access to lesser-known, personal and family-oriented information is exposed while
providing a broader understanding of culture, history, and historical discourses (Perks & Thomson,
2003; Clary-Lemon & Williams, 2012).
The Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education is aware of the deficiencies associated with teaching
ESL in the kingdom (Al Sheikh, 2015). They are mindful that many of their students entering
university struggle to communicate in English at an acceptable level that facilitates success in an
English medium university. Several studies have provided numerous explanations for this within the
kingdom. Al Nasser (2015) stated that after numerous initiatives and programs established over the
past two decades to improve English learning and the establishment of many private universities and
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schools, the results have not been satisfactory. Research findings suggest that there is a lack of
teacher training, outmoded teaching approaches, textbooks and curricula as some of the main issues
when teaching ESL in the kingdom (Khan 2011; Khan, Khan & Ahmad, 2015; Alrashidi & Phan, 2015).
Mahboob & Elyas (2014) have identified improper teacher training as one of the reasons for this
situation. They suggest that Saudi Arabian English teachers often lack basic English skills and have
not been trained in language teaching methodologies (ibid., 2014). Furthermore, in public schools
English as a compulsory subject starts after grade four whereas private schools generally start
teaching ESL in the first grade (Al Nasser, 2015). Another reason, as suggested by Swain (1988), is that
“content teaching cannot just be used as a surrogate for ESL teaching. It needs certain efforts,
planning, and the modification of material to ensure that content teaching is meeting the standards
and instruments of TESOL teaching” (p. 68). It will not automatically enhance second language
learning. Second language speakers tend to use selective listening to follow the class. “In many cases,
we do not utilize syntax in understanding we often get the message with a combination of
vocabulary, or lexical information plus extra-linguistic information” (ibid., p. 72). This extreme range
of diversity upsets the flow of the classroom and contributes to less prepared students falling even
further behind their classmates.
Another area of weakness pertains to Saudi Arabian students having insufficient classroom time
for the effective production of their language skills. In order for students to produce language in its
full functional way, we have to give the students the opportunity to be more engaged than in the
limited time and opportunities a classroom provides (Swain, 1988). In the typical content class, Swain
with student talk and writing being as restricted as it is, students do not have to work at getting their
meaning across accurately, coherently and appropriately. They are motivated to create their intended
meaning precisely which involves grammatical accuracy, coherent discourse, and appropriate register.
This also applies to exposure outside of the classroom. Real life situations provide firsthand
opportunities to develop a newly acquired language. Cultural restraints may prohibit Saudi students,
especially females, from engaging in conversations with non-Saudis. This could inadvertently limit
their desire to seek out other learning sources such as English books, movies or even videos.
Frustration and a lack of confidence may ensue impeding ESL skill building. To compensate for these
gaps, public and private universities in the kingdom developed introductory ESL programs to support
their degree programs (Al-Dali, Fnais, & Newbould, 2013).
Collecting empirical evidence was the primary goal for the Oral History assignment. Oral life
histories and interviews, according to Maynes, Pierce & Laslett (2008), are the predominant forms of
personal narrative evidence employed in social science research and among historians who use
personal narrative as evidence” (p. 72). As they noted, “For some researchers, the goal of personal
narrative analysis has simply been to work from an empirical base that is more inclusive” (ibid., p. 1).
This perspective, albeit time consuming, was demonstrated in practice by the students. The virtues of
a more inclusive approach reached beyond the expediency of surveys and questionnaires to achieve a
more intimate analysis of the research participant and their contribution to the investigation.
In pursing the multiple personal narratives, the students focused on all five phases of the
assignment - acquisition, transliteration, translation, reflection, and presentation. The first phase
pertained to the actual acquisition process. “As alert oral historians and ethnographers have noted,
oral forms of self-narrative follow their own particular logics, conventions, and rhythms that, once
noticed, can serve as a guide to interpretation” (Maynes, Pierce, & Laslett, p. 72). This included
selecting participants, scheduling interviews, providing foundational information, and recording the
sessions. Each student provided the necessary instructions so that their participants knew what to do,
translated their questions and answers into native languages, and listened to the participant’s
responses. The interviewer did not have a choice regarding the choice of interview language. They
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proceeded in the key-informant’s language and dialect of choice. Some of the interview sessions
lasted for more than an hour with considerable attention being paid to asking the appropriate
questions and ensuring that the answers were understood, and that they were recorded in their
After recording the personal narratives, the next stage was either transcription or translation. If
English was the chosen language, then transcription occurred next because there would have been no
need for translation. If other languages were used, translation was prioritized either before or in
conjunction with the actual transcription.
During the transcription phase, precision and accuracy were emphasized. Students had to listen
intently to their participant’s responses so as to not miss any words or misconstrue the original
meaning or context when transcribing from audio recordings into written text. This was
painstakingly difficult, as it required starting, stopping and even rewinding the recordings to ensure
that verbatim transcriptions occurred. Without this attention to detail, there was a high probability
that the context of the participant’s original responses would be lost or misrepresented. Punctuation,
sentence structure, and grammar were highly regarded during this phase.
In some cases, the students used other methods for transcribing their results. Oral history
interviews of today do not need to be transcribed manually, but rather by using voice recognition
software (Schaffer & Snyder, 2015). The use of technology limited the students’ ESL experience. The
choice was theirs and the results were indicative of their decision.
The translation phase is often the most difficult and laborious stage of the oral history process,
especially when English is the student’s second language. In most cases, translation was necessary
because the interviewee did not speak English. Shifting from native languages to English is not an
easy process and requires one to be focused and knowledgeable in both languages. In the case of
interviews conducted in Arabic, Urdu and Hindi, every non-English word would have been listened
to and an English version was provided. Depending upon the students’ level, this could be an
extremely complex and painful process. Less-developed speakers would have resorted to a dictionary
more frequently than those who spoke English with greater ease. The translation of the responses,
ideologies, and historical experiences accentuated the students’ focus on the clarification of the
answers, original context, and historical implications.
Reflection was an important aspect of the assignment because it required critical thinking skills
and personal contemplation. Students had to focus on how family members’ stories resonated with
their personal narrative. Language and culture are inextricably connected. As Reynolds (2007) posits
in the case of the Arabic language, “No single element of Arab identity is more important than the
Arabic language: It is, quite simply, the glue that holds Arab culture together” (p. 18). The same can
be said for all languages and of course those used by the family members of non-Arabic speaking
students. Within language are clues about the respondent’s identity and their worldviews. As stated
by Reynolds (2007), “Much of the folklore an individual experiences in his or her daily life is found
not in specific artistic fashionings (stories, songs, paintings, perfumes, etc.), but in the customs,
traditions and beliefs of their community” (p. 182). The juxtaposition of historic and contemporary
cultural mainstays slowly unravelled during the interviews casting light on significant changes,
modifications and eradications for the family and the society as a whole. Deconstructing these
differences helped the students explain how the exercise impacted them personally, their role in
responding to the analyses, and how their reflections supported the objectives of the project and their
The final aspect of the assignment was the presentation of the student’s work at the end of the
semester. Each student was required to provide a written overview of their recordings, highlighting
what they deemed to be of greatest importance. This included the collating of the various elements
into an orderly manner and then presenting the critical aspects to their fellow students. They had two
options for delivery – to create a five to ten-minute video with a voice over or to showcase their
research in a PowerPoint presentation. Videos were easily created using software available to the
students. PowerPoint presentations are now commonplace for the students. In both regards, the
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students relied on their cultural intelligence and discretion when deciding what and what not to
include. Most of the students refrained from including photographs, past or present, of any female
relative due to the cultural taboo associated with sharing these images publicly.
This project achieved far more than the instructors’ initial expectations. The outcomes were
four-fold – one expected and three unanticipated. The primary goal for The Oral History Project was
for the students to bridge the gap in their humanities and social science knowledge. By virtue of their
participation, this outcome was successfully achieved. This simple exercise provided the students
with insight into their family’s journey while supporting an historical and cultural accounting of the
past. They conducted qualitative research methods and executed humanities and social science
The second and more uplifting result was how the project resonated with the students on a
personal level. Many of the young women reported how little they knew about their family prior to
this exercise. They claimed to be delighted at the opportunity to engage in these types of discussions
with their family members and to learn about their history, their ancestors, and their tribes. Many
indicated that they did not understand how dramatically their country, city and family have changed
over time. This outcome supports the work of Alessandro Portelli (2013) who stated that, “The way I
went into those homes defined how I walked out of them. I feel that unless one comes out of an
interview changed from the way he entered it, one has been wasting time” (p. 284).
The next unexpected outcome related to how the family members responded. The students
revealed that their relatives were extremely eager to participate and to share their stories with them.
It was with pride and admiration that they educated their young family member. Grandparents in
particular responded with great enthusiasm highlighting major changes from their youth to the lives
they now live. Elderly family members remembered the hard times, the times long before Saudi
Aramco. This finding supported the works of Kouritzin (2010) and Royles (2016) who stated that
many of the published oral history projects have had a lasting impact on the communities where they
were conducted and on the students who were involved.
Unbeknownst to the instructors was how their new assignment supported students producing
language for real audiences and a specific purpose. Enhanced English language acquisition was an
unforeseen outcome that was never articulated by either educator. The advantage of oral history
approaches for ESL learners, according to Kourizin (2010), is that the students can produce their own
In many TESOL classes the learning of content and the learning of English are the program goals and
are supposed to go hand in hand. By collecting stories from family members or people from their own
community, students can relate to the material they collected while creating narratives about the
exploration of their own culture and history. (ibid.).
By simply revisiting traditional Arabian methods of communication, the students inadvertently
developed their English listening, reading, and writing skills. During each phase they had to practice
these skills to better understand the data and to communicate their findings. All were put to the test
and their enhancement was an obvious outcome due to practice.
The last unanticipated result was how it affected the instructors. According to Alessandro
Good oral history has a purpose, even a mission. It aims to make a mark in the world. It does not end
with the turning off of the recorder, with the archiving of the document, or with the writing of the
book...”. (p. 284).
After collecting the oral histories for over two years, the authors have amassed a large
assemblage of material that they would like to showcase as an example of their students’
extraordinary achievements. They anticipate placing the information into a wider historical, cultural,
and international context to help break down racial barriers, misconceptions, and prejudices about
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Saudi Arabia and Saudi women more specifically. Their project could also be offered as a model for
other Saudi Arabian high schools, Core curriculums, and university preparatory programs to create
new strategies for learning English. This would automatically establish the humanities and social
sciences as essential knowledge for future generations.
This paper investigated an Oral History project started at a private university in the Kingdom of
Saudi Arabia. The impetus came from the authors’ escalating awareness that their students had very
little understanding of the humanities and social sciences, in particular their respective courses, and
their own family’s history. Personal narratives were sought through the collection of oral histories
from Arabia, India, and Pakistan. The collection of information was based on each student’s familial
past focusing specifically on their interviewee’s memories, stories, and shared knowledge about their
natal family, tribe, former lifeways, and traditions. The students analyzed their findings and
presented them highlighting their personal reflections.
There were unexpected outcomes to this exercise. It was anticipated that the students would
gain a greater understanding of their family, country, and the Arabian world in addition to
developing their knowledge of qualitative research methods, but what was not expected was how this
exercise would impact their lives and those of their participants. Most surprisingly was how the
project contributed to the development of the students’ English language skills. During every stage,
English was utilized, and the repetition resulted in the advancement of the students’ skills thereby
enhancing their ability to successfully pursue their degree requirements.
It was an individual project that when amassed will form a larger Saudi Arabian representation.
The collation of oral histories will fundamentally contribute to a greater discourse that is attempting
to break down established boundaries and stereotypes while promoting the intrinsic value and need
for the humanities and social sciences in the Arabian world.
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