Simon C. Partner (Duke University)


From 17:00
to 18:30
From 17:00
to 18:30


This course will focus on the stories of individuals and their experiences of the great historical events of the 20th century. Students will read from a wide variety of oral histories, memoirs, biographies and primary source materials such as diaries and letters, with an emphasis on the lives of relatively unknown figures such as farmers, merchants and housewives. The goal will be to both understand and connect imaginatively with the life experiences of the people who lived history rather than those who made it.

In addition to the stories themselves, students will also engage in the critical analysis of life histories: how does a historian construct the narrative of a life? What gives a life meaning? What are the pitfalls of reconstructed experience – e.g. selective memory, ideological bias, and narrative over-simplification? And how do we get around those pitfalls to construct historically responsible life histories? Materials will draw on available English-language (or translated) resources from around the world, and students will engage in the comparative analysis of life experiences in different societies, under different political systems, and at different stages of economic development.

Goals of the class:

  • Develop skills in critical analysis of theories of narrative
  • Develop an understanding of various approaches to historical research and representation
  • Develop intercultural awareness through exchange with students of different backgrounds
  • Gain exposure to diverse experiences of postwar European, American and Asian history
  • Learn and understand differences between primary and secondary source materials
  • Develop skills in documentary source research
  • Develop skills in oral history research
  • Develop skills in comparative historiography
  • Develop skills in historical writing and story-telling
  • Develop presentation skills


Teaching method

There will be weekly assigned readings (about 30 pages per week), which students are expected to read and discuss.

During the course of the semester, each student will prepare a research project that includes investigation of a life-story based on either oral history interviews or documentary sources. The project will include certain graded milestones, including:

  • Preparation of historical reading list, based on sources available through the internet or through students’ home university libraries.
  • Workshop readings: Students will have opportunities to share their work in progress with their peers, during a series of reading workshops.
  • Final Presentations: Students will present their work to their peers, and may have further opportunities to present to a general audience at Duke’s Story Lab.
  • Final project: A “chapter” from your subject’s life. This should incorporate as background material a description of your research methods and a broad outline of your subject’s life story. The body of your project should narrate a significant period or event in your subject’s life, with historical contextualization in relation to the wider history of an era and place in which your subject lived. Students may submit their final project as essay, website, podcast, documentary, or any other medium they have agreed with the instructor. FINAL PROJECT DEADLINE IS MAY 30 AT 5:00PM.


Grades will be based on the following:

  • Final project: 50% of grade
  • Presentations and readings in class: 30% of grade
  • Class participation: 20% of grade. Your participation grade will assess your reading of the weekly assigned materials. The only way I know you have read these materials is if you participate actively in discussion. If you are not a participator, you can alternatively provide me with written summaries of each week’s reading(s).



Week 1: Week of February 26

Class 1


Discussion and exercises

Class 2

Reading: Shopes, “What is Oral History?” (16 pages)

Week 2: Week of March 5

Class 3

Reading: Alice Evitt Interview (63 pages, widely spaced)

Students must submit project topics

Class 4

Workshop: Developing historical context

Week 3: Week of March 12

Class 5

Reading: Lepore, “Historians who Love Too Much” (16 pages)

Class 6

Workshop: Telling stories

Week 4: Week of March 19

Class 7

Reading: Extract from Partner, Toshié (part of Chapter 2, p.80-102, 22 pages)

Reading: Szijarto, “Four Arguments for Microhistory” (4 pages)

Class 8

Workshop: Storytelling exercises

Week 5: Week of March 26

Class 9

Extract from Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale (p.72-93, 21 pages)

Reading: Extract from Spence The Question of Hu (p.44-69, 25 pages)

Class 10

Workshop: Storytelling exercises

Week 6: Week of April 2


Week 7: Week of April 9

Class 11

Reading: Extract from Neihardt, Black Elk Speaks (p.146-176, 30 pages)

Reading: Saikia, “Dr. Syed Nurjahan”, extract from Women, War, and the Making of Bangladesh (p.167-176, 10 pages)

Class 12

Workshop: Storytelling exercises

Week 8: Week of April 16

Class 13

Reading: Extract from Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha (p.277-287, 11 pages); Extract from Iwasaki, Geisha, A Life (p.205-209, 5 pages); Extract from Autobiography of a Geisha

Reading: Extract from Partner and Johnson, Bull City Survivor (Chapter 3, p.95-119, 24 pages)

Class 14

Workshop: Student readings

Week 9: Week of April 23

Class 15

Reading, Extract from De Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes (p.2-38 with image pages, 36 pages)

Reading: “To Brave a Storm: A year in the life of Ann Pointer, 1934-1935”

Class 16

Workshop: Student readings

Week 10: Week of April 30

Class 17

Reading: Extract from Rosengarten, All God’s Dangers (Preface, p.xiii-xxv, and p.97-118, 33 pages)

Reading: “Miami Beach and the Traveling Salesman”

Class 18

Workshop: Student readings

Week 11: Week of May 7

Class 19

Reading: Extract from Wild Swans (p.62-93, 32 pages)

Reading: “The Remarkable Life of William E. Leuchtenburg

Class 20

Workshop: Student readings

Week 12: Week of May 14

Class 21:

Reading: “The Voice of a Tenant: Ned Cobb and the History of Alabama Sharecropping”

Reading: “Worlds Collide: Global and Local Effects on the 20th Century Female Experience”

Class 22

Workshop: Student readings

Week 13: Week of May 21

Class 23

Student Presentations

Class 24

Student Presentations

Week 14: Week of May 28

Exam week



All assigned readings will be on the course web platform (Moodle).



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