Thoughts on an Assignment for a College World War II Class

Over the past year I have been developing and refining a project for a World War II class that I teach. The assignment is a five-page paper in which students interview someone alive during the Second World War (civilian or military) and they then develop a narrative paper incorporating quotes and outside research.

Part of the reason I developed this assignment likely reflects my work over the years in journalism, which is sometimes described as "the first draft of history." Since most of the students have little experience in the process of interviewing, I provide them with a series of questions to help them plan for the interview:

• What were you doing during the war (military service, civilian job, school)?
• (For civilians) What were some of the restrictions and shortages you faced? In what ways did you contribute to the war effort?
• (For veterans) Where were you stationed? Did you serve in a combat role? How did combat affect you?
• What do you most want people to know about World War II?
• What would you have changed about your war experience if you could?
• Did you have doubts that your side (Axis, Allies) would succeed in winning the war?
• What mistakes do you think the military made (if any) during World War II?
• Do you think the war could have been prevented?
• What changed and/or what was different after the war?
• Do you remember any wartime propaganda? Do you recall any propaganda that could be considered racist or demeaning to ethnic groups?
• What do you think is the biggest misconception about the Second World War?
• Do you remember any anti-war protesters? If so, how were they treated, and what were your opinions about them?
• Do you think the Second World War was worth the human costs?
• What important questions did I forget to ask you? Are there other details you’d like to share?

I created this assignment because it is fairly difficult to plagiarize or cheat on an interview paper. If a student faked having an interview subject, the student would still have to think about what life would have been like during the war. Moreover, if a student tried to mine the myriad World War II interviews available online, the software would quickly detect any plagiarism.

Yet there is a much more compelling reason that this assignment works well, and that is that the students overwhelmingly like the process. Every semester I get a lot of positive feedback such as "I thought this assignment would be boring, but I really enjoyed talking with Person X." Mind you, this sort of comment typically originates with average or below average students, the sort of people who are less inclined to like much of anything about college writing.

Then there are the moments when the paper becomes something much larger. Students have written afterward to tell me how much the process of talking with an elderly neighbor or relative brought them much closer together, and how the insights of these folks helped them make connections to history that they never thought were possible. One student recently offered the following observations about the experience of interviewing an elderly relative:
My son is 6, and his grandfather is 83, so there is a chance he could lose his grandfather while he is still young. I thought the tapes of the interview would make a great gift for my boy later in life. I ended this interview and then let him tell the story of his service in Korea and how he met his late wife, which I think is priceless for my son since his grandmother died 14 years before he was born.
I was blown away reading this statement: I never expected that the assignment could have such far-reaching effects. If you teach the history of World War II (or for that matter, any aspect of contemporary history), consider the possibilities inherent in historical interviews. There are, of course, some bureaucratic hurdles to navigate regarding human subjects research, but the end result is a project that will likely leave lasting impressions with your students.

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