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Sally McBeth

April 06, 2016

Capturing Life Stories

Class: ANT 315 — Life History and Culture

Taught by: Sally McBeth, Ph.D., Anthropology (pictured above with life stories written
by her students)

Course Description: This class centers on the ethnographic field technique or methodology known as the life history. If ethnographies are descriptions of a culture, then the life history is a “person-centered” ethnography. This method focuses on a rigorous yet compassionate effort to portray the lives of ordinary individuals in specific cultures and contexts.

Class Notes

It’s a Monday night on campus, and as many students, faculty and staff head home for the evening, 17 students assemble in Candelaria Hall for McBeth’s Life History and Culture class. Each student focuses on writing a book about someone’s life story.

Brenda Schuch is taking McBeth’s class a second time. The first time, she wrote a book about her father, Joe D. Andrade; this time, she’s writing her mother’s life story.

Her father grew up on a family farm near Peckham, between LaSalle and Platteville in central Weld County, and he began working the farm as a child, along with his nine brothers and sisters. “I have a photo of my dad when he was 12 years old, out working the potato fields, and he was holding a 50-pound bag of potatoes on his shoulders.

“I had long talks with my father, getting to know him better, getting closer to him and learning about his life,” Schuch says. Her father died a little more than a year ago. “When I’m really missing him, I can read my book. It’s like spending time with him again.”

In this class, there are no exams or lectures. Students talk about how to interview their subjects and get their subject involved in telling their life story.

“It slows us down in the fast world of today,” McBeth says. “Away from the world governed by media, you sit together and talk for hours.”

When students finish interviews, they transcribe the recordings and write the story, typically about 100 pages. In the process, they learn firsthand how anthropologists research and capture stories and how those stories reflect culture and deepen understanding.

In a closet near her office, McBeth has hundreds of books written by her students. Most of them are 8½-by-11 sheets of paper in a spiral binder. Some are hundreds of pages, and many include photos of the loved ones. All are packed cover-to-cover with memories and lessons learned not only by the story subjects, but by the students as well.

–Mike Peters


Interested in telling someone’s life story? One of the difficult parts is crafting questions subjects can answer not only about the facts of their lives, but also how events, cultures and lessons affected them.

McBeth offers the following 10 interview questions to spark stories:

  1. If you could do one thing over in your life, what would it be?
  2. Looking back on your life, what do you regret?
  3. What is your secret to a happy life?
  4. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
  5. What’s a secret ambition of yours?
  6. What makes you sad?
  7. If you had only one day to live, how would you live it?
  8. What does love mean to you?
  9. What is right with the world?
  10. If your life was a motion picture, what would the title be?

Want to learn more? The texts McBeth has her students read for this class are:

  • The Life Story Interview by Robert Atkinson
  • Essie’s Story (1998) by Esther Burnett Horne (Shoshone) and Sally McBeth, Ph.D.
  • Persepolis (2003) by Mariane Satrapie