Women in Science: Before the Interview

I face the problem of going into the interview without having much, if any, information on my interviewee. Whereas many of the other participants are alumni of Royal Holloway or Bedford College, my interviewee was did not attend either school, but is a current Mathematics professor at the university. Aside from that, I was unable to attain a CV as her copy of it had become misplaced. On the other hand, this divergence from other accounts can prove to be quite useful, or at the very least interesting. It will be comparison between university experiences for women. She will certainly have carried her experiences of her former university to Royal Holloway and will have a unique comparative view.

From brief communication back and forth, it seems that she will be willing to divulge and discuss more personal information, which will be better for seeing a fuller picture of her life narrative. However, this could potentially foreshadow her desire to appease me, as the interviewer, by trying to tell me the information that she believes I want to hear.

Distance and travel are not a problem as I am in halls of residence and we will be conducting the interview in her office on campus. The site for the interview was easily established, and she was very accommodating and understanding about the need for a quiet space.

A personal challenge as an interviewer is to non-verbally express my understanding and convey to my interviewee that I am following along with what they are saying. Another is to be comfortable with silences, to encourage the interviewee to reflect and share more. I am also anxious that I may come across a very emotional memory or a situation where the interviewee shuts down, and being able to respond ethically to the situation.


Thoughts Before the ‘Women in Science’ Interview

Within the next two weeks I will have completed my interviews for the Women in Science Oral History Project. Due to the fact that this is my first oral history project and that the history which I present will be vital to the archives at Royal Holloway, I have had to put a lot of thought into the processes leading up to the interviews.

Before contacting my assigned alumni I had to make sure I had enough background knowledge on her life and her education. From the information in her student files I discovered that my subject graduated from Royal Holloway in 1947 and went on to pursue further study at many prestigious institutions before landing a job in the medical research field. Therefore, she is clearly a very well educated and elderly woman and I will need to take both of these factors into account when conducting the interview

My assigned alumni had also prepared some short notes within the files that I was sent. Within these she expressed her concern over the content of the interviews. She specifically requested that the interview should be conducted under her maiden name and should primarily focus on her working life and education at Royal Holloway, not her private life. The subject’s privacy and wishes are of upmost importance within this process; therefore I will be complying with her requests. I hope to be able to gather interesting and relevant information while adhering to my subject’s wishes.

Speaking to the subject over the phone prior to the interviews was a great way for us to get acquainted with each other. I believe that our 20 minute conversation that included introductions, further explanation of the project and the arrangement of interview dates helped to put us both at ease about the upcoming interviews. She was even kind enough to send me very detailed instructions for the public transport I need to find her house. I am looking forward to meeting my subject for the Women in Science project. I believe that her long and seemingly very interesting life will make a vital oral history for the often-overlooked story of women in science.


Between the Interviews

Before the first interview with a Bedford College science alumnus, I was anxious about the quality and quantity of my questions – would there be enough? Would they relate to her life at all? I had pretty much no idea what her life story was – had she continued with science after Bedford? Was she married? I even asked a friend to pretend to be a 70-year-old lady to try and work out if the questions would work! (Bizarrely, most of his answers were accurate to my interviewee’s life!)

Heading into the second interview, the nerves are back. I want to improve on the errors I made last time: asking some questions which were in hindsight leading, missing out some meta-information from the beginning. But I’ve already asked all the ‘easy’ questions: we covered early life, college, and career extensively in the last interview. What I now need to go more in depth about her scientific work, and the traumatic experiences we somewhat skated over last time. I need to ask about gender in science without imposing a narrative of discrimination on a lady who might not have felt that way – as somewhat indicated by previous answers. For these subjects, I’m on unfamiliar turf – we covered the more solid terrain of college food and career trajectory in the first interview. But I’m a bit stumped for more questions; we both ended the last interview questioning what more there is to say. Hopefully I can recapture the rapport we developed in the last session, and allow her to look further into her memories of her life.

It feels slightly odd capturing a life history for an archive but not for my own historical project. While we’ve been given a particular brief, it feels like a bit of a disadvantage to not have a personal agenda I’m searching for. There are no questions I have to ask for use in a project, only to ensure the best and most useful oral history interview possible. I want to cover all eventualities, to assist the college, future researchers, and of course, the subject herself.

 


Oral History in Museums

For my first essay I plan to look at the usage of Oral History in museums. My interest in this topic comes from the many ways of displaying Oral History in a museum and the impact this may have on the listener. Do you present Oral History as just audio coming from audio stations setup around the museum? Do you compile a video to go along with the auditory portion? Or do you include subtitles or transcriptions to provide the listener the information? Each of these presentations have benefits and drawbacks and as a presenter you must choose the one that will present the interview in the correct sense. You must be wary of how each of these presentation methods may change the way a listener will receive the message given. These are the major impacts I wish to explore. I hope that through my further exploration of these topics I will further understand my knowledge of the impact of displaying Oral History will have on a museum visitor.


Business History and Oral History

The challenges and opportunities involved in using business history and oral history will be my focus for essay 1. My content will include the historical relationship between the two areas as well as the way in which business history uses oral history to tell a companies story or the stories of individuals that worked in a particular institution. Many businesses today have seen the need to inform people about their historical past and create a personal connection between the business, employees and customers.

Although this subject area was not what my presentation was based upon, after hearing the presentation given several weeks back and seeing all of the ways business history and oral history overlap, I feel it will be a very interesting and broad topic that I can make my own.


The Role of Oral History in Business History

The use of oral history in firms and business companies can be perceived as a rather boring and perhaps not so useful one – that was my opinion anyway before I started working on my presentation. However, after starting doing some research and reading a couple of articles on the topic it became obvious that oral history played an important role in the industry. Our society is practically ruled by big business owners and ambitious entrepreneurs who fuel and expand our economy yet until the mid twentieth century very little was told about their role and the impact those businesses had on society as a whole, including those considered as the ‘marginalized’.

What can be learned then? Well, a majority of things. On the one hand oral history enlightens us on the role of entrepreneurs of course, not just their success but also the difficulties which shaped their careers; whilst on the other, we get to hear the voices of those affected either positively or negatively by the growing and constantly changing impact of businesses.

I will divide this essay quite simply, first look at the changes gradually brought by the creation of oral histories in the field, and then analyse the various opportunities and challenges involved in the process. We are all aware that oral history as a whole is a combination of both; the identification of sources, the selection of the interviewee, the relationship built between both interviewer and interviewee, and so on, are elements which will determine the success of failure of an interview present in all historical fields. Yet there is no doubt that oral history uncovers the multiplicity of experience, and is a challenge in itself to the claim that there can be a single true universal story.

In the field of accounting, written works such as Plant-closing Decisions and the Market Value of the Firm, by David W. Blackwell, M. Wayne Marr, and Michael F. Spivey have looked at the closing of plants in the light of their impact on stock market figures, and much less on their impact on displaced workers. The bringing in of oral history has allowed us to understand the effect this had on individual workers negatively affected by unemployment for example. It can also enlighten us on what mistakes there are to learn and what can thus be avoided in the future, interviewed employees can also useful when recruiting other employees and so on. With regards to the entrepreneurs themselves, as Ronald K. Mitchell points out, oral history ‘demystifies’ the common norms which constitute their expertise, we are able to explore a different side of their careers, how did their really become successful entrepreneurs? What constituted their choices? How long did it take them?

Yet we should remain aware that this can also imply that in certain cases entrepreneurs may not be keen on revealing certain mistakes, or negative figures of their businesses. Some interview data may also be regarded as strictly supplementary to core business documents and subjected to little evident analysis. As well as opportunities, challenges are equally important to identify in order to make the best use of oral histories, especially in the field of business which is an extensively competitive and difficult arena to become part of, not just as an employee but also as an interviewer.