Reflecting upon the two interviews I have performed for this topic in oral history, I can safely say that they were how I expected a first oral history interview to go. Definitely not a disaster, but in no way exceptionally wonderful on a professional note either. This is the task of the essay now set, to reflect on the interview’s qualities, and also how this interview relates to the subject addressed primarily with these women, that being that they are graduates in Science from Royal Holloway.
The first thing I’ll have to start off by saying is that I instantly recognised that throughout the two interviews, I was not presenting myself as a professional oral historian might. Not to say that I behaved unprofessionally in the slightest – I was however instantly taken with my interviewees relaxed attitude, and this played back to the fear I had beforehand on how to appear to the interviewee. She immediately put me at ease however, which meant that being situated in such a relaxed environment led to my interviewing style being perhaps less formal than it should have been for a first-time interview. I didn’t want to appear standoff-ish to her or distant in any way if she tried to engage with me around the interview questions in a friendly manner, and so I found myself responding to her informal conversation whilst recording. This meant that at one point during the interview she asked me personal questions about myself, to which I readily responded. My reasoning behind this was that I was a stranger coming into her home and asking such questions of her, so that even though it may have been unorthodox to the oral history interview I was happy to respond to her and answer any question she presented me with to the best of my abilities.
While the quality of the interview is necessary to reflect upon, the interview content itself is as important, especially when considering it shall now be part of the Women in Science collection that is in the Royal Holloway Archives. It was extremely interesting to find that the interview actually took a different path to the one that I expected; I had originally thought I could talk to her about her career in the sciences and the difficulty she faced in these jobs as a woman. Instead I learnt that she had left all connection to science completely after her graduation, and took on the role of a house wife. Any specific questions relating to the subject of science therefore became difficult to pursue, and so there was a lack in specific opinions connected to it. It did mean however that I could instead explore the areas in connection to her domestic life rather than her professional one, and how this was a consequence of the times and her position as a woman. However, the interview definitely lacked a feel of a ‘Woman in Science’, which is absolutely not to say that what she told me during the interview was anything but valid and interesting. Therefore the reflexive essay written about these interviews will have a focus on the topic of Science, but primarily on the differing relation to that topic that the interviewee had from original conceptions.
Initially when arranging the interview with a science graduate from Royal Holloway, I was excited and eager for it to occur. Now however a few days before our first meeting, I admit that it appears to be a daunting prospect. My main concern is on whether or not I can provide an atmosphere that puts the interviewee in as comfortable position as possible to talk to a complete stranger about her life. I don’t imagine that my questions would put her in a position which she feels unable to be relaxed around me, but my main concern is that I will not appear as professional as I possibly can as this is my first ever oral history interview. A slight disadvantage I feel is that the only interviewing I have ever done has been in a radio programme context, which is far more journalistic and far less engaging with the person interviewed. It has given me a slight feeling of reassurance that I have previous experience, which is actually untrue given their different contexts. I feel it is therefore important to forget about that given situation and try and focus more on being attentive, open and competent with my interviewee. I am after all being allowed into her home and therefore life for two occasions, to ask her questions that can be seen as very personal. It isn’t something I feel I am taking lightly, especially as my first time doing so.
Hopefully this interview will be engaging for the both of us and the questions I have prepared will be extensive enough to give each parties scope to work with. Despite being (I believe) a relatively confident and friendly person, I have apparently a dislike for awkward silences, and so do my best to fill them, something which I hope I will not endeavour to do during any point in the interview while I try to provide questions or she answers. I also hope to be able to think on my feet and respond to the information she provides with questions that I have been unable to think of before the interview, as there will undoubtedly be topics which are discussed that I have not thought of or know much on.
Finally, as selfish as it may sound, I hope the interview provides me with a relatively easy subject to work with. A big concern of mine is that no matter my own preparation, if my interviewee is unwilling to discuss certain things or engage with the interview in ways that I hope, there is little I can do about it given my amateur status as an oral history interviewer. Having said that, as mentioned above, I will do my best to endeavour to be a competent enough interviewer to show her that it is worth giving her time to answer my questions. Hopefully in this interview I shall get to know someone totally new to me practically from scratch, and learn a little their life, whether it be judged as exciting, extraordinary or normal by whomever afterwards.
I write this from the perspective of someone whose interview sessions have already passed, and as someone who has done previous oral histories with others. Having done several interviews prior, I was anxious at the prospect of considering an “academic” setting for completing the task at hand. I wanted to get it “right,” but at the same time, allow the relationship to develop smoothly and naturally. My subject, from what I surmised, was confident in herself and her own story, but meeting her proved something different.
Perhaps most importantly, my experience interviewing for this project proved that interviewers and interviewees are often not too different. Ultimately, we each approach the project with expectations and worries; hopes and anxieties. In my case, my subject genuinely felt her life to be uninteresting, despite my having misread her attitude of
having “not been the best student,” as a whimsical self-depricating tactic to lighten the mood. From her perspective, there are, and have been, infinitely more interesting people worth interviewing. Yet, as the interview began, and I approached her with a series of questions (she likewise had her own questions and answers scripted, so we were in this together), I came to the profound realisation that a question is absolutely useless without first understanding the backbone of the story.
My subject spoke about her life – her relationship with her mother, and about having lost her mother at an early age. Without conducting myself like a psychiatrist, I tried very hard to uncover if her mother’s death at an early age attributed to her study of medicine. She, however, never considered this. I was surprised at how shy she could be, but relieved at her feeling comfortable enough to speak openly to me. I came to the conclusion that she trusted me. Prior to our time together, however, I had never anticipated something like this to happen. For me, oral histories had always been about people with preconceived notions of themselves, and stories that attributed to their lives and experiences. It had never occurred to me that my time spent with her would actually be helping her to develop a new story about herself.
As we sat over a cup of tea, I realised that she was not one much for talking about herself. I have the impression that my interviewee prefers speaking about others – or perhaps some of this is attributed to being the product of a particular generation. Occasionally, I probed to uncover a veil of modesty, but found only that one did not exist. What I uncovered from my oral history sessions with this person was that her view of herself was a plain one, and that she had likely never thought much about her own life in a cerebral sense. She spoke more about her children and grandchildren – she prefers to live in the present. For me, I think we were able to uncover this truth about her, not because I bombarded her with questions (as I’ve had a tendency to do in the past), or expect any particular story from her – instead, I considered the story her own form of performance, with her own intonation, pauses, and the ambiance of the comfort of her home. Allowing her to be comfortable, and reflect on her life as she saw fit, I uncovered the most honest and truthful story that existed for my interviewee – point with which she agrees.
In preparation for the interview, I corresponded with the interviewee’s daughter who put me in touch with the interviewee. I knew very little about Cyprus, so much so that I was unaware of any conflict.
As I knew the interviewee’s daughter and had met her father on a few occasions, I was not apprehensive about discussing his life with him. He has always appeared to me to be a very candid and welcoming person, and I wondered if this attitude extended to all areas of his life. I did not anticipate that he would withhold information or deflect questions as doing so would seem to clash with his personality. For this reason, I was interested in how the interview would proceed.
I was also curious about Cyprus and it’s history, and anticipated that I would likely learn a great deal about the country as the interviewee had a background in history. I read a bit of supplementary information on Cyprus, but I decided I did not want to go into the interview knowing too much.
Finally, although I had a personal connection with the interview subject, I felt I did not know the interviwee too well. I looked forward to our discussion.
Thinking about the upcoming interviews, I have several worries and fears on what could happen. A major concern, in particular, is my relationship with the interviewee. The woman I am interviewing works in the American Embassy and is a relative of a person in my class. Even though I have only met my interviewee once, I have slight fears that because of the connection I have with a member of her family, she will be reluctant to give me aspects of her life in fear of disclosing too much. This fear makes me worry that my interview will not be as good as it could have been if I had interviewed someone whom I had never met before.
Due to my interviewee’s occupation, she has several experiences with being interviewed; this poses another worry for me as I fear that she will already know how to answer specific questions and as a result will give generic and thought-out answers. When thinking about both interviews, I am cautious as to whether I will be able to fill the 45-90 minute time slot. As I have not interviewed someone about their personal life before, I am not sure how I will be able to talk for so long without seeming rude or intrusive, or whether she would even want to speak for such an extended amount of time.
It has also come to my attention that due to my interviewee’s occupation in government, she will not be allowed to answer certain questions about her job. As the project is about women and their careers, this poses a problem if a certain aspect of her job cannot be answered and my interview is left without vital information because of this.
In regards to researching my person to create appropriate questions, I have been very lucky in the respect that the member of her family that I know has been very helpful in giving me information about her relatives life, her birthplace, degree, etc. Due to this helpfulness, I was able to create several questions that that are relevant to her background. Nevertheless, I am also hoping that the generic questions about schooling, relatives, and ambitions will be enough to start a detailed discussion about her life and career.
I had many fears about my first interview with a Bedford College Zoology graduate because this was my first Oral History interview and I wasn’t sure what to expect from my interviewee as, despite contact via email and phone calls, I knew very little about her and her character.
My previous experience with the recorder had also worried me as, during one interview for my radio project, I found that the machine had not been recording halfway through my interview. Fortunately, my radio project interviewee was a former lecturer of mine and so understanding and luckily we had plenty of time to re-do the unrecorded questions and covered the lost material but since then I have been fearful of it happening again although my lecturer did say ‘Well now that it’s happened once, you’ll never let it happen again!’ I was particularly fearful of this or any problems with my recorder occurring during my Oral History interview because, unlike with radio, it should not follow an almost scripted narration so could not just be ‘redone’ without having changed the original ‘recording’. I was also concerned about the recorder’s battery life and searching for a plug near to where she would like to sit for the interview as her comfort was paramount but so was the position of the recorder in order to pick up our conversation.
Another concern was that I was stepping into a stranger’s home. This was not a concern with regards to my well-being (although she is rather sprightly) but instead an issue of location and social conduct. I had her address but was not sure of exactly where it was and how to reach her and Google was of little use but there was also the problem of how to act when I reached the front door. I had been invited to her home so should I bring something and if so, what? Shoes on or off? I can also be quite a clumsy person so that’s always the greatest fear.
I was worried about asking questions that might offend or upset her, asking about a person’s family can be a touchy subject, she may have recently lost a loved one or she may have wanted but never been able to have children. To have asked something along those grounds might have not only upset her but soured our relationship for the rest of the interview process. She had also had a great deal of trouble hearing me on the phone which worried me with regards to the interview because I wasn’t sure of the extent of her hearing problems as, although she was answering the majority of my questions, I know that that is not always an accurate indicator because my Grandfather has terrible hearing and appears to be speaking in reply to me until he begins on a completely different topic which is when I start to realise that he’s just brilliant at guessing what I’m asking him!
For my imminent second interview, the fears I had when I originally began this course have resurfaced. I had been so concerned with meeting my interviewee and the workings of the recorder that I had completely forgotten that my fumbling questions were also being recorded for an archive and couldn’t be ‘fixed in edit’. This is my last chance to find out about her experiences as a woman in science so I need to make sure I get it right and ask the questions that need answering for the sake of History
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.