The Interviews

My interviewee is a woman who received a degree from Bedford College in Chemistry in the early 1950s. Before the first interview my two main concerns were something going wrong with the recorder and the experience feeling forced with lots of silences. Instead I found the woman to be forthcoming and the questions to develop naturally from what she said. Although I had prepared a few pages of questions as a security blanket I found that I didn’t need to look at them at all during the interview.

I feel much more anxious going into the second interview as now the onus is on me to interrogate the narrative she gave and draw out more insights. Given the ample ground covered in the first interview there are plenty of opportunities to do this. Some of the topics we discussed clearly leave room for more questions but she also mentioned many difficult times in her life related to depression, serious family illnesses and rifts. I’m concerned about how to address some of these issues in a sensitive way and also question whether some things should merely be left as casual asides by her in the first interview which do not need probing. Considering the purpose of this project how much do events in her later ‘post-science’ life need to be questioned? After having spent some time with this nice woman and talked about her present life and grandchildren over coffee and cake it feels really difficult to probe some of the more unpleasant aspects of her personal life even if they affected her professional one.

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.

Before the Interview: “Women in Science”

For my upcoming oral history project I will be interviewing a “Woman in Science” for the archives of Royal Holloway and Bedford New College. The woman I have been assigned studied Zoology and Physiology from 1952-5. She went on to get her PhD and is still a lecturer, researcher, and author. Obviously, this will make for fascinating content. I found her publications online and her manuals are among the top regarded in their field; “Indispensable” as one reviewer put it. Unfortunately I cannot name the manual or the reviewer for reasons of privacy to the project but trust me, she is highly praised for her work. I am very much looking forward to meeting her properly (not just over the phone) and hearing what she has to say.

That being said, I do have some reservations about the interview itself. It will be my first proper oral history interview and I am a quiet person and struggle with social situations generally, and it will be my responsibility to prompt the conversation and keep the narrator at ease. Hopefully it does not become forced or awkward to discuss topics I know little to nothing about, such as being alive in the 1950’s or studying science. Or being a woman studying science in the 1950’s. Or being a woman currently in her late 70’s or early 80’s and still writing and publishing textbooks about science.

I think as far as a project about Women in Science is concerned, I have struck gold. She took her education seriously and is still taking her work seriously. The downside of her amazing career and work ethic is that she is busy proofing her latest book and only has time to meet for one session, not the desired two. It is not ideal but I have to be able to adapt to this and think about what my goals are in the interview and stick to those for the sake of time. Honestly, I am more interested in her time as a student and professional than I am about her being a wife and/or mother (if applicable.) That is not to say I am opposed to her talking about her personal life, especially if she really wants to, but for a project about women in science, given the possible restricted time, I want to stick to learning about what the experience at Bedford College was like 60 years ago and how she ended up in such a remarkable career. I don’t know if it is bias to see it this way or just planning and anticipating that there won’t be time to cover everything. Either way, this will very much be a learning experience for me and, hopefully, a useful resource to someone else in the future as well.

The First Interview

As I begin to prepare for my first interview with a former Bedford College student, I do feel a bit nervous. I know little about the subjects that the interviewee went to school for and I am worried this might have some effect upon the interview. But I also know this is a major learning opportunity. I will have the chance to hear about her experiences and record them so others will also have the chance to hear about them as well. I recognize that this is an exciting opportunity.

I hope this interview provides insight into what it was like to be a woman in science at a time there were far fewer females who chose a career path in science. It will be interesting to hear about why the interviewee chose to go into to science and her experiences both in school and after graduating. I myself always had very little interest in science while in school, so I think it will be interesting to speak with someone who chose to go into the field. I want to know why she chose science and what motivated her. Since Bedford College has now merged with Royal Holloway, I hope the interview will help provide historical information valuable to preserving the history of Bedford College as it was before the merger. I am curious to see how the experience of university life has changed over time.

My concerns over the project are mainly due to the fact that I know little about the subjects the interviewee studied. However, I feel my anxiety is misplaced since it is not actually necessary for me to know all about science to conduct the interview. I was nervous at first to call to set up the interview, but after speaking with the interviewee, I feel much better. She was very friendly and I look forward to meeting her. I am glad I will have this opportunity and to gain experience with oral history.

The Interview Beckons

When I first heard that we might be working on a project involving interviewing female science graduates from Royal Holloway and Bedford College I must admit I was a little apprehensive. I was worried that I might not have a sufficiently scientific background myself to do the interview justice. What if the person I was allocated was going to talk to me about some extremely complicated piece of post-doctoral chemistry? How would I respond? Would I make the right noises? How would I even know what was going on? I could foresee despondency and panic. Alternatively, thinking about experiences with some of my own older relatives, there were alternative scenarios in which the interviewee was either extremely deaf resulting in a great deal of shouting and confusion, or else prone to repeat the same story several times in one sitting interspersed with the statement “I’m eighty-four you know” at regular intervals.

As it turns out, I was worrying over nothing. When I spoke to my interviewee over the phone to arrange our interview dates she was very friendly, joking that she was glad I called when I did as she was working in the garden and needed an excuse to come in doors to make a cup of tea. She gave the impression that she is very much looking forward to taking part in the project and I must say I’m looking forward to interviewing her.

My interviewee is a Physics graduate from Bedford College (so I must be careful to not refer to the project as if it is solely about Royal Holloway) and this is interesting in itself as there will be lots to ask her about life at Bedford and around Regent’s Park in the 1950s. Born in the 1930s, I’m hoping to find out about her memories of life as a child in wartime Britain and if that was one of the things that drew her towards science as a career. After University she worked as a secondary school teacher and it will be interesting to perhaps explore the many changes she would have seen in post-war education, especially as her career spanned the rise and fall of the grammar schools. I also know that she was involved in local politics after retiring from teaching and maintains an interest in the arts, so I’m looking forward to hearing about that part of her story too.

All of this is great, but now I have some more worries. Will two 90 minute sessions be enough? Will my batteries hold out? Will we go off on an interesting tangent and not talk about Bedford College enough? At least with two interviews we have a bit of flexibility to allow for problems like these. My other worry, is striking the balance between not speaking too much myself (because it’s not a normal two-way conversation) and making sure that she knows I’m interested and engaged in what she’s saying.

It will be a good thing to record my interviewee’s memories, not just for our college archives but for her own family. Over the years I heard a lot of stories and anecdotes from my older relatives, but rarely wrote any down and certainly never sound recorded any because I foolishly kidded myself that they would be around forever. Now they’re gone and I wish I’d have had the foresight to carry out interviews like this on my own parents.

interview with the past

As I am preparing to face the lady on my first oral history assignment I cannot help but think that that will be a challenge for me. On the phone she sounds self-assured and quite outspoken. She is Eastern-European and from what I have gathered she was a teacher in her native country but did not like the job and moved on to work in food industry. Her previous occupation was economist, however now she works for a private company as a cleaner.

My first concern is that during the interview as time goes on and the trust is being built up I might feel tempted to reminiscent with my interviewee on the past. If that happens and I let the conversation to flow by itself, than perhaps it would lose a momentum. Actually, if the fire alarm goes off and we have to flee the premises the same thing would happen- a broken flow of the interview will be difficult to restore. To avoid such sticky situations I will plan the questions extensively.

I have observed is that the lady seem to be proactive, “hands on” type. She is definitely someone who does not like to be told what to do, her conversations with me were brisk and pretty much matter of fact. She is articulate, strong-opinionated and slightly impatient. So before the interview takes place I will have to outline the purpose of it and point to its huge value for the project to encourage her to work on it.  Most likely she will not let me have 90 minutes of her precious time even in the name of posterity! So I might try and get “Plan B” (a shorter one) ready. I will have to navigate in order to cover the most of the intended periods and topics. I may not be able to cover them all, as I may find something particularly interesting and get stuck there for longer. It is not about time management, or is it?

Generation Z: An exercise in telling the truth

New-Millennials. Naughties Babies. Generation Z. Who are the people born in the twenty-first century?

My oral history project idea takes place in 2040. I’m interested in interviewing 100 30-40 year olds about their life story so far. What’s been their experience of growing up in the new millennium? How has social media, a platform for shaping your own life story on a daily basis, influenced their ability to reflect on their life honestly?

Generation Z have grown-up at a time where online image is key. Teenage girls are crying in school nurses’ offices about their Facebook profile picture and 10 year olds are fighting over Instagram. Smart phones are nondescript. Put your hand in your pocket and take out a communication device which will snap a photo of your lunch, roll out your emails instantaneously and let you call your best friend all at the same time. Never switch it off. You need to know just what your friends are posting online at 1am, and then it’s your alarm at 6.55am. And then 7. And then 7.05… That hazy light might pollute the darkness of your room for hours afterwards, infiltrating your quality of sleep, but it was worth it to know what X wrote on Y’s new profile picture, wasn’t it?

That’s 2016. But how will these youngsters feel in their 30s and 40s? Oral history provides an accessible platform for expressing your life honestly, reflecting on past experiences. After a youth spent shaping the presentation of your life to others, creating an online ‘persona’ instead of just being you, how will Generation Z fare when given the opportunity to tell the real truth in an interview with a person they’ve only met once or twice?

I’m not really sure at this point. The beauty of oral history is that it is a chance to give voice to those who have been part of an experience, without needing to have some arbitrary existing record as ‘the great and the good’ connected to an aspect of history which has been politically chosen to be remembered for some notion or other. With oral history, power goes back to the people at the core of history as it happens. Everyday is history and we each create and hold our own history. Oral history is ideal for capturing living history. For a generation who have grown up talking about themselves online, it will be fascinating to find out what they have to say in person.