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.

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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.


Women and Technology

When choosing a topic for my oral history project I wanted to ensure that it had a link to the ideological origins of British Oral History. For example, I want to understand and uncover the stories of those who have traditionally been overlooked by history. Therefore, I have decided that I want to look at women who were pioneers in working with technology in the 20th century. In a profession that has traditionally been perceived as ‘masculine’, I think it will be interesting to hear the stories of women who undertook these roles. As someone who has always been heavily invested in gendered history I think it is important to look to project like this. Interviewing these women will allow us to comprehend changing gender roles during this era within a professional setting, but on a personal level.

I decided to pursue this particular idea as I was inspired by a recent visit to the Science Museum. The switchboard, which is displayed in the new ‘Information Age’ exhibition, was a brilliant example of how oral history can enhance and bring life and meaning to public history in museums. The switchboard, which originated from Enfield, was purchased by the museum as a display of communication technology from the 20th century. However, it did not showcase any history of the object itself. Ultimately, it was the women who worked with the switchboard and their stories that gave the piece of equipment historical significance.

The Science Museum recognised that simply displaying a historical object was not enough and reached out to the general public in hope that they could speak to people who understood the profession. They were lucky enough to be able to contact and interview nine women who worked as operators in telephone exchanges. Their stories of their working experience and the implications that it had on their lives during the 1950s and 1960s not only made for a much more interesting piece of public history, but it also opened up a new area of historical study that I had not considered previously.

Therefore, I hope to be able to conduct an interview for my project with a similar significance. Interviewing women who were involved in technological developments in Britain will be significant as I aim to discover just how far women were in the ‘background’ of the profession. In this sense I want to attempt to combat stereotypes about women and technological developments in the 20th century. However, in looking at their working lives I want to discover more about how it affected their private lives. In particular, how their work was received in terms of the perceived gender roles of the time.


Hopes, Concerns, and an Interview partner

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Mrs. Hamilton was eleven years old when the Second World War broke out. Through an interview with her I am hoping to find out more not only more about her lived experiences, but more about the experiences of women and girls during the Second World War.

But this is not only the information I hope to learn from the interview. I hope to learn a new level of listening in order to better conduct the interview. I also hope to learn how to appropriately time questions so I don’t rush the interview.

I found it relatively easily to find a person to interview, so my main concerns come from the interview process itself. I’m very nervous because for reasons ranging from the fact that Mrs. Hamilton speaks very quietly and I want to make sure that the recorder will pick up her voice properly to more major concerns where I don’t want this to feel like an interrogation. In other words I’m concerned with finding a balance and landing in an interview space, rather than a visit or an interrogation.

 


Hopes and Concerns: Inspiring Young Women, Girl Guiding in the 1950s

Though out of sync with blog posts from my course mates on this topic, my hopes and concerns are nonetheless sizeable. Conducting an oral history interview for posterity is, after all, a daunting and exciting prospect. My area of interest, the influence of gender roles on activities undertaken by girl guiding groups in the mid-twentieth century, is virtually untrodden by historians. This both concerns me, as I have little specific research to go on, and motivates me, to really uncover a previously untold story.

Despite the fact that I have known who I am going to interview since early February, I am nervous for a number of reasons. I am concerned about creating a rapport with my interviewee, because whilst this isn’t usually a problem, I recently interviewed someone with whom I was unable to establish rapport with, this resulted in a bored sounded interviewee, although perhaps that is his natural demeanour. The interviews I conducted for my radio documentary have no doubt been helpful preparation for this one, but on those occasions I knew precisely what content I could hope to obtain, having read the interviewees’ work. In this instance I am stepping into the unknown. For this reason I am concerned that my line of questioning will not do the interviewee justice, and will not contribute to the historical record as much as it should.

I am worried about navigating myself, and the interviewee, through the interview so that we both leave feeling satisfied, and indeed happy about the experience. In this vein, I am concerned that I will assume too much knowledge, and forget to ask the interviewee about how they felt in a certain situation. Furthermore, my primary concern is forgetting to ask follow up questions, or asking leading questions, as I have a tendency to do in my normal life.

I wish to be as prepared as possible so I will ensure I have an extensive interview plan, whether daydreaming-copyor not I feel I need to actively use it in the interview. And something that could be considered a hope and a concern is my desire to stay engaged throughout, when I have conducted interviews over the years there have been times when my thoughts have wandered, occasionally to calamitous effect, and these, were much shorter interviews. So, I am concerned that I will daydream, and I hope that I will not.

I hope to give back to the girl guiding community from what I uncover. I am also hoping that it will enrich my own experience of guiding today. I trust that I will gain insight into the experience of leading youth groups in the mid-twentieth century, and how gender roles are perceived to have been influential in activities at the time. Lastly, I want to learn more about the way memory works, and reflect on the challenges of conducting and using oral history.


What was it like when…? Preserving lived experiences

The summer before I graduated with my undergraduate degree. I distinctly remember walking around a dig site during our field school excavation and thinking. “I wish we could just ask them what this structure was for—it’d be so interesting to know for certain.” It was the ‘for certain’ that got me. Later in a medieval history class I had the same questions: “If only I could ask them what it was really like to live in the fourteenth century.” Obviously, without a time machine such questions are now impossible to ask.

I’ve found myself (and heard others) asking similar questions about periods in time much closer to the present. My younger brother once asked me “I wonder what it was like to be a fighter pilot during the Second World War” in response to my question about a project he was working on. These are exactly the type of questions that oral history can help us answer. It can help us to preserve others’ lived experiences and extend their voices into the future. It can provide a window to help us understand what life was really like for people as historic events were taking place and how those events impacted their lives personally.

It is in this vein of preservation as well as my own interest in gender roles that I have selected the topic for my interview: women’s roles and how they shifted during and after the Second World War. I would like to interview a woman who lived through the war. I intend to pursue the interview as her life story while paying particular attention to how the war impacted her ideas about gender roles as well as shifts in those roles over time.


Oral History Project- Inspiring young women: Guiding in the 1950s

I am looking to interview someone that was a Girl Guide during the 1950s and 1960s. I want to address the extent to which activities were gendered, and to what extent they diverted from gender norms. It will look at whether these activities were aimed at preparing young girls to become good wives and mothers. Hopefully I will find someone who has stayed in Guiding in some capacity up to the present day, to allow we to address changes over time. I will ask about attitudes towards Guiding, and potentially issues of class, community, religion and personal freedom. This will be a life interview which focusses on the impact of a specific period. It will feed into historiography about childhood and perceptions of Gender, particularly conceptions of the stereotypical 1950s woman.