Thoughts before my first interview

Looking towards doing my first oral history interview, I feel a little nervous but I am also genuinely interested in hearing my interviewee’s experience working  as a female mathematics lecturer. I am also intrigued to find out more about how my interviewee’s social background has influenced her education and career choice. I have some general concerns about conducting my first interview: firstly, I am most worried about the interviewee only providing short answers to my questions rather than elaborating on them. I am also worried about my whether the interviewee will like my interview style. I hope that that there will not be too many awkward silences and that the interview will flow well. I am also wary of probing into areas that are potentially upsetting or uncomfortable for the interviewee to talk about, such as childhood.

My interviewee has taught mathematics at Royal Holloway for over forty years so she is clearly a very experienced lecturer. She still works at the university part time so it is possible that she may be reluctant to reflect on her experience at Royal Holloway in a negative light. As she has been at the university for so long, it will be interesting to hear how the college has changed over time, as well as changing attitudes towards female lecturers, especially in the field of mathematics. The interview will take place in the interviewee’s office which is beneficial because the setting may compliment her memories of working at Royal Holloway. My only concern with this is that the interviewee has mentioned that students may pop into her office at some point to discuss revision plans and she appears to be on a tight schedule.

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.


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.

Beyond the Water Tower: preparing for an interview

IMG_3102I’m planning to interview a former groundsman at Horton Mental Hospital, formerly Horton Asylum, in Epsom. The former admin block, which is now expensive housing, is pictured above. This will be a second interview. In the first we talked about his childhood – he’s a local boy born and bred – and his time working at the hospital as a young man in the late 1970s. He talked about his job and his recollections of working alongside patients in the gardens. His is an interesting perspective; his job meant he was literally and metaphorically ‘outside’ the hospital. Although he got to know some of the patients, much remained mysterious – their comings and goings, the inner workings of the hospital and even the conditions from which they suffered. He was part of a team charged with making sure the hospital grounds looked attractive; an important consideration for the Horton’s management from the time the hospital opened in 1902. His memories of this part of his working life were generally positive, and although he recalled that some of patients suffered greatly from their illnesses, he gave the impression he thought the hospital was a reasonably good environment for them.

After he left Horton, my interviewee lived and worked in the Middle East for some years, where he married and became a father. He touched on what it was like to return and live in Epsom with his wife and daughter after the hospitals had closed, and I would like to explore the layers of his experiences of the hospital – as a child growing up in a town where it was a significant presence, as a worker there, and as someone returning in middle age and reflecting on the meaning of those experiences both at the time and now.

I would also like to explore his relationship to the physical place in the second interview. In particular, I would like to talk about the Horton water tower (on the left of the photo, behind the admin block). Water towers were an iconic feature of Victorian and Edwardian asylums; their ‘brooding, majestic’ presence was evoked by then Minister of Health Enoch Powell in a 1961 speech advocating the closure of the country’s mental hospitals. This listed, but rather industrial, building survived the demolition of most of the hospital’s infrastructure but was pulled down in 2012 after a long-running campaign by local people who felt it was unsightly and out of place – and possibly dangerous – on the modern housing estate that had been built around it. I must declare an interest here; I have always had a slightly romantic view of two historical Epsoms geographically separated by the town centre. Until 2012, you could glimpse both from the end of my road; on one side the grandstand at Epsom Downs symbolising posh, equestrian Epsom and on the other (and much closer to me) the water tower at Horton, associated with pauper lunatics and the ethnically diverse working class area that developed around the hospital cluster. When the water tower came down I felt it was part of an ongoing process of the town turning its back on an uncomfortable history. My interviewee, to my surprise, saw it completely differently. He was clear that although he thinks the hospitals should be remembered, to him the tower was a symbol of oppression and he’s glad it came down. I was taken aback partly because his own memories of life at the hospital did not seem particularly negative. On reflection, I thought about the research he told me he had done into the history of the hospitals and I wondered if he was taking a wider view of the historical experiences of patients. I am interested in the relationship between  this dual perspective of his own personal experiences and the historical view he has formed from his reading.

My main concern about the interview is that we will not be able to pick up the rapport I felt we established in the first interview, and that therefore he will be unwilling to explore his memories in more depth and consider their meaning for him. Perhaps he will feel that he has already said what he wanted to say – in which case I feel a bit anxious that it will be down to me to prompt and encourage his recollections. Conversely, he knows we share an interest in the history of the hospitals, and if things go well I am aware that I must make sure that the focus of the interview is his memories rather than his research.

Hopes, Concerns, and an Interview partner

blog #2 photo

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.


The Key of Listening

For my interview I expect many things. I expect for a new viewpoint that I never could have imagined. While I may have some idea what my interviewee has done in the past it will take until their sharing for me to fully understand their story. This part of the interview will undoubtably be the most exciting. Like many people, I intend to have full knowledge of the interviewee and their interest, it is in the pitfalls of my research where the exciting and interesting points will likely fall. These stories will be the unique and entertaining experiences each of us hold within us waiting to be shared. In these stories will I learn things about my interviewee, the topic, and myself I had no intention of learning, and this will be exciting.

I also expect that I will be challenged. My preconceptions prior to the interview will be tested and likely changed. I will also be challenged to provide strong talking points presented in a clear, easy to comprehend manner. One of my main challenges in everyday speaking can be my wording and clear use of speech. This will only be expanded upon during the interview and it will be up to myself to create an atmosphere of comfort and understanding and not pose questions that are poorly worded.

In a similar manner, I expect that I will learn a new level of listening. I will be forced to do many things at a time: checking recording levels, thinking of my next question or topic, and mainly, listening to the stories of the interviewee. This overload of mental stimulation will create a whirlwind of activity in addition to my earlier posed concerns. I intend on conquering this through a process of deep breaths, selected starting topics for fallback if necessary, and most importantly by focusing on the interviewee. While this project is intended to prepare myself with Oral History skills, it is just importantly to get the story of my interviewee into the public and archived. I must remember that they are the one with the interesting stories and my job is to gather these stories. By realizing this, I will allow myself freedom to ask another “fallback” starting topic to recollect my thoughts and begin a new focus of the interview. I do not fully anticipate this, but in case it happens, I feel prepared to manage a situation like this.