Women in Science: Preparing for Interviews

As a Royal Holloway and Bedford New College alumni and someone who has also worked for the College after graduating from an undergraduate programme, I was very excited at the prospect of connecting with alumni from an earlier generation. The history of the College is of immense personal interest so to be able to contribute something to the College’s archives feels like a real honour. As such, I’m very keen to do it well.

I was initially provided with a copy of my interviewee’s application to study at university, as well as her academic transcript. I was interested to see that Bedford College was her third choice of university, whilst Oxford and Cambridge women’s colleges proceeded it, but she was not offered a place at either. This immediately brought questions to my mind: did my interviewee feel happy with her place at Bedford College? Has she felt the effects of missing out on those top institutions in her career? Why did she choose women-only institutions?

I contacted my interviewee by email initially and asked whether she was still happy to participate in the project. I didn’t want to intrude with a phone-call so early on, in case it made her feel obliged to talk to me. But luckily she answered my email right away and asked me to give her a call that evening. I live about an hour away from her, and she advised me to take the train rather than drive as the traffic is a nightmare on the way over. She then offered to pick me up from the station as it is a hilly walk up to her house. We spent about twenty minutes on the phone and she asked me a few questions about myself and my time at Royal Holloway. Although the project isn’t about me and oral history interviews aren’t a two way process in that respect, I did give her a bit of information about my studies and career so far. I think this helped to reassure her actually and I really wanted to do that considering she was inviting me, a stranger, into her home to talk to her about her life.

I had a few days between our telephone conversation and actual meeting to be able to prepare questions. I was really excited to meet my interviewee and frequently found my mind wandering to questions I could ask, so the planning stage was very easy! I kept a notebook in my bag so I could jot my thoughts down as they came to me. I was nervous about the recorder though and it was harder to plan around that. When using a recording devise for another of my MA projects, I found it just stopped recording one of my interviews mid-way through and I couldn’t discover why. I was nervous of this happening again, since I am using the exact same device. I kept checking it every day to make sure it was able to record anything – an attempt to reassure myself that I wouldn’t suffer a technology-induced embarrassment in front of my interviewee, a woman whose career, and indeed life, was at the forefront of technological advances.

The Interview

The day of the interview came around and I caught the train, feeling nervous and also excited to meet this amazing woman. I read through my questions on the train (and checked the recording device one last time!). We met at the station and conversation flowed between us naturally. My interviewee is certainly an interesting woman.

The difficulty was, however, that she didn’t like talking when the recorder was on. Her answers were quite short and I was conscious of hoping my questions didn’t sound too leading. She also tended to look to me for reassurance when making answers, in case it wasn’t the information I was looking for. Whilst she was very honest with her answers and I don’t feel I influenced their content, I think she was trying to please me with the style of response. I thought I had plenty of questions, but I found they only just took up 45 minutes – the shortest time my interview should be. Once the recorder was off, my interviewee made me a coffee and then she really started to open up. Once the invasive recorder was back in my bag, she told me some really fascinating stories about her family life and I could see how this must have shaped her academic life. It was like speaking with a different person. I should have pulled the recorder back out, but I didn’t want to put her off again. Instead, I made a mental note of the stories and I plan to ask her about them in my second interview.

This has helped me to plan questions for this next interview, and I have listened back over my recording to provide further inspiration for the second interview. She spoke a lot about her experience of sports clubs in College life and I’d like to know more about that social aspect of studying at university in the 1950s, as well as how her family’s background influenced her interest in science. The main difficulty is trying to find a time we are both free. I work full-time, whilst my interviewee has a very active life but I am really hoping to meet her again soon.

This has been a fantastic project to be a part of and it’s been of personal and academic benefit to meet a woman who has led such an interesting life, especially someone who is a fellow alumnus.

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.

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.

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.


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 and Concerns: An Irish migrant in London

As we head into the next stage of the Oral History course, we have been looking at some of the challenges that oral historians (and interviewees) may face in interviews. My biggest hope for my own interview is that I can gain an insight into the experience of migration abroad and of life in London from the 60’s onwards. I want to learn about how the political troubles and IRA terror campaign may have affected life here and their interaction with people around them. I also hope to learn about the experience of long-term emigration on family relationships and self-identity. I do have concerns that the political situation might not have affected the person’s everyday life as much as I have imagined. Considering this possibility in advance has helped to alleviate my worries: I hope that I can let the person tell their story, allowing for significant topics or aspects of life here that I might have not thought about to come to the fore.

My other biggest concern relates to questioning. Will I ask the right questions? I worry that I might not phrase them in the best way, closing off particular avenues that might have been very insightful. Lastly, I want to enable an atmosphere and create a rapport that allows us both to really enjoy the process. I hope that I will be able to get over any concerns or nerves and allow the interview to flow easily, picking up on cues and areas of interest that the interviewee would like to speak further about, rather than sticking rigidly to my own set of pre-designed questions.

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.