In this project I am interested in exploring the experience of the Bedford College alumni during the change from an all-female to co-educational university in 1965. During her childhood, my mum’s school went from being all-girls to co-educational when she was there, and she has often mentioned it as an important moment in her school life. Because of this, I feel the women who were already students at the college in 1965 may have some interesting (through being similar or contrasting) memories of this time in their studies. In particular, I would hope to find out about the social lives and attitudes of the students at the time. Would the female and male students socialise outside of their classes, and if so how meaningful were the relationships formed? Did any of the interviewees have strong opinions – positive or negative – on the change, and if so do they still hold them? Was the change even significant to the students?
By looking at this, I hope to find out about attitudes to gender roles in the mid-1960s, and the interaction between memories of this time and ideas about gender held by the alumni now. I think it would be interesting (if possible) to try and find out about the attitudes of the students’ parents to the change, and to look at any potential comparison between contemporary accounts (i.e. diaries/letters), and the memories recalled by the alumni now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Reading about and discussing group oral history interviews last class got me to start thinking about alternative ways of conducting oral history interviews than the traditional one-on-one method. Although the group interviews had several downsides, including individuals being silenced by the rest of the group or topics being rapidly changed, they offered unique insights into how individual memory can be influenced, suppressed, and even altered by the power of collective memory. This alternative approach made me interested in how memories can be transferred across generations, from those actually experiencing events to their descendants merely retaining the accounts which they are told.
Both of my grandmothers have long had an interest in retaining and uncovering the family history. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, and stories that they remember being told by older members of the family, whether it was their parents or other extended family members. When I try to recall some of these stories, many of them are vague and seem very distant from myself. Others, I can almost quote word for word because they were told to me many times. Some of them I found more interesting than others, and will occasionally share them in conversation when topics make me recall them. However, I am stuck thinking about the accuracy of these memories. After all, we know that our own memories are fallible, and that they are constantly changing throughout the course of our lives. How much more would these alterations to memory build up if they are also transferred between multiple people? It is like trying to play the telephone game.
This research would not be an effective way of gaining information about a particular event, however, like the group interviews, it has an alternative benefit. Looking at how memories can be transferred between multiple people can help oral historians, psychologists, and sociologists to better understand memory retention and transmission levels of people who are not primary owners of the memory. This can help to analyze how contributing factors, such as changing public perception and personal interests, influence the levels of retention. With the telephone game, the purpose is to see if, or to what extent, meaning can be transferred from the original individual to the last individual through multiple participating bodies. This would be interesting to see if the core meaning of memories can be effectively transferred, despite the fact that subsidiary details may be altered or tweaked by memory over time or the desire of the teller to increase the stories interest value for the listener.
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 or 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.