Interviewing the former students of Bedford College and Royal Holloway is an invaluable opportunity to understanding the past. Speaking to those whom were studying throughout the 1960s, in particular, will be incredibly illuminating. Whilst the purpose of this project is to attain life stories of our former students, to explore their reasons for attending university and the opportunities they had, as well as their careers after graduating, there is an opportunity to focus on our own areas of interest. During the 1960s, student activism became a common occurrence in universities, but to what extent was this the reality at Bedford and Royal Holloway College?
I am very interested in exploring student led activism, and as two pioneering women’s colleges surely there was plenty to debate about. From internal college affairs, such as fees, classes, accommodation, and perhaps most significantly the enrolment of men into the colleges for the first time. It will be interesting to gauge whether there was any resistance or opposition against the decision.
We are more familiar with the existing narratives of political protest, surrounding gender, sexuality, race, war, and nuclear weapons, but did these pivotal and often divisive issues enter discussions and social life at Bedford and Royal Holloway? Were there any societies or clubs that encouraged debate? Was there any student led protests or demonstrations?
It is likely that some if not most those whom we interview were not political activists or even acutely involved in the debates, but that it itself is revealing. If students were not active in protests and debate were they at least aware of the political climate and the magnitude of the time in which they were studying?
Through conducting oral history interviews with Royal Holloway and Bedford College alumni I hope to uncover the religious life of the colleges when the institutions became co-educational in 1965. During a time fondly remembered as, ‘The Swinging Sixties,’ I want to investigate the uses of the chapel and the chaplain service. I am aware when Royal Holloway College was founded, ‘attending chapel’ was mandatory, written into the students’ schedules. However, I am unsure as to the degree to which the students were engaged in religious activities in the period where higher education was becoming more secularised.
Furthermore, I would like to investigate how the Christian Union operated, having its origins in 1899 according to the archives. I want to explore how active and evangelical the group were on campus and in the surrounding areas. The politics of the Christian Union may be a troublesome theme to pick up in interviews. There may be sensitivity over the running of the union on campus and conflict over teaching and theological stances.
Quite reasonably, those who have volunteered their services for the project may not have been involved in faith groups on campus. If this occurs, my theme will maybe have to be broadened to explore spirituality at the colleges and why religion may not have formed such a part of student life. I am interested to explore relationships between parents and students in regards to religious practice and the extent to which these may have changed upon attending university.
Faith matters can always be contentious and informed by present context. I will have to consider how individuals’ belief systems may have changed since their time at college and frame my questions with these issues in mind.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.