‘I’ve heard this one before’ Oral History and Humour

Humour pervades almost all of our social interactions. We employ it in different ways, which are appropriate to different audiences. From breaking the ice at a party to discussing traumatic events from our past, we accommodate our humour to different circumstances. But how do we accommodate our humour in an interview setting? Relatively little has been written on the use of humour in oral history. Unsurprisingly, for my oral history project, this is an issue I would like to redress.


There is not a complete vacuum in terms of the writing on humour in oral history. The folklorist Elliott Oring discussed how he used humour in interviews to create a ‘spirit of play’ and elicit greater information from his subjects. More recently, Neal R. Norrick has attempted to open the discussion of humour in oral history. By taking oral histories from American retirees he isolated humorous passages, and analysed them from his perspective as a linguist. Norrick makes some very important contributions, but for my oral history project I would like to take a different trajectory.


Firstly, instead of taking generic oral histories and analysing their use of humour, I would like to ask interviewees to discuss, and be reflexive about their use of humour when discussing the past. Most likely, this would mean that people with an expertise in comedy, such as stand-up comedians, would be ideal participants for such a study. However, I am still hopeful that this approach will be appropriate for interviewee’s who do not have a specific background in comedy.


Secondly, I am keen to investigate the frequently used argument that humour is used to negate the reality of a memory. By going beyond this use of humour, the oral historian may be able to find a deeper and more accurate account. Caution here is clearly required. For on purely ethical grounds, it is not the place for the oral historian to attempt to expose serious psychological scars from an interviewee’s past.


Thirdly, such an analysis of humour in oral history is of interest to me, for the possibility of exploring a specifically British usage humour. It is with caution that I homogenise the humour identity of over sixty million people. Humour is heavily dependent on a variety of factors such as region and social class. But if there can be said to be any peculiarity to Britain’s humour identity, then this must be reflected in a more nuanced and specific analysis of humour within oral history.

The ‘Death’ of Women-Only Education at Royal Holloway and Bedford College

A question that is often posed to me is, ‘But, what kind of history do you do?’  I used to not have an answer to that question, because I don’t have a specific area that I am particularly enthralled with.  However, when I got that question the other day, my friend piped up and answered if for me, ‘You do, like, history around here, right?  Like, local history.’  Finally, it was put into words.  Over the past few years every time I’ve gone to study in a new place, I immediately throw myself into learning about the history of that location and here in Egham it’s no different.  My Skills project last term was on life in Surrey in the Edwardian period based on postcards and the programme I am making for ‘The Public Communication’ is on the ‘hidden’ history of Royal Holloway.  I thus want to continue in this tradition and learn about why Royal Holloway College and Bedford College went co-ed in the 1960s.  I would like to explore the ‘death’ of women-only education in those two institutions and perhaps across Britain.

I come from a place that is known for its higher education institutions.  When I describe where I’m from, I’ll say Western Mass, you know, the Five College Area?  UMass Amherst, maybe?  UMass is usually the landmark people identify with, but of the other four schools of the ‘Five Colleges’, two of them are well-known female only institutions:  Mount Holyoke College and Smith College.  Both of these schools take great pride in being just for women (for undergrad, at least) and strive to stay that way.  Interestingly enough when I was applying to schools for my undergrad degree, three of the four schools I applied to where originally female only:  Endicott College, Lesley University, and Lasell College.  I chose to go to Lasell, where I learned that they didn’t go co-ed until the late 1990s.  Coming from that background, I am particularly interested in why Royal Holloway and Bedford went co-ed so early compared to schools in the United States.

I hope to interview Professor Caroline Barron, a former History professor of both Bedford College and Royal Holloway Bedford New College.  She also recommended that I get in touch with Dr John Prebble who was vice-principal of Bedford at the time of the merger of the two schools in 1985 and to look at the book Bedford College, University of London edited by J Mordaunt Crook.

The significance of this topic to public oral history will be that it will explore how the dynamic changed in higher education from just having females on campus to having both sexes.  Both Bedford and Royal Holloway were founded to provide women with an education equal to that of men, so why was it that they then let men join them?  As the topic is still within living memory and also coincides with the greater movement for women’s rights, I would like to understand how going co-ed changed the legacies of both schools.