Daily life is full of interactions, one-liners, and conversations. It never seems to dawn on us how often we communicate, both non-verbally and verbally. Our entire life is made up of a series of social interactions that more or less define our story. So naturally, I assumed that preparing for an oral history interview would be a walk in the park. Wrong.
Oral history is a fascinating but tricky game. It’s easy enough to come up with a list of questions to pummel the interviewee with, but finding a way to tease out the story without interfering or producing an artificial result is not as simple as one might think. Because of this, I decided to approach my interview with Heather Jones of the Princeton Girlchoir in a more unstructured way. I created a series of topics, which were in themselves difficult to come up with, and led the conversation through these open-ended ideas. What was most difficult about writing these topics (and sticking to them) was that I had to ask my questions in way that wasn’t blatant or obvious. Even though there were times that I just wanted to ask something straight up, I knew that I had to bite my tongue: the issue, sometimes, with asking a straightforward question is that you get a short, succinct answer that mirrors the nature of your question. While this approach certainly works for particular types of research, I didn’t want a series of concise responses—I wanted to hear Heather’s story.
As if the prep work wasn’t sticky enough, I then had to think about production and the quality of the video footage. This may sound silly or over exaggerated (as if I’m Hitchcock looking for the perfect angle), but it truly is important to make sure that your production set-up provides the best possible frame for the story you’re recording. It doesn’t do anybody justice to have low-quality set-up that hinders and garbles the interviewee’s message. For my work with Heather, I purposefully chose to turn the camera only on her in order to deemphasize my role as the interviewer and to thereby get a more personalized story. All said this method seemed to work. (One thing I will say in terms of technology, though, is that you absolutely have to monitor it throughout the process. I was constantly up and down, making sure that the camera was still rolling. I think I might have had a slight breakdown if we’d gotten to the end and hadn’t gotten any footage.)
All logistics aside, what I learned most about oral history was that you have to choose your interviewee wisely. I know Heather on a professional level and knew that she would bring a great deal of poise to the process. In addition to wanting to hear her story, I chose her because of her articulate and straightforward nature. It was really such a joy to simply prompt her and then listen to her tell her story in such a well-thought-out and eloquent way. I absolutely think that the interview would have been inhibited if the interviewee was unduly curt or brief in his/her responses. I can imagine that it would be quite difficult as the interviewer to have to constantly poke and prod, rather than being able to enjoy and appreciate the message being expressed. Because of Heather’s intelligent, thoughtful comments, this interview went incredibly smoothly and made me feel not only more connected to the process of oral history, but also more connected to Heather herself. There really is a lot to be said for the human aspect of this research method. After all, without our stories our lives are just a blank page in someone else’s memoir.
See my full interview with Heather Jones here.