Conducting the oral history was a challenging yet very enlightening process for me. I had minimal background and experience in this type of work, besides one ethnography class. I had never created any type of history of my own, or even professionally interviewed people. I have done some work with informal interviews for mini lab assignments, but this was by far the most extensive process I ever completed. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out how to ask questions about personal information without being offensive or too invasive. Going into this project, I knew from other athletes that my interviewee had an interesting story, but I was unsure how much she would be willing to share with me, thus I was cautious in probing too far. The trajectory initially was going to focus on overcoming challenges as a woman, but after interviewing a number of times, I was able to focus on a broader topic, which eventually turned out to be more insightful than I had anticipated.
Although I learned a lot by conducting the interviews and compiling the information into the website, the course readings were some of the most beneficial resources in this process. Much of the information from the Raleigh (2005) reading was very useful in pursuing my oral history, since this reading explored the ethical dimensions of oral histories. Learning how to properly administer informed consent was beneficial in this project to make sure the narrator knew the purpose and what all they were agreeing to by being the focus of the oral history. Furthermore, the interview preparation sections were very helpful since I had little previous knowledge or experience with interviewing (Raleigh, 2005). Planning ahead of time was one main aspect I learned to incorporate into the process, with regards to formulating questions ahead of time and conducting a pre-interview before ever asking any of the questions for the oral history. The process of planning before interviewing was very helpful because I was able to create an outline of questions so I would have a guide once I met with Sandy. Within my outline, I tried to think of all the possible directions the interview could go so I would have a variety of questions to ask depending on Sandy’s answers. This process was much easier after the first interview as I prepared for my second one since I knew what to expect.
The readings and various handouts also provided great insight into relevant topics and potential types of questions to ask which were very helpful in formulating my own outline of interview questions (Raleigh, 2005). Even realizing that the words and phrases we use can affect the informant’s perception and feelings was something important to consider as well as recognizing and paying attention to not only what the narrator is saying, but also their non-verbal behaviors (Raleigh, 2005). I went in with a set idea of what I thought the project would be about, but once my informant began speaking, the interview went in a totally different direction. Accepting the shift in plan was something I needed to acknowledge. This was much easier after the second interview, especially after I reformulated my questions to focus more broadly on larger themes, rather than specific details. I also recognized that some topics were off limits for further probing, and so I was able to gather more information, but in a way that was appropriate and sensitive to her level of comfort. Aligning with Lovell and Lutz’s (2001) argument on truth and meaning, getting every detail was not as important as I originally believed, since I was getting her perspective on what was important and on what happened. I believe focusing on what was meaningful to Sandy enhanced her story since the emphasis was more on the main themes rather than on the little details and facts (Lovell & Lutz, 2001and Portelli, 1990). Again, the work I completed before conducting my second interview allowed my next meeting with Sandy to go more smoothly. I relied on the Raleigh (2005) reading and handouts on questions to reformulate my initial interview guide and create a new one to fill in any holes that were left after the first interview. I was much less nervous the second time around, especially since I had a better idea of how to write my interview guide.
As Shopes (2003) suggested, I quickly adapted my questions to fit what my informant was willing to share. This was difficult in the first interview because my interview guide was centered around what I thought Sandy would say, which made it difficult for me to keep the questions going once the interview started going in a different direction than I anticipated. However, going back to the Raleigh (2003) reading and reflecting on my first interview allowed me to create a better interview guide for the second interview, making it a much more collaborative process as I focused more on what Sandy wanted the oral history to be about. That way, I was able to control my own biases and ideas from taking over the attention and allow for my informant to truly be represented and listen to what she wanted to say (Lassiter, 2005). Learning how to share authority in this oral history project was a challenge at first because I found it difficult to distinguish how much I needed to step in as I told Sandy’s story. After I was more immersed in the project I began to understand the importance of shared authority as discussed by Shopes (2003). This was especially apparent for me while I was putting together my webpages as I deciphered Sandy’s interview responses to create the first person story. At first I was unsure how I would change her words, but once I started writing her story, the concept made more sense and I am happy with how it turned out. I was able to present the information I gained from Sandy in a format that I wanted, which really highlighted the concept of shared authority for me.
The opportunity to apply what I learned from the readings really helped me to understand oral history. Watching the stories come together was interesting and very informative. It was really cool to see how everyone constructed their story and the creativity that went in each of them. The balance of creativity with the actual story of the person being interviewed was clearly illustrated for me by actually doing the project myself and experiencing the work that goes into oral histories. The process of conducting and creating oral histories in unique, but it provides a platform for individuals to tell their story who otherwise would be left unheard. Although it is challenging to build rapport and decide what to include in the story, the interview process allows for a substantial amount of information to be gathered, and learning proper techniques is beneficial to the project. Understanding the different methods involved with creating oral histories is essential in getting the most out of each particular story. For instance, meaning can be derived in a number of ways, not necessarily only through factual information. Thus, the individual conducting the oral history needs to acknowledge the complexity of the process and accept the flexibility within. The purpose is to get the informant’s story told in a creative and effective way, and that way can be different for each oral history, making it a useful and unique tool.
Portelli, Alessandro. (1990).“The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Memory and Event.” EBSCO Publishing : eBook Academic Collection (EBSCOhost) via DRAKE UNIV AN: Account: s8886300.
Lassiter, Luke Eric. (2005). “Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology.” Current Anthropology Vol 46(1), 83-106.
Lovell, W. George and Lutz, Christopher H. (2001).“The Primacy of Larger Truths.” The Rigoberta Menchú Controversy. University of Minnesota Press.
Raleigh Yow, Valerie. (2005). “Preparation for the Interviewing Project.” AltaMira Press. 2nd Edition. Ch. 3-5.
Shopes, Linda. (2003). “Sharing Authority.” The Oral History Review, Vol 30 (1), 103-110.