Insights from Interviewers
Our Oral History team is comprised of both staff and students from the University of Hertfordshire with a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. In late 2016 we asked some of the team to write a short blog about their motivations for joining the team as well as some insights into some of the best and most challenging moments they've experienced so far. Take a look at their personal blogs below.
Oral History team blogs
As I settled nervously into my seat in the Weston Auditorium at the end of September 2016, surrounded on all sides by people a third of my age, I couldn’t help wondering what I had let myself in for. 32 years late perhaps, but I had finally made it into university with not a clue what the next few weeks, let alone years, would bring. First on stage was an energetic speaker by the name of Andrew Green extolling the virtues of the Oral History Society and the associated archive that was thriving. Having just come from a career that depended on the ability to speak to people I was instantly interested and slides from a recent project in Australia sealed the deal; I signed up to get involved.
A week or so later at the first training session, Andrew’s first PowerPoint slide consisted of an uncoloured painting by numbers picture. As interviewers, he suggested, it is our job to fill in the colours so that we can see the full glory of the picture. Black and white facts to a full technicolour story involving feelings and hopes. We were also introduced to the ‘world famous Green Position’ for interviewing and had practice interviews with others in the Society. When I was 19 or 20 I had had a job videoing weddings at weekends so the technical side of it came quite easily allowing me to concentrate on what is the hardest part of any interviewer’s job: listening to the answers.
As the project we would be working on was titled ‘Starting Over’ and I was myself starting afresh, I was deemed the perfect victim for a group practice session. To be surrounded by 15 or 20 would-be interviewers was quite an experience but one that I thoroughly enjoyed. Having come from a fairly unique job and working environment I’m not sure that they were prepared for some of the answers they got. There were a few shocked faces at times but this helped the conversation ebb and flow. A couple of the questions did make me stop and think about my own actions in the past and with hindsight one could see that these are the perfect questions to be asking. For our final pre-interview get together a different subject was interviewed which for me was perfect as I had had to concentrate extremely hard on the answers I was giving first time around.
With final equipment check, final adoption of the ‘Green configuration' and final words of encouragement we were sent off to prepare ourselves for the big interview day. When I started mine I still felt slightly underprepared, but by five minutes in I relaxed and let the conversation flow. But that was the point of the style of training we were given. Two interviewers given the same answer would ask different follow up questions.
I’m still waiting for that assignment in warm and sunny climes but am very glad I got involved and would recommend it to everyone.
Contrary to what one might think, the most rewarding aspect of joining the oral history team at the University of Hertfordshire was not to be ‘this looks so good on my CV’, it was the people.
The serious diverse group of people I met with to learn about the skill of interviewing others, but more so the people I interviewed. And if this process has proven one thing it is that every individual is full of colour and has a story. However, there are those who standout and Robert Rendell is a name I will not be forgetting. Glancing at people, in this case a mature, British man of a generation past my own, I did not get the feeling that there was much in common between us.
This didn’t mean that the interview was going to be any less interesting and one always finds they have something in common with the interviewee. Robert was both. He gave these truly rich anecdotes, (stories that were so rich that you craved to live life to its fullest from there on, just so you might have some of your own) and some actually related to my homeland Pakistan, which surprised me. After all, this was a just an older man living in Frieth, High Wycombe. At one point he even spoke of how he had dinner on Edgware in London with the once-president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf. I was leaning in for the entirety of the two hours we were recording.
This is one of many reasons oral history is so important. There is simply a unique intrigue that can only be conjured by history told this way, verbally. And not only does it incite interest, the words of individual hold significant value historically. Yes, traditionally when one thinks of history, (and especially so in my case) the mind brings forward the journal article, the news extracts from 1943 and a reading list that will not be read.
Academics have not always attached much importance to words of individuals; they are not necessarily accurate and can be drowned in bias. However the idea that a verbal testimony, on whatever topic, is biased or misremembered gives way to questions and eventually answers in itself.
Why the bias? Why the misunderstandings? Ultimately, we must ask ourselves who is history written by and for what reason? The simplest answer I can give is, by people, for people’s understanding and insight. And the reason why I joined the Oral History Team was so that I could help supply and preserve knowledge for people, in a special and valuable way.
Laura de Haan
“Does really everybody have a story?”, I caught myself thinking when Andrew Green introduced us, first year students, to the concept of Oral History in September 2015. I certainly didn’t think my story would be of interest to anybody else. Yet, something about the idea of hearing stories directly from the people involved, rather than simply reading about them in a book, intrigued me. I had just started my degree in English Language & Communication and Journalism, so I decided to join the team to develop my skills and find out more about this concept of Oral History that Andrew spoke so passionately about.
A few weeks later I attended the first training session. I was familiarised with the recording equipment, the art of interviewing and learnt about the different projects the university was involved with at the time. Training done, I was ready to set off to Banstead for my first ever interview. When I arrived, my interviewee admitted to me that he felt nervous about doing the interview. Well, that made two of us. 45 minutes of interviewing later, we both concluded that being nervous really hadn’t been necessary and I returned to Hatfield with a feeling of contentment.
The more interviews I conducted the more I started appreciating the experience. Not only were the interviews a fantastic opportunity for me to meet new people, develop my interpersonal skills and travel to new places, I also started to understand why it was so important to preserve these stories. Interviewees often expressed gratitude for having somebody listen to subjects that mattered to them, to their stories. Stories that otherwise would have been left untold and ultimately forgotten. Not to mention that the recordings stored in our archive can be very useful to historians, researchers and anybody who wishes to gain a better understanding of the world they live in.
In April 2015 the university connected me with the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation who were looking for witnesses to attend an interview in London. The interview, conducted by Natasha Kaplinsky, was with a Holocaust survivor. I was amazed at how Natasha conducted a three-hour interview with somebody she had never met before and how she brought the story to life without causing distress to the interviewee. But what amazed me the most is what the interviewee said after the interview. He expressed several times how grateful he was that he could tell his story and that his story would help future generations to learn about such an important event in history.
Having been part of several different Oral History projects, I can honestly say that Oral History has been one of the most rewarding and enriching things I have done at UH. Meeting many different people, different personalities and learning about different subjects has opened my eyes and mind to aspects of life I had previously given little thought to. And if there is one thing I have learnt it is that yes, really everybody has a story.