In OHR’s spring 2023 issue, scholar Katherine Waugh analyzes the methodological challenges oral historians face with technological fluctuations. Focusing on the post-pandemic wave of remote interviewing that has expanded oral historians’ ability to conduct interviews, Waugh considers the difficulties that scholars face in “connecting” to narrators in a virtual world. “Failing to Connect? Methodological Reflections on Video-Call Interviewing during the Pandemic” allows readers to think about the future of oral history methodology while examining our rapidly changing technological reality. Here we interviewed Waugh about her study and advice she has for oral historians conducting remote interviews.
Remote interviewing has the potential to change oral historians’ ability to reach marginalized individuals. What considerations should oral historians keep in mind?
I think that the risk of excluding marginalized groups has always been an issue for oral historians. For instance, Sarah Dziedzic, in her article “Immunodeficiency and Oral History,” points out how rarely disability justice has been considered in oral history practice, and how damaging the fixation on in-person interviews can be. To me, it seems this unmoving commitment to one form of oral history interviewing as the correct and best method is the problem here; I think if we are truly to share authority with participants, then that needs to come into the sphere of project design too. There are many socio-economic factors that individual historians will never be able to overcome every time, on their own, but certainly being sensitive to individual circumstances and allowing room for flexibility in how we interview is useful.
You write about how the recollection of memories through sensory experiences that can be neglected during online oral history interviews. What is your advice for tapping into memory without the aid of senses?
The main thing I learned during this process is that you’re never going to be able to experience or capture someone’s sensory memory entirely, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored, because so often it serves as a cue to other memories that can be vocalized. I found something as simple as inserting deliberate sensory prompts such as “Can you remember what it smelled like?” to be surprisingly effective in eliciting further discussion.
What is your advice on how to further connect with interviewees through emotions and expressions during online interviews?
It is really tempting to jump straight into the interview when conducting them online, because there’s none of the informal moments of setting up beforehand. In-person, I find those moments so useful for orientating the interview—you can usually get a sense if a participant is nervous, or what they might want to discuss for example—and it gives you a little bit of time as an interviewer to compose yourself in relation to that. So, I tried to just slow down before starting to record, allowing for more natural, informal conversation first. This did not necessarily make it any easier when it came to trying to observe and interpret interviewees’ emotions and expressions, but certainly having a greater sense of ease between us allowed me to probe them further on how they were feeling and why. In many ways, this gave interviewees a better chance to explore and express their emotions in their own words.
Do you see online interviews as the future of oral history? What do you predict?
No, I don’t think they’re necessarily the future, more another string in oral historians’ bow. I think most importantly what has been shown is that oral history practice can adapt, and that project plans can be flexible. If we can use this flexibility and adaptability going forward, I think there could be real steps made towards increasing accessibility and inclusivity in oral history, both for practitioners and participants.
Katherine Waugh is a final-year PhD candidate at Newcastle University, funded by the Northern Bridge Consortium of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her research uses life-narrative oral history interviews to examine cross-generational experiences of deindustrialisation in County Durham, UK, exploring the intersections of memory, place, and identity within communities in the present day.