Archive for February, 2009

Everyone should check out this link

Everyone should check out this link (especially if you are researching Williamsburg farmers’ markets, southern cooking, or colonial taverns). It has links to audio and video files about things like the DOG street market, the Chickahominy House, and so forth. This is a primary source jackpot.

Interview reflections

To be honest, I have been so far uninvolved in much of the interview process.  Next week I will be doing the practice interview and tomorrow I will begin the personal interviews.  However, from observation I have gleaned a few important things.  Something that I noticed at the last interview we did with Barbara Carson was about how effective it can be to ask very broad, provocative questions that allow her to just keep talking.  Especially in the beginning of her interview, she just had so much momentum and the slightest prodding from our interviewers produced a wealth of information. This builds on something that I realized in some interviews that I have done prior to this: that sometimes one of the most important things you can do as an interviewer is just shut up and sit back and let the interviewee talk.  Conversely, this does create some challenges.  You get the unmitigated flow of perspective and information from the interviewee, but as we noticed on Tuesday, it can also make it hard to follow up on certain things if the interviewee herself just flies them by.  This is is an important balance that demands a high level of engagement on the part of the interviewer.  You must be able to keep up with her and quickly tailor your questions or guiding tools to manipulate the interview to your liking.

Pratice Interview Reflections (Pt 1)

I’ve responded to your individual reflections with comments. Please check those out, since different comments respond to many of your differing observations and concerns. Here I just wanted to say that I’ve been pleased with the way the practice interviews have gone so far. Everyone’s done a good job. Among other things, I’m very glad we have Sharon’s memory of smelling the spring earth when she was a young girl (and her sense that that smell connects with Williamsburg’s farming history), and I’m very glad we have Barbara’s memories of her early encounters with Williamsburg. It’s also terrific that we have two accounts of the contentious farm/fish market that used to be over near the post office. That seems worth following up with more research.

As many of you are observing, the–or at least a–challenge of the oral history interview is that it is a hybrid: it seeks personal information and contextual/historical information, information that is directly related to the interviewer’s research agenda and information that the interviewer wants to convey. While you’re interviewing you always want to keep this sense of mixture or balance in mind. Now that you’ve done a little interviewing, go back and review Portelli and see if any new things jump out at you.

A few small critical observations about the first two interviews: With Sharon, especially since she is native to Williamsburg, it would have been fruitful to give her more follow-up questions that asked her to give details of her Williamsburg past. (Of course, this is another balance issue: Within the limits of my time, do I ask follow up questions that get more detail but sacrifice scope?) It would have been great, too, to ask her memories of desegregation, since restaurants were key sites of formalized segregation and the struggle to desegregate. That’s uncomfortable territory (though I’m confident Sharon would have gone there with us). With Barbara: She made several passing comments about her experiences of being a woman in Williamsburg in certain eras (and before and elsewhere–e.g., her comment that her mother didn’t like to cook… I would have loved to hear where she and her parents went out to eat in her rural Pennsylvania communities) that had a complex sort of push-pull tone (to me). On the one hand, she seemed to be inviting more detailed queries about this topic, about her sense of her difference, her struggles to express this difference, etc. On the other hand, this seemed to be tender territory, so the invitation seemed maybe a little qualified and would have had ot be taken up carefully…. but it is a line that really jumped out of the conversation for me (it came up in several different contexts), and I wish we could have pursued it a bit–especially since, it seems to me (and as she perhaps implied), food is strongly gendered in much of our culture.

All that said: Very good work. Let’s keep it up.

Practice Interview Reflections

I thoroughly enjoyed interviewing Sharon Scruggs. She is a delightful lady and a wealth of local knowledge. I am glad that her thoughts and opinions on life in Williamsburg will be recorded for future generations to enjoy. It would be criminal to let a community resource like Sharon languish in anonymity.

I was a little nervous coming into the interview with Sharon. This was mostly because I had never before interviewed someone in front of a group. In my past experiences conducting interviews, I was usually alone with the interviewee and could spend some time getting to know him or her before I began the structured portion of the interview. During the interview session with Sharon I felt pressure to be very rigid and formal because I knew my classmates were critiquing my questions as well as my questioning style. I felt obligated to ask Sharon questions that I do not think I would have asked if I was conducting a solo interview. I asked these questions anyway because I knew there were people out in the audience who wanted to hear questions pertaining to their research topics. The end result was a set of questions that I do not think I would have produced if I were being 100% true to my interviewing style.

An in-class practice interview for a seminar of fifteen people requires some artificial parameters, for example, strict time constraints for each interviewer. For the purposes of our class, I understand why the practice interviews have to be structured in this fashion. However, the artificiality of the process has made me realize that the way I connect with my interviewees is on a much more familiar and personal level than was allowed by our public practice interviews. Of course, there are limits to that statement (I would not interview a stranger the same way I would interview my grandmother) but in each individual case I work hard to develop a bond with my interviewee so that he or she knows I am interested in and am grateful for the information. In past interviews I believe I have been fairly successful in forging personal bonds with my interviewees. I am glad that we did our practice interviews in a stuffy, overcrowded room in front of an audience because it made me realize that a crucial ingredient in a successful interview is developing a rapport with your interviewee.

Interview Response

During our peer interview session, I think I was surprised by how many questions were needed to fill the full forty-five minute session. I underestimated how many questions I would need and had to come up with many on the spot. I didn’t find it difficult to come up with more questions as the interview was conversational in manner. I think if I had been interviewing someone besides a classmate, I would have been more nervous and formal.


An important skill I learned from this practice was not rushing or cutting-off my interviewee. Sometimes, by not rushing into my next question, my interviewee would elaborate further and provide more information than giving in the initial response. Allowing the individual to think thoroughly and not rush through the process yielded more thorough and informative responses.


I think I also learned to better phrase some questions. For example, I asked “How do you feel about WaWa?” In actuality, it was a ridiculous question. My interviewee laughed and replied that he didn’t have any strong feelings regarding the convenience food stop. I can think of perhaps 100 ways better to have phrased that question now.

Interviewing reflections

I was pretty nervous going into the interview yesterday where I was the second interviewer to begin asking questions. Because we hadn’t interviewed Ms Carson before, I didn’t know what to expect. And if she seemed to have to little to say, I wasn’t confident in my ability to get her to open up at all. Luckily she was a fantastic interviewee, and I think I only asked her about three of my questions before I had to pass the torch to Laura. Her wealth of information was only surpassed by her levelheaded analysis of the Williamsburg area. She’s lived here for over thirty years and maintains a realistic and practical outlook on the food options offered in the area. I really enjoyed talking with her, and only wish we had had more time to continue the discussion.

Interview Frustrations

I think one of the most frustrating, albeit good, things about these interviews are how much the interviewees have to say and how little time we have to talk with them.  I was absolutely fascinated by Barbara Carson and her story of her life and how it related to Williamsburg; however, we did run out of time last class.  I thought her take on ethnic restaurants in the area was very unique and it was interesting to hear her thoughts, because they weren’t just praise of the area.  Barbara’s and Sharon’s interviews provided a very multifaceted and unique depiction of Williamsburg from different perspectives and both of their interviews were refreshing in different ways.

The idea of oral histories sort of confuse me because they aren’t quite as directed as other interviews.  During both Sharon’s and Barbara’s interviews, we have directed the initial questioning to the history of their lives, not very specifically to questions about Williamsburg that relate directly to our projects.  Also, during each interview, interviewers have pursued more general lines of questioning just to have the information recorded rather than focus on their specific area of interest.  I find this frustrating as an interviewer because when I am asking my questions, I’d like to spend as much time talking about the answers to those questions, not general ones.  It’s taken me a little while to realize this, but oral history interviews are more to have things down on the record than (usually) for one specific purpose or project.  Someone in 3 years might find Sharon’s response to a random question that I ask for general information (not specifically for my project) very useful, and in that sense the information is also available for posterity.

At the end of her interview, Sharon Scruggs expressed that sometimes its difficult to figure out what the interviewee’s area of expertise is and you could be missing out on what they have to say by not asking the right questions.  For this reason, I guess that it is probably best to have a lot of general questions and then the interviewer can determine what the interviewee’s area of knowledge is to get that down on record.   This is probably best, but I am still finding it kind of frustrating at times.

Interview Response

I interviewed Barbara Carson on Tuesday. I did some preparation the night before and was pretty confident in my ability to keep the interview going as I went into class. I was the last person to interview Mrs. Carson, and as my classmates talked to her I became more and more impressed by her experience and confidence to the point that when it was my turn to interview her, I was completely intimidated by her. I went through my questions one by one, but I was so afraid of sounding stupid or obnoxious at any point in the interview. I kept thinking about the one transcript a classmate had mentioned where the interviewer made several blunders in followup questions and the interviewee laughed at her. I learned that I need to go into the interviews with much more confidence and perhaps be more concerned with getting information and creating a connection than the possibility of bugging the interviewee. I will probably be interviewing old Meridian staff members and perhaps even administration such as Mark Constantine, people that will be even more intimidating, so I definitely need to work on my confidence during interviews. I hope that the peer interview will be helpful for that.

Interview Response

Having no prior interview experience, I was quite nervous while conducting my interview with Sharon Scruggs. Prof. Knight has referred to these in-class interviews, on a few occasions, as “artificial.” I think this is interesting, and probably accurate, since I feel that the interview would have been much easier if I did not have an audience. I spoke in class about the pressure and responsibility of the interviewer to keep the interview going. This pressure was only intensified by the presence of the entire class. In a way, I was performing. Had I been sitting alone with Sharon Scruggs, I feel the situation would have been much different.
Another concern of mine was how to balance a more conversational interview with a more structured question and answer interview. I feel that a conversational element can loosen the atmosphere, and perhaps make the interviewee feel more comfortable. On the other hand, in order to obtain as much pertinent information as you can, I feel that some structure and well thought out questioning is the way to go. There is probably an undefinable balance that works, and it is probably different for every interviewer/interviewee combination.
I think, as an observer, that all of the people who have interviewed so far have done a good job. The questioning has been provocative, yet appropriate. I feel that we have been very fortunate to have two very kind, outgoing, talkative, and patient interviewees. I was certainly comforted by Sharon Scruggs’s demeanor and willingness to attempt a response to every question, regardless of whether she felt she had much to say or not.

Response to In-Class Interviews

Note something that has interested, surprised, delighted, bewildered, angered, frustrated, etc. you about the interview process as you’ve experienced it so far.

I think our practice in-class interviews create a situation which will be quite different from the “real thing”.  On the one hand, they seem easier because it is a controlled environment: Professor Knight can remind you of things you’ve forgotten to do, you can laugh with classmates over something awkward or funny, and, perhaps most importantly, the interviewee has done interviews before and is very willing to participate.  All of these factors make the in-class interview run a bit more smoothly than I anticipate my own interviews going.  On the other hand, the in-class interviews could also be more intimidating than doing interviews on your own: the whole class is watching, many people have already done their interviews, Professor Knight is watching, the interviewee knows a good interviewer from a not so-good interviewer… I do not consider myself a shy person in most scenarios, but situations like these certainly make my palms sweaty.  I’ve never been the sort of person to go out of my way to talk to strangers or strike up random conversations–For me, then, it seems that asking someone to interview with me will be the most difficult part.  With these practice interviews, I do not have to worry about asking someone to talk to me.  In general, I think these interviews are great for practice with the equipment, the deed of gift, and a basic interview set-up, but I think the dynamics will shift in unpredictable ways when we get into the “real thing”.

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The Williamsburg Documentary Project (WDP) strives to collect and preserve the rich past of Williamsburg, Virginia. By conducting oral history interviews, building physical and digital archives, and creating online exhibits, the WDP interprets Williamsburg’s recent past. The WDP works towards developing a better understanding of Williamsburg by bringing together individuals, local groups, Colonial Williamsburg, and the College of William & Mary.

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