Archive for February, 2011

Project Progress — Some Confusion

Over the last several weeks, the goal of my project has been to narrow the focus of my topic.  I have been having a lot of trouble doing this because it is difficult for me to see the interviewing of an individual as an end in of itself.  I am used to doing research in order to write a final paper, finding out information along the way, but, as I understand it, the final paper is merely a reflection of the interview process.  It has been a challenge to understand how to interview someone without necessarily trying to get any specific tid-bit of information out of them.  Because I have no idea what my interviewees are going to say, I feel as though I cannot narrow my topic any further.  I do not want to restrict the scope of my questioning at the detriment of acquiring a complete picture of LGBTQ support systems in the high schools.  Since last time, I have decided to conduct more research into the relationship between the college in the local schools.  Also, I have attempted to historicize my topic.  And yet, all in all, my research questions have not changed very much since the initial project proposal.  Additionally, I find myself swamped with potential contacts; my list includes almost 30 people.  All in all, my research and outreach has been going along swimmingly  I have reviewed about 20 scholarly articles, found useful papers in special collection, enjoyed my peer interviews, and have made several solid contacts. _______________

Update: 03.04.2011

Our in class discussion yesterday helped me to better understand the overarching goal of the Williamsburg Documentary Project.  One of my fellow researchers explained that the mission of the project is not to come up up with any certain answer, but to learn from the experience of searching.  I theoretically knew this before, but the way she explained it in class made me feel more certain and confident.  Now, I am excited about creating a narrative arch over the course of my investigation, including all of my uncertainties and misgivings as inalienable parts of the overall story. I also learned from an unfortunate mistake of one of my peers who forgot to mention recording as part of the interview process.  Her story will help the whole class to remember the imperative of making sure an interviewee is fully aware of the mission and methods of the project before the date of the appointment.

As far as sources, I have not added to my original list of academic articles, but have instead started focusing on local periodicals, school websites, documents from the special collections archives, and contact info for potential interviewees.  Now I just have to get out in the field and start making some face to face, hands on contact.

Updated Project Proposal/General Update

So today I had my first interview-yay! But a little nerve racking.  I hate the recorders we have to use because they’re all fancy shmancy and I can tell it intimidated my interviewee a little.  Also, I had apparently neglected to mention that I would be recording her at all so maybe that’s what threw her off.  After a little hesitation, she agreed to be recorded and the interview went pretty well!  I had a great list of questions I had ready for her, most of which she answered. Those she didn’t answer were ones that she was not sure of, in other words, she didn’t know.  Based on this interview, I got a pretty good idea of where my project is heading and where I want it to head.  One thing I found very interesting (and fantastic) is that WJCC schools used to have a 0 tolerance drug policy but they have since changed that to what my interviewee called “abeyance,” which essentially means that (depending on the case) if a student is found to have drugs on his/her person at school, they will be suspended for 10 days and recommended for treatment at the Bacon Street center and, providing certain expectations are met, will be allowed to return to school.  I was really happy to hear this because I think it addresses the issue rather than trying to eliminate it.  In other words, instead of expelling the student, which could result in a disrupted education and do more harm than good, the school system will address the issue of substance abuse the way it should be addressed: with proper treatment.  {side note: I wish our government would see it that way.}

Anyway, my research proposal hasn’t changed much, I still want to examine substance abuse in the schools.  Based on what I have learned from online and in-person resources, I want to examine the types of programs that are in place to curb substance abuse.  Are the schools addressing drugs and alcohol in a preemptive way? Is it working? Also, I am going to try to talk to a student who has been through the process. I expect this will be quite difficult but I hope conditions of anonymity will encourage the student (and his/her family) to speak out on their experience.  I think there is often a disparity between what officials are saying is happening, and what is actually happening.  Hopefully that is not the case but I will try to find that out with my research.

Sources I have used so far that have proven enormously helpful are the WJCC school website where I found a discipline handbook that sets forth a comprehensive disciplinary structure, including substance abuse, and also a document that lists the duties of school social workers.  So far, WJCC schools seem very accessible and transparent, which is always good!

I hope to get in touch with school officials such as assistant principals, school counselors, maybe even teachers.  My first interviewee gave me some information on potential people to talk to and I even set an appointment with another person in that office to interview next week! It looks like officials are willing to talk and are proud of the work they do.  Hopefully I can get in a few more interviews before Spring Break next Friday.

Happy Friday everyone!

Updated Project Proposal

Doing my interview with Barbra Watson helped be get a better idea of what I want to focus on for my project. I realized my plan of investigating the differences between schools would not work, as Williamsburg’s schools are not differentiated by race class or ability level. With this new direction,  I want to get answers as to why and how certain students are educated differently within an individual school. I want to know how students with habitual discipline problems walk the halls with a class of national merit scholars. It seems that to some degree, the WJCC school system is forsaking those students it deems unfit for further educational endeavors after high school. Primarily, I want to know more about the kinds of efforts made by WJCC to reach out to students who’s parents are not able to be as involved with their children’s educations as they would like. Also, an explanation of what factors specific to Williamsburg explain the disparity seen between black students and white students in regards to test performance would be particularly useful in my project. Scholarship specifically relating to Williamsburg’s educational history has been difficult to come by. I have however found the WJCC website to be a great resource, as well as a box of records on Bruton Heights School at the Swem Special Collections that I am currently making my way though. Thus far the sources I have gathered have all had a shared  idea that minority students statistically perform worse than their white counterparts because they are poorer on an indidividual basis. School funding it seems has little to do with student achievement. James Ryan’s 2010 book illustrates this point as he investigate the profound diferences between two Richmond, VA high schools which are merely five miles away but a world apart in their educational profiles.

Ryan, J. E. (2010). Five Miles Away a World Apart. New York: Oxford University Press.

Also, many of the disparities we observe between minority and white students are a reflection of segregationist policies which where present in throughout much of the nation’s history, and specifically in Williamsburg until the 1960’s. Williamsburg presents a prime example of such a legacy as homes and inns adjacent to the college present an upperclass vision of suburban, whereas communities often hidden from tourist view consist primarily of minority and poor residents.

The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice inMetropolitan America. Washington D.C.: The Brookings Institution

Updated Research Proposal

In the past few weeks I’ve shifted the focus for my project on Special Education in WJCC. At first, I was focusing on how poverty, race, and culture affect the quality or type of instruction that children receive. Now I’m thinking of exploring Special Education in a more direct sense, integrating less about socioeconomic issues and more about the views of those involved in Special Education in WJCC. William and Mary School of Education dean Chris Gareis was a huge asset in helping me narrow down and focus my project; he also suggested a few contacts that I could talk to.  Now, I plan on interviewing a parent, School Board member, lawyer, teacher, member of the Special Education Advisory Committee,  and Occupational Therapist in the schools. I think focusing on Special Education in this sense will allow me to connect my project more directly to WJCC and allow me to gain a more comprehensive snapshot on the views of Special Education in the schools. Some of the biggest questions my project will focus on are:

– What Special Education programs currently exist in WJCC? How do people feel about these programs?

-What are the views of parents, school board members, teachers, etc. of Special Education in WJCC? Who do they think is responsible for Special Education? Do these individuals generally agree about Special Education policies or is there conflict between different groups?

– What advocacy groups exist for parents with children in Special Education? How does the School Board suggestions from the community?

Resources I plan to utilize include:


I hope to interview individuals from a wide variety of groups that are impacted by special education. Today I have an meeting with Beth Haw, a member of the SEAC here in WJCC, to discuss what she thinks of Special Education and to recount her experiences as part of an advisory board. I’m also contacting Patricia Roberts at the W&M Law School to see what kind of cases she deals with as part of the PELE clinic. I hope this will give me insight into the frequency of cases and level of tension between the county and parents. I’m planning to speak with Sharron Taylor, who is the community partner for my “Understanding Autism” class and is working to bring iPods and iPads into the schools. An Occupational Therapist in the schools, Lynda Webb, also said she’d speak to me later in March. I’m in the process of contacting Dave Gaston, Elise Emmanuel, a parent, and a teacher, and hope to secure interviews with them to obtain their point of view.

The hardest part for me right now is contacting individuals and securing dates to meet with them. Some people I’ve emailed haven’t replied, and it’s been hard to find times that work for others to be interviewed. I’m getting a little bit nervous that I won’t have time to meet all the people I hope to speak with, but hopefully during the next week I will be able to solidify my plans and dates.

WJCC Documents:

WJCC’s official statement and policies of special education

WJCC’s statement on the rights of individuals with disabilities (Section 504) and services available

-The most current Special Education plan outlined by the WJCC schools. This gives the legal backdrop for Special Ed, but it is interesting to view what’s left out and how certain groups interpret the language in the document.

WJCC 2008-2009 Disciplinary Report (posted on BB)- About 250 Special Ed students “have a record of committing a primary infraction”. I wonder what people think about this  and the discipline policies

WJCC School Board Meeting Notes/ Budget (posted on BB)- i’d like to see how much of the district’s funding is used for special education and investigate some of the issues that are brought up about the subject during board meetings.

Virginia DOE document on how special education programs are funded.


Williamsburg-James City County Asserting The Unspeakable – Norfolk Education News |

-Recent news article highlighting the controversies surrounding Special Education in WJCC

-Article summarizing the defeat of the August 18th budget proposal for Special Education. Has many comments to the article which will be interesting to gage public opinion

Volkmar, Fred R., and Lisa A. Wiesner. A Practical Guide to Autism: What Every Parent, Family Member, and Teacher Needs to Know. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2009. Print.

-This has a chapter on history that gives useful background on Special Education law

I also hope to sit in on a SEAC meeting or School Board meeting to view the dynamics present there.


I hadn’t expected the transcription assignment to be as tedious as it was going in. Although I did not expect it to be over with quickly, I hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to pick up on individual statements when two people were talking at the same time. I suppose this was partially because of the lack of visual cues to differentiate between statements, however whenever two people would talk at the same time I found myself having to listen to the tape five or six times slowed down to copy down their statements correctly. I went into the assignment with the intention of copying down everything that was said, syllable for syllable, however after realizing how annoying the constant “like, um, and like” statements were to transcribe, I reasoned that they would be just as frustrating to read. I solved my dilemma over the order to write concurrent statements by simply writing entire statements from each person during overlap, except in the cases of direct interruption, wherein I would use a dash to mark the interruption. I was upset at my occasional need to use brackets to mark words [incomprehensible] however there were a few phrases that were simply beyond my powers as a listener to understand. The interviewers I transcribed seemed to be very inexperienced, in my opinion, as they had trouble organizing their questions, and obviously did not go into the interview with a clear cut idea of what they were going to ask, although the interviewees seemed eager to answer their questions, and they were helped immensely by Edith (the third interviewer/indexer) as well.

Thoughts on Transcription

If anything, the transcription assignment helped me realize that I don’t type anywhere near as fast as I thought I did.I found myself stopping the audio every few seconds even when slowed down to a speed which was almost unintelligible. This experience was a moving one, and I now have a profound respect for anyone who can discipline themselves long enough to accurately transcribe a piece longer than ten minutes. I found myself very personally involved with the process of the interview. Whenever people began to talk over each-other I was frustrated at how difficult it became to understand what was being said. There were unnamed people who talked on the recording which made it difficult to decide how to include their statements. I regularly found myself on the edge of my seat hoping the interviewer would reign in the conversation as it frequently went off on rather obscure tangents. After transcribing about half of the recording, It became painfully aware that I needed to streamline my process considerably. I began eliminating unnatural pauses such as “umm” and “uh huh”. Eventually I achieved a pace which I could reasonably keep up with the slow-motion voices on the recording. I then, for the first time, saw myself as an interpreter of the story being told rather than merely a monkey punching keys.

My Transcribing Experience

After hearing Alice say she transcribed her interview in a mere 30 minutes, I was confident the transcription process would be a breeze and go by quickly.  However, I encountered difficulties more than once, and the project took considerably longer than half an hour.  I downloaded the Sony software and tested it out, but found it did not help me particularly much in the area where I ended up having the most trouble.  I encountered several moments in which either Lloyd or Shirley Wallace would say something I simply could not understand.  This was largely due to their pronounced accents.  Although I could understand most of what they said, and the index created by the previous researcher helped to clarify points of which I was unsure, there were nevertheless a handful of occasions in which individual words or short phrases remained unintelligible to me.  I listened to these bits slowed down with the software, but the only result was that I heard the same unintelligible sounds more slowly.  Rather than attempting to write down what I imagined I heard, I wrote “[unintelligible]” at these moments in my transcript, usually offering a possible interpretation in parentheses next to these brackets.  I felt bad each time I had to do this, feeling I had somehow failed my past researchers for being unable to adequately transcribe their work, and that I had let down future researchers who may look to my inaccurate transcript in the future.  Therefore, I hope my compromise to offer parenthetical possibilities for what these garbled words might be may allow other researchers to understand the speaker as best they can.

Overall, the actual information conveyed in my segment of the interview was fairly interesting.  It recounted how the residents of a town called Magruder had been ousted from their homes by land developers.  Many moved north, but many also remained in the area, moving to the town of Grove, where the Wallaces went.  The Wallaces also talk about the gradual process of the integration of schools, stating that, for years, most black students chose to continue attending Bruton Heights, both because they took pride in the institution, and because, in many respects, Bruton Heights’ facilities were newer and nicer than that of the white / later integrated school, James Blair.  The Wallaces also recounted how students from Matthew Whaley had visited their school on occasion, and how students from William and Mary had used their science lab facilities when the College lab was damaged in a fire.

Transcription in Review

This assignment proved quite difficult because several people were speaking at the same time throughout the majority of my ten minute section.  In order to record everything that was said, I had to play the same section of tape three or four times, each time focusing my ears to hear only one of the voices.  Then I faced another problem: if three people are speaking at once, which comments do you place first in the order of the transcript?  I solved this problem by first writing the full comment of whichever speaker started speaking first.  Then I would include the full comment of whoever started speaking second and so on.  If I had simply written all the words exactly in the order that they were spoken on the tape, it would be very difficult to understand what any of the interviewees were saying.

Additionally, I was frustrated by the interview techniques of the WDP students during this portion of the recording.  The interviewers had a very hand-off method, perhaps a little too hands-off.  I think the interview could have been much more successful if the interviewers had provided the interviewees with a little more structure.  At times, it seemed like the interviewers were too nervous and shy to even ask questions or take advantage of breaks in conversation in order to bring up new topics.  Furthermore, I felt that the language used by the interviewers was too disjointed, characterized by many fragmented sentences and incomplete thoughts.  I think it would have been better if comments and questions were better formulated in the interviewers’ minds before he or she spoke.  Additionally, one of the interviewers called Williamsburg a sleepy little town, which seemed to offend some of the interviewees.  Care should be taken to avoid causing offense.

Joys and Woes of Transcribing

I actually have a little bit of transcribing experience (some was paid–now that’s a trap. Most tedious ten hours I’ve ever worked). Those have all been linguistics-based transcriptions, though, so this might be a little different. The way I’ve been trained, it’s very important to include every single syllable, even the abundant “mmhm”s of the interviewer. I’ve been considering the purpose and audience of this oral history, and I suspect they’re a little different from what I’m used to typing up. While I’m inclined to include the pauses and “um”s and false starts, I feel less justified putting them in here, because reading over it, it sounds like the interview subject is unsure of what he’s saying. But listen to the interview–he’s got complete command over what he’s telling the interviewer.  I’m leaving them in for now…I might alter my methods a little before I do my next transcription assignment.  I’ve been reading everyone else’s blog posts and I think we’re all sharing the same thoughts. We want to be true to the oral (+ aural) form by recording each utterance faithfully, but we also recognize that oral and written are very different media (cf. Portelli’s observations as discussed in class), and we understand that translating oral to written is a complicated and loaded task. It’s difficult to negotiate the boundaries of oral vs written, trying to keep from sounding strangely forced or wildly unfocused. I’m hoping we’ll talk in class and come to some sort of consensus on transcribing. At the very least, we could err on the side of consistency.

The subject of the interview delighted my linguist’s ear. He used a few words in ways I’d not heard before and was intrigued by several new and exciting pronunciations. I’m definitely going to listen for these features around town now.  The interviewer, I think, did a good job of letting the subject tell his story. The questions seemed to flow naturally, which only works if you’ve been listening to your subject (I know this.), and were open enough that more story and more answers grew from them. It didn’t seem like it was a struggle to get information from the subject, which is always a good sign, so I think this interview was pretty successful (at least in its first ten minutes).

Reflections on Transcription

The transcription process did not start well for me.  It took me about 45 minutes and an email conversation with Sarah to finally get a grasp on who was actually speaking in my section of the interview.  Listening through the recording the first time, it seemed as though a new person starting talking every three minutes or so.  All in all, transcribing ten minutes of interview took me about two hours, so I think that I might be in the slower bracket of people.  However, the thing that surprised me most about the whole process was just how interesting it all was.  It was like looking behind the curtain at something that I wasn’t meant to see.  Hearing a conversation from the past is really an amazing thing, considering the impossibility of it. And it was as if I was an actor myself, writing the words to a memoir as if they were my own, and manipulating those that I couldn’t  quite make out.  That was another aspect of the transcription process that struck me – how much my own biases and idiosyncratic thought and voice patterns influenced my perception of those words that I just couldn’t make out clearly.  It was an interpretation of something that is supposedly objective, something that isn’t supposed to be open to interpretation.  That’s the astounding part of it – how much of a role I played in an event that I was never supposed to play a role in.  In my own way, I was tacked onto the past ex post facto.  Even more so, I haven’t even gotten to how interesting the interview itself was.  It’s really phenomenal how people have the ability to make a subject that may seem mundane in writing  (a history of Williamsburg, for example) into something with life and depth and force.  Listening to this interview only solidified what Portelli wrote about – that the written word is no substitute for orality.

So, looking at the guidelines for this Assignment 3, it says that I should be critical of the interviewer – what did she do right and what did she do wrong?  To start off, I think that she let the interview play out organically, never forcing a particular topic into conversation where it didn’t belong.  She seemed to genuinely listen to her interviewees and respond to what they were saying, rather than what she wanted them to say.  However, I thought that she had a tendency to preface her questions with her own thoughts on the matter, which may have led to a bit of bias in the interviewee’s response.  However, I think that many of us do this in conversation, not as a way to voice our opinion or purposefully elicit a certain response from the person that we’re talking to, but just as a natural lead-in to the question itself.  So, I think this is something that I will have to be conscious of in my own interviewing, as I’m sure that I do this as well.  Otherwise, I think that the interviewer did a great job, and I got the impression that the interviewees were comfortable with the interviewer.

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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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