Oral History #1

This assignment has several steps:

  • Plan your visit to your research site. With your partner, figure out a time when you both will have several hours free, as these things take time. Account for how long it will take to get there from wherever you will be. Fridays or Saturdays during daylight hours are generally the best times, although other weekdays will work. Keep in mind that many restaurants are closed on Mondays. Daylight is nice – you can see things, photos come out better, and you’ll be less frightened, which will help you stay focused on your work. Plus, even businesses that open late (e.g some restaurants) and that close early (e.g. some clothing stores) will be open in the mid-afternoon.
  • Figure out what you’ll need beforehand. This list should probably include:
    1. a list of interview questions;
    2. the sample intro/verbal consent page;
    3. a notebook and pens for taking notes;
    4. a digital recorder, tape recorder, or smartphone that can record audio;
    5. a camera or a smartphone that takes decent pictures;
    6. a map of the neighborhood (again, this can be found on a smartphone, or print something from GoogleMaps).
  • Charge your damn smartphone. (See items 4-6, above.)
  • Explore the neighborhood virtually a little bit first via “Streetview” on Google Maps (see anything you recognize?) or Bing Maps. (hey, sweet apartment building! wonder who lives there?) This is actually a really valuable step, as it will allow you to get a sense of which kinds of businesses are in the neighborhood and where. You could even make a list of places that look interesting that you’d like to check out during your first visit and save yourselves some aimless walking. (Although, as a general rule, aimless walking is highly recommended.) Also do a little bit of Googling on the neighborhood and its shops and restaurants.
  • Conduct your first field visit. Upon arrival, get a sense for the feel of the area. Look at the signs you see, the buildings, the cars parked on the street, and most importantly, the people on the street. Who lives, shops, or works here? Is it a residential area with a few shops? An industrial area with a few shops? (In either case, you might assume the shops draw local residents and workers.) Or a bustling commercial center that might attract people from some distance away? Start to build a story in your mind about the shopping street and the neighborhood. Take loads of beautiful photos. (you’ll need them later). Once you’ve got your bearings, choose a couple of businesses, introduce yourselves to the staff (“students working on a website…” yada yada) and see if the owner’s there. But remember, your choice of businesses here is important, for the following reasons:
    1. It’s possible (though pretty unlikely) that the owner will be there and will consent to be interviewed at the first place where you stop and inquire. If this is the case, then you’re kind of stuck interviewing them, so make sure that the first place where you stop and ask is at the top of your list of places you are interested in, and then work down the list.
    2. The business you choose will give you a specific angle on the neighborhood. If you’re in an Asian neighborhood that used to be an Irish neighborhood (e.g. Woodside), and you interview an Irish pub owner, you’ll get a different story than if you interview an Asian restaurant owner. Not better or worse, but different. This is worth thinking about when you decide where to make your first inquiries. Whose story are you interested to hear? The woman who runs Ali’s roti shop? That guy in a folding chair selling used television sets out of a former garage?
    3. We’re looking for relatively old businesses. Ideally at least 5-10 years old. If a place looks spanking new, it probably is.
    4. We’re not looking for big chain stores or restaurants. If they have 2 or 3 locations, that’s fine, but don’t bother trying to interview the owner of a Dunkin’ Donuts or Subway, because the real owners of these corporations are shareholders who live in places that sound far away because they are far away, like Debuque and Des Moines.
  • Arrange your interview. If the owner’s there, and will talk to you right away, ask if there’s a quiet place where you can go. (This will make your recording better if you’re doing one. And they’ll be more likely to not feel rushed if you can sit down with them somewhere away from the sizzle of the grill or the chatter of workers and customers.) Here’s the sample intro and consent form which will be helpful to bring. Be sure to ask their consent regarding a) using their name and that of their business, b) taking photographs, and c) recording the interview. If they object to any or even all of these, it’s okay – do the interview anyway. If the owner’s not there (quite likely), find out when they will be. (Maybe they just stepped out, or show up every day at 4pm…) Finally, get their contact information – a phone number where they can be reached and/or email address. Worst case scenario, you can just take photos this time around, and interview them by phone or email later. If all you get is contact info, then proceed to the next business on your list and inquire there. And so on. Some of you, by the luck of the draw, will have to stop at many places before you find an owner to talk to. Some of you will quickly find two people to interview and will have time to interview two more, in which case you’ll be in the enviable position of choosing your best interview to write up for this assignment. Others will stop at many and get contact info and call later and still won’t succeed in convincing anybody, and may have to do a return visit to get their interview. (If you remain unsuccessful after two visits, let’s talk.)
  • Conduct your interview.  Here is the list of sample interview topics that you can use to figure out exactly which questions you’d like to ask and how you would like to ask them. Remember all the things ITF Tommy taught you. Don’t ask close-ended questions (“Do you like your customers?” “Uh.. yes.”) Don’t ask leading questions (“Wow this area’s really changing, huh?” “Yeah, I guess now that you mention it.”) Play dumb and ask people to explain what they mean, and definitely don’t finish their sentences or put words in their mouth (“Sounds like you think that shawarma is the future.” Blank stare.) And lastly and most importantly, let them say what they have to say. Your job is not to extract some preordained set of facts or opinions from them. If you want to talk about gentrification, and all they want to talk about is how they make the shawarma, then listen and learn something about how they make the shawarma! Maybe the answer you’re looking for is they don’t particularly care about the demographic changes in the neighborhood as long as people continue to enjoy their food and put money in their pocket. In which case you can write about that! There are no right answers here. Just people and places and stories.
  • Take more beautiful photos: A photo of the business owner in front of their business (or inside, in a location of their choosing) is an important one to get if you can. Obviously respect their wishes, though.
  • Collect and write up your notes. Hopefully the interview went well and you and shawarma guy are now BFFs. Hopefully your partner took detailed and accurate notes when that guy was saying all that interesting stuff about his shawarma. Hopefully your Android battery didn’t die halfway through. Now it’s time to debrief and collect and write up your notes. This should ideally be done right after your interview. And you should do this step together with your research partner, as two memories are better than one. You could even order the shawarma and do it right there, which would be awesome because you could ask the guy to clarify anything you’re confused about or expand on one thing or another. You could do it on the train or bus on the way back to Brookdale, or that night after you get back to your dorm room. Any later, and you’ll lose valuable interview memories to the ephemeral mists of passing time, trust me I know of what I speak. The end result of this stage is the closest thing to a transcript of the interview you can get without actually transcribing the audio file, which will take many, many tedious hours. (But keep that file so you can listen to it later and refresh your memory.)
  • Finally, write the stupid assignment. This is actually the fun part. This is meant to be a creative project, so use your creativity and your writing skill to put together an online essay about your visit. Create a post under the category “Oral History #1” describing your visit and telling the story of the place you visited and the people you spoke with. Some guidelines:
    • Feel free to write in the first person. (Though you don’t have to.)
    • Include descriptions of the neighborhood and the business – what does it look like, how does it smell, how does it feel – so we can picture it in our minds. It’s okay to be subjective here, as long as you give specific examples.
    • Illustrate your essay with the gorgeous photographs you have taken of the business, the goods sold there, the owner herself, the sidewalk in front, etc. etc.
    • Rely heavily on quotations and paraphrased comments from your interview to tell the story, but don’t post an interview transcript. (Ingrid: blah blah blah. Shawarma Guy: blah blah blah. Professor Mike: Zzzzz.)
    • Don’t make it too short. Shoot for at least 700 – 800 words. Longer than that is fine.
    • If you’re still struggling, here are some hopefully useful examples from a blog called Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York to use for inspiration:
    • If you do your best to achieve the above, then you’ve done a great job with the assignment. I won’t judge this (or grade it) based on how interesting or insightful the interview was, or even how moving or evocative your description is, but on my best assessment of the effort that you put into doing it.
  • Click “Publish” then relax and bask in the effervescent light of your own unique brilliance (or just get some sleep) 🙂

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