So by Thursday of this week, I thought that I was about to lose it. It had been an entire week, and I had nothing to show for it as far as my oral history project goes. Let me back up a little bit though.
This week, I started out optimistic, excited, and energized. It had been three long weeks of getting approval for my project, three long weeks of waiting to hear back from the IRB, and three long weeks of trying to figure out how to put everything together; however, all of that preparation felt like it was finally paying off because I had a full week of interviews that I had arranged with Mr. Foxworth.
Mr. Foxworth is a history teacher at a local middle school who is good friends with Rosanne, the director of the museum. He’s a wonderful and quirky guy whose enthusiasm and verbosity can be both endearing and taxing. He’s the kind of person that you can’t start a conversation with if you have something to get done or somewhere to be, because you never know how long the conversation will last. That being said, what he lacks in succinctness, he makes up for in enthusiasm. When I told him about my project and what I wanted to do in Marion County, he lit up immediately and started telling me about all of the people that he could set me up to interview with. He knew this person with that story and that person with this story and those people with these stories and everybody in between. So we set up a time later in the week to go and meet folks to interview, and two Thursdays ago, we drove all around Marion meeting folks and setting up interview times. Before I knew it, I was booked for interviews for the next week and a half. He introduced me to his mother, his aunt, two of his old teachers, and his pastor, all of whom were older and had lived in Marion for quite some time. He was also extremely helpful for me in another regard: he provided me with much needed insight and access to the African-American community here in Marion. It had become obvious to me early on that I didn’t have enough black people to talk to, but after working with Mr. Foxworth, I had no doubt that would no longer be a problem.
All of this is to say that I was extremely excited about the week to come, full of wonderful interviews and new friends. In short, I was finally beginning to feel like a true oral historian rather than a paperwork machine.
That all came crashing down pretty much as soon as the week began. On Monday, while I was working on the farm, I got a call from a woman that I had contacted a week earlier, and she informed me that, after thinking over the project, she didn’t want to participate. Although she didn’t exactly say that, what she said is that she didn’t feel well enough to do it. I don’t know if this is wrong of me, but I was very skeptical of that. Perhaps I just don’t understand what it feels like to be old, but I can’t see how straining it can be to sit down with someone and talk. So, if she does truly not feel well enough to do an interview, I feel very sorry for her because I imagine that daily living must be extremely difficult; however, it is my suspicion that she simply didn’t want to do an interview but was too polite to say so. To me though, that sort of politeness—the kind that is derived from white lies and is all-too-southern—is much more rude than the truth. If you don’t want to participate, just tell me that you don’t want to participate, don’t blame it on your health.
I wasn’t too upset about that phone call, though, because I had an interview the next day with one of Mr. Foxworth’s old teachers, so I was still optimistic and excited for the week. Tuesday came around, and I had an interview scheduled with her at one o’clock. I called her house at ten to remind her. She wasn’t home, so I politely left a message. After not hearing back, I called her again at noon, and again at 12:30. By 12:50, I was starting to get apprehensive. By 1:00 I still heard no response, so I tried calling once more and then drove over to her house. When I arrived, I rang the doorbell repeatedly but no one answered. So I decided to call some of the other folks that I had interviews scheduled with for later in the week and see if they’d be available for an interview that day instead. I first called an old friend of Mr. Foxworth’s that I was set to interview on Saturday. A man answered the phone and informed me that not only could she not do an interview today, she was also going to be out of town on Saturday and couldn’t do an interview then either. He seemed surprised that she would even have set up an interview for Saturday. After that call, I simply gave up and went back to the museum pretty disheartened. I managed to salvage the day by calling other folks and setting up even more interviews for the coming weeks.
The process of calling people to set up interviews was both comedic and surprisingly melancholic. I called a WWII veteran who is now hard of hearing, and spent the entire conversation talking with his wife, who would pause after each thing I said to yell it to him. It went a little something like:
“Hi, my name is Jacob and I’m working at the Marion County Museum this summer doing an oral history project. I’d like to talk to your husband for the project.”
“Oh, okay, well that’s interesting. FRANK, THERE’S A GUY FROM THE MUSEUM ON THE PHONE, HE SAYS THAT HE WANTS TO TALK TO YOU FOR A PROJECT—FOR A PROJECT—YES HE’S FROM THE MUSEUM—NO, THE ONE IN MARION—OH OKAY—I’LL TELL HIM THAT—OKAY—I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME—My husband said he be glad to participate!”
And some of the people I called would be bluntly honest about the trials of getting older. One woman told me flat-out that she couldn’t remember much any more, and another woman told me that she was battling cancer and simply felt too weak to do it. I had to grumble a bit in frustration, because a part of me wanted to say, “Well I’m very sorry to hear that your health is suffering, but isn’t that even more of a reason to try to record your memories now?” I held my tongue out of respect for her decision.
Thursday was even worse. On Thursday, I was supposed to interview Mr. Foxworth’s pastor and his wife at 10:30, but when I called them at 9:30, his wife said that he wasn’t feeling up to it today. I told her that I understood, but immediately my spirits sank. It was my third scheduled interview and my second to be cancelled on the day of. I scrambled around to find someone else to talk to that day, and I remembered that a man that Rosanne knows had called me back the night before saying that he was interested. So I called him. Lo-and-behold, he was free to do an interview that day. My spirits again rose, and I headed over to his house at about 1:00. As we sat down to do the interview, I began to go through the release forms that he had to sign saying that he gave permission for his interview to be kept in the archive at the Southern Oral History Program at UNC and to be used in an exhibit in the Marion County Museum. He was very slow in reading the release forms, and I could see from his face that there was something wrong. After looking over the forms for about five minutes, he frowned and pointed to the section about putting his interview on the Internet. He went on to explain to me how concerned he was about putting his interview on the Internet, because even though he doesn’t use the Internet, he’s heard a lot of bad things about people being exploited. I tried to explain to him that that only happens with things like credit card numbers and social security numbers, but he didn’t seem to understand. I tried to explain to him that the people who would read my blog would be my friends and family, and that Internet predators wouldn’t even know how to get to the site. I tried to help him see that the kind of information he was going to disclose wouldn’t be the kind that would get him into trouble; that no one would be interested in exploiting his stories from his childhood. But all of this was to no avail. He had seen the word “Internet” and he had shut down. After two whole hours of talking with him about these issues, I simply told him that I’d call him a week or two later, gave up and went home dejected, angry, and frustrated. On my way home, I drove by Mr. Foxworth’s pastor’s house, and I saw his pastor, presumably too sick to do an interview, sitting out on the porch. Go figure.
To top off the week, on Friday, I received the following letter from the woman who had stood me up on Tuesday:
“Dear Mr. Tobias,
After checking my schedule, I found out that I will not be available for interviews. Best wishes.”
The week would have ended badly, except that also on Friday, I went to Charleston with Rosanne, Marshall, and Noelle. There are some pictures from that in my personal blog if you want to see them. Also, on Saturday when I got back from Charleston, I had an amazing interview with Mr. Foxworth’s mom, Lolabell. After an interview with Lolabell suddenly all was well. I’ll be posting her interview in the oral history blog soon enough.
Well readers/listeners, after a whole lot of technical trouble and learning, my first interview is all put together, spliced up, and here for you to listen to!
My first interview was with with Reginald “Reggie” McDaniel, who is currently the director of the South Carolina Tobacco Musem in Mullins, SC. The interview took place in Reggie’s office in the SC Tobacco Museum, which is housed in the old depot in downtown Mullins, right by the railroad tracks. It was a small room adjacent to the gift shop that had windows overlooking the museum. Reggie sat at his desk chair, and I sat in another chair facing him from the side. Reggie is someone who is articulate, pensive, and—as the official tour guide for the City of Mullins—is very comfortable talking with others. The interview itself lasted about an hour and a half, but I’ve distilled it down to about twenty-five minutes worth of material.
In the first section, Reggie talks about his family history which dates back to the 1700′s, his love of traveling, and his time in military school and the Vietnam War.
[audio:http://sites.duke.edu/marionoralhistory/files/2011/06/Reggie-McDaniel-Pt.-1.mp3|titles=Reggie McDaniel Pt. 1]
In the second excerpt, Reggie talks about his job as director of the museum with a story about a very valuable quilt. He also tells the story of when Lash LaRue, a famous cowboy, came to town. Lastly, he discusses how he gets his news, his views on the next generation, and, after the end of the formal interview, his opinionated nature.
[audio:http://sites.duke.edu/marionoralhistory/files/2011/06/Reggie-McDaniel-Pt.-2.mp3|titles=Reggie McDaniel Pt. 2]
To top it off, here are some images of Reggie and of the SC Tobacco Museum:
First off, I guess I owe an explanation to all of my readers: the oral history work that I’m doing in Marion County is considered by Duke to be “Research with Human Subjects.” Thus, in the eyes of Duke I am a researcher in the full sense of the term. Accordingly, I had to go through the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at Duke in order to get my project approved. The IRB looks at research projects and ensures that they ethically protect those who will participate; on the ground, that means a lot of paperwork.
As part of the Service Opportunities in Leadership program (to learn more, visit http://www.hart.sanford.duke.edu/sol/), which I am participating in this summer, I have to write critical reflections on the process of community-based research, and I figured that I’d share my most recent reflection with all of you in which I talk about the IRB process and the idea of being a researcher. I promise it’s interesting!
The irony of reflecting on my research up until this point is that I haven’t even started it yet. So far, for the past two full weeks that I’ve spent in Marion, I’ve spent most of my time going back and forth with the IRB trying to get approval for my project. Throw in limited internet access, a few critical people being on vacation, and memorial day weekend and you’ve got what makes for a long approval process. It’s hard for me not to feel like getting approval from the IRB wasted the first two weeks that I had in Marion.
But “wasted” is a word that is both too strong and too simple. For the most part, working with the IRB didn’t help me to see my project in a new way. Perhaps the problem was that, by the time that I was writing my protocol, I had already thought through most issues that were brought up during in the application itself. I felt like I was simply regurgitating what I have already said so many times in applications, in meetings, and in casual conversation. Also, seeing my time in this community fly out of the window while I waited for word from the IRB made for a very stressful, tense first few weeks.
That being said, my time in actuality was anything but wasted. I got the chance to get my blog for the summer up and running, I got time to fool around with my new recording equipment and my new camera, I got time to wander up and down main street and talk to local business owners, I got time to know my supervisor at the Marion County Museum very well, and I got time to get to know what the other students in my scholarship group were doing during their internships. I even got to tag along with my friend Bekah to her work at Wildlife Action Day Camp, where I got to help little kids canoe and learn to love nature. So my time wasn’t wasted at all, it’s just that it wasn’t invested in a tangible product per se, and it wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing with my first few weeks here.
For the most part, the IRB approval process was exactly like I thought it’d be, but one thing that happened surprised me quite a bit. Because I’m doing oral history work, I had to write release forms, consent forms, recruitment scripts, and recruitment letters to show the IRB. I wrote all of my paperwork up and got a response from the IRB. Frankly, their reaction surprised me. In essence, they asked me to dumb all of it down. I came to find out that their standard for any forms that subjects have to read is that they must be at an eighth-grade reading level, and for some reason, that standard really upset me. While I understand why they wanted me to simplify my forms, I still had some sort of problem with it. I guess it’s because of how patronizing that feels; how insulting it seems to be towards one’s research subjects.
These days, even using the word “research” in reference to what I’m doing makes me squirm a little bit. Yes, I am technically a researcher in the field, but saying that to the people that I interview feels so strange. Perhaps it’s because the connotations of research in the academic world are so different than the connotations of research in the real world. In the academic world, research is a buzzword that every undergraduate strives for, but in the real world, research is oftentimes seen as a way of using people for one’s own benefit, as a form of manipulation. When you hear the word research in the real world, you think of a scientist in a lab coat, not a young college kid who is trying to form relationships with a community and understand the lives of individuals.
All of this frustration and confusion aside, I am very happy about three things concerning the IRB approval process: it was my first time going through it, which means that it will only be easier after this; it forced me to figure out how I was going to archive my interviews, so I now I don’t have to figure that out after the fact; and I’m an official Duke University researcher, which feels good to say the least.
That being said, getting started is proving difficult. For some strange reason, I am very nervous and quite frankly, that’s weird for me. I don’t usually get nervous about things, especially things that involve simply talking to people. This is one part that I didn’t anticipate; I didn’t anticipate that it would be hard to approach people as a researcher. I’m looking forward to learning how to better do that and getting more comfortable with doing so.
I’m also learning about how critical the issue of access is to conducting thoughtful, meaningful, important research. Roseanne, the director of the Marion County Museum and my community partner, has been wonderful about brainstorming people who would be good to talk to. She has come up with a formidable list of at least thirty people I could talk to; needless to say, I won’t get around to all of them. One thing that has become apparent to both Roseanne and myself is that the list is predominately white in a town that is predominately black. Also, most of the people are somehow connected with being leaders in this community—ex-mayors, wives of police chiefs, superintendents, etc.—which makes me think that many of them represent those who are more affluent in the community. So one thing that I’m going to have to work on is finding a way to gain access to poor white communities and most of the black community here in Marion. Luckily, I have just started attending a predominately black church, which I think will help me to get to know people in the African-American community pretty quickly.
The other thing that has come up pretty immediately with my research is how I will deal with the more challenging stories that come up during interviews. Surely, I will hear stories of racism, sexism, classism, and all the other –isms, so the question that arises is what to do with them when I produce my final exhibit. One thing that’s certain is that I will not simply back down from stories that are difficult; however, I have to become extremely adept at determining where the line is between difficult stories that are constructive and difficult stories that are divisive. That is surely going to be a challenge, but my hope is that I can balance difficult stories with common stories of unity in the final exhibit. So yes, I may include a story that a white woman tells me about her grandfather who led the KKK, and I may include the story that a black man tells me about the pain of segregation, but in that same exhibit, it is my hope to have both of those people also telling silly stories about their families or something like that. I want to pair the difficult stories with stories that are mundane and comedic, stories that illustrate the common thread of humanity that winds through us all. Perhaps that way, I can confront difficult issues, but bring the community closer through doing so. That will remain to be seen.
For now, though, the bottom line is that I am extremely excited for my first interview, which I expect will be in the next few days.
That’s all for now!