Subjectivity in the Zoom Age

Nathaniel Comfort's picture

Hi all,

I am updating my graduate seminar on oral history theory and method and want to include a unit on remote interviewing. I assume that most of my students' interviews will be remote in Spring '21. I found the excellent document Remote Interviewing Resources, which is definitely going on the syllabus.

My question, though, is about the subjective side of interviewing in the remote world. We all know that one thing that makes oral history powerful is the connection that can form between interviewer and oral author. So much of that depends on location, immediate surroundings, body language, minute gestures, and instantaneous reactions. Zoom makes many interviews possible that wouldn't be otherwise, but it flattens them into two dimensions, minimizes movement, and introduces delays and lags that hinder communication.

I would welcome experiences, readings or other resources, thoughts, rumors, gossip, or anything else the oral history hive mind might have on this subject. I'm interested for my own work, but I'm especially interested in anything that will help students.

Thanks in advance,
Nathaniel Comfort
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Dear Nathaniel,

This is a great question, and I'd be grateful if you shared some of your findings with this group. Like you, I am preparing to teach a subject on interview-based research and thinking about how our methodologies and analysis are changing in pandemic times.

I am also Joint Editor at Studies in Oral History: The Journal of Oral History Australia. This year we asked colleagues to send us their reflections on doing oral history (or not) in a time of Covid. We are publishing the issue in mid-December, and it will be available open-access on our website, if you'd like to check out the musings of a diverse group of Australian oral historians on this subject.


Dr. Carla Pascoe Leahy
Australian Research Council DECRA Fellow, University of Melbourne
Joint Editor, Studies in Oral History
Honorary Associate, Museums Victoria

School of Historical and Philosophical Studies | Faculty of Arts
The University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010 Australia | @C_PascoeLeahy |

Hi Nathaniel,

I don't know if this is helpful or not, but Graham Smith and I recently recorded this conversation about intersubjectivity for our second-year students, and part of the discussion was about a Covid-19 response project that is using remote interviewing.

The Newcastle University Oral History Collective recently held a one-day workshop on remote interviewing. We didn't record it, but there was a good bit of live tweeting @ncl_oralhistory throughout the workshop.

Best Wishes,

Dr. Alison Atkinson-Phillips
Newcastle University

Hi Nathaniel,

One observation I have is that while interviewing online is not at all the same as being in the same room, the simple act of muting myself (as interviewer) while listening has been a positive thing in that I am much less likely to interrupt the flow of the narrator, even if only with an encouraging "hmm, yes." This allows the narrator's story to unfold itself in greater depth and also -- importantly! -- leads to a cleaner audio recording.

Alice Garner