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Six questions to ask before you hit record

Erin Jessee’s article “Managing Danger in Oral Historical Fieldwork” in the most recent issue of the OHR provides a litany of practical advice about mitigating risk and promoting security. The entire article is well worth a read, but for the blog we’ve asked Jessee to provide us a list of some of the most important questions for oral historians to think about in evaluating and limiting exposure to risk. Enjoy the response below, and make sure to check out the complete article, where Jessee dives more deeply into the problem and offers an important perspective on the relationship between danger and oral history fieldwork. And make sure to come back to the blog in a couple of weeks for part two of our conversation with Jessee, where we talk about best practices, spotting signs of trauma, the ethics of open access, and more!

The most important thing that oral historians can do is network to establish a community of scholars/practitioners who have experience working in the communities or areas where you plan to conduct your research and who might be more keenly aware of the potential dangers you’ll need to address. It’s particularly important to speak with people who share at least some facets of your identity in terms of gender identity, class background, ethnic heritage, religious beliefs, sexuality, and so on, to better determine how your identity—as perceived by the people you’ll be working closely with—might shape or limit your research and the kinds of questions you can ask. Similarly, in my experience it’s important to evaluate the information that is freely revealed in the course of conversations with experienced scholars/practitioners, but also to consider the silences that might be emerging. Not all scholars/practitioners are comfortable speaking openly about the problems they’ve encountered in their research—particularly if it stems from some real or perceived error on their part—and so these areas of silence can be crucial for anticipating where you might experience potential pitfalls.

To help oral historians anticipate risk, I’d suggest asking the following:

  1. Who are the ideal people within and beyond academia to speak to about my intended research project? In drawing up your list, be sure to consider not only who might constitute ‘experts’ in terms of their overall publication record in relevant fields, but in terms of recent on-the-ground experience conducting qualitative research within and beyond academia. Additionally, consider what is the most appropriate way to approach them for advice.
  2. How might different facets of my identity be perceived by the people I intend to work with? These can shape how people respond to you in interviews and more generally.
  3. Where am I encountering silences? Listen closely during the background research and early conversations you conduct, and consider the extent to which any emergent silences might indicate additional areas of risk or danger that are important to evaluate further prior to starting my fieldwork.

Oral historians should also take the time to consider the various ways that they might be vulnerable within their research projects, and identify the resources available to them in their immediate surroundings aimed at helping them maintain positive mental and physical health. I’d suggest the following questions as starting points:

  1. In what ways might this research project negatively impact my mental and physical health? Think not only about the obvious stressors related to workload and deadlines, but also ways in which your personal experiences and deeply held values might render you vulnerable to transference/countertransference, vicarious trauma, and burn-out, for example, as well as physical danger.
  2. What resources are available to me in my community that I can draw upon to help maintain positive mental and physical health? It’s important to consider not only health services associated with the universities and organizations that you’re working with, but also options external to our places of work, such as 24-hour help lines, community support groups, and so on.
  3. What are some everyday activities that I find enjoyable and relaxing, and that take my mind off my work/research? Focus on arranging your day/week/month to include these activities frequently enough to maximize your potential for resilience throughout the project.

As researchers, it’s important that we incorporate self-care strategies into our everyday lives throughout research projects—not just once we begin to experience poor mental or physical health.

What risks have you encountered in fieldwork, and what strategies have you developed to mitigate them? Chime into the discussion in the comments below or on TwitterFacebookTumblr, or Google+.

Featured image credit: “Risk Word Letters Boggle Game” by Wokandapix. CC0 via Pixabay

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