Oral Interview (?) with PhD Student Conner Milliken

This guest blog comes from Conner Milliken, a first year PhD student in Theatre Studies at the University of Glasgow, undertaking a PhD entitled ‘Queer History-Making in Performance: Interrogating Scotland’s Narrative of Liberalisation’. Here, Conner reflects on participating in the Oral History Training workshop.

“Oral history is a unique way of doing history, involving the reconstruction and interpretation of the past based upon people’s memories, usually via a planned interview, using a sound recorder or filmed.  Oral history is an increasing popular way of doing history, (proliferating at many different levels:

  • Community projects (archived; pamphlets; books)
  • Museum & Archive projects (exhibitions; archived)
  • Media projects & programmes (STV WW2; BBC archive; sports history)
  • Academic research projects (theses; articles; books)
  • Organisations are increasing recording and archiving their own past (for example the Trade Union Congress; the Royal College of Nursing; the Scottish Football Association; Scottish Council on Deafness; University of Strathclyde; private companies)”

(Scottish Oral History Centre, 2017. Oral History Training Manual, p.4).

The two most common forms of referencing oral history interviews in written work are transcriptions and time-coded summaries. Transcriptions are written accounts of everything the interviewee said – every word, every pause, every interruption – and may also include notes about inflection (‘said sarcastically). This can take hours and hours of work for the historian to transcribe whole interviews and these are normally included in full in the appendix of the thesis or book. The other form of referencing is time-coded summaries which give the themes the interviewee discusses at certain times during the interview. These are often included alongside the recordings of the interviews so that those reading can skip to parts of the interview that the historian is working with. They are also used in-tandem with transcription to give a general idea of other parts of the interview that may not be useful for the argument the historian is making.

The following is an attempt to show how transcriptions and time-coded summaries may be used to describe an event the interviewee was involved in; in this case it is PhD student, Conner Milliken describing the oral history training workshop he went to and the reasons for wanting to take part in that training.


Conner: My name is Conner Milliken. Today is the fourteenth of June 2019 and I am in the Alexander Stone building at the University of Glasgow. So, eh yeah, I applied for Student Development Funding so I could go take part in Oral History Training at Strathclyde uni- cause like I don’t use oral history in my actual PhD I guess but it’s part of my impact and engageme- or it was in my application an- and I guess I have an interest in oral history especially for queer people.

1:00 – 2:00 Conner precedes to talk about his PhD project. Mentions studying his undergraduate degree and postgraduate degree in Theatre Studies at the Univeristy of Glasgow.

2:01 – 3:07 Conner talks about his work as a queer performance-maker and that he works a lot with autobiography and choreography.

Conner: So then I decided to apply for- well I met with my supervisor from undergrad and masters, Steve Greer and we decided to apply to do a practice as research PhD here, it was in Offshore I think. So I started to apply and then I had to have a think about like what else I’d like to do- cause like I knew what I wanted the PhD to be and that was part written research and part participant workshops working with minoritised queer people to co-facilitate, with other artists in each city, new autobiographical performance. But, like, alongside that what else did I want to do to make the research do more- I guess reach more people and so I decided I really wanted to preserve oral testimonies from queer people living in Scotland about their lives cause they’ve often been excluded from histories by institutions that keep these kinds of records. There are already fantastic organisation doing work along these lines like OurStory Scotland but I kinda knew I had access to different funds if I got in to do a PhD and so I could open up new funds for people doing work in these areas and help their projects so oral history recording was one of them.

6:19 – 8:00 Conner talks about some of the training days and residentials he took part in as an AHRC-funded student, how helpful they were and how at one of the sessions, PhD candidates were pointed in the direction of the various funds that students could apply for including the Student Development Fund for individual training needs and that he saw Strathclyde’s Oral History Training Centre had a waiting list for training.

Conner: So yeah I got in touch and got put on the waiting list and it was ages before I heard back. But then someone from Stratchclyde got in touch and said that the next one was May and I could attend. So I applied for Student Development Funding to cover the cost of the training workshop and- well I was really lucky cause they awarded me funding to cover the cost of it. It was super important I got to go to the training at the Scottish Oral History centre because they really are the experts in the filed, not just in techniques to do with the equipment you need but also best practice, like how to actually be a good interviewer. So I went along, it was a full day session, in May and it was taught by Lorna Barton. We learned about everything [this was said enthusiastically and over-the-top], honestly from an introduction to oral history theory, to practical interview skills- when to just let people talk, to ask open questions, to be empathetic, to listen, not to intterupt – to, like the steps you need to take before you interview someone. So we got this really useful handbook that has everything in it and it comes with a checklist so things you do before you interview, like check sound levels and make sure the equipment is recording- oh that was the other thing, Lorna walked us all through the different types of recording equipment that you can use- to then like stuff to keep your mind on when interviewing like keeping an eye on time. We got to actually try that out- like interviewing each other.

13:22 – 15:00 Conner discusses more of the things that they learned  at the workshop which includes; the ethics involved with oral history work, how to transcribe (with pratical opportunities to try transcription out) to time-coded summaries (which are short summaries that describe what the person talks about, these are looser than transcriptions and are particularly useful when working with long interviews). Conner also talks about how good the ‘spread’ was and that he had a lot of coffee and biscuits.

Conner: So yeah it was really useful actually. I feel way more confident in working with oral history and I can- honestly I can see me working on oral history projects in the future, it’s so important. It’s important that people get to tell their stories and it’s important that people listen. That’s the one piece of advice I would give to everyone, it’s to really listen to each other. We need it.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog, please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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