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Reflections on the ARST Oral History Project

ARST OHP Interviewees

For some time, I have been meaning to write up a more comprehensive “behind-the-scenes” account of the Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology (ARST) Oral History Project (OHP). The ARST OHP is a collection of interviews of rhetoricians of science, technology, and medicine conducted at the 20th anniversary meeting of the organization at the 2012 National Communication Association convention. The organizing and technical dimensions of the project were challenging and educational–my goal here is to make those facets of the project more visible so that others might be able to conduct similar projects. (You might read that as a “too much detail” warning.)

Lisa Keränen, then President of ARST, approached me in the spring of 2012 about the possibility of doing some kind oral history project in recognition of the 20th anniversary of ARST. As she joked later, her vision was more akin to “sticking an iPhone in people’s faces and asking them to talk about ARST” than what eventually unfolded. Of course I jumped on the opportunity. Over the course of the summer, I brainstormed questions in conversation with Lisa and colleagues like Carly Woods and long time ARST-er John Lyne.

By the end of the summer, I had a draft of 12 questions that covered various aspects of the organizational history of ARST and, more broadly, the intellectual history of the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine. I circulated the questions to the interviewees which were going to be at the ARST preconference so that they could consider some of their answers (while it might have been more organic to not give them the questions beforehand, it seemed fair since I was asking them to reach back 20 years and summon memories of ARST’s founding–I’d like someone to show me the same courtesy when recall is at such a premium!)

This is the Protocol for Interviewees (pdf), reproduced here:

1. What is your name, current position, and institutional affiliation?

2. Tell me a little bit about some of your current or recent research related to the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine.

3. What drew you to research the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine?

4. What can you tell me about the history of ARST and your involvement with it? Do you recall any memorable moments from past ARST meetings?

5. What significant tensions or intellectual sticking points stand out for you over the last twenty years of the subfield?

6. What were the biggest challenges facing the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine as it began to develop? What are some of the biggest challenges for scholars today?

7. How does your research connect to broad themes in rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine? Can you place it in conversation with the subfield?

8. What do you see as your biggest contribution to rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine?

9. What does rhetoric add to studies of science, technology, and medicine?

10. What is (or should be) the telos of rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine? Is it to influence scholarship, scientists, and/or the public? What telos has your work taken? Can you share any anecdotes of success?

11. The rise of the internet is inviting many scholars to reconsider extant communication theories. How might we account for the impact of internetworked media on the relationship between science, technology, medicine and their rhetorics?

12. What other future directions, either topically or methodologically, do you see for rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine research?

The interviewees–David Berube, John Angus Campbell, Leah Ceccarelli, Celeste Condit, David Depew, Jeanne Fahnestock, Randy Harris, Carl Herndl, Lisa Keränen, John Lynch, Carolyn Miller, Lawrence Prelli, Judy Segal, Greg Wilson, and James Wynn–were selected based on their ability to come to NCA and their centrality to ARST and the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine more broadly. With 14 interviewees committed to the project, this loyal NCA member did not have time to attend a single panel that year!

A few notes on the questions:

*There’s nothing terribly earth-shattering here. They are pretty open-ended questions that could be taken a zillion different directions. A different kind of project could have been tailored more toward specific scholars and scholarly projects and could have gotten “deeper in the weeds” about issues in the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine. Of course, that would have been a tremendous investment of time in terms of preparation and would have moved away from the broader questions about the organizational history of ARST and the intellectual history of the subfield. It also would have made the interviews stretch into the second hour, which was unsustainable for numerous reasons.

*The “memorable moments” aspect of question #4 was inspired by my colleagues Jordan Soliz, an intergroup communication scholar, and Jody Kellas, an interpersonal and family communication scholar. “Memorable moments” scholarship has a rich history on the more social science end of the Communication discipline. I’d heard about this concept during my time here at Nebraska, and it seemed to fit in naturally with the interview-driven historical project here.

*I baldly asserted my own research agenda in question 11 about how the internet was influencing the practice of science and its rhetorics. Some people had fantastic, developed answers to this question, and others demurred (recognizing, fairly, that this was a huge question that merited more consideration). I got some fantastic answers, though, that have informed my own research productively.

*The interview protocol was a nice resource early on, but as I got more comfortable (and, admittedly, tired, as I did 7 interviews or so a day), the protocol became more and more like the curb (a guideline, not a rule). There was definitely a tension early on between the structure of the protocol and my desire to move more naturally through different tangents that unfolded.

Of course, the intellectual part of this project was only half the story. The technical dimension merited a intense consideration and preparation. I was committed to really high production values, which I knew meant attention to video, audio, and lighting.

I rented a high-definition Canon Vixia camcorder from UNL’s New Media Center (unfortunately, the New Media Center’s role has been shifted on campus, which would make something like this difficult or impossible today). Although the camcorder produced a nice image, it created breaks every 11 minutes or so as it chunked the video away to storage–which made it a bit of a nightmare in the editing stage. This is mostly a function of the equipment of the time. The new video camcorders have longer stretches they can go–but if someone else was considering doing this kind of project, this is definitely something to consider. Video: check.

I also knew I needed good audio. I got a lapel mic from the New Media Center, which plugged in to the video camera and then could be held or pinned to the interviewee. My biggest regret is that I did not mic myself. To be honest, I thought that the single lapel mic would pick up enough of my voice, as I wasn’t going to be so far away from the interviewee. In some of the interviews, this isn’t an issue, but in others my voice is a little fainter than ideal. Audio: check.

So there was one more piece that I knew I needed to really execute the project at a high level: lights. To be honest, I didn’t know what kind of lighting would be best, but I wanted to recreate the studio feel of professional documentary interviews. Our New Media Center certainly didn’t have any lights that they wanted to let me fly 1,000 miles to Orlando, FL…nor would I have wanted to. After striking out with local universities, I called around to numerous small production companies in Orlando to see if they had recommendations and could give us something pro bono for the weekend (I’m a dreamer). Ultimately, Hoofta Productions agreed to let us rent lights and a backdrop for a reduced price (which we negotiated in part by offering an in-kind donation letter from our department for their tax purposes). For about $300, generously paid for by ARST, we rented two Kino-Flo 4ft 4-Bank lights. These things were beautiful. They oughta be called shadow chasers, because they illuminated evenly and naturally. If they weren’t the cost of a small used car, I’d put them on my own personal wish list. Lights: check.

As the date for the interviews drew closer, Lisa Keränen posted on the ARST listserv asking if anyone wanted to volunteer to assist me. I was happy to have the help, though I didn’t know exactly what kind of assistance I needed–but this ended up being one of the most fantastic elements of the whole project. Jennifer Malkowski, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and Kenny Walker, a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona both volunteered. We touched base briefly and agreed to meet before the ARST Preconference kicked off.

I arrived in Orlando, got the equipment, and set up the studio in my hotel room:

hotel room/studio

I’ll let you supply your own jokes. Let’s just say that I had a very understanding roommate.

For most interviews, one lead interviewer–usually me–asked questions and managed interactions with occasional interjections from Jen or Kenny. Jen and Kenny took notes while the interview progressed. I was deathly afraid that some technical error in the camera would not record the video, or that the hard drive with all the files on it would get eaten by a hungry TSA agent at the airport. (Had I to do it over again, I probably would have had a digital audio recorder as back up. Sound quality would have been less, but it would have alleviated a lot of worries.)

These are the notes that Jen, Kenny, and I took during the interview. They give more detail than the interview summaries on YouTube do, and might be useful to someone out there who wants to peruse the interviews for particular subjects without watching the videos. Best of luck reading our handwriting.

One other document might be useful to others who want to do this kind of work: the Permission and Release Form for the OHP (.doc file for ease of editing). We worked with our legal counsel at UNL to craft a document that would gift the interviews to ARST, allow for publication across different media, and waive any right to view the final product before publication (although, in fact, every one did review and approve the final version of the interview–but I could see a situation in which this would be an important clause).

There’s a lot to say about the actual interview process, and, in fact, we said it in a “behind-the-scenes of the ARST Oral History Project” video:

One of the fantastic elements of the project was getting to know Jen and Kenny. Debriefing after a long day of interviews was simply amazing–we had such a good time working together, and learned so much thorough the collaboration, that we decided to extend our partnership and write an article on the major insights coming out of the ARST Oral History Project. That offered another layer of intense collaboration with its own rewards: a forthcoming article in Rhetoric Review.

This project would not have finished (well, it would not have finished in a year) without the assistance of an undergraduate research assistant, Carrie A. Under the auspices of a Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences (UCARE) grant, Carrie was able to serve as a research assistant on this project. In addition to numerous other responsibilities, she took the lead on editing the videos. Mostly, we edited out long asides, or distractions like crazy noise in the halls, or when interviewees asked to start an answer over. And of course we had to massage some of the spots where the recording had a glitch because of the aforementioned issue with a hiccup as the camera chunked segments of the video away into storage.

Although we had a release form for the interviews, I wanted to add a layer of protection for them so that some for-profit outfit couldn’t scoop them up and start charging people for viewing them (because people are just beating down the door of rhetoricians trying to monetize their memories–ok, maybe not, but we should use best practices anyways, right?) We ended up using the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike license. This means that anyone who uses the videos for any purpose must give appropriate credit to the original source, cannot use the videos for a commercial purpose, and must distribute any remixed or transformed materials under the same license. I did a lot of research into the various Creative Commons licenses and decided this is the one that best approximated the ideals of publication in the academy (emphasis on ideals; in practice, as we all know, lots of commercial companies lay claim to our work as a condition of publication.)

All told, we estimate that the Oral History project took about 200 combined hours to prepare for, organize, conduct, edit, and publish. Mostly, it was a labor of joy. Occasionally it was not, technical work being what it is.

One of the amazing things about digital projects like this is that they are expandable. So, a few months after all the videos were released, David Beard asked if he could interview Alan Gross for the project archive. How could we say no? Although we initially interviewed 14 key figures in the rhetoric of science, technology, and medicine, we would love to see the archive expanded with other interviews. So, if you’re interested in interviewing a key figure in the rhetoric of science, technology, or medicine, hopefully this guide provides some help–and let us know if we can be of any extra assistance.

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