I need to know more about research techniques for Isaac’s biography. gave me some advice: Speak with an experienced biographer and create social capital.

This is more proof that is a genius. “Social capital”? I work for Columbia University! Why don’t I make use of that fact?

I wrote to a professor in the History Department, who in turn pointed to me to two people: the Head of the Digital Humanities Center, and the Director of the Oral History Department. They both responded to my e-mails. I took a day off from work to go to campus and speak with them.

My reaction: Oh wow!

By that I mean I learned a lot. Here are some of the high points:

  • Neither of the people I spoke to had ever heard of Isaac Bonewits. But the Director of the Oral History Department was friends with both Starhawk and Margot Adler. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather.

    There was no problem with talking about paganism with either one of them. They were both receptive to the idea of the biography, and supportive of my research efforts. Hail Columbia!

  • At both departments, I received a suggestion/offer to give a talk on my work after I’ve gotten most of it done. I realized that they’ve anticipated an issue that mentioned: After a book is published, it still needs ongoing care.

    If the Oral History Department is interested in a talk, and the Religion Department is interested in a talk, perhaps there are other Columbia University departments that would like talks as well. I will gleefully tell the story of how Isaac got his degree in Magic over and over again as needed.

  • There are a number of different information-management tools suitable for digital research. (Why “digital”? Because I scanned Isaac’s papers into my computer.) There’s one that’s available for free, and works as a Firefox web browser add-on for any operating system: Zotero. Another is expensive, but Columbia has a site license for it: Nvivo.

    After some discussion, my plan is to use Zotero for now. If I need the additional analysis power, I can always move to Nvivo later on; Nvivo can import Zotero’s information.

    Zotero is a nice document and biliographic organizational tool; if you’re involved in any kind of research you might want to take a look at it. Nvivo is more powerful, but it’s Windows-only, it can’t export information to other analysis packages, it’s not really compatible with cloud-based storage, and it can’t synchronize its information with other computers. With Zotero, I can use Dropbox to store my files, and its information synchronizes with any of my computers that runs Firefox.

  • Both also suggested that the scanned files I create, and the interview recordings, could be stored in a University library. I was surprised by the former; the Davidson Library already has (or will get) the originals of Isaac’s papers; of what use are my digital copies? I learned that my digital and audio files are both of historical interest. Eventually I may ask the Davidson Library, Columbia’s Center for Oral History, and Columbia’s Center for Digital Research and Scholarship to negotiate who should receive them. (In the case of the scans, it may be that Phaedra must make the decision; I don’t know how it will work.)

    This raises some privacy issues, as I haven’t been warning the people I’ve interviewed that their words may be stored in a historical archives; they thought they were just talking to me. I asked about this, and it turns out there are established procedures for editing or blanking out sections of audio files in such cases, or simply restricting access to the file until the interviewee has passed away.

  • One issue I face is how to ask difficult personal questions during an interview. I received some good tips, and was directed to a couple of works of oral-history research for more ideas.
  • There was one big problem that neither person could solve: transcribing interviews.

    The standard formal oral history process involves recording the interviews, making a transcripts, then allowing the interviewee to edit the transcript. That sounds good, but making transcripts takes a long time. The standard figure is 8-9 hours to transcribe one hour of interview; 4-5 hours if one is an experienced transcriber.

    I already have 30 hours of interviews. I anticipate that I’ll have around 100 by the time I’m finished. Can I spend 900 hours doing transcriptions? Easy to answer: no; it would take 2-3 years. Pay someone to do it? At minimum wage of $7.25/hour, that’s $6525. (I found a transcription service that offered $65 per hour of audio; I now realize it means they’re paying their transcribers minimum wage.)

    There are two remaining alternatives. One is that I don’t make transcriptions; I just take notes and transcribe the significant sections. In fact, that was my original plan. I want to the job right, but this may be the best I can do. It also does not permit the interviewee to edit the whole thing, or be inspired to make significant additions.

    The last alternative is a computerized transcription. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any available software that can do this. (The Dragon software packages won’t work for interviews.) I’ve put out a query to an expert at Columbia’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, but I’m not optimistic.

    It’s a problem. But “perhaps the horse will learn to sing”; if I’m going to work at least a couple more years on interviews, a computerized solution may come along.

I learned a lot from just two hours of talking with two experts, and there’s more I’ll learn from the resources they pointed me to. I am so glad made the suggestion–and even happier that I followed it!

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. sabrinamari

    Bill, I am so happy for you! This is great—far, far more than I ever hoped you could expect. Wow.

    I would love to lay claim to that genius thing, but actually, I have definitive proof that I am *not* a genius. Geniuses actually have to be able to listen to themselves when they have important insights and make crucial plans.

    As of yet, I don’t do this consistently.


    That’s next on my list of things to do.

    But I am so, so happy for you!

    1. wgseligman

      You don’t get to decide whether or not you’re a genius. Other people decide that for you. I say “piffle” to your protestations otherwise. Learn to accept complements gracefully; use this as an opportunity.

      (Just a bit of pre-Christmas cruelty. I’ve already been Santa; time to be Krampus for a bit.)

      1. sabrinamari

        “Learn to accept complements gracefully; use this as an opportunity.”

        Ah, you will force me to grow without mercy. Clearly, we are destined to be friends.

  2. whatlogic

    The story I remember about how my father got his degree in Magic was that the dean in charge of these things had a secretary. And my dad would come in and flirt shamelessly with her, so every time the dean got mad and tried to send out a letter telling him he couldn’t do this anymore, it would somehow get lost in the mail.

    The thing I don’t remember is which dean this was. Whether it was the dean in charge of undergraduate affairs or if there was a person in charge of the create-your-own-degree program and that was who this was or if it was someone else entirely.

    1. wgseligman

      That’s more-or-less the story I got too. But don’t give anything more away! If all the interesting stuff is put on the internet, no one will want to read the biography.

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