Interview with Dr. Claudine Ferrell

by tsherran ~ December 10th, 2009. Filed under: Essays, Uncategorized.

On November 16, 2009 we conducted an interview with Dr. Claudine Ferrell, a history professor at the University of Mary Washington.  The focus of the interview was her memories about teaching alongside civil rights activist James Farmer, who taught history courses at Mary Washington between 1984 and 1998.  During the interview, Professor Ferrell revealed valuable and fascinating information about Farmer’s tenure at Mary Washington that can help us to understand his impacts while teaching.  His presence at Mary Washington had numerous impacts on the faculty, administration, and students.  Furthermore, the interview also highlights the nature of oral history.

Farmer’s position as a history professor forced some in the department to develop a realization of the nature of Mary Washington.  Professor Ferrell explains how Farmer bypassed most, if not all, of the bureaucratic processes that a typical professor must go through in accordance with their position on the faculty.  Farmer was not required to sit on committees, assume responsibility as an advisor to students, or have to worry about the issue of tenure.  Additionally, Farmer was only required to teach two courses per semester, only a fraction of a typical schedule of a history professor.  According to Professor Ferrell, accommodating Farmer’s unique background and position on the faculty “was kind of hard to do…at times” because the system in place was not designed for a personality of his type.1  Due to Farmer’s unique nature, position, and role in the teaching faculty, conventional professors teaching alongside him engaged in an examination of the nature of their own positions and Mary Washington as an institution, which kept structural processes in place for its faculty while not being able to provide a system to accommodate a special professor like Farmer.

Farmer teaching courses on the civil rights movement had a positive impact on Professor Ferrell’s admirable pursuit to educate students on African-American history.  With an academic concentration in African-American studies, Professor Ferrell taught a single course on the subject, struggling to cover an adequate amount of the expansive material.  She describes how she was able to concentrate more on her expertise area, which were the times before the civil rights movement.  While she focused on this, Farmer picked up where she left off, teaching his courses on the civil rights movement, its meaning, and its lasting legacy. Although it was not intended, Farmer helped Professor Ferrell to deliver a better quality education on the subject of African-American studies to the history students at Mary Washington.

Farmer’s role as a history professor also compelled the school administration to realize that they lacked a formal way of handling unique professors.  Professor Ferrell recalls how Farmer dealt very little with the school administration and how that “suggests…that we didn’t have a college structure to deal with…people like James Farmer who played a special role, who are not here because they have PhDs…who are here because of what they have done in life.”2  Because they lacked formal structure for faculty members like James Farmer, a mode of improvisational acting on behalf of the administration ensued.  This highlighted how Mary Washington had in place a strict conventional way of operation without room for unique personalities requiring special accommodation or attention.

As a history professor, Farmer taught the students valuable ethics lessons in the classroom.  Professor Ferrell recalls one of the academic papers he assigned to his students.  He wanted the students to write a paper “dealing with some sort of…experience dealing with discrimination; something they faced.”3  The purpose behind this assignment was to prompt students to consider the unfairness and reality of being treated differently because of a personal trait or a personal problem.  Farmer related this concept to his objective of conveying the sentiments and experiences of the civil rights movement.  Because the students considered the realities of being treated unfairly, they were put in a better position to consider the struggles of the civil rights movement in ethical terms.

Farmer’s relationship with those he taught transcended the typical relationship between professor and student.  Professor Ferrell gives several examples for this.  “He would welcome students; he was very appreciative of the [students’] conversations, very appreciative when they would walk with him.”  When she was asked her opinion about a student planning to go fishing with Farmer one weekend, Professor Ferrell responded cheerfully “it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if he…had students going out there all the time and sitting with him.”4 By engaging in relationships with students atypical of a professor, Farmer created strong personal bonds with his students.

The interview with Professor Ferrell brings up several interesting aspects about conducting oral history.  First, her explanation of the impact Farmer had on her African-American studies was prompted by a question in the two sentence format.  According to Charles T. Morrissey, the two sentence format “can bolster the interviewee’s confidence as a historical source.”5  Because Professor Ferrell was prompted by a question highlighting her background on the subject of the inquiry, she felt more justifiably confident with her answers.  As an expert in the field, she explained specifics about the study of African-American history.  Second, we must be careful on how we interpret the evidence Professor Ferrell gives about Farmer’s relationship with his students.  Katherine Borland asserts that we should avoid “simply gather[ing] data on others to fit into our own paradigms once we are safely enclosed in our university libraries ready to do interpretation.”6 Because we have evidence of Farmer straying from the traditional relationship between professors and students, one might argue that he neglected the traditional relationship completely.  However, there is no evidence to suggest that this was case.  Farmer was, at most, more casual around his students while still recognizing the limitations.  To say that Farmer became close, personal friends with some of his students would be an exaggeration.  Someone determined to show that he formed improper relationships would be guilty of what Borland warns of.

1 Claudine Ferrell, interview by Timothy Sherrange and Michael Ballard, Fredericksburg, VA, November 16, 2009.

2 Claudine Ferrell, interview by Timothy Sherrange and Michael Ballard, Fredericksburg, VA, November 16, 2009.

3 Claudine Ferrell, interview by Timothy Sherrange and Michael Ballard, Fredericksburg, VA, November 16, 2009.

4 Claudine Ferrell, interview by Timothy Sherrange and Michael Ballard, Fredericksburg, VA, November 16, 2009.

5 Charles Morrissey. “The Two-Sentence Format as an Interviewing Technique in Oral History Fieldwork.” Oral History Review 15 (1987): 43-53, 52.

6     Katherine Borland, “That’s Not What I said”: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research,” in Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (New York: Routledge, 1991), 73.

This essay cites two secondary sources that help to analyze the interview with Professor Claudine Ferrell.  The first, “The Two-Sentence Format as an Interviewing Technique in Oral History Fieldwork,” by Charles Morrissey explores the dynamics that accompany the two-sentence question format that an interviewer may choose to use.  This question format was used in the interview with Professor Ferrell which helped to prompt a detailed response from her.  The second source that was used in this essay was “That’s Not What I Said: Interpretive Conflict in Oral Narrative Research,” by Katherine Borland.  In this essay, Borland examines the importance of maintaining a two-way conversation between the interviewer and narrator to ensure the narrator’s opinions and views are properly represented.  These two sources aided in a proper analysis of the interview.

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