Audience Interviews – YSM & Slavery

As part of my postdoctoral associate appointment, I am researching the Yale School of Medicine’s (YSM) historical ties to slavery and related patterns of racial discrimination. While the project team (myself, another postdoc, and the supervising professor) hope the final output of our project will reach an audience beyond YSM, we are currently considering how to present our research in a way that reflects the institution’s goals, and especially the goals of YSM’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion which is sponsoring the research. So rather than interview potential audience members from the general public, we conducted a roundtable where the project team showed members of the supervisory committee some of our findings in the form of a potential website for sharing one research discovery (a previously unknown clandestine bodysnatching of a Black sailor) and a PowerPoint presentation for another (a YSM alumni’s involvement with the “fancy” (sex) slave trade), with most of the session left open for feedback.

The committee quickly focused on the affective elements of the presentations. They were concerned with balancing the raw, emotional aspect of the stories we’d uncovered with protecting the audience from a traumatic experience. We discussed how to frame stories like the ones we presented, and committee members stressed the need for situating the emotional as well as factual content of our research before the audience gets to the specific stories. While no concrete decisions were made on how to do this, we collaboratively discussed some examples of how this kind of material has been presented.

The interviewees also stressed their desire for some sort of physical memorial to draw the YSM community to what will likely be a website with more detailed findings from our research. They also suggested a travelling exhibit, that could visit area libraries and community centers, to inform the New Haven community about our findings.

Ultimately, this discussion gave me and the project team a better sense of the institutional goals for the project (a physical memorial tied to more detailed research presentation) as well as the intended audiences (the YSM community as well as larger New Haven). They also keyed us into the emotional aspects of this work, that we’d gotten somewhat comfortable with as we moved from research to presentation. Though the team had discussed the impact we’d felt privately (I, personally, felt compelled to visit the grave of a person whose body was taken against their family’s will before being returned), we had presented our research more academically, not including our emotional responses. The major takeaway from the feedback was received was to not just prepare the audience for an emotional reaction but also to consider where it is appropriate for us as researchers and presenters to share ours. The one aspect the project team did not get feedback on that we had hoped to was other potential areas of research.