Teaching Autoethnography

9. The Interview Process

Overview

People are inherently lazy. That is the first thing you want to help students learn about interviewing anyone. It is not necessarily a malicious laziness. Most people just want to get to the point quickly and to finish the task at hand. This is the reason that when I ask my students how they are at the beginning of class, they say they’re good, fine. It’s not that they are bad people; I am asking a bad question that invites them to get to the point as quickly as possible. In this chapter I offer a few tips on how to help students conduct effective interviews.

When I was a graduate student writing my dissertation, I had an amazing experience. I was interviewing the head of a very large writing program in New York City. I knew this man had a long history of supporting personal writing in the composition classroom, which was the topic of my dissertation, and that he had great success with his methods. He seemed to me a kindred spirit, and I was excited to hear his thoughts on the state of personal writing in the field. When I asked if he would be willing to be interviewed, he agreed.

Before meeting him, I followed the procedure I had for all the interviews I had conducted up to that point. I sent him the outline of my dissertation project and some questions I intended to ask him. We met in his office, and during an informal discussion in which I was laying out my hopes for the interview before it started, he told me that he thought my project was naïve and uninformed. He did not want to be recorded and seemed resistant at best. It was in this moment that I learned my first important lesson about conducting interviews: The interviewee is always right.

Sure, this man was not saying what I wanted to hear. Above everything, I wanted people to respect me and be impressed and interested in my project and the contribution they could make to it. Being quick on my feet, I told my interviewee the best thing I could muster, that I agreed with him. I, too, thought my project was naïve and perhaps misguided. I invited him to show me the error of my ways by imparting his experience and answering my questions. I invited him to stop at any time. I explained that the recording would be heard only by me and would be used in an honest manner.

Having assuaged his ego, I got one of the best interviews of my project—honest, direct, and informative. I realized that I was fallible and that as a researcher there was a large chance that the premise for all my work was not what I hoped it would be. That is part of the risk involved in any kind of research. It is important to have goals and to set up expectations. It is important to do background reading, be prepared with intelligent questions, and have a purpose and narrative behind a line of questioning. It is also important to remember that everything students know and think they know may crash and burn when the time comes to talk with a primary source. This is the joy and pain of creating knowledge. Teaching students to accept that they may be wrong and expect that they may be right will help them end up somewhere in between. This work should happen in weeks twelve and thirteen.

Setting Expectations

Making sure students know why they are choosing to interview someone and what they expect to get from the interview is extremely important for their research process. Although their expectations might not be met, it is important for them to have a strong plan so they are able to adapt to any situation.

How to Write Effective Questions

Not only are people inherently lazy, but they also have low self-esteem. They are not sure what interviewers want to hear from them unless those interviewers tell them what they want to hear. When I converse with people, my first assumption is that they do not want to hear me prattle on and on in great detail about myself. But the opposite may be true during the interview process. Since much of the success of the interview depends on getting stories and as much detailed information as possible, students will want to encourage interviewees to create narrative arcs in their answers that can be easily adapted to fit in the structure of their projects. As I tell my students, one great interview can make an entire project successful. So the key is letting people know that, yes, this is a time when I want to hear all about you, as much as you can tell me—stories, anecdotes, everything you want to share.

Besides mannerisms, there are linguistic ways for students to make it clear to interviewees that for this moment in time, you think they are the most interesting people on the planet. Including phrases that invite interviewees to speak at length—“Can you tell me a story about…,” “In detail describe…,” “From the beginning explain…”— and avoiding yes-or-no questions are good ways to get lengthy, informative responses.

Choosing People Who Occupy Different Positions in the Subculture

Since students are doing these interviews in a short period of time, initially identifying people to interview who occupy very different positions in the chosen subculture is a quick way to get varied viewpoints. Of course, as with all other assumptions, the interviewee responses, despite intentions, may end up remarkably similar. There are ways to try to ensure that you will be getting varied viewpoints.

Encourage students to consider how long chosen interviewees have been involved in the subculture, approaching persons who occupy different positions of authority, those that seem heavily involved versus those who seem on the outskirts, and urge them to make note in their observations of any other characteristics or participation that may identify people as holding different roles.

Interviewing People You Know

Sometimes the people students know best end up being their worst interviews. There are a number of reasons this is true. Since the student already knows the person, a formal interview can seem awkward and uncomfortable, almost artificial, and can keep the subject from expressing himself or herself effectively. Depending upon the relationship, the person being interviewed might not be used to talking to the interviewer in a formal way.

If students choose to interview somebody they are already familiar with, it is important to include their knowledge in the interview and not to pretend that they do not know what they actually know. For instance, if a student grew up with a twin sister and upon interviewing her asked what day or where she was born, it would be pretty ridiculous. The interviewer would clearly already know this information. Although this is a silly example, it is important. Making sure that students let their interviewees understand their knowledge base is important to getting good responses. A conversation in everyday life often takes off when people find they have something in common or share a similar experience. Interviewees like to know upfront what interviewers’ intentions are and what the interviewers already know about them and their experience.

This will also help the subject to take the interview more seriously. When an interviewer makes clear to the subject that the questions will not cover a bunch of stuff the interviewer already knows, but instead will focus on getting to know unfamiliar things in a deeper way, it can help move the interview from friendship to research.

Previously known information might actually appear in the language of the question. For instance, one might ask, “I already know this about you; can you explain in detail why you might have made those choices?”

Conducting Interviews Assignment

An essential part of your final project with be conducting interviews with members of your subculture. Experience doing fieldwork has shown me that it is best to interview people who you are less familiar with. For instance, if you interview a very close family member or friend, you may not get the same kind of information you would get from someone you do not know. For this reason, I would recommend that you try to interview an acquaintance or someone you have had lesser, looser contact with for this portion of the project.

For each scenario there are important things to consider. If the person you choose is relatively unknown to you, be sure to make the interviewee feel comfortable sharing information and answering questions at length. Keep your manner genial and open, and encourage storytelling. Good stories from interviews can end up being riveting narrative elements in your final piece. In other words, great interviews can structure a great paper.

If you chose to interview someone you are familiar with or know a lot about, make sure to incorporate that knowledge into the questions you are asking. For instance, it would be silly to ask a sibling you grew up with “Where and when were you born?” Instead, include what you know when asking questions.

The purpose of the interview is to help you gain insight into the perspective of another member of your subculture. This can be valuable on a number of levels and for a number of reasons. It can help you understand the subculture more as an outsider, offer additional information you can use to examine your own positionality, and provide interesting narrative content for the final project.

As you plan for your interview, consider what information you would like to get out of the interview, and write out your questions accordingly.

For this assignment, write up a minimum of ten questions you plan to ask your interviewee. Make sure the questions are in an order that is logical. This will allow you to know what you intend to get out of an interview and enable you to adapt when an interviewee inadvertently answers more than one question at a time or shares information you would like to ask about in greater depth.

Make sure you ask leading questions rather than questions that can be answered with one-word responses. It is helpful to incorporate phrases such as these into your interview questions: “Tell me a story about the time…”; “Can you explain in detail when…”; “Describe your favorite memory about…” ; “At length, describe….”

This kind of questioning will help your interviewee to feel comfortable and willing to share more information about which you can then ask follow-up questions.

Interviews can be conducted in various ways: through online chats, via telephone or in person. Each method has its own plusses and minuses, so be aware that they will yield different products.

In-person interviews are usually the most productive in that they allow you to take notes on the interviewee’s manner, dress and composure in addition to getting your verbal answers. The benefit on online interviews conducted in writing is that they are already written up for you, and the task of writing up in-person interviews is time-consuming. You will miss out on observation details, however, in any form that is not face-to-face.

Please bring to class at least one set of questions with a brief description of whom you will be interviewing, what you already know about that person and what you would like to learn from her or him. Ultimately, you will be picking two people to interview and writing questions for each interview.

Results

Once students have picked two people they want to interview and written up their questions, they are asked to bring them to class. I then ask three or four student volunteers to write their questions on the board. As a class, we workshop the questions, analyzing their overall structure, considering what the student hopes to get out of the interview, and changing questions to help get the most out of the experience.

Students really appreciate the workshop aspect of this assignment and learn a lot about something they may have experienced as an interviewee but not as an interviewer. You will not be able to workshop all of the students’ questions, but the examples can open up discussion that will apply to any student’s interviews. Often students will interject with concerns about their own plan, and by the end of the session most questions will be answered.

Conclusion

Conducting interviews can often be the hardest part of the process for students. Interviews will sometimes fall through and even when they don’t, not every conversation will be useful and productive. Helping students think through their goals and to anticipate many common issues faced in the interview process will ensure they have a number of options when they face challenges.

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