Interviews (not the academic kind)

This is a piece about using technology to document and preserve as well as connect anew. It is also about advocating for audio documentation as a break from the insistent and incessant visual realm. Rest your screen eyes (after you read this) and just listen. I hereby issue a challenge to you:  this Thanksgiving, be the weird/annoying relative/friend who is always up to something and can’t just relax in front of the parade, dog show, or Detroit Lions. Tell them you just have to do this one thing…

Select one relative or friend, perhaps a parent or the oldest person at dinner, and ask to interview him or her. If you have a smart phone, then you have a piece of recording technology John and Ruby Terrill Lomax could scarcely have imagined when they lugged around heavy equipment like this in the 1930s:

Library of Congress, American Folklife Center

Even without an external directional microphone, the voice recording feature on smart phones is an incredible tool. The oral history project StoryCorps has declared the day after Thanksgiving “National Day of Listening.” I see this as a very intentional effort to combat the competitive shopping delirium of “black Friday.” StoryCorps provides an excellent list of questions that suit a variety of themes such as Working, Religion, Family Heritage, and War.

Even if you think you’ve heard  every one of a person’s stories one hundred times, themes can open new territory. When I interviewed my father in the StoryCorps booth in 2007, I focused on his childhood memories of World War II. He had told me many times about peeling the foil from the paper of Wrigley’s gum wrappers and getting cash for the foil. But it was not until the recorded interview that he described the profound trauma of seeing news reels with concentration camp footage during Saturday movie matinees. I have a CD of the interview, and it remains startling when my father bursts into tears on the recording.

Starter questions such as “what is your earliest memory?” or “what are you proudest of?” put people in the zone of recollection. These questions can break surfaces that, through habit and routine, have congealed over something potentially rich and evocative; like a dull skin coating a luscious mousse. If you take up this challenge to conduct a Thanksgiving interview, and do wind up breaking through the stubborn skin to discover something profound, please report back to the blog and share your experience.

When we conduct interviews, we are not only communicating across various entities (curricula, generations, turkeys); we are creating primary documents for the potential researchers of tomorrow. A Speaker’s Guidebook (O’Hair et al.) discusses the use of different types of evidence for making a strong, clear argument. The types of evidence include: extended, brief, and hypothetical examples; lay and expert testimony; narrative or anecdote; facts; and statistics. The oral history interview potentially provides the listener / would-be researcher with most of these types of evidence. In this Lomax recording of

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the Lomaxes intended to document a short lullaby, but inadvertently documented the use / employment of a black woman transplanted from Virginia to Texas who nursed well over a dozen white children across two generations. This snippet of musical ethnography suddenly becomes relevant to the research of labor historians, women’s studies scholars, African Americanists, and southern culture historians, to name a few.

Not only can interviewing foster emotional connections and provide future researchers with material, it can be a powerful and effective pedagogical tool. When I taught Introduction to Acting at Baruch, the final assignment of the semester was for each student to interview a family member and to create a monologue drawn from that interview. The project was inspired by the performer Anna Deavere Smith. Smith’s bio describes an approach to performance that “combines the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of interpreting their words through performance.”

Whatever one thinks of Smith’s final performances, her methodology provided a strong model for my class. Students conducted the interviews, edited them for clarity and narrative focus, and formulated blocking choices based on the emotional beats. Without exception, the work was much more affecting, detailed, and fully realized than anything that had come out of students selecting monologues from edited collections.


  1. Ben says:

    Beautiful post, Catherine! I also incorporate this kind of witnessing/performance into my Acting 1 classes. Usually I start with that at the beginning of the semester, not a full interview but a short silent solo based on observing a real person, friend or family or stranger. Then I try to fold that observational reenactment work into the development of fictional characters.

  2. Kate says:

    Nice post!

    This is going to go in quite a different direction.

    I’m not teaching acting, but digital literacy. I’d love to have students record interviews. When I’ve discussed students doing any kind of interviewing of sources (as a form of qualitative research) with the higher-ups in my college (CUNY SPS), it’s suggested that we’d have to undertake an IRB process (!), which, of course, means it’s off the table (IRB taking longer than the average semester).

    I did not go looking for this information so much as I became aware of it when teaching in a learning community with a colleague who is a quantitative research professor.

    My students would want to use their interviews as a form of data. I am interested whether the same IRB issues apply if the interviews are of the nature you describe above. And if not, why not?

    Of course, I’m a bit skeptical that if you simply ask some folks whether IRB is needed the answer is always yes.

    But with observations and ePortfolios, where I teach, we have an audience for what we do outside of the classroom and simply ignoring the problem and flying under the radar isn’t an option. I would love to hear I’ve gotten the wrong end of the stick and this is not an issue from the institution’s point of view.

    Thanks for any input!

  3. Ben says:

    I’m fascinated by the whole IRB thing. It seems like IRB process would be a good starting point from which to discuss many current issues in academia, such as the ethics and politics of the relationship between the university and the “outside” (or “real”) world; the relationship between research in the sciences and research in the humanities; and the definition of the public sphere. But as you say, Kate, “if you simply ask whether IRB is needed, the answer is always yes.”

  4. Catherine Young says:

    @ Ben: What do you think are the differences between optic observation / witnessing to inspire original character development vs. using oral communication to document words and narratives from others? Perhaps the first Stanislavsky-style observations lead to more creative work for the students that they can carry through the semester. I just realized that perhaps it is a little funny that my assignment was so invented in expanding the relationship I never got to see: the student’s relationship with the person s/he interviewed, Also, I’m interested in how you balance solo and group work in your classes. The first time I taught acting I did monologues first but found the students just didn’t have the confidence to be on stage alone and that they needed a lot of ensemble work first.

  5. Catherine Young says:

    @ Kate: Hmmm, very good question. I’m wondering if how the information will be used might determine this? For instance, is there a difference (from the institution’s point of view) between a digital literacy class that might wind up uploading assignments and student work vs. scenes done in an acting class that never move beyond that class? Some writing fellows have to do IRB training because the students they work with have to agree to be part of a study of WAC methods. We can chat more about this if you’d like!

  6. Ben says:

    @ Catherine: Thanks for asking! I love talking about acting pedagogy and so rarely get to do it.

    I usually assign the “silent observation solo” on the first day of class, with their presentations due the second day. This does two things: 1) It makes students focus on physicality, gesture, and nonverbal communication, which works against their assumption that acting is about delivering lines. 2) It immediately challenges them to perform onstage alone, with the rest of the class watching, but in a situation where they are not under pressure to be creative or funny or clever. I tell them it’s fine if they choose to reenact a “boring” moment (like someone brushing their teeth), as long as it’s closely observed and precisely reenacted.

    What I like about your assignment is that it does create a sense of depth through the student’s encounter with the interviewee. It seems like this could be a great basis for character work in other contexts. While my assignment emphasizes a kind of dispassionate or objective observation (especially physical details), yours seems to raise a lot of great questions about the ethics and politics of a more invested acting (and theatrical devising) process, which Anna Deavere Smith exemplifies.

    About solo and group work: I always lead a lot of group work, usually spending the first half of every class on what some call “warm-ups” throughout the entire semester. This for me is often the most exciting part of the class, since it’s the only time I can really push our entire mini-community to achieve a high level of shared, embodied focus and awareness. The rest of the time we work on various kinds of performances, building up “scaffolded” assignments from the silent observation solo through a Shakespeare monologue and finally to a two- or three-person scene study of their choice.

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