Here are reflections and tips from Cornell University students -- graduate and undergraduate -- who have created practitioner profiles as part of a Planning or Education course assignment.
The interview was a fantastic way to ask questions to someone who practices the planning that we read about. You get to hear real-life stories and examples of how things worked, or didn't. And people love to talk about themselves. I didn't find it scary at all.
Things I’m glad I did:
- Start early. Getting my interview done by spring break was key. There was no rush at the end of the semester, and I could transcribe bit by bit, when I had time.
- Write questions before interviewing. That way I could check off as I went. Sometimes the person I interviewed would answer questions I was going to ask before I asked them, which was great.
- Research a topic I was actually interested in. It made questioning much easier, and lead to a longer interview which gave great examples.
Things I learned:
- Transcribing takes forever! Give yourself way more time than you expect. You’ll need it.
- Give the person you interview a copy of the edited profile before you write your final paper. I did it after, and there were some wrong words and names the could have been cleared up before my final draft. Also, the pauses and words that get garbled can be filled in correctly.
- The interview was easy compared to the analysis. You really have to read the pieces from class to be able to do the analysis well.
- Listen to a sample from the tape while you are there. You need to check that the volume is loud enough.
I found my subjects to be very willing to share their experiences with me. Here’s what I found helpful:
- Pre-interview contact. The pre-interview correspondence was helpful to let them know who I was, what I was doing, and why I wanted to speak with them.
- Telling a bit about myself. To get over any nerves, I began with a bit about myself. It is easy to express your personal and academic interests, and I think this breaks down feelings like “who is this kid?” and “what do they want from me?”
- Expressing excitement. Early in the interview, I tried to convey that I was excited to be interviewing them because they had X experiences and Y expertise that I could learn from. As my grandfather has advised: asking someone for their thoughts or their advice flatters them, makes them feel important, and helps puts them in a position where they can explain, coach or mentor.
- Asking them for questions. Listening to the recordings, I found that the pre-interview chitchat was also good for asking whether they have any questions for me. When they did, it usually helped us get off on the right foot.
- Writing down my thoughts at the end of the interview was a big part of the learning process. As I go back and read these thoughts, I find them helpful for remembering the nuances of the interview. It also helps my memory and places me back at the interview: how did it go? What would I do different? Did you ask questions 1,2,3 or did I guide my subject from topic to topic? Did I ask for clarification when I needed it? Do I think you could have probed deeper on any questions? Why did or didn't I? Do I remember smiling when I met the person? What was the setting? What was good or bad about the setting? Did the subject seem preoccupied? Hesitant to share anything? Reflexive in their comments?
One thing I found surprising was that some interviews flowed. When you
see my transcript of the interview with the planning consultant to [community organization], it is amazing. I hardly ask any questions. In this situation, I just put out thoughts related to my questions, and he picked them up and ran with them.
What to do:
- Do the interview early in the semester. It is nice to apply the readings and the discussions to the work as you go.
- If you videotape the interview, take a tape recorder as backup. Test all equipment before the person you interview comes into the room.
I did my interview toward the end of the semester and recorded it on video. The camera I was scheduled to pick up came back into the lab late, which meant I got to the interview on time - but barely. In my rush, I did not have time to run a test of the equipment. The camera had an internal setting switched on that was looking for an external microphone. The only way to turn the option off was with the remote, which the university does not allow the students take off premise. Therefore, I was stuck with recording in a muffled tone. It took almost three weeks and several very smart technicians to fix the sound so it could be transcribed. By the time I got the transcription finished, the class was over. Live and learn!
The major surprise was my interviewee telling me at the end of the interview: “This was not an interview. I felt like I have told you a story!” That’s precisely what I wanted to know: his story. But by calling my inquiry an “interview,” I had confused him. He was expecting to meet someone with a structured interviewer-driven questionnaire, not someone who wanted him to freely talk about his practice. If you want to know the story, calling it an “interview” might be misleading!
I would encourage students to ask the “why” questions. As I was transcribing my interview, I wished I had asked “why” here or asked for explanation there.
At first, I was scared about the interviewing process, but once it got started and I realized that the interviewee was doing most of the talking, it wasn’t as bad. After a while, when he began giving advice, it did got enjoyable. I could then ask questions that I was really into.
To other students, I would suggest that you don’t be afraid, because more likely than not, they are also a bit nervous. And ask questions that interest you!
Not only did my interviewee provide me with detailed information about something that interested me, he also gave me feedback as to how I could use planning in different situations and gave me advice on what classes really helped him.
As a result of the interview project, my interviewing skills have improved. I'm now a better listener and transcriber. In addition, I was able to create ties with a non-profit organization which will be of benefit in the near future.
The interview was mutually beneficial; it put a new light on my interviewee’s perception of her own work, which might ordinarily be construed as primarily technical/scientific. I interviewed someone who was both a planner and political leader, which placed her in some very sticky ethical situations. Seldom are students in a professional program afforded the opportunity to really get to know one particular practitioner and to glean from their narratives the nitty-gritty of what “planning” is all about – politics.
Conducting an interview is always nerve racking for me. I am apprehensive. I
wonder if I will be able direct the flow of conversation and if I will be able to get information that will be useful towards writing a paper or a thesis.
Conducting the interviews has almost always been instructive, either practicing the skills of conducting one or by gaining insight about people’s work. I found using the readings and discussions of the semester as a lens for understanding the interview material to be very useful, both to better understand all of the heady theory, and how that theory works in action.
Many times, the people interviewed appreciate the reflection that the interview affords them. This procedure brings to light many things that may otherwise have been over looked in both theory and practice. As painful as the transcribing can be, I think interviews are an excellent learning resource!
Larry Van de Valk:
The suggested questions and guidelines served as a roadmap to get the interview going. Of course, the interviewer needs to listen carefully and be alert enough to pick up on cues during the interview so they know when a comment needs to be explored further. Too, some interviewees may get off track, so you have to be able to reel them back in, politely, and put them back on track to where you want to go (a specific practice story).
As with any interview, the interviewER should control the interview, even though the interviewEE should do most of the talking. Preparation by both parties prior to the interview would be advisable. The interviewER should have some prepared questions and an idea of where they want to go in exploring the story, of course, but the interviewEE should also have some idea of the “take home points” they want to get across before the interview. I know everyone is busy, but a little prep time will make the interview much better.
What surprised me the most:
- How well the story came together after transcription and editing. It really became a good teaching tool.
- How enjoyable the process was. It really is a pleasure having this type of conversation with another person and learning their story!
Working with the transcript during editing, listening over and over, was extremely important to really hear the story being told. It is a powerful experience. For students who have not participated in this type of activity before I'd suggest two things:
- First, the value of really listening can not be overstated. It is easy to feel nervous and start to focus on your own questions rather than the answers being given. Good listening comes with practice, and students should be aware of this important focus as they begin the profile process.
- Students may want to conduct a trial run by profiling each other in class. In this more comfortable environment, the skills of interviewing can be practiced (and learned from!). This would include working out the technical kinks (how does the tape recorder work?) to development of questions (“Gee, that sounded stiff; maybe I should re-word that”) to practice in the art of listening itself.
I think the best advice for interviewing is to not get too caught up in where the interviewee is trying to lead you. I sometimes felt so happy that they were willing to respond to the question that I just let them go on without necessarily answering what I needed. Overall, it was a much more memorable experience than merely reading about the issue by allowing for emotion to play a factor.
I used the format of questions from Scott Peters, which has the person share their life story at the beginning. Having the person think through the process of how they came to be doing participatory work is quite powerful. I found that the person telling his/her story became more inspired and excited by his/her work as a result.
The most valuable piece of profiling so far is getting to the little “aha” moments when you are dredging through the long process of transcribing the profiles. In analysis, I thought it would be difficult to find overarching themes between different profiles or within one profile. This was not the case. Through the arduous act of transcribing, I began to see themes and lessons emerging out of the text.
I think profiling is a very powerful tool. My first profile has led me to a working relationship with the practitioner. It is a great way to connect and learn from people in your field.
At the beginning I was more curious than scared; I had some prior experience in using interviews as a research tool. However some fears still persisted. To fight them off, I decided to quickly come up with the names of three individuals with whom I would like to have this kind of interview. Moving fast gave me some direction, and I felt like my fear and anxiety was subsiding.
As the interview got closer, my discomfort got higher. The last three days were the most confusing. I had a hard time conceptualizing even the basic beginning of my interview. I was desperately in need of some sort of model or a written guideline that was going to get me through this. This is where the website and Professor Forester's advice came as a great help. After the first two minutes of my interview I was fine, and I even started feeling confidence and control over the process.
The process of analysis brings a different dimension to the original interview. In our attempt to explain the events or statements of our interviewee, we end up seeing the issues and variables that were creating the issues in a different light.