I have been thinking about interviews and how to ask better questions/interview for a while. Research questions unpack what is going on with the world around us. As an early career scholar, I want to unpack experiences, thoughts, and situations people are dealing with in the workplace (e.g. networked professional lives, open online learning, mentoring relationships) to learn more about a particular phenomenon. I know good research comes from solid research preparation.
Last summer I spent a couple of months, with my co-investigator Paul, digging into the empirical literature, academic findings, theoretical frameworks and debates around concepts and issues we want to unpack in our study. I appreciate his willingness to work and put the time up-front to prepare for our research interviews.
“Research designs begins with questions researchers and their partners want to answer about a particular problem, population, process, project, or topic they want to explore” (LeCompte & Schensul, 2010, p. 130).
We framed our research questions around issues addressed in other academic papers — you know, building on the shoulders of giants — and to unpack what is happening in the online and offline realm for higher education professionals. For our semi-structured interviews, we have a set of structured questions to guide open-ended discussions on relevant topics related to the themes, issues, and concepts we want to discuss (Kvale, 2007). By using the intensive interview techniques shared in Charmaz’s (2014) constructing grounded theory text, most of our questions are open-ended. This method was designed to encourage participants to reflect and share experiences, by starting questions with: “Tell me about…”, “Could you describe… or ” Can you walk me through… ” Asking research questions to solicit for a comprehensive and an open response is everything.
This research design thinking not only developed our interview protocols, research questions, and data management plan, it also allows us to be fully immersed in our conversations while we conduct the interview now. I think conducting a quality research interview is a skill. A skill that gets developed, honed and enhanced as you go. I always learn how to improve upon this each time I talk with a research participant. While being immersed in the interviews, I have kept this sage advice George (thanks!) offered when we were conducting interviews with a large number of open, online learners:
Give wait time to think before answering and tell them that you are doing that.
Listen to their replies and ask probing questions that aren’t listed below but go toward the issues we are trying to explore.
Now that we’re 60+ interviews deep with our project, I continue to think about this advice and understand what we are learning so far. I am also thinking about what we are asking, how we are approaching topics, and identifying where we might need to go as our questions reach a certain saturation point. If you have already graciously volunteered your time and shared for our study: THANK YOU SO MUCH! If you are a higher education professional who would like to contribute and be interviewed for our research, we are still accepting participants for our study here: http://bit.ly/networkedself
Recently, I started listening to Jesse Thorn’s The Turnaround podcast (that partners with the Columbia Journalism Review -thanks for the transcripts!) This podcast flips the script and interviews people who typically interview others. His interviews unpack the art form of an interview and how to best investigate a story. Thorn asks how to best interview and also demonstrates how to summarize ideas and follow with an open-ended question for a response. Although most of these interviewers are producing interviews for public consumption and listening, there are some great takeaways from this 1:1 series of interviews I am thinking more about for my anonymous/private research interviews:
- The American Life’s Ira Glass always wants to know what is that story or idea: “Think about what the other person is feeling… an active act of imagination and empathy.”
- Jesse and Ira both gush Terry Gross, the host of Fresh Air, who is a skilled interviewer. Terry puts herself inside her interviewee’s head to ask for follow-up responses by asking: “Can you give me an example?” #ToRead: All I Did Was Ask
- Author Susan Orlean says to treat this like an authentic conversation and be a good listener, that is, be okay with awkward silences), be in the moment, and take notes by hand+record [She uses Livescribe smartpen & Neo smartpen.]
- NPR’s Audie Cornish tries to focus on the story/investigation first, not herself or her feelings: “It’s not about me.”
- Comedian and podcaster, Marc Maron, invites his guests into his “space” (actual physical home) to encourage openness in sharing an intimate conversation with him.
- Documentarian/Filmmaker Errol Morris said to shut up and let people talk, you will learn more.
In addition to listening to podcasts or reading scholarly books about interviews, I thank and credit the @BreakDrink podcast production for providing me with the skills to conduct effective research. My “study” in podcasting (and research interviews) began just over 7 years when I received a DM from Jeff Jackson to see if I’d like to co-host a podcast. Although I was just starting my Ph.D. program, I think some of my early lessons for qualitative research actually came from the episodes where we invited brilliant people onto the Campus Tech Connection (#CTCX) podcast for an interview. Both my experience with podcast production and research interviews, have offered me a few insights for being a more effective interviewer:
- Pre-Interview survey: Ask your podcast guest or interview participant a few questions about the topic in advance. For podcasts, we would have them complete a brief bio and see a few of the questions we might ask ahead of time. For interviews, we might have a pre-questionnaire or interview sign-up with requests for demographic information, topics about the research, or their role for the study research.
- Organize and prepare: Do you work in advance! Create a shared doc (if on a collaborative team) or prep notes for each show production or segment of your research interviews. This would include the potential protocols, research questions, interview topics/issues, and information you would need for each recording. Review the pre-interview survey data and see how they might relate to your research questions.
- Play with the technology to figure out what works for you: Technical tools have changed over the past 7 years of my podcasting/researching. I continue to learn as I go and as I collaborate with others. I now record with Audio Hijack+Skype/web conference/phone, edit in GarageBand/Audacity by splicing clips either for public consumption or to minimize for transcription costs, and find a secure cloud storage space for your audio files and notes.
- Speaking of notes… ALWAYS TAKE NOTES: Besides recording the audio, I often scribe notes during a conversation or interview. These notes could include a quote, key point, idea, or issue. For the podcast, this might include a URLs and resources we would share with the show notes with the episode. For research, this ensured I was listening and noting what participants were saying and often it would spark a follow-up question or explore another aspect of our study I wanted to know about. Pro-Tip: I use “analog” journals to write my research notes with pen and paper. I often return to my notes to make an annotation, highlight a concept, find another research question, and to review how the series of interviews are progressing.
- Make time for reflection: After each episode of the podcast, I often would have a follow-up blog post with information and ideas shared. This practice I still do when I conduct a research interview, but often it’s a private act scribed in my journal or shared with my co-collaborators on a project. This habit has me process what I am exploring, learning, and sorting out in my head.
- Manage and archive your files: Be sure you create a system to label and itemize your digital files and notes. I am meticulous for organizing my life and projects (as I live in the digital) in particular ways. Set your own system so you can track where items are and code how these files/interviews are relevant to your project (or podcast). This will help you later when you go to code transcripts or you are interested in a particular issue/trend in your study.
Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructing grounded theory.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Kvale, S. (2007). Doing interviews. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
LeCompte, M. D., & Schensul, J. J. (1999). Designing and conducting ethnographic research (Vol. 1), 2nd Edition. Plymouth, UK: Altamira Press.