FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS by Students
How do I select my interview subject?
The student should determine first what they want to learn about
or discover. Then list all the people who might be good resources
for this information. If the student is doing a family interview,
ask parents or relatives who is the best storyteller in the family,
or the person who knows the most about the family. If the interview
is with someone in the community who is from a different culture,
students might ask at a local church or synagogue for suggestions
for possible interview subjects, or ask local shopkeepers, service
people, mail carriers, school teachers, or neighbors to suggest
local people who might make an interesting interview.
What if my relative doesn't want to be
interviewed? Sometimes people say "no" because they don't
think they are interesting enough to be interviewed. Maybe another
adult in their family can help to encourage them, and can remind
this person that they are the best (and perhaps only) source of
information about the family's history. The subject can be reassured
that this is not a test, that whatever they recall will be perfect.
If the person doesn't want to talk about him or herself,
the student needs to accept this reluctance, and can ask about other
family members, or the times the person lived through. Once most
people start talking, they find it rather enjoyable to recall their
life, and to have someone interested in what they have to say.
Where can I get sample interview questions?
See Supporting Materials:
Handouts page in this Web site.
What if I can't find any information about
the town they lived in? Make sure the student has tried
a variety of search engines on the Internet, and that they have
asked a librarian to assist them in their search. If there is no
information available about their subject's town, the student can
come up with general questions about a town the same size, similar
geographical location, and in the same era.
What if we don't speak the same language?
The only solution to this problem is to find a translator
one who will definitely stick to the student's interview questions
and not add his or her own agenda! This is an excellent opportunity
to get to know someone the student otherwise could not communicate
What should I do when I first get to the
interviewer's home? It's a good idea to have some casual
conversation first, perhaps about something in their home that the
student admires, or about the weather, just to allow both the student
and subject to get comfortable. The student should find a location
for the interview where both people will be physically comfortable,
and where the student can use the tape recorder and take notes easily.
The location should be quiet, with phones unplugged if possible.
The student should have checked the equipment before arriving, but
should double check once at the location. If the interview subject
has any questions about the process, this is a good time to cover
those. The interview should start with easy questions that are unlikely
to "stump" the person or cause them discomfort.
What if the interview subject feels shy?
The student should reassure them that this is not a test, that whatever
they say is perfect, that most people do not recall everything
about their life, and that what they do recall will be just fine.
What if the interview subject cries during
the interview? It is common for elderly people to cry
when they reminisce, particularly about loved ones who are gone.
Both men and women often cry when talking about their deceased parents.
Usually, such emotional expression does not last long, and the individual
will be ready to continue after a few minutes. The student needs
to be reassured that he or she has not caused the person
to cry, and has not upset them. The student should just sit
and wait, maybe offer a tissue. If the subject apologizes, the student
can reassure the subject that it's normal that they might have these
feelings. The student should not rush the person to go on; wait
until they are ready.
What if the person doesn't know anything
about what is asked? The student might ask the question
in a different way, or just move on.
What if I can't think of another
question to ask? The student can ask the interview subject
if there is something else that they would like to add about their
life. Then listen for opportunities for follow up questions or new
What if I disagree with something the
person says? The interviewer's job is just to listen,
and to facilitate the interview subject's telling of his or her
stories. It is not appropriate to disagree with them, correct them,
or argue with them. This is true even if they are saying
something disparaging about the student's race, gender, generation,
religion, or ethnic origin. One way to get beyond such moments is
to be curious. Why do they feel this way? What can the student
learn about being in this person's shoes, rather than challenging
them or being defensive?
What if they ask my opinion?
Again, it is best for the interviewer to keep him or herself out
of the interview. The student can warmly turn the question back
to the interview subject by saying "I'd like to know what you think."
What if they just stop talking in the
middle of a topic? Reassure the student that it's ok.
They can just sit with the silence for a while. Sometimes wonderful
comments and revelations occur in such periods of silence.
What if they use a word I don't understand,
or can't spell? Make a note to clarify the word, expression
or spelling when there is a pause in the interview.
What if they get lost and take a tangent?
The student should let them go on their tangent. It might lead to
something important. The student should take notes as a reminder
to go back later and fill in where the interview took a different
direction. If the student finds the tangent is totally unrelated
to the person's life or times, they can gently interrupt and say,
"I'm sorry for interrupting. Let's go back to --------- "
(remind the subject of the topic being discussed.)
What if they repeat themselves?
If it's for a brief time, just let them go. If the story goes on
too long, the student can gently interrupt and redirect them saying,
"I'm sorry for interrupting, but could we talk about..."
What if they ask me about myself?
The student can answer briefly and politely, but should also reiterate
that the subject is the focus of the interview. The student can
suggest (if comfortable) that, if there's time at the end of the
interview, the person can interview him or her!
What if there is a specific topic they
do not want to talk about? The student should respect
this. The student might ask if there's anything related to that
topic that they would be willing to discuss, or if the subject could
say why they don't want to discuss the topic. Remind the student
that it's best to back off if the person seems uneasy.
What happens if the tape recorder or video
camera stops working? The student should be sure to have
many extra batteries, and that they have tested the equipment beforehand.
If it stops, the student can reschedule the interview, if possible.
If not, they might ask if the interview subject has a tape recorder
or video camera the student may use. If none of the above are possible,
the student will need to take good notes. Remind students not to
hesitate to ask their subject to wait while they write something
down. This is not the ideal way to conduct the interview, however,
as it interrupts the flow. If the student and interview subject
can agree to reschedule the interview, that is also an option.
How long should I allow for an interview?
Oral Histories can take many hours and days to record. For the sake
of this curriculum, we recommend the student spend at least two
to four hours with the subject. When scheduling the interview, the
student should ask the subject if they are available for the time
the student wishes to spend with them. The student should also explain
the process of the interview. Students should leave time at the
conclusion to chat a bit, make the next appointment if necessary
and to answer questions.
How do I know when to stop the interview,
or if it is going to be more than one session? The student
needs to be alert for the signs of the person fatiguing. These signs
could be confusion, slow down of speech, or a loss of concentration.
Let the subject take breaks during the interview to get a drink
or stretch. Some people can talk on and on comfortably; in this
case, 15 minutes before the designated end time, the student might
alert the subject that they are coming to the end of their pre-determined
time. They can discuss the possibility of extending the interview,
or of setting up an additional time to meet.