As part of my research for the semester, I am interviewing alums from Everdeen, the Australian school, to have an opportunity to collect information regarding the intersection of gender and education under the Parallel Education model. While I work out the logistics of finding people willing to be interviewed, I have been reading through the transcripts of past interviews with Colby students and students from Everdeen. These interviews have made me reflect on interview practices and how I can improve my technique before participating in the interview process.
While reading through the transcriptions, a question made me pause:
Colby Student: Who’s your favorite teacher? Tell me a little bit about him.
The second sentence, when she said “Tell me about him” concerned me. The girl who was being interviewed proceeded to tell a story about a man. It is impossible to know whether her answer would have been the same if the question was phrased without a gendered pronoun, but using gendered pronouns predisposes the interview participant to think about a person of the indicated gender and then respond in that manner.
This question propelled me to reflect on interview practices: namely, the way that interviewer’s questions and responses to an interview participant can influence the data collected and even the interview participant’s construction of self. In doing this reflection, I am not trying to insult interviewers of the past, but instead raise awareness of where limitations of the interview data may lie, while also improving my skills for when the time comes for me to interview Everdeen alums.
A pattern emerged in the interviews: Colby students often phrased questions in a way that predisposed the Everdeen students to answer in a certain way. The use of a gendered pronoun above was an example of this, but it also appears in other ways; for example,
Colby Student: …can you tell me a story of when you learned something valuable in school, whether it was, like, a math lesson or a social lesson?
Everdeen Student: Um, I think it was probably maths and we had to divide and multiply.
All four interview participants were asked about a time when they learned something valuable in school, although none of the other interviewers gave the options above. While all of the other students answered in a more thoughtful, introspective way, this student latched on to one of the options provided for him and responded with what is a rather shallow answer to this question. This made me reflect on the fact that giving more open-ended questions and allowing the students to think before providing them with some information leading towards the answer that I as an interviewer am seeking can inspire more honest and insightful answers from interview participants.
I additionally found a tendency of interviewers to perpetuate negative societal norms in the way that they phrase their interview questions or respond to interview subjects. In an interview with a Colby student and a girl from Everdeen, I found the following example:
Colby Student: Um, do you have a boyfriend or anything? Are you allowed to date? What’s dating like there?
This question perpetuates heteronormative standards, which is already a problem at Everdeen where the students are placed in single-gender classes under the heteronormative assumption that this will eliminate distractions from sexual tension. This question could impress on the girl who is being interviewed that the world is expecting her to date a boy. In the event that the girl is gay or questioning her sexuality, this type of question could make it even harder for her to come out to herself and others.
In addition to these problematic examples, I also found examples where Colby students did an excellent job giving broad questions and then prompting students to give in-depth, meaningful answers. For example,
Colby Student: Yah. What makes [your teachers] great?
Everdeen Student: Um, different things.
Colby Student: Yah?
Everdeen Student: So my maths teacher…
The Everdeen student then launched into a paragraph-long explanation about why his teachers are so great. Since the Colby student did not simply accept his first vague answer and move on to the next question but instead used an active listening technique to show that she is interested and wanted to know more, the interviewer captured more detailed and interesting information.
Based on the examples above, I think it is important to reflect on how interview practices have implications both on the interview subjects and on the data collected. My goals for when I interview Everdeen alums are to use open-ended questions, to give the students time to answer before I jump in with suggestions, and to prompt the students for more details if necessary. I will also try to limit my assumptions about gender and sexuality and do more research about how to limit the prejudices that I bring into research interview scenarios. This reflecting will make me a much better interviewer, both for the sake of the interview participants and the research