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Blog

Interviewing and the importance of listening

Randall F. Clemens

Originally posted at www.21stcenturyscholar.org

Have you ever read a Henry James novel? I have, as an undergraduate in an American lit class. I, along with 20 or so of my peers, read Portrait of a Lady. James—the brother of psychologist William James—is known for long, descriptive passages and a focus on the minutiae of life and consciousness. You can imagine, for a group of 20-year-olds with the attention spans of hummingbirds, the novel was a tough sell.

In one class, during a discussion of the book, the professor said something I think about often: “We should all have the ability,” he argued, “to sit quietly on a bench and observe.” How much do we miss, he wondered, when we live a life of constant motion?

Be still. Watch. Listen. Contemplate. 

In a well-known article, “On Seeking—and Rejecting—Validity in Qualitative Research,” Henry Wolcott makes a similar point about interviewing: “Talk little, listen a lot.”

As a qualitative researcher, I have the unbelievable privilege of listening to people’s life stories. A few weeks ago, I met with a second-generation Latino teenager who lives in a low-income neighborhood in New York City. He wants to go to college. He will be the first in his family to attend a four-year university. He is an exceptional young man; however, his grades and test scores don’t completely represent that. He worries that he won’t get into a college.

During the interview, we talked about his family. He has an unstable home life, having lived with several relatives. As a follow-up question, I asked, “Is that tough?” He looked at me for a few seconds. His face changed, almost imperceptibly. He had the look of someone who knew, if he spoke, he would cry. I imagined, as a 17-year-old young man, he didn’t want to do that. He nodded. I nodded. And, we both looked away. I paused for about thirty seconds to give us both time to recompose and then redirected the interview.

I don’t know if I could ever truly represent those few thick moments and the moments afterwards when neither of us spoke. I don’t pretend to know what the student felt or thought. In time, I might have a better idea. But, I know for that moment I, at least partially, grasped a depth of emotion and significance that participants do not always reveal.

Life tends to be full of constant motion. Sometimes people want their stories heard, and it’s the researcher’s job to listen.