Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D.
The topic you focus on and the specific questions you select are
up to you to choose. Regardless of the focus of your interview, you
will be able to analyze the interview in the context of course
information. Remember that, at its base, what you are doing is
collecting a family story. Collecting family stories can help to
"humanize" other family members and help us to know them in a way not
possible from superficial social contact. I hope this exercise allows
you to have that special contact.
I recommend that you plan on an interview that lasts at least 45
minutes and one that you have thought about and organized before you
start. As you set out to do your family interview, keep the following
ideas from Once Upon a Memory by Jean Alessi and Jan Miller in
- Approach (i.e., phone, visit, write) the person with
whom you plan to speak before the interview and let him/her know
that you're interested in talking. Tell him/her about the project
and about what you're hoping to talk about. If it's relevant, you
may want to ask this person if he/she has photos or other
memorabilia from the time you will be talking about. Also let this
person know that he/she has the choice not to answer any questions
that he/she may feel are too personal. If you would like to audio
or videotape, ask him/her if that would be all right.
- Consider doing this over a meal. They may find that more
- Think about putting together a set of questions before you go
out and sending these to the person you will be interviewing.
Having a chance to think about the questions before the interview
may make it easier for both of you.
- If you plan to audio or videotape, remember to check your
equipment before you do the interview.
- At the time of the interview:
- Choose a time when you are in the mood to listen. To do any
type of interview, you need to be able to pick up on what is
said (and sometimes on what is not said).
- Listen for feelings in the stories and reflect them.
- Choose a spot where you can both be comfortable. Remember
eye-to-eye contact is important.
- Be an empathetic listener. Try to identify with the person
who is talking. Try to feel his/her feelings. Remember that
it's all right to cry, but you should extend the courtesy of
offering to end or postpone the interview if he/she becomes
- Clarify as you go along. Pronouns like "he" and "she" are
especially likely to be confusing when you go back to them
after the interview. Also, most storytelling tends to wander.
You can correct for this by summarizing (e.g., "Now let me get
this straight. Grandpa was on a ladder outside your window and
Great-Grandpa set the watchdog on him?) and by asking about
questions like "What happened next?" or "Can you tell me more
- State what you think you heard (e.g., "OK, what it sounds
like to me is...") so that you can be sure that you heard what
he/she intended to say. It's amazingly easy in an interview to
- Clarify words you don't understand. Remember, the older the
interviewee, the more likely it is that he/she will use slang
that you don't understand or to have had life experiences that
you may have trouble relating to.
- Use open-ended questions to expand the basic information
- Consider the information you might get from the
following questions: "When you and Dad (or Mom) were dating,
what was he (she) like?" "What was your first date with Mom
(or Dad) like?" "What was it like, the first time you met
Grandma and Grandpa, after you and Dad (or Mom) started
dating?" "What kinds of things did you do to prepare for my
birth?" "How did it feel, when you brought me home the first
time?" "What was it like to start working full-time when you
had little kids at home?"
- Contrast these with: "Was dating different when you and
Dad (or Mom) were dating?" "Did you enjoy your first date
with each other?" "Were you nervous or calm when you met
Grandma and Grandpa?" "Did you prepare for my birth?" "Were
you nervous when you brought me home the first time?" "Did
you feel guilty when you went back to work?"
- You may note that you have the potential of much more
information from the first set of questions than you will
from the second. In fact, with the second set, you could get
the following answers: "Yes." "Pretty much." "Nervous."
"Yes." "Of course." "Very." and nothing else.
If you are nervous about doing this interview, or find that you
are interested in doing more interviews, here is a short list of
resources that you may want to look at.
Alessi, J., Miller, J. (1987). Once upon a memory: Your
family tales and treasures. White Hall, VA: Betterway
Publications, Inc. Coles, R. (1989). The call of
stories: Teaching and the moral imagination. Boston, MA: Houghton
Mifflin Co. McAdams, D. P. (1993). Stories we live by:
Personal myths and the making of the self. New York: William
Morrow and C., Inc. Rosenbluth, V. (1990). Keeping family
stories alive: A creative guide to taping your family life &
love. Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, Pub.
Stone, E. (1988). Black sheep and kissing cousins: How our
family stories shape us. New York: Penguin Books.
Go to the Interview Grading Sheet and
print out a copy. Be sure to include a copy of the grading sheet with
the writeup of your interview when you turn it in. You will lose 5 points automatically, if the grading sheet is not included.
Go to Course Syllabus Page.
Questions? Contact the course instructor at
1996-8, Kathleen R. Gilbert, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Last updated August 31, 1998.