Becoming a better interviewer

digitalrecorderI’ve been thinking about my interviewing skills (or lack thereof) lately. I’ve done 11 interviews for my PhD now, and I’ve got another 8-9 to go – most of them coming up in the next two months (after which I am done with my data generating phase, yay!).

I’ve been transcribing the interviews as I’ve been going along, more or less, which has been useful both in terms of avoiding an overwhelming mountain of transcriptions to do later, but also for reflecting on how each interview went before doing the next one.

Listening to the recordings, I find myself cringing at my interviewing skills quite regularly. Awkward phrasings, leading questions, missed opportunities to ask follow-up questions… I was talking to my friend about this last night – about feeling a need to read more about interviewing techniques and skills. But even as I was saying it, I remembered that I have read a lot already, and maybe my reflex to head back to the library, is just that: a reflex, a safety-blanket, a desire to hide behind other people’s theories rather than trust in my own developing knowledge as a researcher.

My interview methodology emerged through an engagement with feminist and anti-racist theory on the research process, addressing issues of power and privilege, the myth of the objective interviewer, and the dynamic relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Yasmin Gunaratnam’s Researching ‘Race’ and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and Power, in particular, has left an impression on me, calling for historical accountability within the research encounter. Gunaratnam highlights the importance of recognising that both the researcher and the researched are socially situated, in relation to each other and to history. The research must always be accountable to these relationships (without over-determining them). In the research interview, my position as a white feminist researcher (researching feminism and ‘race’) is of course never neutral, but located within a history of complex and unequal relationships between white feminists and feminists of colour, as well as in a wider social and historical context of structural racism. This always forms the backdrop to my interview encounters, whether the interviewee is white or a person of colour.

Part of my awkwardness at times in the interview encounters, I have no doubt, is related to my worry of not being sufficiently accountable to the historical and social context of (white feminists’) racism – of getting it wrong, and ending up being complicit within racist relations. Add to that being a novice interviewer, and as I listen to the transcripts, it’s clear that there are times where I have got things wrong (one example: a desire to alleviate tension and a white interviewee’s anxiety talking about racism, I have moved on to the next question, where, listening back, I wish I had allowed space for the anxiety to be acknowledged and interrogated, to challenge the way whiteness prioritises comfort).

In my reflexive dash to the library yesterday, I borrowed Qualitative Interviewing: The Art of Hearing Data by Herbert J. Rubin and Irene S. Rubin. I’ve been skim-reading it this morning, and generally finding it quite irritating and patronising, but it has brought up two things which I don’t think I’m doing well enough at the moment:

One, which Rubin and Rubin call ‘negotiating a research role’ (pp. 114-117 in 1st ed), is about situating yourself and your research clearly to the interviewee. Rubin and Rubin write (in a slightly patronising tone) about the importance of clarifying the research your doing in a way which is understandable / meaningful to the interviewee. For me, I think I need to give more space before the interview to discuss with the participant what my research is about, and – particularly – why I’m doing it, and how I understand myself as a white feminist researcher doing this work. I think this might help set up the context for the discussion a bit better than I have done so far, where I’ve often just asked if the participant has any questions about the research, based on what they’ve read from the information sheet, before starting (so the discussion we’ve had have depended on the participant’s questions).

Another thing which I’ve been slack with is taking notes directly after the interview. Having recently read Gail Lewis’ chapter, ‘Animating hatreds: research encounters, organisational secrets, emotional truths’, in Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, in which she shares her research diary entry following an encounter with a racist interviewee, I’ve realised the importance of this part of the interview process in terms of capturing (partly) unprocessed feelings and thoughts. These may be fleeting and therefore not possible to recall at a later stage, but (as Lewis shows) they may have effects in terms of how we subsequently choose to interpret and present the data. Writing down these first thoughts following each interview leads to a more honest acknowledgement of the affective and embodied dimensions of the interview encounter. This is useful for reflecting more and better on your interview practice. In particular, it may help capture how underlying feelings and anxieties may be operative in the research encounter.

Well, this ended up a rather long and winding post, but actually it’s helped me clarify some things already. So I guess that is the key, as I enter this last stretch of interviews: keep thinking and reflecting and writing, and review what I’ve learnt ahead of each interview. Maybe that is the key to becoming a better interviewer.


Two months late and a chapter short: What I learned from AcWriMo

looking out the window instead of writing...

As is evident by the date stamps on my last few blog posts, I fell off the Academic Writing Month (AcWriMo) train about half-way through. My aim was to finish 2 draft chapters during November (plus blog once a week); I just finished a rough draft of the first chapter last week, and I only blogged twice in November.

My first instinct was to say I failed AcWriMo, but I’m resisting saying that. I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m failing: I’m not writing enough; I’m not progressing fast enough; I’m not reading enough; I don’t understand enough and am simply not clever enough; I don’t seem to ever achieve as much as everyone else; I still haven’t published anything; and I still haven’t finished my data collection. Does this sound familiar?

But in writing about failure on a blog which I’m hoping in the long-term will help gain visibility for my research, I feel like I need to put a positive spin on it – about how it’s something we all experience as PhD students but which we work through and find our ways of overcoming (preferably with some snappy bullet points at the end). That seems to be the standard for research blogs when we talk about process: a blog post which deals with the difficulties of academic writing and researching should simultaneously present some solutions.

But that doesn’t feel very honest to me, right now. So in the spirit of honesty, I’ve put together my own list of what I really learnt from AcWriMo.

Arbitrary deadlines don’t work for me
If I know it’s not a real deadline, I know it – it doesn’t matter how I dress it up. I know the regret of missing enough real deadlines to not be fooled by ones I’ve just set myself.

I’m not very good at planning ahead
I like to make plans, but I’m not always very good at sticking to them. It all depends very much on how things pan out on the day/week. And things always take longer than I think. This doesn’t mean I don’t ever manage to hold myself to a plan or that I’m totally flaky, but I work better planning week by week, rather than a month or more ahead.

Things always come up
While planning the writing I was going to do in November, I forgot to take into account all the things that were inevitably going to come up at shorter notice and divert my attention.

I’m better at working on several smaller things than just one big thing
I get bored (and therefore distracted) working on just one thing (i.e. a chapter) for more than a couple of days at a time. The only time I can really make myself do this is when an actual real deadline is looming.

My productivity fluctuates in direct correlation with my mental wellbeing
…and sometimes there’s very little I can do about that. Ok, I knew this one already. But a related point I did learn: when I’m feeling crappy, reading about other people’s productivity on Twitter doesn’t help.

I’m a more confident writer these days
Yes, I am ending on a positive note! While I didn’t get anywhere near my goals for the month, I have still been writing quite a lot lately. And one thing which I’m definitely noticing is that words come more easily than they used to. I find it easier writing first drafts without getting too anxious about whether what I’m writing is any good or not. And once that draft is down, it doesn’t seem so daunting to go back and start editing. I still angst and procrastinate, for sure, but less so than I used to. I think that’s called practice. And progress.

So that’s my list. I want to send my thanks to the folks at PhD2Published who initiated AcWriMo – I know a lot of people found it useful. I probably won’t be participating this year if it runs again – although I do need to write quite a few chapters this year, so I’m not ruling it out entirely. Maybe if the deadline seems more real it would work better. The potential imminent bancruptcy of my university certainly makes finishing my PhD seem a lot more urgent. But that‘s another post entirely…

AcWriMo so far

I’m a day late with this blog post according to my goal of blogging once a week during November. But at least I’m here now!

So with a second week of Acwrimo having passed, I thought I’d reflect on how it’s gone so far in terms of my goals, as well as on my thoughts about the process.

Firstly, I pretty much know already that I’m not going to finish the drafts of both chapters I’d aimed for. But that doesn’t mean that I think I’ve ‘failed’ already – as I saw someone post on Twitter (I can’t find it now so I’m paraphrasing): it’s not always about achieving goals, but about having some to work towards.

The first week I found having specific goals effective and motivating and I got a lot of writing done. Like many others I’ve been using the pomodoro technique – with the Pomodairo application – which (after some initial qualms about it) I’m finding really useful for focusing repeatedly for short spurts of time without it ever seeming too onerous.

Last week, however, things got more difficult with the chapter I’m working on. It’s not so much a case of getting words out – thankfully (touch wood!) nowadays this isn’t so much of a problem for me, as I’ve got into a pretty solid habit of writing often. But I’m at a stage where I don’t want to be spending too much time just getting words out if they’re not the right ones (or at least approximately the right ones!). And as I was wrestling with a new section of analysis, I realised that I needed to go back to spend some more time with the primary sources that I’m analysing – I just wasn’t at all sure what it was I wanted to say.

So that’s what I’ve ended up doing, which has slowed my progress down to a point where I think a more realistic goal for this month is to finish a draft of this one chapter only.

Something else I’ve been thinking about is whether initiatives like acwrimo are helpful or not for developing sustainable working practices – in particular ones which are able to take work/life balance and mental wellbeing into account. This is important to me: working out ways of being productive, engaged and motivated at the same time as paying attention to what my mind and body needs in terms of downtime and play (something which I’ve not always been very good at).

Also, I liked the point this blog post made – with things like acwrimo, it’s mostly the people who are sticking with it and who are gaining something positive out of it who will be posting their progress and joining in the conversation. How do we create spaces to talk about the times when we can’t work and meet goals and feel crap about it?

Overall, I am finding the process useful – and I really appreciate the PhD2Published crew for initiating it. I think it’s pretty awesome the way it creates a community – however fleeting – and I am enjoying dipping into the Twitter feed. I think having the deadline – even if it is arbitrary – has definitely made me focus in on the work I need to do in a way that I often struggle to do without a deadline. So I’m glad I’m participating, even if I won’t reach my official goals. At least they’re giving me something to aim towards.

Organising myself

In my paid job (which is not related to my PhD), I have been travelling around England delivering training over the last couple of weeks. During one of the icebreakers, we asked people to tell us one thing they were good at. I found myself saying that I was good at being organised (I know, exciting stuff!). This is true when it comes to my day job. I have to be organised there, coordinating networks of people, events, and activities. But is this the same when it comes to my PhD?

I’ve recently been working towards a more methodical and accessible way to organise my research. Most of my information and references are currently saved in a big folder on my hard drive (backed up, obviously!), divided into lots of different folders and sub-folders. To be honest, that’s worked fine mostly, as it’s easy enough to do a word search in Windows if I’ve forgotten where I’ve saved something or I want to look up what I’ve written about a particular word or phrase. However, this means I only have access to my work when I am on my own laptop, and I know that my documents are not organised in the most logical way any more (things often grow in different directions than i originally anticipate).

Recently, after listening to my friend singing its praises, I downloaded Evernote and am now collecting all my notes in there. I’m finding it pretty useful so far, and it’s great that I can save and organise my notes whichever computer I am working from (as I can access them online). Also, I like that i can tag my notes, and I think this is going to be prove much more intuitive when I am pulling content together for chapters and papers.

When it comes to referencing systems, I’ll admit that so far I have only really half-heartedly tried using them. I tried Zotero for a while, but we didn’t gel somehow (although I know there are lots of fans of Zotero out there), and so a couple of months ago I downloaded Mendeley. I’m still in the (very slow) process of adding in my references – it seems like one of those things that is never quite urgent enough to actually use my precious time to do it. Not sure I like Mendeley any better than Zotero to be honest – anyone have any tips for the easiest and quickest way to manage your references – especially if you’re already more than half way through your project?

What did recently get me very excited though, was Scrivener, which helps you draft and edit very long documents (e.g. a thesis!). I downloaded the trial version about a month ago, and loaded everything I had written into it, and started playing around with it. Suddenly the thought of actually drafting my thesis seems a less daunting task! If you haven’t tried it, I would definitely recommend it, although you do need to take some time to go through the tutorial to understand how it works. Plus, there is a cost involved once your trial is done (£25 for students).

And last but not least, it’s that exciting time of year when I get to buy a new academic diary! My friend said I was the only person she knew who still used a paper diary, but really, I can’t live without it (and anyway, I know lots of people that have them!). Of course I have an Outlook calendar at work, but as I don’t have a fancy phone or ipad, I need something I always have with me to be able to fit together my work, study, social and other activities into one coordinated whole. So here’s a picture of my new beautiful diary, and the (matching!) multi-colour pen I bought, which I will be using to colour-code my life for the next year.