Interviewing: Our Experience

Cat (Sketches from Life), Shen Zhou

The day before the interview, I grab a journal and simply jot down a few questions that I definitely want to ask and leave some space in between each to write down follow up topics when I conduct the actual interview. There are times when people jump from topic to topic, so I like to write things down as they’re talking to help with follow up questions. Given that I started with IDCL during the pandemic, all my interviews have been through zoom. I make sure to hop on the call early, have some water by my side, and do a quick meditation to calm any pre-interview jitters.

Rimsha Syed

Oral History interviewing is an incredibly gratifying experience. But having someone share their most cherished (or dark) memories with you also comes with a lot of responsibilities. Today we’d like to share what interviewing feels like to us: what we do to prepare and how our experience with this practice has been so far.

How were you feeling when you conducted your first interview? What was it like?

Rimsha — I did A LOT of meticulous planning before my very first interview. Since I was nervous, I assumed that I needed to have every question “rehearsed,” but after the first few minutes into the interview, I realized that all I needed to do was pay attention and have a conversation as I normally would. It helped that the person I interviewed was actually a friend of mine who I admired and she helped me feel at ease. I’m very happy with how my first interview came out.

Crab (Sketches from Life), Shen Zhou

What do you do to prepare yourself for an interview?

Aysha Moneer — In preparing for an interview, I will first get in touch with the interviewee and make sure they understand the project and that the interview will be public. Additionally, I request a consent form from the interviewee and send some pre-set questions they can expect. Other than that, I make sure to be on my Zoom early and make sure the interviewee is comfortable before beginning the interview.

How do you think oral history interviewing differs from journalistic interviews?

Rimsha — As a journalist, I can say that oral history interviews tend to be more in depth. A journalistic interview tends to narrow questions down to the specific topic of the article whereas oral history covers an interviewee’s entire life history or story. Oral history interviews allow the interviewee to create their own narrative entirely, while journalists get to pick and choose quotes for their article that may affirm or negate a particular perspective.

Quail, (Sketches from Life), Shen Zhou

How have you been sharing authorship with your narrators?

Aysha — Joining the Institute for Diversity and Civic Life was my first exposure to oral history. It has definitely been a learning experience understanding the philosophy, practices, and guidelines. That being said, the training I have undergone has taught me to make sure the narrator has the space to speak. In order to preserve the interviewee’s narrative, I try to have pre-set questions I ask to minimize my own voice in the interview. When including interviews in the UT Libraries digital repository, we attribute authorship to both the interviewee and interviewer.

How has your positionality affected your interviewing?

Rimsha — I think that being brought up in a Muslim household has helped to connect with people for the Muslim Voices collection, especially those who are from South Asian backgrounds. I have a good sense of what types of questions to ask to encourage interviewees to open up, talk about their experiences, and their relationship with Islam and spirituality. Many conversations I’ve had with Muslims for this collection have been relatable and I’ve gotten to learn new things about my own faith.

Fish, Xu Wei

Do you have any interesting interviewing experience you’d like to share?

Aysha — I had the chance to interview Samboon Rattanawerapong, a Buddhist monk practicing in DFW. His interview was really interesting because of how he responded to my questions. He would answer my questions about his life story, but would always go back to talking about how Buddhist philosophy can guide one’s life. It was an interesting oral history lesson because I had to consciously think not to steer his own narrative. If he wanted to bring the conversation back to speaking of mindfulness and karma, that was his story to share.

What have you learned from oral history interviewing?

Aysha — Through this work, I have learned the power of taking control of your own narrative. Oral history is an important tool empowering people to tell their life story on their own terms. I have learned how to make someone comfortable in telling this story as well. As an interviewer, it is important to be an empathetic and open listener.

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