Getting the Best out of an interview with a prof
August 24, 2008 8:37 AM   Subscribe

I'm going to be writing a profile of a business professor who has won some teaching awards. I'll be interviewing him on the phone. What questions should I ask that would help me raise the interview above the lame threshold? I'd like the profile to be insightful and interesting.
posted by storybored to Writing & Language (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's cheesy, but near the end you should always throw in something like, "What the one question you wish I asked?"
posted by meta_eli at 8:44 AM on August 24, 2008

Do your research. Find out everything you can about the man. Talk to friends, current and former students: don't just do web searches. Interviewees are always more receptive when they realize that the journalist has done his or her work.

Read any previous interviews with him. Do your best to skip these questions, or if they're absolutely crucial, amend them so that you're asking about the same topic, but from a different angle.

Don't be afraid to ask unusual questions once he's warmed up. However, if a question is too oddball, it looks like you're almost trying to insert yourself into the story. Avoid this.

Is it possible to interview him in person? You almost always get better results from face time than from phone, especially if you've never met him.

My number one technique for interviewing -- talk as little as you can get away with. The best time for this is after a subject says something, and expects you to respond. Doesn't work over the phone as well as in person, but many subjects often feel a pressure to give you a better answer if you don't say anything in reply. (Don't even murmur "yes" or "uh-huh" unless really prompted.)

Good luck - it's admirable that you're actually trying to get a decent interview out of what most journalists would see as something to phone in.
posted by Damn That Television at 9:14 AM on August 24, 2008

Agree absolutely- do not work from a vacuum. Read everything that's out there, and then ask verifying questions, identifying them as such. Then prepare questions about relevant things that aren't out there.

And just generally, be honest and "real" with him. You are two people, strangers to each other, having a nice conversation. Too many reporters seem to try too hard to be detached and it's obvious in the result. (Like the NPR I'm-obviously-reading-this-question-off-an-index-card effect, or the political reporting snipe questions.)

On the other hand, too many reporters try too hard to ingratiate themselves and it seems phony.
posted by gjc at 9:22 AM on August 24, 2008

Like the NPR I'm-obviously-reading-this-question-off-an-index-card effect

Terri Gross being an exception. She has prepared questions, but she also listens closely and asks followup questions. She's great. And Charlie Rose never seems to ask questions he has prepared ahead of time, but it ticks me off when he interrupts guests.

I like knowing what motivates people and what their work habits are like.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:30 AM on August 24, 2008

Read "On Writing Well" by Zinsser, especially Chapter 12 on interviews, and Chapter 21.

Every outstanding teacher has a special sauce. What is his? What has he discovered about giving a good lecture that nobody else is knows (yet).

When creating a course, a semester is never long enough. You always have to decide what goes in and what goes out. How does he do it?

Does he feel his lecturing is theatrical?

What is the difference between a class lecture and an academic presentation? Why do everybody use PowerPoint for the later, but few uses it for the former ?

MIT Open Courseware has had a huge impact. There are loads of people with good Internet connections but no local teachers who learn from the material. Are his lectures taped? Why or why not? How could OCW be improved?

What does he think of constructionism, of One Laptop per Child, of homeschooling, of unchooling?

How important is it to motivate the material? What percentage of class time should be spent on motivating?

Who are his teaching heroes? Jaime Escalante , Feinman?

How do you pick up a struggling student, how do you convince a talented but lazy student to excel?

Sometimes politics gets in the way of good teaching. Has this been his experience?

Say a new teacher is passionate, dedicated, creative, but inexperienced, what should he read?
posted by gmarceau at 11:04 AM on August 24, 2008 [2 favorites]

You can't elevate the interview. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, all you get are glib answers, or cliches, or long pauses. There's no certainty to interviewing, and I have done entire interviews with people who usually do pretty good at this sort of thing, such as Janeanne Garafolo, that I have been unable to use because it just didn't work that day, for whatever reason.

But take care of your end. Do your research. Prepare some questions. Listen to the answers, and, if anything sounds interesting, pursue it, even if it seems off-topic. I interviewed Matt Wilson from Semisonic once, and nothing I asked seemed to get him interested in anything, even when I mentioned that he had been my babysitter when I was a boy. But then, for some reason, I brought up Prince, and the interview was off to the races, as Wilson got very excited about the subject.

Here are two useful tricks: If you need to stall for time, to think of a question or regroup, ask a question you already know the answer to; and don't be afraid to let their be silence in an interview. There's a natural human impulse to try and fill gaps in conversation, and so if you let there be a little bit of silence after someone has answered a question, they will often jump in and add to their answer, and I have repeatedly found that this is the part of the interview where things get interesting, because it is no longer the pat or prepared answer, but instead whatever just popped into your subject's head.

Lastly, don't be afraid to ask questions that you think make you sound ignorant or foolish, especially when dealing with a professional. They sometimes have a way of articulating sophisticated ideas in layman's terms that will be far better than anything you can come up with.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:10 AM on August 24, 2008

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