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Life Story Interview

Author

Rick Ochberg

Psychology; Human Development

Endicott College, Wheelock College, and Merrimack College

Citation

Ochberg, R. (2016). Life Story Interview. Endicott College, Wheelock College, and Merrimack College.

Description

This project teaches psychology students to apply academic theories to the “life story” of someone they interview. Each student interviews an older relative or friend, and writes an 8-10 page paper. The paper starts with a biography of the interviewee, divided into several “chapters” (“Leaving home,” “Starting a family”). Next, students analyze the life by pointing out consistent themes (“My father repeatedly sacrificed himself to take care of others”) and changes, (“My mother gradually became more self-reliant, especially after the divorce”). Students compare their interviewee’s life to theories of adult development. They also analyze the rhetoric of the story: What does the interviewee want us to believe about her life, and how does she tell the tale in order to persuade us? Preliminary, in-class exercises in interviewing and interpretation prepare students for this project. This assignment addresses the DQP Applied and Collaborative Learning proficiency at the bachelor’s degree level.

Background and Context

This project developed out of my growing conviction that very little that I teach my undergraduate psychology students is of much use to them. In theory, studying psychology should help them better understand themselves and those who matter to them – I cannot honestly imagine that most of what I teach does anything of the sort. Of course, my students would not say this themselves: The best of them remain too innocently hopeful (or is it docile?) to criticize; the rest are by now far too jaded to imagine that their psychology courses will offer anything more than an undemanding path to a degree, and the better-paying jobs it promises. This project is my quixotic attempt to offer them something more: a brief glimpse of how some theories (chiefly, of adult development) and an exotic technique (chiefly, that of asking questions and listening to the answers) might help them understand better how someone else understands herself. Nearly all of my students find this an interesting project–whether or not they learn from it what I am hoping to teach them is, of course, another matter.

The main part of the project is a “life-story” interview that each student conducts with an older friend or relative (most of them interview their mothers). These interviews typically take between two and four hours. I tell them to record the interview electronically so that they can remember the details without having to scrawl notes (most of them use their cell phones); no one hears the recording except the students themselves. The assignment is done at a time when most students are at home for an extended period (Thanksgiving or Spring Break), so that the interviews can be spaced over several days.

I instruct them to begin by asking their interviewee to divide her life into several “chapters,” that is, more-or-less distinct periods in her life, beginning around the end of high school. (Many choose to start earlier.) As examples of chapters I suggest, “The college years,” “The years when I was young and single,” “Getting married and starting a family,” and so on. However, I insist that the chapters reflect whatever matters to their interviewee, as alternatives to the generic script, I offer them: “The years when my marriage fell apart,” “The years I spent addicted to heroin,” “The years I spent watching my wife die of cancer.” I tell them that, as a matter of convenience, they should aim for 4-6 chapters.

I do not tell them much about how to interview, other than to start each chapter with a general invitation: “What do you remember about that time in your life? What was it all about?” I do tell them to ask about important people, “Who mattered to you back then? Tell me about them” and their interviewee’s work, broadly construed: “So how did you spend your time? What were you trying to do with yourself?” Above all, I tell them to ask for examples and stories, and I illustrate what I have in mind by describing a story that someone I interviewed told me about an unhappy incident with her father. I also go over, very carefully, their options if the person they are interviewing becomes upset. By now, at least 500 students have done this project; hardly any have reported any difficulty doing the interview. A great many of their stories are heartbreaking: abuse, addiction, abandonment, murder.

The first part of their written paper presents a biography of the interviewee. It is divided into short chapters similar to those in the interview (for example, “Leaving home,” “Starting a family”). Within each chapter, students summarize the main events and illustrate them with short quotes from their interviewee. The second part of the paper analyses the life story; there are two ways of doing this. One option is to point out themes in the life that have remained consistent over time or that have changed (see above). These themes may include ways of relating to other people or ways of working. I encourage students to relate these themes to theories of psychosocial development. I also ask them to think about societal influences (tight finances, immigrant identity, gender norms, and so on). A second option is to analyze the rhetoric of the life story: what does the interviewee want us to believe about her life, and how does she tell the tale in order to persuade us? This second option is more challenging for most students; I provide several in-class exercises to illustrate what I have in mind. The final, short section of paper discusses the process: how did the student go about doing the project; what problems arose and how did the student handle them; what did the student learn from the project; what advice would he or she give others?

I have used this project in several courses: Introduction to Psychology, Research Methods, and Life Span Development, at perhaps a dozen different colleges. The students in my Intro course tend to be freshmen who are majoring in criminal justice, communications, and business, rather than psychology. Those in Life Span Development are often second or third year nursing students. The students in Research Methods are usually sophomores and juniors who are majoring in psychology or a closely related discipline (Human Development); many of them hope to become teachers or counselors of one sort or another. More advanced students tend to do a better job with the project; I have not noticed much difference between those majoring in psychology and those majoring in other disciplines.

Alignment and Scaffolding

The assignment fits in different places for different courses. In Research Methods, it illustrates one version of qualitative research (the other assignment is an observation study). In Life Span Development, it illustrates early and middle adulthood. In my Intro course, it fits loosely with the sections on personality theory or life span development. It does not really matter where in the course the assignment is given (except that the interview should be scheduled for a time when students are at home for several days (Thanksgiving or Spring Break); nor does it matter what courses students have previously taken. Although advanced psychology students tend to do a better job with it, this is probably because they are a self-selected group with an interest in listening to others, not because their previous courses have taught them anything related to this project. Furthermore, this project does not teach them anything that will be of use in subsequent courses, unless they go to graduate school in counseling or social work, where they will employ similar skills every day at their internships. The main thing that this course offers and this, only to a minority of undergraduate’s confirmation that this sort of thinking interests them, and that they are good at it. More than a few of them have told me that this project helped them decide to pursue a vocation in counseling.

Previous learning activities: I usually provide several in-class activities designed to help students with this project. We do the interviewing exercise before they do their own interview. Depending on the schedule, I often reserve the interpretation exercises until after they have done the interview, but before they turn in their final paper.

Interviewing exercise: Pairs of students practice interviewing each other. The topic is deliberately innocuous: How did you decide to come to this school; what was it like for you when you first got here; how have things changed for you since then? The main purpose of this exercise is to help students get over their anxiety about doing an interview. In this minimal sense, the exercise always works. Teaching real interview skills is, of course, much harder. I try to sit in with each group for five minutes, compliment them on their skill, and offer suggestions. Occasionally I interrupt and ask a few questions of my own. Students are always astounded at how casual and conversational I sound, not at all what they imagine an interview is supposed to be. Here are some things to anticipate:

  • Students quickly turn this exercise into a conversation; they must be reminded that it is an interview: one person asks questions, the other responds. After 20 minutes, trade roles.
  • As novice interviewers, they tend to jump from one question to another: “Where did you grow up?” What is your major?” Instead, they should explore the details of any interesting answer by asking many follow-up questions.
  • They often ask questions that elicit only short, factual answers: “Are doing an internship?”  Instead, they need to ask for detailed examples and stories. They often shy away from asking questions that seem to them too personal. While this caution is tactful (and ethical) they may overdo it. Instead, they might ask, “Do you feel okay talking about it?”
  • As interviewees, they often give long answers; this robs the interviewer of practice asking questions. It will be more useful if they give shorter answers, so that their interviewer can practice asking them to elaborate. A colleague tells me that he holds up his hand and says, “Stop”, I plan to try it.

Interpretation exercises: All of these exercises present students with 2-3 pages of short quotes from my own life story interviews. Each includes a set of questions, designed to start easy and get progressively harder. I have students answer these in small discussion groups, then we discuss them in the whole class. Each exercise takes about 45 minutes. The exercises include many of the same quotes, so I would not recommend using all of them. The quotes are drawn from longer biographies, which I explain in class. Anyone interested in those longer biographies should contact me.

  • Themes in the life stories of three men: This exercise consists of quotes from three men; they are arranged in loosely chronological order. The exercise asks students to notice consistent themes in each man’s stories.
  • Noticing similarities: This is a similar exercise using many of the same quotes (I would use one or the other). It asks students to notice similar ways of describing people, difficult situations, and forms of action.
  • Adversity and Injustice: This uses some of the same quotes. It asks students to distinguish between stories of “adversity” (the protagonist faces a difficult situation, but not one is to blame) and “injustice” (the problematic situation is someone else’s fault).

Students own quotes: Student brings in 5-6 quotes their own interviews. They are supposed to bring in quotes that are in some way similar (their interviewee describes in similar terms several different people, several different problematic situations and lines of action). They discuss these in small groups.

Annotated examples (see attachments).

  • a paper, written by a student in previous class, that describes an abusive marriage;
  • a paper I wrote that describes the career of an artist.

Reflections

This project has two goals, one considerably more ambitious than the other. The less ambitious goal is simply to stir students, however temporarily, out of their near-perfect apathy, by offering them something more interesting to do than listen to me lecture. This is addressed by having them do the interview itself, and the first, biographical section of their paper, and it is almost invariably successful. Students routinely tell me how much they enjoyed the project, though not, perhaps, for the reasons I would hope. Their typical comment is, “I really liked this assignment, it made me realize how much I admire my mother.” Few of my lower-level students says more than this. The more ambitious goal is to help students notice patterns, either in the life that their interviewee has lived or in the way she tells her story. Very few lower-level students attempt to do this, despite my instructions and examples. Many of the upper-level students do attempt such an analysis, and some of these have been quite thoughtful. I am particularly interested in those papers that question why someone keeps making poor choices, or why someone’s story is less than fully credible. This is, of course, difficult for students because it requires them to be skeptical of someone they love. Nevertheless, a handful, perhaps two or three in each upper-level class manage to write something startlingly insightful (for an example, see “An Abusive Marriage”).

To help students with this project I have developed a number of in-class exercises. These consist chiefly of quotes drawn from my own interviews. I ask students to explain what some of these quotes have in common and how they differ from other quotes. These exercises work, as long as I limit the amount of material I ask them to read, and provide them with specific questions to answer. (That is: in a typical, lower-level class of 25 students, three or four are able to notice what I have in mind, the rest are mystified. That percentage improves with upper-level students.) Recently, in response to a suggestion made at the charrette, I tried asking students to bring in quotes from their own interviews. These were supposed to illustrate consistent themes in their interviewee’s story. This was not especially successful. Very few brought in a set of quotes that had anything in common with each other. Apparently, it is vastly harder than I imagined for students to understand when two quotes are similar and when they are not.

With the exception of this last exercise, I have, over the years, simplified this project and reduced my expectations. Originally, I hoped that students would notice the self-serving rhetoric that life storytellers use. While I continue to teach this, I no longer hold out much hope of reading any such analysis in their essays. Instead, the best of them describe patterns in how their informants live–not in how they construe their experience. I have come to feel that that is good enough for now, I will leave the rest for their graduate school supervisors.


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