About Writing Good Questions

-keep questions simple

-don't suggest an answer in a question

-use the conceptual terms used by your source

-think through an indirect question ahead of time for asking delicate, personal questions

(-respect any request not to include certain information)

-decide the best order for your questions

 

There are several different kinds of questions that can be used. They often overlap: questions about facts, stories, images & "flavors", values & ideas, and connections to larger history

Some people respond to some kinds better that other kinds.

 

GET FACTS: These work well at the beginning of an interview or at the beginning of different sections of an interview.

Some examples might be:

What is your full name?

When were you born?

Where did you live when you were born?

When was you sister born?

What high school did you attend?

When did you graduate from high school?

What jobs have you had?

 

GET STORIES:

Some examples might be:

What were you doing when you heard about your brother's accident?

Who decided your family would move?

Tell about the day you first came to the United States.

Tell about when you first met Granddad.

What was it like traveling alone for the first time?

What were the first few days like after the baby ws born?

What radio or television shows does s/he remember?

What movies does s/he remember?

What music does s/he remember?

What sport events does s/he remember?

What are some of his or her positive memories of work or school? Problems?

What politics were talked about in your family?

 

GET IMAGES and "FLAVORS":

Some examples might be:

What did your house/apartment look like from the outside?

What was the general floor plan of your house or apartment?

What foods did you eat on a typical day? On holidays?

What did your kitchen look like?

Describe your toys.

What is an early image of your mother? What hairstyle did she wear? What kind of clothes did she typically wear?

What kind of clothes did you wear everyday? On special occasions?

What medicines or remedies do you remember?

What transportation did you use?

What did your school or job site look like outside? Outside?

What images does s/he have from her/his farm, town or city?

What did you traditionally do on Halloween? Thanksgiving? Christmas? etc.

What arts or crafts were created (woodworking? weaving? etc.)

What did you do for relaxation?

 

GET VALUES AND IDEAS:

Some examples might be:

What do you remember you father telling you about religion?

Was there a saying your mother often repeated to you?

How did you know you had done something they did not approve of?

Did reading the newspaper affect your ideas about the war in Vietnam?

What book influenced you most in college?

 

CONNECT TO LARGER HISTORY:

Some examples might be:

1930s:

What did your family do to stretch the food, clothing, fuel, etc.?

What did your family do, if anything, for extra income?

Did anyone in your family work in the C.C.C., the W.P.A., etc.?

Did your family or the individual you are interviewing hear about F.D.R.?

What did they or s/he think of F.D.R.?

Does s/he remember hearing him on the radio?

What memories does s/he have of poverty, his or her own or others?

1940s:

Did someone in your family fight in World War II?

If so, where did s/he go? Can s/he describe some of his or her experiences?

How long was s/he overseas? Was s/he wounded?

What was his or her "job"?

What was it like for those of your family who stayed in the U.S.?

Do they remember not being able to get certain things?

Can they explain rationing to you? Do they remember the stamps?

Did someone work (and did they move to get the work?) in the war industries?

Does anyone remember hearing F.D.R.'s request for declaration of war speech? His death?

What does anyone remember hearing about Hiroshima?

What does s/he remember hearing about the German concentration camps?

What does s/he remember "hearing" about the Japanese detention camps?

1950s:

Does the person you are interviewing remember the fear of communists?

Does the person you are interviewing remember the fear of the Russians getting the atomic bomb?

How does the person you are interviewing remember learning about communism?

Does s/he remember hearing Truman, Eisenhower, or McCarthy on the radio?

Does s/he remember about or did he or she fight in the Korean War?

Does s/he remember talk about why we were fighting?

What does s/he remember about Sputnik (the first man-made satellite)?

What does s/he remember about air raid drills at school or work?

What does s/he remember hearing (or seeing) about the forced integration in the South?

What does s/he remember about the polio epidemic?

What does s/he remember about first seeing or getting a television?

What does s/he remember of the "new" rock and roll?

1960s:

Does the person you are interviewing remember John Kennedy's election or other things about JFK? What does he or she remember about the assassination?

What does s/he remember the Cuban missile crisis?

What are this person's memories of hearing about Vietnam? Did someone in your family or your interviewee fight in Vietnam? If so, how long was s/he there? Where in Vietnam was s/he? What job did s/he have there? Why did s/he think the U.S. was there? What did s/he do to "keep going?" What influence, if any, does this still have?

What did your interviewee think of our fighting in Vietnam? Was s/he in the protest movement? Did s/he oppose the protest movement? What influence, if any, does this still have?

Was anyone in your family or your interviewee involved in the Civil Rights Movement?

What did s/he do? What influence, if any, does this still have?

Was anyone in your family or your interviewee in A.I.M., the Farm Workers' Union, other ethnic groups, or the women's movement? What did s/he do? What influence, if any, does this still have?

Was anyone in your family or your interviewee in the Peace Corps? Where? Doing what?

Did anyone in your family or your interviewee, "drop out" or become part of the counter culture? To what extent? What ideas or ideals did s/he follow? What influence, if any, does this still have?

What does s/he remember about Johnson's announcing he would not run for president again? ...about M.L. King's assassination? ...about Robert Kennedy's assassination? What does s/he remember feeling and thinking?

What does s/he remember of the other violence in the country? ...out of hand protests?...ghetto fires? Are these memories from being there or from television or other media? What does s/he remember feeling and thinking?

 

 About Good Interviewing

-if you don't use a taperecorder, take notes

-bring a photo or an item that may help start the interview

-if you do use a tape recorder keep it out of the center of focus

-interview your source, keep in the background (silence is sometimes OK)

-watch for consistency in the answers, and for conflicts with other sources

-especially with older people, don't rush away after the interview

-ask if you may make a follow-up call

-it may be appropriate to send a thank you letter

 

"There are some essential qualities an interviewer must possess: an interest and respect for people as individuals, and flexiblity in response to them; an ability to show understanding and sympathy for their point of view; and, above all, a willingness to sit quietly and listen." (Thompson p. 165)

 

from Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History

(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978)