Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Practice Interviews

Yesterday I conducted 3 practice interviews related to my dissertation here in Japan. None of them really my target participant profile, which is a a new expatriate EFL instructor teaching abroad in a specific country for the first time. The closest one could have fit this profile if she were contracted for a year rather than 2 months, which makes her more of a visitor/tourist than a sojourner. A sojourner is an expatriate who expects to live (and work) abroad for at least a year but intends to return home within a few years (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 234).

The purpose of these interviews is to develop my technique in both the creation and delivery of good interview questions. The result so far has been very positive, but I have known these practice participants for a month as my colleagues. I do, however, expect that some of my future participants may also be colleagues of mine. I intend to start interviewing them within 2-4 weeks of their arrival, and they may not know me at all prior to the interview except through a short introduction. So I expect I will need to work harder at building rapport and earning their trust.

Because I do not have IRB approval from the University of Iowa, I did not collect any data about the content of the interview. I made it known to all of my participants prior to the interview that I would not be recording the interview nor writing any information down about the content of the interview. And I informed them of the purpose as I stated in the previous paragraph, so I would only collect data on my interview technique. I made it clear that nothing they said would be published, including this blog post.

I have at least 3 more participants to interview while I'm here, so I will complete this blog post when that is complete. But one tip I learned from my first qualitative methods class was to record my impressions as soon as possible, so here are my impressions of my technique without providing any of my participants' information that I recall from the interviews.

All 3 interviews were scheduled to last no longer than an hour, but all 3 interviews could have easily lasted longer. I had prepared 2 pages of questions for each participant. In fact, for this practice interview I had to design 3 separate interview protocols based on my participants' experiences. The most used protocol is for expatriates who have taught in more than one country and will leave Japan within the next year. The second protocol was for expatriates who have never taught in Japan before, so this one most closely resembles the real protocol I intend to use for my real data collection. The third and final protocol was for expatriates who have taught in Japan for at least 15 years and do not have any plans to leave Japan anytime soon.

Reflecting on the flow and pace of each interview, I predict that one of the three interviews would have lasted at least 3 hours. The shortest of the three, which had a different protocol than the other two interviews, could have gone on for another 30 minutes. I am not too surprised that I didn't have enough time to go through all the questions because I didn't expect this to happen. I am a bit surprised that my predictions (based on my experience as a teacher and my familiarity with the participants) were somewhat accurate about the length of each interview.

I was more surprised about the variation in response. One of the interviews was a lot more conversational than the others as I rarely had to turn to my question sheet. My thoughts on why this was so will reveal some information about the participant, so I will refrain. The other two interviews followed the flow of my questions, although one of them focused on an idea that I planned to ask later. But I did not have a problem with rearranging the order, and I let the participant carry this idea with me providing follow-up questions on it.

I felt myself skipping a question or two for all the participants as I felt that it would disrupt the flow or pace of the interview. If I had more time, I may have gone back to cover those questions.

The interviews did provide me some useful ideas for additional questions or related studies. Getting these new ideas increased my motivation to pursue this research interest. I cannot provide what these questions are specifically as they will reveal some data that I promised not to collect. I hope that similar questions or ideas for future studies will be replicated in my data collection for my dissertation.

I only received positive feedback from my first 3 practice participants as they all commented on the quality of the questions. Nobody voiced any concerns about feeling uncomfortable or awkward. However, I felt a little awkward at times.

Two of the interviews took place in the participants' office. I do not expect many of my target participants to have their own office if my research is in Japan or Korea, based on my own experience. The third interview took place in the university cafeteria. Although I felt mostly comfortable in the cafeteria, I felt awkward to eat while listening. I apologized about eating while listening, but the participant expressed no problems about it. But I will most likely not eat while collecting data in the future unless there is no time limit for the interview.

Reflecting on each question, I found that none of the questions took me to a dead end. Perhaps I was lucky with my first three participants. Even if I were unsure about a question's appropriateness concerning their experience, the participants wanted to hear the question anyway, and they answered all it. I assume that this occurred because of their familiarity with me.

One concern I have is interjecting my own experience into the interview. Most of the time, I was confirming their feelings and opinions as I shared them, but I was worried if this was ethical. My confirmations could be leading them to where I want them to go, however these confirmations almost always came at the end of a certain topic. Once in a while, the participants would ask about my experience, and I felt that I should provide as brief of an answer as possible because the interview is not about me. This left me wondering about the participants' preferences for interviews. Perhaps some interviewees would feel more comfortable if they were learning something about me as well like in a conversation. Although I feel very hesitant to make an interview into a conversation in which 50% of the data is about me. Looking back, I'd say I got to about 10% at the most.

All 3 of these interviews were conducted back to back with little time between each one. In fact, I had to race from one site to another between each one. This did not seem to be a concern for the participants, but I prefer to be early than just in time. I felt that I could possibly do 2 interviews in a row. Even though I conducted to the 3rd interview just as well, I felt that I had to keep myself more actively engaged. This had nothing to do with the participant. I blame my scheduling and eating. It makes me wonder how many interviews are conducted in which the investigator is not fully alert or engaged. Let me state clearly that I was, but I felt the urge to enjoy my meal more. I felt more distracted I guess, but it's hard for me to pin it on one thing like the cafeteria. This does not distract me from conducting another interview in a cafeteria or restaurant. I just won't make such an interview the last one in a series of interviews.

Today I plan to conduct 2 more interviews and 1 on Saturday. There were 2 others that expressed some interest, but I haven't bothered them about it yet. I'll see how this carries me through the weekend, and I will continue reporting in this manner about the other interviews below in this posting.

* * *

A few days have passed, and I have completed my scheduled practice interviews for the summer. I had at least 3 more participants that were willing to be interviewed, but they didn't select a time, and I'm running out of time. Two of these three would have been interesting as they do not fit the expected or dominant profile of the expatriate EFL instructor as their countries of origin are Japan (teaching in another country) and Bangladesh (teaching in Japan).

About the remaining three interviews that I conducted, I felt they weren't as successful as the previous ones. On Thursday, I interviewed two participants that had experiences I had not completely anticipated, so that made many of my questions irrelevant to their situation. I'm sure I could have improved on creating a better interview if I had collected and reviewed their CVs beforehand, thus I learned how vital it is to have some sort of background information like a CV prior to the first interview.

Another problem with those two Thursday interviews was that I felt somewhat exhausted from my day before interviewing them. I was surprised how much my mood played a factor in my ability to ask questions and assess the success of the interview. Perhaps the interviews would have been as good as the first ones if I had a sharper mind. Evidence of this lower quality of question delivery was that I seemed to pay more attention to the list of questions than the pace and flow of the interviews, thus the conversations felt less relaxed.

This morning, I interviewed my final scheduled participant. I felt that this interview went better than Thursday's. However, because this participant's situation was quite different compared to the previous ones, I felt that I could have better organized my questions. Of all the interviews, this one seemed to skim the surface of many interesting topics, but because of the nature and purpose of the interview, I didn't get much depth. That said, I learned the most of how to compose and organize questions for participants like this one. In fact, this interview has motivated me to pursue a case study research on this type of population soon after I finish my dissertation.

I'd like to conclude by saying this interview practice has helped me learn more about myself as both a researcher and as a member of the EFL expatriate community. I expected to learn about my ability to conduct interviews, and I was happily surprised by it overall. What I didn't expect was how I fit in or didn't fit into the EFL expatriate community, and how I can make adjustments to be a better member, and hopefully a leader, in this community.

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