In search of the elusive Eminent Person Interview

Macleod's Books
Macleod's Books

When I began teaching TALONS (2006), the requirement for learners’ Eminent Person Studies to make us of an interview with an expert presented an age-old sticking point. Documents in the program binders inherited from teachers of the original, locally-developed gifted program supplied handouts and tips for students conducting their first interviews (back then, only either in person or by phone), that went so far as to include a practice interview with a parents of one of each student’s classmates.

As a former student in the older program, I remember The Interview retaining an ominous hurdle in my young education. I was jealous of a friend whose parents had raised him ordering their pizzas, and fielding solicitor’s calls, and in doing so given him the casual ability to speak with confidence to adults, strangers, over the phone. My fear was apparently widespread, as a very slim minority of my first students reported successful interviews with experts they had contacted outside their or their parents’ sphere of personal connections.

Even through last year, this amount of apprehension about garnering an expert-interview was considerable enough that we dusted-off the Practice Parent Interview (and may yet again this year in some capacity) as a means of raising the level of comfort and confidence before setting out to tackle their Eminent Person interview (a 50 mark component built into the class’ research of their studied person).

However coincidentally – as I don’t think the parent-interview was solely responsible for the result – last year also marked a steep increase in the success rate in our expert interviews. Experiences like Andrea’s became more common:

This year is different even though my person isn’t as well known and I wasn’t very optimistic. I first started by e-mailing the Corrie ten Boom museum in Holland to get the dimensions of the Hiding Place where she concealed the Jewish people in her home. Because I am an English speaker and wrote my question in English they redirected my email to Emily Smith in San Diego who volunteers at the museum in the summer and wrote the book “A visit to the Hiding Place-The life changing experiences of Corrie ten Boom.” This book that she wrote is only available online, but Emily Smith gave me her personal address to send the money order to because she check her work mail only twice a month. I ordered the book to help me with my project and I got it a week ago and it is filled with many pictures and personal items which I could not find anywhere else. Last week I also realized that I need to serve Corrie ten Boom’s favourite food at the Night of the Notables and none of her books mention anything about what she enjoyed eating I decided to email Emily Smith again. The next day I received a reply not only mentioning her two favourite foods but with links to recipes I can use to make them.  

Today in class I asked how many people had independently contacted and conducted conversation with an expert, either in person, by email or other means, and nearly everyone raised their hand. Four years ago this number would have been one, or two, out of a class of thirty.

How much does this owe to the culture of learning developing in a classroom that has been evolving as a continuous 9 / 10 split since 2005?

How much does it owe to the evolution of my own pedagogy in relation to technology and student learning networks?

And how much of this is the observation of the tidal shift in how the emerging generation, who views technology as an underlying fact of life, rather than ornamental, or merely entertainment, can use technology to empower individualized learning?

This year there are already a great many examples of TALONS learners taking their quest beyond the school’s walls and even Canada’s natural borders, and coming home with excellent primary or secondary source information from a global field of experts. Like Andrew, they are getting better at leveraging the web for their own personal study:

I decided to try contacting the authors of the people who wrote books about [Tim Berniers-Lee], ones that I had taken out from the VPL.  The first name I typed into Google was Robert Cailliau.  I read the Wikipedia article on him and realized that he had actually helped Mr. Berners-Lee develop the Web.  And so I went about trying to contact him.  I used the links at the bottom of the page to find his home page, and from there his e-mail address.  I sent him an e-mail, explaining who I was, and what the project was about, and my request to send him a few questions.

Such efforts – in Andrew’s interview, Jenna’s discussion with NYU professor Brooke Kroeger, and Richard’s pending email interview of Tony’s Blair’s biographer – are examples of a rise in digital literacy that will likely provide a firm foundation in developing this month’s Eminent Person Study 1.

For this year’s TALONS learners seeking their first interview, here are a few pieces of advice shared on TALONS blogs in the past year, and links to several of the letters which yielded successful interviews (Successful interview letters: Louise, Saskia, Donya, and Ariana).

Show yourself to be serious, prepared and grateful for the help

  • State the purpose of your contact up front: I am _______________ and I am doing a research project on the life of ______________.
  • But avoid being blunt The above should take more than one sentence, and can include information you have already found on the person, or the field, a summary of how you found the person, or some background on the rationale behind your choice of Eminent Person or the project itself.
  • Humble yourself Be accommodating in setting up the interview, such that all the person must reasonably consent to is answering a few already-prepared questions. Acknowledge clearly – repeatedly – that your interviewee is going beyond the call by granting you some insight. Thank them for their time, even if they can only help by providing you with more phone numbers, emails and people to contact in their stead. Politeness (and here we will include grammar, spelling and formal language) will go a long way here.

Interviews are very valuable. Go the extra mile to get one.

  • Send lots of emails so that at least a few are likely to reply
  • Send emails to different types of people related to your eminent person ( a variety of perspectives helps)
  • Ask questions in your email that couldn’t be found online. If they think you are interviewing them so that you don’t have to do any research of your own, they won’t answer.
  • Do a phone interview if you can because you will get much more information and much more detailed information. I wasn’t convinced at first but am now definitely sold on the merits of phone interviews.
  • Prepare lots of questions for your phone interviews (at least 20-25)
  • Research your interviewee ahead of time so that you can ask better questions
  • Compliment your interviewee’s work in you original email and during your interview
  • Say lots of thank yous at the end of a phone conversation.
  • Send thank you letters immediately after your interview as it shows a lot more appreciation that an email two weeks later.

On Sunday, I sent off e-mails to curators at 7 different art galleries. Yesterday I came home to three replies.

  1. Show that you spent time and effort on your e-mail. If you do this people are more likely to spend time and effort on their reply back.
  2. Explain about yourself and the project you are undertaking. (I think half the reason I got such a long reply back from the Phoenix Art Museum was because the curator grew up in Victoria.)
  3. Demonstrate that you researched your topic well before coming to others for supplementary information. This way, it doesn’t appear that you are asking questions with answers easily available online or at the library.
  1. For more reading on the Eminent Person Study, including links to examples of speeches and learning centres, see last year’s Night of the Notables wrap up post

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