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by Carol Hayman

A skill that Anthropologists learn is interviewing. One of our class assignments, in Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, is to interview someone from a different place. Not everyone is required to do this, it is one of a selection of possible research assignments. For students too shy to talk to someone, they can do their research in the library or on the internet. But the interviews conducted by students are the most enjoyable to read.

On the first day of class we have a practice interview to get to know our fellow students in the classroom, so students can see how they might like to try out that research technique. This happens after the syllabus has been reviewed, the textbooks examined, and the format of future class assignments has been discussed. The activity works best if we have about 30 minutes left at the end of the class period.

First we explore what kind of questions we might want to ask another student to find out more about him or her. Some of these might be about their potential academic careers, or their major. Some students are right out of high school, others have taken other college classes. If someone suggests asking about age could be a good question, we discuss appropriate and inappropriate questions and how at some point it becomes inappropriate to ask someone’s age in our culture. Then we can discuss what kinds of questions might be inappropriate or not in different circumstances. One example is asking how much money people make, which is inappropriate in American society, but a perfectly valid topic in other cultures. “Have you ever been arrested?” is another, which could come up in a job application, but not in an informal classroom situation. A popular query is “Where are you from?” Other questions could be about siblings, pets, hobbies, favorite books, movies or TV shows, or jobs and work places. Many students have traveled and that also becomes a topic of interest. After samples of questions to ask have been discussed, we divide up into pairs (or threesomes, so no one is left out) and each member of each pair interviews the other person. Students can take notes if they want to. This seems to be really fun and the noise level can get quite high.

After about 10 minutes, different pairs volunteer to introduce each other to the rest of the students, describing a few details about the person. Sometimes I will make an observation or comment – “Looks like we have several veterans in this class.” “I’ve always wanted to visit Japan.” “I went to high school in San Antonio too, but it was a long time ago!” Usually we have just enough time for everyone to be introduced and even the shyest students seem willing to do this.

The exercise helps us start to get to know each other at the beginning of class and creates a warm, friendly atmosphere.