About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Art of Interviewing

National Public Radio’s Series on Studs Terkel’s Archived Audio Tapes for Working.

If you are of a certain age, you’re probably familiar with the late Studs Terkel, particularly with his 1974 bestselling book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel, who died in 2008 at the age of 96, was a journalist, radio host (his interview show on Chicago’s WFMT lasted over four decades), cultural critic, and oral historian par excellence. In addition to Working, he published collections of interviews with mostly common folk about the Great Depression, World War II, race in America, and a lot else. Studs Terkel was an American original and treasure. During the last week of September and first few days of October 2016, NPR played a series of short clips from the original recordings Terkel made for Working. http://www.npr.org/series/495535719/working-then-and-now The tapes were stored in his office and recently reviewed and edited by Radio Diaries and Project&. Thanks to them, we get to hear a telephone operator, a gravedigger, a female advertising executive, a Black Chicago policeman, a parking lot attendant, and more. A wonderful bonus is that the producers were able to track down several of the surviving people Terkel spoke with and have them reflect back on their earlier interviews. The segment with the Black Chicago cop, Renault Robinson, is powerfully timely.


For readers of this blog who are interested in interviewing, these little clips provide an abbreviated master class in the art of talking with people in order to learn about their lives. (One reason Working was such a hit was the depth of reflection and sheer humanity of the interviews.) Terkel will start with a question (for example, “Can you describe your day?”) then back off, but not too far, interjecting an affirmation, or a complementary laugh, or a reiteration of a key phrase the person said. He’ll gently request elaboration (“Can you say more?”) or ask a new question that shows how carefully he’s been listening to what’s already been said.

The NPR hosts’ commentary about the recordings as well as little moments in the recordings themselves provide some wonderful details about the settings of the interviews. Terkel conducted them in the early 1970’s—just over 130 interviews in all—and used a reel-to-reel tape recorder, a fact that is sobering to those of us using our four-ounce voice recorders or our cell phones. From the clips on NPR it sounds like he interviewed people at their job sites, when he could. So we get Studs at a cemetery talking to a gravedigger. Studs on the piano bench with a pianist in a hotel bar. And, my favorite, Studs in the front seat  of an automobile with the parking lot attendant “One-Swing Al” (named for his finesse in getting a car into a slot), both men smoking cigars and talking, the bulky recorder probably whirring between them.


I discovered Working soon after it was published and used some of the interviews from it in the college writing classes I was teaching. The book became a touchstone for me in many ways and was one of the early influences on the thinking and writing that would eventually become The Mind at Work. And as luck would have it, I got to meet Studs Terkel and be interviewed by him on his WFMT radio show. I cherish the memory; if you’ll indulge me, I would like to tell you about the interview.

I was on tour for the release of the paperback of Possible Lives, a book that chronicles my journey across the United States visiting good public school classrooms. Chicago was one of the cities on the tour, and the person hired by the press to accompany me to my interviews told me on the way to WFMT that the last time she took a guest to the show, Studs Terkel wasn’t doing so well and was scheduled for open-heart surgery. She hadn’t seen him since and wanted to warn me that he might not be up to par. After all, he’s 84 with coronary disease. So we’re sitting in the waiting area outside the recording studio, kind of expecting the worst. Five minutes. Ten. Then suddenly from around the corner of the studio, this short man in a bright red sweater under a suit jacket comes walking toward us at a brisk pace, waving a copy of Possible Lives over his head, greeting us in a strong, gravelly voice. It was Studs Terkel. The doctors clearly got his blood pulsing.

What also struck me once he and I were sitting close to each other in the recording studio was that he had actually read the book—at least some of it—and had sections marked and dog-eared. Pieces of paper stuck out from the pages. I can’t tell you how unusual this is. A small percentage of the interviewers you hear on radio or television talking with authors have spent any time with their books. The interviewers’ questions come from their producers’ notes, which typically originate with the book publishers’ publicity departments. During our interview, Studs would even refer to page numbers as he flipped through Possible Lives, finding this event… then this event that he wanted to discuss. And he wanted to discuss everything, quick comments and associations as he moved from one of the book’s classrooms to another. His style in his radio interviews—and, Good Lord, he’s interviewed everyone—is much different from his approach on the tapes for Working. http://studsterkel.wfmt.com/ Different styles for different purposes. The radio interviews are more rapidly interactive, almost associative at times, like talking with someone you know well over a few drinks, a mix of the casual and the intense, curious, sympathetically probing, locked into good talk. The interview is twenty years old now and of its time, but if you want to hear it, it’s on my website. http://mikerosebooks.com/Video___Audio.html

Listening to the NPR clips from the early-70s’ tapes that resulted in Working and thinking back to my fortunate interview with the man, I’m struck and moved by Studs Terkel’s commitment over a very long haul to serious, engaged talk, to learning about other people, to exploring with humane curiosity the nooks and crannies of the American social landscape. As I inch closer to Terkel’s age when he interviewed me, I’m also thinking about the importance of talk across generations, the power and pleasure of it and, sadly, how rare it is. For that fact, how rare authentic, sustained talk is, period. How seldom it is that we talk to each other with a true interest in where we came from and who we are. There’s so much that sits within Terkel’s opening question: “Tell me about your day,” and especially in the follow-up: “Can you say more?”

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