Skip to content

Spotlight on First-Year Composition: Robin Barrow-Nichols

Robin Barrow-Nichols, one of our distinguished lecturers, speaks about her successful teaching practices.

robin barrow

Dr. Robin Barrow-Nichols is a Distinguished Lecturer who regularly teaches Chancellor’s Honors Composition, Workplace Writing, and Technical Writing. She also teaches Introduction to Jane Austen and the second half of the British Literature survey. Her research interests include empathy, sexual violence, costume history, popular fiction, and the periodical press. She is also an avid birdwatcher and a fan of Terry Pratchett.

 The Composition Office recently spoke with her to find out more about her experiences teaching interview skills.


Our interview follows:

How do you incorporate interviewing skills in your classes?

My 102 students complete interviews for their qualitative assignment, my honors students have the option of interviews for their human subjects research project, and students in Technical Writing will interview subject matter experts (SMEs) for their manuals.


Why do you think these skills are important ones for students to learn?

They’re important for the assignments, because the success of the paper depends upon the richness of the information gathered. In Technical Writing, consulting an SME is needed because my expertise is limited. Additionally, interviewing is beneficial because it asks students to formulate questions, to plan and strategize, to probe and delve. These cognitive tasks stimulate intellectual curiosity, and the experiences will be helpful in interpersonal work situations.


What kinds of activities do you use to teach interviewing? Can you describe one of these activities for us?

First are the basics. I spend some time on the practicality of interviewing, such as recording, taking notes, and avoiding leading or biased questions. I also give them a template for emailing or calling someone. I will usually show Michael Parkinson’s interview of Meg Ryan in 2003: we talk about what was expected, what went wrong, and how the personal and political can factor into interviews.

My favorite in-class activity demonstrates a way to get richer information from interview subjects. I begin with Mary Kennedy’s interview advice, which gets students thinking about the difference between research questions and interview questions. I then pass out questions to each student for them to investigate—but they can’t ask the question! It’s like a version of Taboo (except they can use the keywords). Students are given a few minutes to develop questions, then are put in pairs. At the end, they ask the subject if they could guess what their question was, and they tell the subject what they discovered. Then we reflect as a class on this approach and the importance of the planning time.

Some examples:

  • What do you like best about yourself?
  • Are you a hard worker?
  • Do you have a temper?
  • If you could change one thing about UT, what would it be?

Of the many challenges of learning to conduct interviews is understanding that subjects need time to consider the answers to more complex (and interesting) questions. You can’t just ask someone the meaning of life and expect to get a thoughtful response! An interview is a social occasion, as Kennedy says, and it has a narrative logic.

We also can’t always count on truth—Kennedy observes that people’s purported theories can differ from their practice, which is why oblique questions can be helpful.


How do you work on strengthening your students’ interviewing skills as the unit progresses?

The next steps address problem-solving, such as what to do when a subject doesn’t reply. I check in with students every class day, and I make their qualitative data due a week before the rough draft to reduce the number of last-minute crises.


You mentioned submitting their data—do you have students type up the transcripts?

I don’t require full transcripts for the interviews. I used to require this, but the amount of work involved exceeds the benefits. The students end up spending more time typing than thinking. (Also, I didn’t have time to read them!)

There definitely ARE benefits to creating a transcript—you’ll hear the answers in a different way, and it requires deep listening—so I ask for either one typed page for each interview or, if the interviewee did not permit recording, a summary. We then use that data for a lesson on coding.


What are some common mistakes students make when learning interviewing skills? Any tips of how to help them avoid making these mistakes?

The biggest mistake is not having a plan. The second biggest mistake is not having a backup plan. Teachers can help by having students workshop interview (and survey) questions in groups and by having them submit a proposal that includes how they will find interview subjects.


The flagship campus of the University of Tennessee System and partner in the Tennessee Transfer Pathway.