Northwestern Digital Learning Podcast: Episode 4, Working Stories

Welcome to another episode of the Northwestern Digital Learning podcast where each month we highlight an example of innovative teaching and learning across campus.

I'm Kelly Roark, A Faculty Support Specialist with Northwestern’s Faculty Support Services and your guest host for this episode.


Kelly: In the early 1970s the great Chicago author and broadcaster Studs Terkel recorded interviews with more than 130 people from various occupations and careers in the United States, like farmers, a switchboard operator, a film critic, a factory worker, and even a prostitute. These interviews were compiled into a book called Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day & How They Feel About What They Do that was published in 1974 and it remains a fascinating time capsule of the types of careers that people held in the 70s and how people viewed their work. Doctors Nina Wieda and Liz McCabe applied Stud’s technique to their Chicago Field Studies course to help Northwestern students prepare for their future careers in the professional market. Each student in the program completed an internship and was given the assignment to interview someone working in their field or area of interest. The student then condensed the interview to a short three to four minutes which were posted on a website for the larger community. Nina Wieda explains the purpose of the project.

Dr. Wieda: I explained to them that the interviews have two primary goals. First one is to meet an interesting person and to have an illuminating conversation that helps them reflect on the things that we're discussing class with the help of another participant. Basically somebody who has probably been in the professional field for a while, who has reflected on it, who has made some changes. And the second objective is to process that conversation and to arrange it into a short but well-organized story that is meant to help others gain some insight into the same issues.

Kelly: Liz McCabe explains her approach.

Dr. McCabe: The way that I present the project to the students is that they don't always have to interview somebody in their field. They can also choose to interview just somebody whose work seems interesting to them or whose work they haven't thought about much before. We do a unit on Studs Terkel in that class and Studs was really invested in the idea of people just being asked about their work and what it means to them, what they do on a day-to-day basis how they feel about it, how they think about it, and its importance in their lives. And I really try to urge students to think imaginatively about people's working lives and to take seriously the idea that we need to respect all kinds of working environments and lives.

Dr. Wieda: We talk about diversity and we talk about challenges the different demographic groups face. So, we talk about how difficult it is being a woman in some fields or being a minority. And we read a lot and we discuss it, but I always thought that nothing compares to speaking to someone face-to-face who experienced it in real life. And that's what happened to my student as she was talking to a very successful, very high-powered lawyer. The issue came up of how even for her it was a challenge to get where she was and how she was basically disappointed about the lack of equality that she sees in the in the professional world. And that's the topic on which my student chose to focus and that's what the story was about. And I believe it turned out to be a very powerful story. I plan to use it in my classes going forward when we discussed the subject of diversity and it is so much more powerful because it's not some abstract force that came from elsewhere. It was generated right here by one of our students and the insight came from a person she knows on a daily basis.

Lawyer: It's that initial impression, it’s that initial presumption of incompetence. There's the assumption that I'm in the room because I'm the token female. I'm being brought along to a pitch as diversity, and I have to prove that I'm there because I'm the smartest lawyer. You walk into a room and there's the presumption of incompetence. Whereas the white men have the presumption of competence… every day. If I walk into a meeting with a potential client I have to be… I have to have read those client's documents, I’ve got to have analyzed their individual situation. I have to have the answers, and my male co-head walks in, no prep, just talks about his experience and, you know, the client thinks, you know, has a completely different impression. I have to do 10 times the prep. Every day, for every phone call, for every meeting.

Kelly: Why was it important to have an audio interview?

Dr. Wieda: I basically realized that recording a conversation is a way to use technology to create a magical space for an hour where a slice of life [is] being recorded in its organic and natural way, uninterrupted.

Dr. McCabe: They absolutely force students to learn how to ask questions, follow-up questions, and draw someone out in conversation. They give students sort of useful professional networking skills, that sort of thing, absolutely. Leaning into the range of experiences that are in the room and inviting even more in it helps us start to create themes and notice connections across fields and experiences. For instance, I have a student whose mother has been a server at a Wendy's for the last 20-something years and she asked her, interviewed her, about her working life in detail. And it's a really powerful piece. She got to hear about some of the kinds of concerns that happened in the relationship between workers and managers, and servers and clients. And also, what gives her mother pride in her work and makes her feel like she's playing a valuable role in the community.

Interviewee: You know, when a customer, you know, complains about - their order wasn't made right, you know, and you can see that they're having a bad day… Well, then you offer them a Frosty or a free drink and, wow, you just made their day. Yeah, I think I’m going to work here until I can retire. I never dreamed I would work thirty-one years at the same company.

Dr. Wieda: Thanks to the Provost's Digital Learning grant we were able to purchase Zoom recorders and then the MAD Studio were nice enough to agree to host them for us and help us check them out to students. It was nice that we found university partners who all participated and made it possible. They use Zoom recorders to record the conversations, and then use free audio editing software such as Audacity or Garage Band to edit it. And I invite people to lead workshops on recording, editing. I've tried different approaches, I have invited a professional podcast maker and she led a workshop on good interviewing techniques and then interesting editing techniques. The common theme is that there is a lot of passion in these interviews. People talk about things that they're passionate about and people open up to a surprising degree and they address some sensitive questions.

Kelly: Nina, what effect has interviewing these professionals had on your students?

Dr. Wieda: To form a friendship with someone with whom you would normally not even have an opportunity to talk [with]. A few students thanked me for this vehicle, basically, to reach out to, let's say, the president at this company where they were there interning. And one student said, “He seemed so unapproachable. He was just passing in the distance like a god. And if he nodded at me in the morning, I considered it a deep degree of interaction, and it was scary to reach out and ask for an hour of his time. But I did, and he agreed eagerly and we had a warm, funny conversation and I felt that we became close during that hour.”

Kelly: A common issue that often comes up for instructors is how to grade the students’ work.

Dr. McCabe: From a teacher's perspective, it was really interesting. Like, what do I see as the requirements of this project and how much do I want to be focused on the technological requirements in a course that’s not about the technology, and how much do I want to be focused on the effort in a course that, like all courses, does need to require effort. From a humanities class especially, getting them to recognize that there are stories that they might be missing if they're not asking, and to become used to imagining that people have rich, emotional, intellectual lives around work of all sorts is really fantastic.