Lesson Plan: Failure Interviews

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The goal of this lesson is for students to interview someone who has failed at something—in a small or large, invisible or spectacular way. Typically, when we conduct interviews, we target experts within a field who can dispense some knowledge for our imagined audience. For this lesson plan, students collapse the hierarchy of knowing-subject-to-unknowing-audience. Failure is often hidden from others; it does not show up in our resumes, and it is difficult to disclose in public settings without facing stigma. Taking inspiration from recent attempts to reclaim failure (Failure CV’s, Dr. Casey Boyle’s “Failed Writing” Project, Grading for Failure), this lesson plan asks students to make space for failure—to move the concept beyond its figuration as a personal deficiency. Instead, we might come to see failure as a shared condition. Highlighting the collective, rhetorical life of failure is best done when students can connect to an interviewee and a listening audience.

For this lesson, students learn to record audio on their smartphones. This lesson features mobile recording technologies, like a small USB recording interface and vocal microphone to increase voice projection and sound quality.

The class collects the final interviews in a class “Archive of Failure” on SoundCloud, where students can then conduct additional reflective assignments about the interviews.

Learning Objectives

The interviewer learns to generate audience-specific questions in order to tune into failure’s rhetoricity, or how it operates as a form of unshakeable exposure in our life and language. Interviews ideally move beyond just making quick lemonade, i.e., asking the typical interview question, “What is your biggest failure?” to get a disingenuous answer like, “I care too much.” Instead, the interview brings out failure as a multi-layered and shared social condition.

Most importantly, students learn to connect with an external listening audience. Who would benefit most from hearing the interview? What makes an interview listenable? What is the purpose of an interview? In what media outlet would the interview fit?

In this lesson, students will:

  • Produce a 10-15 minute interview
  • Discuss the rhetoricity of failure
  • Learn to connect to a listening audience by grasping what makes something “listenable””
  • Fail at producing something perfect

Assignment Length

One to two class periods

Required Materials

Smartphone (iPhone or Android)

Skills Necessary

Record and save an audio file on a smartphone; export the file to a class page

Access and Adaptability

This lesson plan is audio-based and asks students to engage in real-time headphone monitoring of sound quality. We encourage the use of “Accessibility” options on the iPhone and Android, such as switching noise to one ear if a listener hears better in one ear. There are numerous apps available for sound recording on one’s phone, which can be used without any recording interface. iPhone users can use voice memos, Garageband, or SoundCloud, while Android users can use Audio Recorder, WavePad, Garageband, or SoundCloud, among many other options. This lesson does require access to a smartphone. If students do not have access to a smartphone, students can consider using a Zoom H5, which is explained in this easy tutorial.

Assignment Description

This assignment has five stages: first, a discussion of what makes a listenable interview; second, individual creation of an “Interview Guide”; third, a tutorial of how to record audio on a smartphone; fourth, a 10-15 minute interview; and finally, additional, optional reflective assignments about the class’ “Archive of Failure.”

Instructor Preparation

  • Familiarize yourself with phone recording hardware and software
  • Generate examples of effective interviews
  • Establish a class SoundCloud page

Student Preparation

  • Download a recording app (this lesson recommends free Shure MOTIV App), or use internal voice memos
  • Familiarize yourself with phone recording hardware and software”
  • Familiarize yourself with phone recording hardware and software
  • Bring smartphone to class

In-Class or Assignment Instructions

1. Instructors should first lead students in discussion about what makes an effective interview. Instructors should provide examples of effective interviews and generate a list of interview conventions. Effective interviews consider question-quality, timing, and audience adaptation. The goal in this discussion is to consider what makes something listenable, capable of inspiring easy and/or agreeable listening.

2. Students will then choose a subject to interview. If you are working in class, students can interview one another. If instructors want to expand the assignment beyond the classroom, students can interview anyone they believe has an interesting story of failure to tell. Discussed failures can academic, interpersonal, business, or political in nature.

At this stage, students should provide the instructor with an ideal external listening audience in mind. Who would benefit from hearing this conversation on failure? What might your classmates find interesting, if the intended audience? What should the point of an interview be, for future listeners? For instance, if a student wants to talk about failing at studying for an exam, perhaps other UT students would benefit from hearing that struggle.

3. Students will then generate some interview questions (5-10 recommended) in an “Interview Guide.” The interview can become more organic, but these are questions students can come back to if they feel stuck or if they want to change directions in the interview. Students are welcome to bring their own failures to the fore in the interview, if they become relevant to the subject-matter and help the interviewer connect to the interviewee.

Some initial interview questions to guide students might include: Tell me about a time where you perceived you failed. Why do you perceive this as a failure v. a success? What came, if anything, from failing? Would you do it over again differently, if presented with the chance? How would you define failure?

4. Instructors then will teach students how to record sound on their smartphones (See the “How to Record Audio on an iPhone” tutorial here and below). The upside of using a phone is that it is more mobile, available, and inexpensive. This lesson encourages students to try a recording interface with a phone, however, to learn how to attain quality audio recording.

5. Students should conduct 10-15 minute interviews with their interviewee. Consider techniques for reducing external noise: keeping the microphone in one stable place without touching it, angling the microphone between the speakers within 6-12 inches, and monitoring for clipping (audio spikes) and plosives (loud consonant noises). If students cannot monitor in real-time, they can play the interview back to discern quality.

6. Students then upload their interviews to a class SoundCloud page to create an “Archive of Failure.” The archive can be a private playlist or on a private account. From here, other directions open. First, the class can listen to one another’s interviews and conduct peer review. Second, the class can listen to one another’s interviews to generate a topos of class failure. Third, the class can reflect on failure in the recording process itself: What does it mean to have succeeded at the interview? Is failure, like glitch or error, a constitutive part of any interview? Is the goal of an interview (if not all of rhetorical study) understanding or failing to understand?

Skills Workshop

Recording with a smartphone may seem intuitive at first, but you quickly realize it can be difficult to produce quality audio recording on a phone. This assignment teaches how to use a smartphone to get the best possible audio recording. Using a mobile recording interface and vocal mic makes the recording more mobile without sacrificing projection. The following tutorial suggests some inexpensive hardware and software, as well as offers some tips for microphone positioning:

Assessment Suggestions

Students produce two assignments: an interview guide and a 10-15 minute audio interview. Generally, assessment revolves around creativity, adaptation, listenability, and reflection.

If instructors want to get extra creative, a portion of assessment can include how badly students perceive themselves to have failed at the assignment–which inverts the classical structures of grading. The more failure, the better.

The instructor can assess the interview guide based on creativity of questions, adaptation to interviewee, and adaptation to an external listening audience in mind. The instructor can assess the interview based on audio mechanics (listenability), adaptation over the course of the interview, and adaptation to an external listening audience in mind.

Instructors can make portfolio-style assessments in two ways. First, students can conduct peer review of the interviews with a handout. Second, the class can write reflective comments on the interviews themselves related to failure in recording. Such assignments can be assessed on the basis of reflection on the affectivity and rhetoricity of failure.

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