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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Deconstructing Studs: A Direct Examination Exercise

One of my favorite authors is the now-deceased historian Studs Terkel. He was famous for his oral histories, including such classics as The Good War, Hard Times, Will the Circle Be Unbroken: Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith and, just before his death, P.S.: Further Thoughts from a Lifetime of Listening. The title of his last book gives an important clue to what made him so good as a historian: he learned to listen, and he learned to find the compelling stories told by ordinary people in extraordinary times.

If you've never read a Studs Terkel book, you should, especially if you teach advocacy. The books are divided into chapters, each of which tells the story of a particular event from one person's perspective or memory. There is a brief biographical statement, such as "Mayor Tom Bradley. He is mayor of Los Angeles. He was a young policeman in 1941: 'I had been on the job for about a year.'" Then the story, told in the voice of the interviewee: "Immediately after Pearl Harbor, there was bedlam. Sirens going off, aircraft guns firing. It was panic. Here we are in the middle of the night, there was no enemy in sight, but somebody thought they saw the enemy. (Laughs.) They were shooting at random."

The first-person accounts in his books flow effortlessly. Occasionally, one notices the presence of the interviewer with a transition, or a question, but in general, the only voice one hears is that of the interviewee.

In his books, Terkel achieved the type of storytelling that most direct examiners can only dream of.

But putting this together wasn't as effortless as the final product made it appear. Terkel would take a tape recorder and spend literally hours interviewing people, then edit the interviews into their final format. A tremendous amount of work.

After reading one of his books a few years ago, I created a direct examination exercise for my advanced advocacy class. I call it "Deconstructing Studs," and it's pretty simple. I assign the students a short chapter from one of Terkel's books. They have to prepare a direct examination of the character in the chapter--a real, live person, whose compelling story has been edited into that form by Terkel--and then conduct that examination in class. The questions have to be open-ended, single fact questions. They cannot ask narrative questions. The focus must be on the witness, not the examiner. Their goal is to strive for the same effortless flow in their direct examination that Terkel achieved in his chapter.

It's an incredibly difficult, but rewarding, exercise. I recommend that you try it. And at the very least, even if you don't try the exercise, read one of Terkel's books. You can't help but admire the craft in his interviewing and storytelling techniques.

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