Sunday, September 27, 2009

Tyson, the Film and the Interviews

Last night I watched Tyson, a movie about Mike Tyson, the former heavyweight boxing champion, by James Toback. I haven't followed boxing since Muhammad Ali retired (and not very much before then), but between allegations of spousal abuse, a conviction for sexual assault, and biting a boxing opponent on both ears, it was hard not to know of Mr. Tyson.

Based on what I "knew," I assumed that he was no more than a brute without impulse control. I came away from the film with a much more complex and nuanced portrait of the man.

Based on the little bit of research I've done on the film (including watching the DVD extras), it appears that in addition to Tyson's complexity and Toback's skills as an interviewer and filmmaker, their long-time relationship helped Mr. Tyson open up in this revealing portrait. This relationship and other aspects of the film and Mr. Toback's history and oeuvre lead one to question his objectivity. However, there is less reason to question his results, in which we can find important lessons about obtaining a deeper understanding of another through interviewing.

A. O. Scott, The New York Times reviewer of the movie (see the link above), points out what a scary figure Mr. Tyson remains even as we come to see his humanity. In this blog, I have usually been focusing on how frightening interviews such as those by the Ministerial Fellowshipping Committee (MFC) and Regional Subcommittees on Candidacy (RSCCs) can be for the interviewees. This movie has led me to speculate more deeply on the emotions of the interviewers.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Total Recall; Practice, Practice, Practice; and the Power of Misinterpretation

Reading "Total Recall" by Gary Marcus, a cognitive psychologist, in Wired magazine reminded me of the power of practice and how easily examining can go astray. The subject of the article is Jill Price, a woman with a supposedly "perfect" memory. If you'll click on the link to the Wired article, you'll also see Diane Sawyer's interview of Ms. Price.

After interviewing (please note all fans of the blog: interviewing!) Ms. Price over 5 years, James McGaugh, a neuroscientist, and his team at UC Irvine concluded that she had a near perfect memory in this article first published in the journal Neurocase. An editor at the Free Press went even further, entitling her story The Woman Who Can't Forget: The Extraordinary Story of Living With the Most Remarkable Memory Known to Science.

Ms. Price does indeed have an amazing memory, but Dr. Marcus, upon examining her further, discovered that her memory isn't all-inclusive. Rather her forte is autobiographical memory. Dr. Marcus writes that the source of this autobiographic memory is rumination that appears obsessive. She didn't seek out this memory and she didn't know its source; it was an unsought consequence of her journaling and other daily habits.

OK, OK, so what does this have to do with ministerial examining?
  • Examinees can mislead examiners even when they are not trying to do so.
  • Interviewing is a limited tool at best even when in the hands of scientists who should know better. (Being a professional doesn't assure that you are a skilled interviewer, and even skilled interviewers can be misled or can deceive themselves.)
  • Examining and assessment should be based on a multiplicity of instruments, and there should be appeal/review mechanisms because of the possibility of error.
  • Interviewers are likely to be tempted, and may even consciously or unconsciously fall to the temptation, to seek information that affirms the conclusions they've already reached.
  • "Ordinary" people can achieve extraordinary results with practice, practice, practice. (The thesis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which is discussed elsewhere in this blog.)
So let's acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of each individual involved in developing and implementing the current UU ministerial examining process. I am confident that they are doing their best with the best of intentions. I'm grateful for their professional and their volunteer efforts. Yet, I will continue to advocate for evolution in UU ministerial examining.