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We’re into the second week of fieldwork with the field school. I’ve been meeting with research teams and talking about their progress I find that students have two major obstacles to overcome. The first is moving into the field. The second is setting up and completing interviews
Moving Into the Field
The first week of fieldwork, students are out in research community observing, meeting people and getting a feel for the parameters of the project. When I’m teaching a fieldschool, I generally send students out in groups of 2-4 and ask them to do their initial observations together. This is good for safety (no one should be in a study community alone, no matter where it is), but also to develop comaraderie. The first few times out I generally find out who the most outgoing students are, who’s most likely to hang back, and who is likely to be a natural. Students often report the first week in the field is the hardest. They have to practice ethnography and use every opportunity to engage the research community.
While the initial contact can be difficult, it’s not the biggest obstacle. Even the most reserved student can become an expert observer of a social scene. The next step-engagement and oral history-can also be a challenge.
The Oral History
Much as been written about the ethnographic interview; some researchers mistake the interview as ethnography itself, a major oversight. Ethnographic interviews are most reliable in a larger context of participant-observation research. They provide the necessary depth, allow informants to explain their social milieu, and provide the unseen aspects of ethnographic collection, allowing the researcher to see how the past has influenced the present.
Last week students were asked to dedicate their time to setting up and completing their oral history interviews. Some had immediate success; others had to ask for my help to make the connection to get informants so they could complete this part of the project. In all cases students came back from their interviews with a new understanding of their field site and the people with whom they are working.
The final hurdle is the public presentation, which will take place on June 19 at the Alexandria Seaport Foundation (2 Duke Street, Alexandria, VA). Ethnography is a form of public scholarship. It requires the collaboration of a community and the results are belong to that community. I pleased with the work the students have completed this summer and I look forward to their public presentations and the feedback we’ll all receive at the public forum.
When Debora Kodish arrived in Philadelphia in the early 1980s with her new doctorate in folklore from the University of Texas, there was no one in the city documenting everyday life in its many and varied neighborhoods.
No one organization was looking at what the African drummers were doing, what the Hispanic street artists were up to, what the Vietnamese musicians were playing, what the Italians in South Philly were saying – or at why they were doing what they were doing and saying what they were saying.
Kodish and some young colleagues huddled in a room at the Fleisher Art Memorial, and started asking the questions.
From those sessions, a small, fiercely focused independent organization grew – the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a reflection of Kodish’s commitment, energy, and voracious appetite for documentation.
Now 61, Kodish is stepping down after 27 years of leadership. Selina Morales, 32, a folklorist trained at Indiana University and a four-year PFP vet, will take the helm of this still-unique, still-focused organization.
The official transition will be marked at PFP’s annual birthday bash Saturday at the Painted Bride Art Center, 220 Vine St. There also will be two honorees, percussionists Elaine Hoffman Watts and Nana Korantema Ayeboafo, the former working in klezmer, the latter an African drummer.
“Both totally groundbreaking,” Kodish said recently, sitting with Morales in the back gallery of the project’s home, a rowhouse on West 50th Street near Baltimore Avenue.
The large front gallery is occupied by the current exhibition “Honoring Ancestors,” a joint effort with the Community Education Center, marking CEC’s DanceAfrica Philadelphia! festival.
Kodish and Morales sat at a table covered with a red-checked cloth in the Bill and Miriam Crawford Dining Room, a permanent installation in the PFP building. Its walls covered with political images, posters, fliers, and newspaper pages that once adorned the dining room walls of the Philadelphia activist couple’s home, it is a prime example of the project’s work.
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Students just completed the second week of the field school; the first week of actual fieldwork. I’ve met with each team and they’re doing a fantastic job. I will be posting photos from the field this weekend to keep readers up to date on their activities.
What we’ve discovered so far: that Alexandria has a vibrant and active waterfront. It’s an honor to document the the day-to-day life here.
Photo: Sailing Club of Washington. Photo by Ashlee Payne
The 2014 Field School is the fourth consecutive field school I’ve taught with the Library of Congress (LOC). Each year we struggle to balance the class time and preparation versus the time students are out in the field. Before the program migrated to the Folklore Studies Program at Mason, the conventional set up was a full week (eight hours/day) in the classroom, followed by two weeks of field work.
When I took the LOC field school in 1995, that was the formula we used. It was helpful to have class time, but I recalled getting antsy to get into the field as the week wore on. After we started our fieldwork, I found it difficult to remember some of the procedures we learned a week before. We made it through the process, but taking on my own field school, I wanted to try to strike a balance between classroom and practicum, lecture and tutorial.
I also had to work within the limitations of my institution. The course is taught as a regular 3-credit course over a six-week summer session. It’s a graduate course cross listed with an advanced undergraduate section. Typically all graduate courses are offered in the evenings (to accommodate working students),but the LOC faculty can only teach during business hours. I was afraid the timing would kill the class, but I’ve been fortunate to find students who are committed to learning the methodologies and the projects we’ve undertaken.
During the first two years, we tried to complete the classroom work the first week of the field school. That rarely worked, as we often had to schedule additional teaching days in week two. This year I tried something different–I asked the registrar to schedule the class for double sessions in week 1, thus we had two full weeks of class time in the first week. As a trade-off, students will finish a week early in June.
This schedule worked perfectly. This year’s students were also particularly quick learners, but we still had plenty of time to do group work, practice interviews, and field note writing. I felt more confident sending this group into the field than I have in the past, and honestly, all of the field school students have been excellent.
There was one other unexpected surprise: our project is coinciding with a redevelopment of the Alexandria Waterfront, which will probably start in the next year. Many of the people we’ll be talking to are anxious to talk, on the record, about their experiences working in Old Town, supporting maritime culture, and the long and sometimes painful process of negotiating the future of Alexandria’s historic district. These are ideal conditions to conduct an ethnographic project. The students have been welcomed graciously by Alexandria’s citizens, merchants and politicians.
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The 2014 Field School for Cultural Documentation will take place May 19-June 27. Students will document the Alexandria, VA waterfront before the institution of the new waterfront revitalization plan. I will be blogging regularly about the project and teaching ethnography throughout May and June.