Week 1 of the Field School

Alexandria’s Waterfront

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.

The 2014 Field School: The Alexandria Waterfront

The 2014 Field School: The Alexandria Waterfront

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.

Innovative Ways to Market Your Novel

From the Washington Post

More than ever, successful novelists must also be savvy publicists. That market reality demands a combination of unrelated skills that many writers simply don’t possess.

But Sarah Pekkanen does. The Washington area writer launched her career as a novelist in 2010 with a paperback called “The Opposite of Me.” Since then, she’s been an instructive model of how to make it as a writer of women’s fiction. With valuable endorsements from mega-sellers Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult, she’s taken to social media effectively, developed a dedicated following and sold rights to her work around the world.

With her fifth novel, “Catching Air,” ready to publish next week, Pekkanen has been developing ever-more innovative ways to attract attention and new readers.

She’s currently getting estimates from a Rockville company for putting actor Ryan Gosling’s face on a stick. “I can bring it on tour,” she says. “He can photo bomb my pictures with readers. Dignity at all costs, that’s my motto. Franzen is weeping from jealousy.”

Read the rest of this article on the Washington Post.

A Survey of University Presses


An insightful exploration of University Presses.

Originally posted on The Scholarly Kitchen:


Surveying (Photo credit: Wessex Archaeology)

As I announced on the Kitchen a while back, I have been working on a research project in the university press area. Specifically, I have been trying to determine how university presses could sell more books, both print and electronic, directly from their Web sites. There may be several posts to come from this research, but for now I want simply to report what the participating presses had to say about their operations and their aspirations for direct-to-consumer (D2C) sales.

The survey was put into a Web form, which the presses were invited to fill out. Sixty-nine did so, which is a considerable portion of the total press community. The aim of the online survey was to capture specific data; I have been following up with telephone interviews with many of the respondents in order to get at more qualitative information. On the forms…

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About the Field School: How Folklife Archives Work

Where the processing begins

The Folklore Studies Program at George Mason University is one of the few programs in the U.S. the offers comprehensive instruction in ethnographic methods and data collection.  Thirty-seven years ago, my colleague, Professor Emerita Margaret Yocom founded the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive. Students have been submitting original work to the archive since.

In 2011, working with colleagues at the Library of Congress, I began the Field School for Cultural Documentation at GMU.  The field school has been in existence for nearly 20 years; I’m pleased that GMU has the opportunity to host the field school and offer students professional training in research methods and project planning.  Field School graduates acquire real-life work skills in ethnographic data collection, in-depth interviewing, and project management.  Many go on to take positions as professional ethnographers for government agencies and private industry.

As part of the field school, students are told that their collections will become part of the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive.  It’s an important aspect of the project–students need to understand that the field school is not simply a class project. They’re doing real and significant research that will be available to other scholars, researchers and community members who will want to know more about the places and people the field school documents.

This year we’re transferring all of the hard-copy files and objects in the physical archive (located at George Mason University) to a fully digital archive as part of the National Folklife Archives Initiative.  Most of the work we’ve collected since 2011 is now available through the archives.

Why archive the materials?  So much of the work that graduate and advanced undergraduates do is read by one person-the instructor.  This is unfortunate.  Students are capable of  producing fantastic collections that might be useful for future research and understanding.  Too many important collections get tossed out.

Sometimes students become territorial with their collections and are reluctant to share it with the archive.  For classes other than the field school, M.A. and Ph.D. theses,  students have the option of donating their materials to the archive.  If a student has pending publications on work, I ask them to consider donating to the archives after their work is completed or published.  That way they are the first to write about their collections, and future researchers can still benefit from their work.

How to Apply for the Amtrak Residency

From the Amtrak blog:

What began as a line in Alexander Chee’s interview in PEN Ten and was fueled by Twitter, is now an official Amtrak program.

As many of you may know by now, our test-run for Amtrak Residency was done by Manhattan-based writer Jessica Gross, whose piece, Writing The Lakeshore Limited was published in February by The Paris Review. What followed was overwhelming support on Twitter and in the media with #AmtrakResidency being featured in The Wire, The New Yorker, and Huffington Post among others.

Today we are happy to announce that #AmtrakResidency will allow for up to 24 writers to take long-distance trainsto work on their projects. Each writer’s round-trip journey will include accommodations on board a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. We hope this experience will inspire creativity and most importantly fuel your sense of adventure!

Are you excited about #AmtrakResidency? Want to learn more and apply? Head over to our official entry form and good luck!