Field School: Fits and Starts

When I met with students this week,  we gathered in small groups so I could have one-on-one time with each research team. The purpose of the team meeting is to review the week of research and to make certain that these emerging ethnographers are on the right path.

For the most part, the first independent week in the field has gone extremely well, although some students were so sure. One team completed entire interview and at the end the informant asked them to please delete it. She wasn’t happy with what she had to say, and on reflection decided she didn’t want to have her statements immortalized in an archive. “What to do?” the team asked.  That one was simple. You erase the interview. The experience points to the fact that ethnographic fieldwork can be really difficult. You can spend time and energy and effort preparing for what you hope will be a successful oral history collection. In the end, even your best laid plans might not work out.

Other students reported great interviews, but they didn’t produce the information they were hoping to collect. “He didn’t have much to say about Columbia Pike,” was a common response to several initial interviews.  One student was concerned that she had committed a faux pas, in that she had to decline an informant’s request to do an interview in the public space. It’s true, if we were not concerned about the overall quality of her recordings while doing the oral histories, completing an interview at a restaurant, a public park, or even a laundromat might work. However, the digital recorders that we use are highly sensitive and produce  broadcast quality recordings. Because of this, and because one of our goals is to produce an oral documents that will be available for generations, we have to be a bit more selective of the places where we conduct interviews.  Once we explain our reasoning, most informants understand.

Despite a few minor glitches, initial reports were very positive. Students found their informants to be generous and talkative, and even in instances where the students felt like they didn’t do their best, upon reviewing the information they found was that the collection was still a success. This too, is reflection of being relative newcomers to ethnographic data collection. It’s hard to take a step back and see how effective your efforts are while you’re in the midst of everything.

We have two weeks to go, but I began to plan for our final report. I booked a room at the Arlington Central Public Library so that community members can more easily attend. Ideally, I would love to have everyone who participated in the interviews and anyone who would like to participate in an interview in the future, as well as our sponsors collaborators with the Columbia Pike Documentary Project and other interested parties, to join us on June 23. I have posted details below.

On Thursday June 23 from 4-5:30 PM researchers from George Mason University will present an overview of the Columbia Pike Documentary Project Oral History Collection. This project is a collaborative project between the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress ( and the Folklore Studies Program at George Mason University (

Researchers will present an overview of their month-long oral history collection and and details about the collection that will be archived at the Arlington Public Library’s Virginia Room and at the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive.You can follow the progress of the field school athttp://livingethnography.b and view the photo documentary project at

This event will take place in the Auditorium of Arlington Central Library.

Transportation: the Central Library is a short walk from the Ballston Metro Station and parking at the library is free.


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