When I designed the GMU-LOC field school, my goal was to create a class that mimics a short term ethnographic project. As a folklorist I receive requests from agencies and communities 2-3 times per year to do independent contract work like the students conduct in the summer term.
The field school starts with an intensive week of training, but long before the class begins I spend a lot of time talking to students about the course and interviewing those who think they want enroll in field school. Because this is not like any other educational experiences students will have, it’s important that they know exactly what they’re getting into.
While the course is often described as fun, the second most common adjective students use to describe it is exhausting. The field school asks students to learn and do things that are not typical of a college course. These learning objective are extremely important for the professional development of any student. Here are a few examples:
Planning and implementing a research agenda
Although as project manager I have established initial contacts with the field school site, students must develop their own documentation plans and priorities. The project success literally rests on the initiative and commitment of the student research teams. This is one reason why I carefully screen students who express an interest in the course.
Negotiating access with community or agency stakeholders
In the current field school, students work with active duty Army officers, life-long federal employees, contract workers, and in some cases, grieving families. They must be able to explain the project goals and why their presence is important to these stakeholders.
Presenting research to the public
All field school students are required to do a public presentation on their preliminary findings. This year students will do their research presentations to their professors, tourists and ANC staff–military and civilian personnel. In a conventional classroom students typically write for one audience: their professor.
During the field school students meet in a conventional classroom for one week and then move out to the field for the remainder of the term. I meet them every week and always available by phone (they all have my cell number) but they as they move into fieldwork they have to make decisions on their own and ask for what they need to get the project done. This can be as simple as requesting an interview from a person who has a very busy work schedule (a common issue at ANC) or encouraging a person to give an interview who at first seems reluctant.
College students learn many things during their four years, but rarely are they taught soft skills: negotiation, making requests (especially from people who do not want to give you something), setting priorities, establishing clear objectives. These are all important life skills that the field school offers.