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.

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