The Field School has been progressing nicely–the students have interviewed about 35% of the 70 gardeners at Lang Street Garden–it’s been fun, intensive and exhausting.
One of the fun parts of working with community gardens is the distinct opportunities for participant-observation research. Some of the students have “dug in” to the experience by helping gardeners haul mulch, sift dirt to remove weeds and their pesky roots, or in the case Kirsten Bongiovanni (above), had helped clear a plot of a new gardener.
Reading through the field notes and listening to the interviews, I find it remarkable that this group of advanced undergraduate and graduate students have transformed into independent researchers. They’re asking uninsightful questions, documenting astute observations and providing a deep analysis of a community project that is so much more than a place to grow vegetables. The community garden is a shared experience that brings Arlingtonians together for a shared purpose. It’s the location of community engagement and connection.
On Tuesday (June 20) students will present their findings to the gardeners and the general public at the Fairlington Community Center at 4:30. I look forward to meeting the gardeners I’ve been reading about, and the lively discussion that will follow.
Last weekend I began fieldwork for the Summer 2016 Field School. I’m back along the Columbia Pike, this time studying community gardens along Four Mile Run and Douglas Park.
The project stretches me in new and exciting ways. I’m an avid “urban farmer”–I cleared the azaleas alongside my house to create three 8X10 garden beds. The azaleas were beautiful, but they had the best sun on our otherwise wooded lot. The community gardens are county-owned properties that are leased to residents who don’t have space or availability to grow fruits and vegetables near their own homes. But I’ve never considered the impact of community gardens on food security and sustainability from an academic perspective. I plan to spend spring break reading up on the academic literature on community gardens.
The growing season for hearty spring and root vegetables begins on March 1 in Northern Virginia, so gardeners got together for a recipe and seed swap on February 27. I was shocked by the number of people who showed up–nearly forty people in all. The chief gardener, Maraea Harris, reviewed rules for the gardens and important dates. I also met nearly 20 gardeners who are interested in participating in the project. That’s a fantastic number of people to have on board so early in the process.
I’ll be talking to gardeners and visiting the garden plots periodically between now and the official start of the field school in mid-May. I’m extremely pleased to be offering the field school again this year and to be back in Arlington County for the project.
Two years ago I wrapped up a two-year ethnographic project along Northern Virginia’s Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA. The project provided a great site for the Field School for Cultural Documentation, but tensions in the community were running high. Long-term residents reported being ignored by their county board members. Small business owners said they were uniformed and shut out of discussions about the planned redevelopment project. Students were exited about the data they were collecting, but many reported feeling conflicted: residents, especially small ethnic business owners, were asking for help getting information. That was not the role the students were supposed to take.
It was time to move to another project.
That field school ended, just as all of them have, with a public presentation of our findings. We had a huge crowd that day, nearly sixty community members and activists. We were very pleased to see Chris Zimmerman, then a member of the county board, join us.
The world emerging along Columbia Pike was divided. There were residents who supported redevelopment and the increased property values they believed would accompany the facelift. These residents uniformly supported the streetcar project. The second large group were residents who were suspicious of redevelopment and did not want a streetcar. But both groups spoke of the larger Arlington community, particularly those who live north of Route 50 in North Arlington. Many Columbia Pike residents believed that the interests of North Arlington were being enacted through the redevelopment project, that the board was unresponsive and interested only in raising tax revenues. It was common for Pike residents to say that redevelopment was threatening the unique qualities and culture of their community.
After my students completed their presentations, I had a minute to talk to Chris Zimmerman. I told him about the divide the ethnographic team found in the community, and I encouraged him to read the project fieldnotes and listen to the oral histories we collected. “I think it would be useful for you to hear what your citizens are saying about leadership in the county,” I told him.
Mr. Zimmerman declined my offer, noting that there are always discontented community members who disagree with major civic projects.
Today’s Washington Post published this article about two Arlingtons, north and south. The article ends on a positive note, quoting a north Arlington resident who sees the poorer residents south of his community as part of his Arlington. It’s a nice sentiment, and a great ending for the piece. But that statement doesn’t sum up what’s going on in Arlington along Columbia Pike. The streetcar defeat is no surprise to me or anyone who has spent time listening to residents who live there. The county board would be wise to spend some time listening those constituents as well.
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.
Field School students are learning to sail as part of the Alexandria Waterfront Project. This photo by student Ashlee Payne was taken during one of the Sailing Club of Washington’s (SCOW) social sails on Thursday evenings.
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.