The field school started on Monday, May 18, 2016. It’s a small group this year, 9 students (the smallest so far) of dedicated students who know what they want to get out of the field school experience. It’s a perfect combination of age, experience, and diversity.This is also the first year that I’ve taught the field school alone–my Library of Congress colleagues were busy celebrating the 4oth Anniversary of the American Folklife Center. Maggie Kruesi joined me on Tuesday, and my Mason colleague Ben Gatling helped with the mock interview, but otherwise, I was on my own.
This is my 5th year teaching the field school. Each year I tinker with the course, trying to hit the sweet spot that gets students ready to do the research effectively, but doesn’t overdue the classroom time. Here’s what I’ve learned:
Students need to work with field equipment early and often
Our field school is fortunate to have had funding to purchase broadcast quality recorders and microphones. The equipment produces amazing quality recordings, but it’s tricky to work with. I’ve found passing out recorders on day one and allowing the students to take them home to practice is the best way to get them comfortable in the field. Everyone is anxious the first time they do an interview. Knowing the equipment means there is one less thing to worry about when the documentation starts.
Teamwork is everything
The stereotypical academic researcher is a loner, toiling independently on her craft. In ethnography this is rarely the case. Fieldwork is best learned through an academic community, and field school boot camp does a great job producing that community. In the classroom students make mistakes and learn to catch them. The professors share stories of “bitter experiences” of losing a fantastic interview or other data. The field school boot camp brings a group of novices together in an intensive academic environment that is perfect for creating cohesive teams.
Make it Real
The most important aspect of the field school is the documentation project itself. I’ve been fortunate to partner with Arlington County Community Gardens this year. The county wants a professional documentation of their gardens that will be archived at the Arlington Central Library’s Regional History Collection. Students know from day one that their work will be part of a historic record, available to future researchers. The fact that they’re doing work for a purpose raises the stakes, and helps ensure they take the work seriously. The field school is more than a 3-credit class. It’s professional training the provides real-world experience.
On Wednesday, I dismissed the students early with an assignment: go to one of the assigned gardens and do an observation, then write a field note to hand in the next day. When I sent them out one of the students said, “I feel like a baby bird getting kicked out of the nest.”
Everyone, even old pros, are anxious the first time they head into the field for a new project. In this case, all nine students went off together and were able to support one another.
That first field visit was a great success. Student field notes were richly detailed and well written. Their initial photographs were well composed and document the gardens well.
Now the real work of the field school has begun. Students are out observing, photographing, and collecting oral histories. It’s a great start for the 2016 Field School for Cultural Documentation.