Field School Boot Camp


field workers

2016 Field school students conduct observations at the Ft. Barnard Community Garden, Arlington, VA

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.

Lee Ann and Kendra

Field school students Lee Ann Trimreck and Kendra Yount document the Fort Barnard Community Garden in Arlington

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.

Real Innovation, Not Corporate Modeling

Some VA schools are recreating the idea of the university, not trying to fit it into the corporate model


If your institution has implemented RCM budgeting, you know that one of the main casualties of the model is interdisciplinary studies, especially across colleges. And given that most cutting-edge innovation is coming out of just those kinds of interdisciplinary study, the corporate management model is actually undermining one of the most significant ways in which university research might feed economic development.

Writing for the Roanoke Times, Robby Korth has reported on Virginia Tech’s significant commitment to developing not just interdisciplinary programs but interdisciplinary “areas” of study in which very innovative teaching, learning, research, and scholarship will be fostered. And it is hard to see how this approach will not benefit the more traditional disciplines within the university since most of them will contribute in some way to the work being done within new areas of study.

Here are the opening paragraphs of Korth’s article, describing the major elements of…

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In the Black: A Memoir of Coal Mining


I discovered Gary Bentley’s serialized memoir, In the Black, through the podcast of Inside Appalachia. It’s a deeply moving, often shocking memoir of his work in a deep coal mine in Kentucky. There are few real-life accounts that offer this type of insight into the daily lives of miners. We can only hope that Bentley gets a book deal from the blog–this is the type of account that should be required reading for all Appalachian studies students.

The Latest & Greatest in Ethnography: Evicted by Matthew Desmond


From today’s Book World in The Washington Post

Thank you, Matthew Desmond.

Thank you for writing about destitution in America with astonishing specificity yet without voyeurism or judgment. Thank you for showing it is possible to compose spare, beautiful prose about a complicated policy problem. Thank you for giving flesh and life to our squabbles over inequality, so easily consigned to quintiles and zero-sum percentages. Thank you for proving that the struggle to keep a roof over one’s head is a cause, not just a characteristic, of poverty.

It has been a long time since a book has struck me like Desmond’s “Evicted,”not since Drew Gilpin Faust’s “This Republic of Suffering,” which showed how Americans dealt with their Civil War dead. I suspect the resonance is not coincidental. Desmond, a sociologist at Harvard University, writes about another kind of mass death: The demise of opportunity and of hope that occurs when individuals are forced to leave their homes.

“Losing a home sends families to shelters, abandoned houses, and the street,” Desmond writes. “It invites depression and illness, compels families to move into degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods, uproots communities, and harms children. Eviction reveals people’s vulnerability and desperation, as well as their ingenuity and guts.”

Read the rest of this review here.

Arlington Community Gardens


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.