Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Fieldwork in the Cloud: Training in Ethnographic Fieldwork with Global Technologies

(Note: The Prezi associated with this blog entry is from a collaborative brown bag lecture given by Barbara G. Hoffman, Ph.D. and me at Cleveland State University on October 24, 2013. The essay below is an adaptation of my part of the lecture and as such, it does not reflect the opinions of Dr. Hoffman or Cleveland State University.)

There is – indeed, there has been – a movement afoot in higher education to utilize emerging technologies in order to augment our ultimate goals. For me, this ultimate goal is to contribute to educating an informed electorate. The objectives that lead to that point include making knowledge available and accessible. In the pursuit of the goal, we have witnessed this movement take many forms:
  • Educators use Twitter to engage their students about their subjects while academics and professionals use Twitter to live-tweet conferences and lectures.
  • Instructors are employing stylish presentation software with which to present their lessons, not only in the classroom, but over the internet as well.
  • Researchers are publishing in open-access journals, some publishers are beginning to meet that demand by considering new models, and still more open-access online journals are starting up.
  • Prestigious universities are offering massive online open courses (MOOCs) for free, in which anyone can take part.
  • Within my own field, mobile apps and social media are being used to deliver live fieldnotes to both colleagues and the lay public alike.
This past summer, my advisor and I began to develop our own contribution to this pedagogical shift with cloud-based fieldwork training. Rather than going into the field alone with little training, and unable to enroll in a cultural anthropology field school, I chose to return to the community where I had studied abroad last summer – Dakar, Senegal – to conduct ethnographic fieldwork under the mentorship of my advisor in Cleveland, using the cloud as a point of exchange ideas and advice.

With an iPad and iPhone, I used a suite of apps to document my experience:
  • MagicPlan (iOS/Android) was used to record the layout of interior spaces, simply by pointing the camera at the corners of walls and doorways.
  • Notability (iOS only) was used to take interview notes and some journal entries. It also records audio, so I used that for all of my interviews as well.
  • Notes (standard on iDevices) was indispensable for recording observations when I was without a laptop or iPad – which was most of the time.
  • Dropbox (iOS/Android) was used to back-up all of my data and share it with my advisor.
  • Twitter (iOS/Android) and Instagram (iOS/Android) served as apps with which I could write short notes that I wanted to share with an audience.
With a laptop and 3G internet thumb drive, I also used:
  • Google Docs (now Google Drive [iOS/Android])  to write weekly reflection essays for my advisor’s review and commentary.
  • Adobe Illustrator CS6 to construct a kinship chart of my primary interlocutor.
  • Microsoft Word to write most of my personal journal entries.
After recording floor plans with MagicPlan, I uploaded them to Dropbox to help my advisor conceptualize the spaces in which my interlocutors and family found themselves. Once I constructed the kinship chart, complete with Wolof terms, my advisor was able to point to hierarchical constructions and relationships that I would need to keep in mind as I continued to carry out my fieldwork. By sharing my recorded interviews with my advisor only moments after they had finished, my advisor was able to provide instant feedback – Ask this. Don’t ask that. Prod more here. Practice pronouncing this. As a result, there is a day-and-night difference in the confidence and quality of my French between my first and last interviews, and the informants are much more responsive in the later interviews.

I definitely came away with a solid foundation of how to conduct participant-observation and semi-structured interviews, but many concepts (particularly related to ethnographic theory) are still fuzzy. I expect that these will become clearer as I continue my studies into graduate school. Also, while I loved the incognito nature that my iPad assumed moments into recording an interview, the sound quality could be augmented. Rather than mic my interviewees or add a microphone attachment to the iPad, perhaps I should be more vigilant about finding quiet places in which to conduct the interviews. The most challenging part of the overall experience was finding the time for anything. There are a lot of different methods of taking notes, for example, and I am of the mind that notes can be taken at the end of the day. If something was really important, I jotted them in the Notes app of my iPhone. My host and his friends often kept me out until anywhere between 2AM and 5AM some nights, and by the time we got home, the last thing I wanted to do was write out everything I had done or learned that day. I would catch up the next day, but then have to find time to write something for my advisor or read some pertinent articles that I had found while I was there.

Last year when I was in Dakar, my research experience was much different: it was a component of a study abroad program, and while my advisor helped me articulate the goals of my research before I left, we really only exchanged a few emails while I was there. Last summer’s experience served as a crash course in Senegal, in living abroad, and in language immersion, but when I left there were still a lot of questions I wish I had asked and things I wish I had done, and that list grew when I had gained some inevitable hindsight over the months that followed. This past summer, I had a much clearer research design and by maintaining a link to my advisor, I was able to elicit feedback and take direction that I might not have otherwise had access to in the five weeks that I had. That dynamic proved crucial to making those five weeks as meaningful for my research and academic growth as possible. While I still walked away with more and more questions with which I can continue my research, I don’t regret failing to pursue certain lines of questioning, because I really believe that I made the most with the time that I had.

In late 2011, the paleoanthropologist John Hawks, wrote an article called “What’swrong with anthropology,” in which he rebukes anthropologists that are either ignorant to or actively avoiding emergent mobile technologies and social media. Pointing out that we have the tools with which to produce a better and faster growing body of knowledge, he asks “Why are anthropology students going into the field without contracts to write weekly or monthly about their work?” So I did that. He writes:
“Imagine an alternative, in which fieldwork is reported as it happens. Site reports can be updated daily and followed in real time. Each interview as a part of ethnographic fieldwork can be published, each story told on its own before it is assimilated into the larger picture… Having our work read by twenty people is not acceptable communication strategy. Failure to share results broadly betrays the cooperation of the communities who enable our research. Changes in form are necessary to improve our scholarship. These changes don't require more work, they require different work. Greater engagement is one of many benefits, which requires us only to recognize the value of the changes already underway.” (Hawks 2011)
His illustration of an alternative means of communicating ethnography is in some ways not realistic – something I didn’t come to realize until I was confronted with the daunting task of time management in the field – but it’s no less inspiring. It breaks a conceptual mold and captures the imagination of what could be possible with the tools available. About a year later, ethnographer Tricia Wang wrote an article titled, “Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography.” In it, she defines “live fieldnotes” as:
“[A] blog post that is intended to provide an on-location and synchronous visual and textual coverage of an instance from the ethnographer’s fieldwork . . . All live fieldnotes are timestamped, publicly accessible on the internet, and include location data. Live fieldnotes demonstrates the combination of two activities that are central to ethnographic research, 1.) the ethnographer’s participation in a social world and 2.) the ethnographer’s written account of the world through her/his participation . . . The accumulation of many live fieldnotes works towards producing a “thick description” along with other long form fieldnotes. Live fieldnotes are not intended to replace the entire fieldnote writing process." (Wang 2012)
I mention Hawks and Wang specifically because these two articles are what inspired me to pursue new technologies as a method of engaging the public. I was an executive chef before I started at Cleveland State, and it was during that career that I learned that paradigmatic shifts that offend are exciting, progressive, and thought provoking shifts indeed. (I offer both farm-to-table fare and molecular gastronomy as examples.) As an undergraduate, I’ve been largely interested in the futures of anthropology and pedagogy, because I hope to one day be an educator, and I’d like to be using the newest and most effective forms of teaching available.

This is our contribution to the pedagogical movement that utilizes emerging technologies: As digital data amasses and file qualities increase in size, native data storage will continue to become more and more expensive to maintain, both financially and in terms of physical resources. Cloud storage is not the future – it is here now, and it will be around for decades to come. The benefits of cloud storage will not be new to my students – they may not even conceive of any other option. Mentorship-in-the-cloud must become the norm in order to increase throughput at the undergraduate and graduate level. One could feasibly prepare a student with minimal ethnographic instruction, and send them into the field for hands-on training. In fact, I intend to use this same system of data collation when I begin hiring local contacts as research assistants. I believe that this change - paradigmatic and technological - is inevitable.

Hawks, John
2011  What's wrong with anthropology?. anthropologies. http://www.anthropologiesproject.org/2011/10/whats-wrong-with-anthropology.html (accessed September 19, 2013).

Wang, Tricia
2012  Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography. Ethnography Matters. http://ethnographymatters.net/2012/08/02/writing-live-fieldnotes-towards-a-more-open-ethnography/ (accessed September 19, 2013).