Dear Graduate Student,
Here we are, well into another semester. Many of you are in the field already or preparing for the field. If you are already there, you may be having a “WTF am I doing” moment. It will be your first of many. If you are preparing for the field, you may be having a “WTF am I supposed to be doing” moment. It probably won’t be your last.
As I write this, I am at the beginning of a new research project and I too am wondering, What am I doing? In the middle of these self-reflections, I received an email from a PhD student, who, in the middle of their own WTF moment, sent an email asking how to “do” fieldwork. I am writing to you rather than at you, hoping it might make you feel a little more comfortable in the discomfort and contradictions that fieldwork brings. Here are some of the things I’m thinking about as I continue to refine my practices as an ethnographer.
There is little you can do to prepare for fieldwork. I know you took a research methods course. And yes, of course you did a preliminary summer in the field. These are all good things. We teach you to do them, because they help you think through methodological and ethical questions. When taken seriously, they also help you establish relationships. But they do not fully prepare you for feelings of isolation or inadequacy; or the sadness you may feel when you excitedly share a research find that others find mundane; or the reality that, despite our best laid plans, fieldwork is most often work of improvisation, during which we start with a course of action that bends and changes based on the places and people we encounter. The discomfort, the changes of plans, keeps us in the present. They help us stay curious and open to being wrong.
I want you to know that it is ok to be shy or reluctant. When we teach you to do ethnography, we make some assumptions. One of those assumptions is that you can, without too much anxiety or trouble, approach strangers, get immersed in a new community, or return to a community that you know. I fear that in our messaging, we privilege the gregarious, the able-bodied, and the linguistically agile. When I entered the field, I was surprised that my ethnographer self was different than what I knew myself to be. By many accounts, I have an “outgoing” personality, but I am a fairly shy ethnographer. Seeing that difference in myself was frustrating, because I couldn’t understand it. I know now that some of this is born of anxiety. I worry about bothering people or being intrusive. I am, like many of us, an overthinker. Some of it was because in working within Black communities, I had not quite reconciled my own feelings about being “in” but not “of” the communities I worked with. Shyness was how discomfort showed itself in my body. Julianna Flinn’s article “Reflections of a Shy Ethnographer: Foot-In-The-Mouth is Not Fatal” helped me understand that there is nothing wrong with me being a shy ethnographer. There’s nothing wrong with you, either.
On (non-extractive) relationships
Relationships are at the heart of ethnography. We’re trying to figure out how to get to know people, which is sometimes difficult given the artificially bounded nature of the “field.” While we draw these boundaries for research expediency, people’s real lives don’t happen within those boundaries. Sometimes, you may feel like you’re playing hopscotch, trying to figure out the “hows,” “whys,” and “whens” of relationship building. What I hope for all of us is that we want to build relationships that move beyond extraction and mining a community for data. Faye Harrison teaches us that when we humble ourselves and are willing to show our vulnerabilities, we can imagine and practice a different type of ethnography; an approach that does not seek to reproduce capitalist modes of thinking in our relationships with others. I was nearly four months into fieldwork before I formally interviewed anyone (see above note about shyness). That was really helpful to me. It kept me from rushing, and gave me time to figure out how I wanted to approach relationship building. Every being and thing we encounter in the field deserves care.
The next piece of advice I want to offer comes from my godfather: “No matter what you do in this life, get you some friends.” I’d amend this to say, get you some academic friends. When I was in graduate school, I was committed to maintaining friends outside the academy. I was, if I can admit, a bit anti-academic friends. I did not want to be that person who only hung out with other academics. While I am still committed to my non-academic friendships, the more I progress in my career, the more I value my academic friends. They understand this bizarre world we traverse and travel alongside us. I had an amazing PhD cohort. By the time I started fieldwork in Washington DC, we were scattered all around the world, but many of us stayed connected (thank goodness for Google Hangouts). I hope you have at least one or two people with whom to share findings, struggles, ideas, and dreams. If you don’t, find them.
You are human. Yes, you’re a researcher. Yes, you’re trying to figure out how to keep up with everything (fieldnotes, relationships, reading, writing). But you’re a whole person whose capacities will be challenged during fieldwork. Sometimes you will get tired. I have a fieldnote from the early months of dissertation fieldwork in which I question whether or not I wanted to finish the project and if ethnographic fieldwork was even ethical. There is one thing I tell my students when I teach ethnographic research methods: you can do all you can to prepare for the field, but there is very little you can do to prepare for the hiccups that will happen in the field. That is not an invitation to blow off the responsibility of fieldwork. Instead, it is an invitation for grace—for you, for the people and things you will encounter, for the process. We are all trying to figure out these relationships. There’s no singular, clear roadmap.
I’m sure there is much more I could say, but I’ll end this here. I hope that you have many people rooting for you. And if that is not the case, know that there is at least one. I am rooting for you. Hang in there. Hit me up on Twitter and let me know how it’s going.
With respect and admiration,
Many thanks to the graduate student who wrote to ask me for advice. I am grateful to you for asking questions that made me pause to consider what I practice and what I teach.
Ashanté Reese is assistant professor of anthropology assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. When she isn’t writing about race, space, and food access, she’s practicing yoga and looking forward to the day when easy seat is actually easy. Her first book, Black Food Geographies: Race, Self-Reliance, and Food Access in Washington, D.C. is available from UNC Press.
Cite as: Reese, Ashanté. 2019. “Dear Graduate Student…” Anthropology News website, November 6, 2019. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1303