Monday, July 28, 2014

Mentoring Ethnography

This summer has been a learning experience for me.  I have mentored amazing students in my few years at Stout, but this marks my first time working with students on a multi-disciplinary team on overlapping aspects of a complex problem.  Cultural anthropologists, more often than not, work on research alone.  We tend to hold on to the idea of a lone fieldworker individually building rapport and embedding themselves in a community for a long period of time.  This kind of work is extremely valuable, and even indispensable for answering some questions. That model of research also often means that anthropologists get particular kinds of mentoring.  In my case, I had a couple of amazing mentors who helped me understand the issues I was researching and helped me navigate the literature on those topics.  They were also extremely supportive when the inevitable set-backs in ethnographic research arose.  At the same time, like a lot of anthropologists I suspect, fieldwork was somewhat an unknown before I started.  I got more research methods training than some of my colleagues in the discipline, but there was still a tendency to see ethnographic fieldwork as a rite of passage and a research method that must be experienced to really “get.” To borrow Matt’s metaphor and mix it with another, it is was somewhat like getting kicked out of the nest all at once with only a very sketchy map.

The model of research I’m used to and my experience as a mentee mean that mentoring students in this summer was challenging for me.  We only had 8 weeks, and although Zakia and Rachel came in with particular experiences that gave them an “in” for their projects, they were new to the community (as am I, only having lived here 3 years).  I planned activities in the early weeks that, I hoped, would let them learn about the community and practice research skills before they were directly collecting data for the project.  I wanted them to get a sense of the rest of the project, so we all spent time listening to the process of survey creation and analysis. I also tried to strike a balance between letting them control their projects, getting experience without me hovering, and providing guidance and support. 
I’m not sure in the end that I was completely successful.  What I do know is that I have been continually impressed by Zakia and Rachel.  Our projects progressed MUCH faster than I had hoped, and they collected a large amount of data in a short period of time.  It was also fun to see them get excited about the process, become recognized around the community, and be invited to observe various aspects of the policy making/implementation process.  I hope I contributed something to their experience that will be valuable as they continue college and move into their future careers.  I know I learned a lot from working with them.

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