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.

Keeping track of all your data

It's week seven already! That means our students are collecting their last samples and surveys for a poster session at The Raw Deal in Menomonie this next tuesday. Looking back, between my group and Steve's we went through nearly a 500-count bag of 125 mL plastic Nalgene bottles.

Several hundred bottles, waiting to be acid-washed and put back into service.

Most of these bottles had water samples to test for phosphorus and chlorophyll-a. A single day out in the field might produce 25 or more samples, each of which needs to be run through a series of steps before we can actually measure what we're looking for.

Blake with 53 samples lined up, awaiting phosphorus analysis.

And then there is the data logging equipment - either sondes that you drop over the side of a boat and it records a whole bunch of parameters as you lower it to the bottom, or the pressure/temperature sensors that we've installed in several streams to record changes in stream depth and water temperature. You can record data every few minutes or even every few seconds.

All of this ends up as data. Spreadsheets full of numbers. Numbers from different sensors, numbers from different days, numbers from different sites. It can get confusing. So one of the things we try to stress to the students is the importance of maintaining organized notes, labeling sample containers before you collect the material, even using a shorthand to keep locations and instruments organized.

For this project we have about 15 temperature and pressure loggers in streams around the area. Each of these loggers comes with a serial number, but that's just another number. To keep track of the data loggers, I decided to name them. With 15 data loggers, that gives us 13 dwarfs, a wizard, and a hobbit.

And in a little bit of art-imitating-life, Kili ended up having a bad pressure sensor and was left behind...