Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Expanding My Horizons

Our students this year asked us to reflect on what we get out of working with the LAKES REU and what we have learned from our students. On several levels, it’s actually surprising that I’m involved in the LAKES project at all. Anthropologists tend to do our research independently and are most comfortable working as individuals embedding ourselves in communities over long periods of time. Although we all realize that multidisciplinary teams are extremely important and that many types of research are necessary, we tend to carve out our niches solo and are drawn to conducting long-term ethnographic research. Research projects conducted over 8 weeks with an amazingly diverse set of disciplinary experts and students is very different from the work I was used to. I’ve learned an enormous amount from all my co-mentors and have a richer understanding of the world (and not just of the Red Cedar Watershed) for working with them. I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity.

Not only is the format a surprising place to find myself working, but the topic is pretty drastically different from my original area of expertise. Colleagues in anthropology at other institutions are usually puzzled when I describe my work and go from “I work on race, class and gender inequality and how it shapes the child welfare system in New York City” to “and policy actors and efforts to mitigate phosphorous pollution in a rural western Wisconsin watershed.” I suppose I could come up with a set of research agendas that are more different, but these are pretty darn far apart! I remember very clearly the day that Nels and Chris came into my classroom, not long after I arrived at Stout, and asked me to be involved. I wasn’t quite sure why they thought I would be a fit. I was happy to have such amazing colleagues to work with, interested in the opportunity to work with incredible and motivated students, and glad to be given a way to learn more about my new home. And I could kinda see why my work with policy and bureaucracy would maybe, if you squinted a lot, apply to this project. I’m glad they, along with all the others who wrote the original grant, brought me in. I’ve grown as a researcher in coming to understand a new community, a new area of policy, and a new problem.

Apart from these opportunities for growth and the challenge of a new research area, it’s personally rewarding to work in this team. Apart from the intense research we do, the social and team building activities we build are really fun. Canoeing, pizza farm trips and cooking contents! It’s a bit like research summer camp. Who wouldn’t love that? I have built deeper friendships with my colleagues and get to help a set of stellar human beings gain confidence, gain/hone skills, and tackle complex problems while building friendships. It’s also incredibly rewarding to have a small part in the pretty big impacts this project has had in our community. Seeing a large crowd show up at the Raw Deal for our presentations every summer, having our work taken seriously by the community and by policy actors, and seeing citizens engaging with each other over beers while discussing our work?! It really a rare, magical opportunity.

Most importantly, I learn from my students (and all the REU students). I’m amazed at how accomplished they already are when they arrive, many of them doing things I was nowhere close to at their age, both academically and personally. No one paying attention can help but learn from them. Madison and Laura are no exceptions. They both have a quiet and calm persistence about them. I have been proud of how they both have tackled their projects with grace, thoughtfulness, and skill. Ethnographic fieldwork is time consuming and aspects of it can be tedious. Even the best of us are apt to get behind in transcribing or miss turning some experience into field notes for later use. Laura and Madison never seem to be behind. They just calmly and thoroughly knock everything out.

Two particular incidents stand out when I think about Madison that show her promise as an anthropologist and fieldworker. They show both her instincts and her ability to do the subtle work of ethnography that is the hardest to teach. As part of her project, she really needed to talk to a particular person who is prominent in a key organization. Madison struck the right balance—she was persistent but not pushy. She ended up getting a fairly long, kind of angry, telephone lecture explaining why the person was not happy to be contacted. These types of incidents are a regular feature of fieldwork. Not that everyone is necessarily yelled at for contacting someone, but something will happen that leaves you unsure you will get the info you need. Many people, myself included, have a tendency to take these kinds of things personally and it can end up being a source of real worry. Not Madison. She just took notes and moved forward. She approached it as valuable information rather than a set-back. The second incident came when she had to have her car towed. She and Laura chatted with the driver who, upon hearing that they were working on this project, started to give his opinions on water quality and the source of the problem. Most students would have to be reminded that this is data and needs to be in your field notes, and they would write it up after being prompted. Not these two! Madison takes a lot of notes on her phone, which was dead, so she just whispered to Laura to “get this all down.” (This is why I stress the small notebook! J). Although it might seem a very simple thing, the instinct to get everything down even when you aren’t formally collecting data is huge—and especially remarkable when you are stressed because you’re stranded with car trouble! It’s another example of Madison’s calm under pressure. It’s an attitude I continually work to cultivate, and I learned a lot from her example.

I’ve learned from Laura too. She has a lot of skills. She switched into the Applied Social Science major at Stout from Industrial Design. She has a passion for environmental issues. She is the Stout Student Association (Stout’s student government) President. She is a real environmental activist. She will bike 90 miles to do an interview. She will act as if those things are totally unremarkable and would never brag. And now she can collect oral histories! I have learned from her that leadership that comes in a calm, unassuming, thoughtful package is very powerful. I also see the small ways that her design background enriches her work. It shows clearly in her beautiful research poster, but also in the way she organized her data collection efforts and how she worked with her qualitative data. It’s also fun to see her geek out a little bit about seeing unfamiliar objects. As a person committed to environmental activism, she practices what she preaches and reduces her impact as much as she can. She was also super excited to get to actually see a composting toilet at the A to Z Pizza farm and enthusiastic about the possibility of getting a secchi disk for our Raw Deal Event. Although these might seem like small things, they represent, for me, Laura’s ability to see, very concretely, the small ways that we can work to make the world a better place. I appreciate that greatly about her.

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