Fieldwork for undergrads (long, apologies offered)

Joan Miller (joan@CAM.ORG)
Sat, 25 Feb 1995 17:15:46 -0500

Hi everyone,

First, let me thank all of you who have made my life so much more
"connected" with anthropology as I have "lurked" on ANTHRO-L for the last
year. Though I have contacted a few of you by e-mail, I haven't ventured
forth to join your invigorating conversations until now.

But John McCreery's question about what really goes on in undergraduate
field research and John Taylor's comment about what having been able to do
field research as an undergraduate meant to him made me want to jump in ...
and I have. Why? I guess because I got to do a fair amount of research as
an undergraduate, though it was mostly called "sociology internship" (and
really was applied anthropology) and because I worked as a graduate intern
in the Cornell Peruvian "end" of those Summer fieldwork opportunities for
undergrads (The Chiapas "end" has been mentioned.) before doing my own field
research; but, mostly, because I have included a required fieldwork
component in many of my courses -- a quarter of a century of them.

I now (and for the past 20 years) teach at a Quebec CEGEP. That means I
teach 17-18 year olds in what is the equivalent of US freshman and sophomore
years. If the students take a course in introductory social/cultural
anthropology (around 120 of each class of ca. 750-800 do), they will have to
do some fieldwork. Of course, most do not go on in Anthropology -- maybe 3-6
a year; the rest go into most anything else that a student might study.

Why do I require fieldwork? Firstly, so students will have a chance to
react as John Taylor did or, hopefully, to find that it is something they
want to do. That was the reason "sociology internship" was required of
students majoring in Sociology in the Liberal Arts College I atttended and
that is an important reason for me. I want students to experience, in an
abbreviated way to be sure, what "doing" anthropology is about and, if they
don't like it, I want them to learn that before they invest any more of
their time. I also warn them, if they don't like it, that there are many
"futures" that involve some of the aspects of fieldwork and that they should
think about those, too. Secondly, I require fieldwork because I believe it
is truly central to what anthropology is all about. That Malinowskian model,
even with all the problematics that we recognize today, still captures much
of the "essence" of anthropology.

What do students do? Especially, what do students do who are required to
take 8 courses, 7 of them academic (45 hours in class, 45 hours outside
study in a 15 week semester)? Not very much. I ask for 15-20 hours from
the time they begin thinking about "what" until they finish proof-reading
their final product. But they can "get their feet wet". I try to prohibit
some things: the illegal, the unethical, the too difficult, and anything
involving my colleagues. Students use observation, participant-observation,
interviewing (and keep fieldnotes) to: compare great-grandparent teenage
years with that of a friend their age, to find the "rules" for bus
behaviour, to identify the developmental sequence of student parties, to
plot territorial behaviour in the student cafeteria, and to look at a great
many other things. And, because they are 17-18 and rather more interested
in doing things than just studying them, some really do do mini projects
that might be called applied anthropology. Some of these are done at their
places of employment, some are done where they work as volunteers (usually
in their own communities with the elderly or children), many are done in the
school, itself. One that finally produced modifications in the direction
that everyone wanted -- though certainly not fast enough to suit the budding
applied anthropologists -- focused on the problem of garbage in the school

There are trade-offs, of course. I can't demand as much other "stuff". And
I am assuming that getting the "feel" for anthropology that I believe comes
from even mini-fieldwork is more important for the majority who won't
continue in the discipline than the "stuff" I leave out. I hope, someday
when they are professionals, business executives, government officials,
etc., that this will better prepare them to understand what anthropology has
to offer. I wonder what others think about this? We've read a bit about
what, besides anthropology, anthropologists ought to study. What, within
anthropology, might be best for the "not-going-to-be-anthropologist" to study?

And, apologies to all. I really didn't mean to be so wordy or to go on so long.

Joan Miller