Fieldwork Basics Overview
By Paddy Bowman, Sylvia Bienvenu, and Maida Owens
This essay provides an overview of the issues involved with students conducting fieldwork. For more developed lesson plans that maximize the learning opportunities in the K-12 classroom, see Unit II Classroom Applications of Fieldwork Basics.
A folklorist at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress tells a story that describes the nature of ethnographic inquiry. During graduate school he opened a gift from his mother and found expensive binoculars. "Gee, these are great, but why did you give them to me?" he asked. "You said you'd be starting fieldwork next semester," she said. Actually, the kind of fieldwork that folklorists and other social scientists use as the basis of their disciplines requires looking at the details of the landscape and everyday life up close rather than surveying vast vistas.
Folklorists intently observe people, events, and processes; identify types or genres of traditional culture that are being expressed; document these expressions; find appropriate ways of displaying the documentation; and preserve and catalog the documentation. These methodologies furnish educators rich opportunities to engage students in invaluable skill-building pedagogy that fits any curriculum and fills many requirements. Because students are directly involved in designing and conducting primary source research, they often embrace fieldwork and hence master skills that come with it: observing, questioning, listening, sequencing, analyzing, communicating, reporting, summarizing, recording, creating, assessing, revising, editing.
By observing and documenting cultural expressions, from family stories to community events, students step outside their own worldviews to study how other people conduct their lives. By becoming "outsiders" looking inside their own and others' cultures, students often make fewer assumptions about other folk groups. Being able to step back and look at cultural expressions as an outsider enhances tolerance as well as observation skills. In fact, perhaps more than any other subject, folklore promotes tolerance.
This unit on fieldwork provides many valuable suggestions for teaching students not only skills but concepts and ethics. Through their interaction with and observation of others, students navigate personal, technical, and conceptual complexities. Studying this chapter and then carefully modeling and practicing fieldwork techniques with students will pay off far better than merely assigning students to conduct an interview. From the script on how not to conduct an interview to ideas for student products, the information in this unit, Getting Started, and Unit I Defining Terms gives educators the equivalent of a mini-institute on folklife and the essentials to make a study of Louisiana folklife successful. This unit provides specific lessons to teach fieldwork basics to K-12 students.
Folklife is inherently complex and touches on people's beliefs and way of life. If students honor interviewees' beliefs, values, and privacy, they will learn that trust creates better results. For example, the line between sacred and secular traditions differs among folk groups. Mardi Gras may be a completely secular celebration for some and closely linked with a sacred calendar for others. Some people may deeply believe that a local legend is true, while others may dismiss it. Family stories often express family values. Respecting interviewees' beliefs about their traditions is important. Insiders' views of folklife differ from outsiders' views. Moreover, not everyone in a folk group will agree about a tradition; not everyone will practice it in the exact same way. There is great diversity even within folk groups.
Folklife is not only a vehicle for positive and celebratory cultural expressions but also for more troublesome beliefs such as stereotyping and prejudice. Be aware that complex issues underlie folklife, but, as stated earlier, studying folklife can help increase tolerance and cultural understanding.
Showcasing traditions raises other ethical issues. Asking students or other representatives of a particular folk group to "display" traditions is not always appropriate. Students of various ethnic, religious, or other folk groups may not know much about the folklife of the group. Make sure you are not assuming a student is an expert in "all things Vietnamese," or marking a student as "different." Highlighting Jewish traditions in a predominantly Christian classroom, for example, requires consideration and planning.
The specter of possible problems is raised so that teachers will be prepared for the Inevitably!) unexpected in the fieldwork process. Nonetheless, it bears repeating that studying one's own and others' folklife is richly rewarding both academically and personally. Just as they learn effortlessly in traditional activities outside the classroom, students learn important skills and viewpoints through studying folklife and conducting fieldwork in the context of coursework.
Conducting fieldwork furnishes important lessons in ethics. Students must learn to ask permission to interview, photograph, and record other people; behave respectfully; conduct themselves politely; honor interviewees' privacy; make and keep appointments; thank people; and act honestly. In addition, interviewees' permission is needed to use fieldwork results in final products. At times, fieldwork might tread on family or community stories that people would like to be anonymous or perhaps not share publicly. Interviewers must respect these boundaries. If a public presentation is to be made, double check release forms. Remind students that they cannot use their fieldwork for public presentations unless they have recorded or written permission and make this part of the assessment of the student's work. When modeling and practicing with students, remember to include this step.
In addition to ensuring that students work ethically with interviewees, it is important to let students' families and caregivers know if your class is going to be interviewing people outside the classroom or conducting family folklore research. Briefly outline what you are undertaking, share some topics you'll be covering, and ask students' families or caregivers to contact you with any questions (see Letter to Parents and Caregivers). Providing parents the context of the research, by sharing an example of the kind of folklife you'll be studying, is helpful.
In addition to conducting interviews outside the classroom,building fieldwork into a folk artist residency is another way to develop inquiry skills, but compensating a folk artist or other tradition bearer is another part of the ethical matrix. Even if a person volunteers to work with your students, honor that person with recognition, tokens of thanks, and samples of students' work. Likewise, students should acknowledge interviewees' contributions when working outside the classroom by writing thank-you notes, sharing photos, or inviting them to a class presentation.
Design fieldwork to match your students, curriculum, and community. Adapt the steps and tools that you think will work best for each project you undertake. At times you may want students to use a short, casual approach to gather games, stories, or songs from other students in the classroom or adults at home; at other times you can teach higher-level inquiry skills, audiovisual equipment use, or technology by embarking on more detailed fieldwork. For example, you may choose to hone students' listening and handwriting skills and use only a notepad and pencil for some initial fieldwork, or you may teach high-end technology through videography, digital cameras, and the Internet. Each fieldwork tool has its strengths and weaknesses. You can layer a fieldwork project with only a few steps or with many. Consider your school's resources, your students' abilities, and your curriculum. Students can also help decide what tools they would like to use and how detailed they would like the process to be. The student products that result from fieldwork will both influence the steps and tools you choose and be influenced by them. If you and students decide to produce a video, for example, more complex fieldwork is called for. To share results informally in class, however, students may ask just a few questions and report findings casually.
The American Folklife Center publication Folklife and Fieldwork, available online, describes three major stages in conducting fieldwork: preparation, the fieldwork itself, and processing the materials. Yet each stage has many steps as well.
Preparing for Fieldwork
Students learn to plan fieldwork research collaboratively and to set goals step by step, choose methodologies and technology, identify subjects, design research instruments, and develop project schedules and checklists. They also learn the importance of testing tools and equipment and practicing interviewing. Below is a framework for preparing students for fieldwork.
Modeling and practicing interviewing and using equipment are crucial to successful fieldwork. Even experienced folklorists at times find their photos underexposed, audio recorder batteries dead, or videos dubbed over. Fieldwork is harder than it first appears! And interviewing is more unnerving than it might seem. Practicing reduces butterflies, improves diction and listening skills, and builds confidence. Try a couple of techniques, such as asking students to critique your model interview of a student or another teacher; pairing students off to take turns as interviewer and interviewee; using the scripts below as a low-risk exercise to prompt student critiques; or reporting on interviews conducted at home. Through practice, students learn to improve their questions, listen to responses, follow up interesting leads, and share stories of their own to give interviewees some examples and "prime the pump" to elicit answers.
We offer two scripts that students may act out in class to introduce the concept of modeling. See How Not to Conduct an Interview and The Reluctant Guest. For a more detailed discussion of modeling, refer to Discovering Our Delta: A Learning Guide to Community Research kit. The guide is online, but the kit includes a 26-minute video that follows five students from the Mississippi Delta as they conduct research on their communities.
Script 1: How Not to Conduct an Interview
Objective: To allow students to see the value of listening, courtesy, and preparation in conducting an interview using a mock interview script.
Procedure: Select two students to play the roles of "Reporter" and "Guest." Give each a copy of the script and ask them to play the roles in front of the class. They and the rest of the class are told that the reporter is interviewing a tourist in Baton Rouge. After the interview, ask the class to explain what was wrong with the reporter's approach. Write the responses on the board as students offer them. You can find a printer-friendly copy of this interview here.
Script 2: The Reluctant Guest
Objective: To show students the value of asking follow-up questions and questions that elicit meaningful responses.
Procedure: In this mock interview the teacher should play the part of the ”Reluctant Guest” and a student the ”Reporter.” You can find a printer-friendly copy of this interview here.
Afterwards ask students what they might do to elicit more interesting responses. Their responses should include the following:
Students should also gain confidence with equipment such as cameras and recorders and learn how equipment can get in the way or be a great blessing.
By tackling a fieldwork project of your own, you will realize how much you and your students will learn. Choose a topic or person of interest to you in and follow the steps above to get a feel for what students will experience. You might ask a colleague about her hobbies, a neighbor about a craft, a relative about a recipe. Make this a simple investigation to practice your own interviewing and technical skills. You might use your results to model fieldwork for your students, who can critique your work and tell you what went well and what was missing. A 4th grade teacher documented her first fieldwork attempt, taking photos of the equipment she was using and asking others to take photos of her as she began her work. She created a slide show and overhead presentations, providing opportunities to discuss her work with students and create checklist for future fieldwork projects. She modeled her fieldwork steps in the classroom during subsequent class periods, allowing students to handle equipment in teams and practice interviewing and critiquing one another.
Given the potential hours many students spend staring at television and computer screens and playing video games, they may need to tune their ears. Improving listening skills is a key lesson learned in fieldwork. During fieldwork, interviewers learn more by staying silent than by speaking a lot or rushing interviewees.
An assignment as simple as playing a short recorded story will test students' listening tolerance. Do they fidget, do eyes wander, can they relay what they heard? Discuss with students whether they enjoyed the experience and how it differed from watching a movie. Reading a story aloud is another way of measuring students' attention to listening. If you're interested in improving listening skills, here are some further ideas.
Adaptation Strategies offer additional simple, yet effective ideas for improving students' listening skills. Improved listening will promote better interviews.
Students use notetaking, photography, audio and video recording, proper research forms, observation skills, and project evaluation as they conduct folklife fieldwork.
Notetaking is a sophisticated, multi-task process that usually doesn't come naturally. Most students, especially young ones, need to be taught how to take notes. Though many interviews will be recorded, students should also learn the "old-fashioned" way for times when that may not be possible or feasible.
The first step is attentive listening, a skill that is diminishing in today's image-driven, visual society. Yet listening is crucial to the interview process. If you feel students need instruction and practice in listening, see Improving Listening Skills above for strategies.
If your students have poor notetaking skills, or have never really learned how to take notes, it is critical to provide instruction and practice in this important skill. Access Taking Notes for strategies you can use to help your students learn this skill. They should use notetaking during classroom practice interviews. Other resources include Careers in Music – Notetaking and, if students will be watching a live dance or movement performance or video, for example, use the Performance and Video Notetaking Worksheet.
When it is time for the actual interviews, students should ensure that they have Journals in their Interview Folder -- For the Teachers or notebook paper and a clipboard, and all the forms they will need. Students with typing and technology experience may want to use laptop computers for notetaking, but many researchers feel this interferes with the interview since it might distract the interviewee. Documentation methods provide great exercises for learning to follow directions. See Sample Fieldnotes: Teen Memories of Grade School Traditions, which includes fieldnotes, transcriptions, photos, and written release form.
First, look at your school community and the families of your students. Since everyone practices folk traditions, it is quite likely that someone on staff at the school, a relative, or a friend would be willing to come to your class. Some folk traditions are relatively easy to find. Many people make quilts, cook traditional foods, garden, sing gospel music, have interesting hobbies, or are veterans or retired workers who can tell stories about their experiences. Other traditions are more specialized and not as common, but it's quite possible that you know someone who plays blues, bluegrass, Cajun, or zydeco music, carves walking sticks or duck decoys, runs the Cajun or Creole Mardi Gras, is a Mardi Gras Indian, makes a St. Joseph's Day altar, or attends a church that does river or lake baptism. Occupational folklife is also a great topic. Use Unit VIII The Worlds of Work and Play to identify interviewees and prepare students for fieldwork projects focusing on occupational folklife or traditional crafts.
If you want to feature a specific tradition and you can't find someone who practices it, you will need to look beyond the immediate community. This can be more challenging, but there are resources available. Consult Suggestions for Folklife Fieldwork and Presentations: Folklife Genres to consider possibilities. Explore the Folklife In Louisiana and Louisiana Folk Artist Biographies websites for ideas. They may help jog your memory about local people and traditions and help you decide what type of tradition you would like to feature. Or contact the Louisiana Folklife Program to get contact information or other recommendations.
Be aware that if you are inviting an artist, it is appropriate to offer them a stipend for their time in the classroom. If they are traveling, they will need travel and possibly lodging. Sometimes the parent/teacher organization supports such projects. If the artist is coming in for more than a one-day presentation or interview, grants may be available for classroom residencies that connect the artist to your curriculum.
Digital cameras are good for studying technology as well as learning about folklife.
Students should avoid backlighting (shooting a subject in front of a window, for example). Build photography practice into your schedule. You can make use of printed materials, scanners, digital images, and photocopies to create PowerPoint presentations or simple printed presentations. See Indivisible, Educator's Guide by the Duke Center for Documentary Studies for useful activities for working with photographs and taking documentary photos. Photos work well in publications. As computer scanners and color photocopiers become more affordable, you will be able to make excellent use of color images.
Whatever camera you use, be sure to label digital images, or CDs with pertinent information: date, time, place, photographer, subject (see Photo Log). If your students are doing group projects, they may want to label the memory cards if they are using multiple cards or if they won't be used again. For digital pictures, students will need to develop a Contact Sheet, which is a printed page of thumbnail images with their numbers and names. Designing and keeping photo logs are important aspects of fieldwork. Label each image to identify its corresponding number on a sheet. Write lightly in pencil on the back of prints or write on a label, then stick the label on the back of the photo. Make extra copies of good photos to give interviewees as a way of saying thank you. Make sure they have signed a release form before being photographed (see Written Release Form). Digital photographs can be used for a computer slide show or multimedia stack.
Various types of audio recorders abound, from smart phones and laptop computers with built-in microphones to tiny hand-held digital recorders. You can do a lot with an inexpensive audio recorder if you also invest in an inexpensive hand-held microphone instead of relying on the built-in mike. The mikes plug into the recorder and come with small stands, which should be hand held or placed on a non-vibrating surface when students are interviewing. Alternately, using a free-standing floor stand helps guard against vibration during recording.
Working in teams is a good idea for beginning fieldwork practice and for building collaboration. If working in teams, students can divide tasks. When preparing for a sound check, it is essential to set volume levels, ensure mike placement is correct, and identify potential problems such as wind and background noise. Place the microphone stand on a computer mousepad to help sound quality. If you don't have a microphone stand, use something handy to hold it in place. Students should begin by stating their name, date, place, interviewee's name, and purpose of interview. Some permissions may also be given at this time, with the interviewee stating that he or she gives permission for the student to record and use the recording for educational purposes (see Written Release Form or Oral Release Form). Again, giving interviewees a copy of fieldwork products is a nice idea, a way of saying thank you. Copy a final product as a gift if your budget allows, or you might place copies in a community archive. High-quality audio recordings can be used for websites, radio programs, and public presentations. Students should complete a Audio Log for each recording.
Video cameras have become ever smaller and more available. Planning how to record an interview, a craftsperson at work, or a traditional community event requires practice and forethought. In addition to mastering operations, students must calculate how much digital memory the project will require, decide whether a team or individuals should tackle the video shoot, choose a tripod or hold the camera steady, check the sound for background noise or wind, watch for backlighting and other problems. Students should complete an Log soon after taping while memories are fresh. Learning from Your Community provides detailed instructions on assigning students roles to research and produce a video. Editing video can be tedious, so consider involving a media specialist or other expert if possible when developing a polished product. Perhaps local television stations or cable companies would donate engineers or time in their editing labs. Videotaping a PowerPoint with student scripts is another way to go. Some schools are equipped to use video clips on classroom computers or school website. Again, sharing a copy of a product with interviewees or writing thank-you letters describing the project is polite.
Processing Fieldwork Materials
Students choose appropriate ways to use and preserve their fieldwork research finds through labeling, organizing, archiving, transcribing, contextualizing, editing, revising, and producing projects such as exhibits, publications, webpages, scrapbooks, public programs, and so on. They consider issues of cultural sensitivity as they develop projects.
After fieldwork, what? Professional folklorists find many ways to use and preserve their documentation. You and your students will have to decide how best to process, preserve, and present your fieldwork. This stage might include any or all the following strategies.
Archiving is one of the most important ways to preserve fieldwork. The professional fieldworker often archives photographs, fieldnotes, and audio and video recordings in a repository where the materials will be protected from disintegrating and where people may study them. To label printed photographs, write lightly with a #2 pencil on the back of the photo. Never use regular ink as it can damage the photo. Archiving requires careful logging, so this is where students' labeling of materials and securing permission forms really become important. Without a release form, materials cannot be made accessible to the public, nor can they be used to produce exhibits, publications, or programs beyond Educational Fair Use. After several years of students researching local topics, your classroom archive could become invaluable to the community and they may want to use it in public projects. There's no telling where research will end up being used!
Whether they create a classroom archive, a school library archive, or a gift to the state or local historical society, students should learn something about the importance of preserving folklife fieldwork. Brainstorm a list with them about why preservation is important. Ask students to explore the online archives of the American Folklife Center. Then return to the list of reasons to preserve fieldwork and add any new insights students come up with. Together discuss how the class would like to manage fieldwork notes.
Professional folklorists spend many hours transcribing field recordings, listening over and over to type or write out interviews word for word. There are some good downloadable transcription software programs available; these are invaluable tools for processing interview recordings from digital audio files. A pair of headphones and a good foot pedal (where desirable) work well for the transcription process. Be realistic in deciding how much to transcribe. Students could listen to their field recording, create a subject index, and choose a portion to transcribe (see Audio Log). Students may want to type the transcriptions using a computer with word processing software. This would make the editing process much simpler as they play and replay the recordings. A subject index can be as simple as a list of words listed in order that will help cue a listener. Transcribing as soon after fieldwork as possible is helpful since the interviewer will remember the conversation more clearly. Again, be realistic about how much students can actually transcribe. A mere five minutes of conversation may take up pages when transcribed. So why transcribe at all? It's a good way to teach listening, proofing, editing, keyboarding. Students can see themes that emerge, analyze the text more carefully, and study the difference between oral and literary narratives. Results can be preserved in a local archive or students' portfolios; used for scripts for radio programs or readers' theater, for example; given to interviewees as gifts; or added to exhibits or websites. A transcription can also indicate where more fieldwork is needed, either to clarify a point or deepen the project. When students return to interviewees with their transcriptions, they can verify the interview and strengthen their relationships with them.
Sometimes fieldwork results give a clue how best to present findings. Sometimes you'll know going into a project that you have to create an exhibit or a presentation to meet content standards. Sometimes students will know what message they want to convey through a presentation. Obviously, student products will vary from project to project, community to community. If you've undertaken very simple fieldwork and asked students to interview one another, the product can also be simple: essays, drawings, timelines, graphs, oral presentations, multimedia presentations, team reports, radio programs.
More elaborate fieldwork can provide content for more complex products. Collaborations among classroom teachers, media specialists, and art and music teachers strengthen design and content of products. Here are products that students around the country have produced from their folklife and oral history research. Don't underestimate your students – or yourself!
Here are some specific examples of student products and some are now posted online. Also see Teacher Spotlights for Louisiana examples.
Involve students in developing a fieldwork or project checklist or use the one provided, Fieldwork Checklist. If working in groups, each group should have a checklist. This is only a starter. Each project will have various components and needs, and students can assume different roles or take on individual projects. Roles might include: researcher, developer of appropriate forms, interviewer, videographer, photographer, sound engineer, recording logger, map maker, artifact collector, equipment manager, project designer, editor, transcriber, layout person, archivist, curator, publicity manager. The checklist could also become a timetable so that students accomplish tasks by certain deadlines. Set reasonable amounts of time for each project. Students could use a software project planner, spreadsheet, or use the Fieldwork Checklist to prepared for and organize their project. Following is a chronological framework for carrying out a fieldwork project, start to finish.
Louisiana Folklife Survey Form -- for community-based projects and interviewing adults
Suggestions for Folklife Fieldwork and Presentations -- for community-based projects
This essay was originally written in 2003 and revised in 2012.