The Folklore Field School

by Debra Lattanzi Shutika

The Folklore Field School

Students at George Mason University are often drawn to folklore studies to explore storytelling, fairy tales, and long-held traditions, not realizing that folklore is part of the contemporary everyday experience. The summer Field School for Cultural Documentation offers students a firsthand opportunity to learn about the work that professional folklorists actually do, such as ethnographic research and cultural documentation, and then provides them an opportunity to replicate a field research project.

Students who enroll in the course receive real-world research experience under the guidance of scholars from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress (LOC). A collaborative effort between the LOC and the Folklore Studies Program at Mason, the field school is entering its third year. Researchers and archivists from the LOC work with Mason Folklore Studies faculty to train students in ethnographic documentation and professional archiving practices that conform to LOC practices. It is the only course of its kind and has attracted students from Mason and other universities.

The field school allows students to apply what they’ve learned in their conventional courses in folklore and related fields. In a typical folklore class, students are asked to complete an oral history interview as the basis of their term project. It is the foundation of ethnographic &eldwork, but it is only part of the ethnographic process, which includes participation and skilled observations of cultural contexts to gain in-depth knowledge of a community or group. Many academic disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and nursing, employ ethnographic field methods as part of their research agenda.

Working closely with faculty to create an authentic research project, the field school focused on the Columbia Pike neighborhood of Arlington County, Virginia, during the summers of 2011 and 2012.

“This field school enabled me to not only practice the basic skills in folklore that I had, but also learn a number of new methods and practices within folklore,” says Hannah Powers, a senior English major. “Through interviews, field notes, and firsthand experience in the community, I learned so much about Columbia Pike, the cultures represented there, and the effects of the new revitalization plans.”

Katie Kerstetter, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, noted that participating in the field school was a great experience.

“Not only did I get to engage in an applied research project, but I received research training in interviewing techniques, audio-recording, and documentation, which have helped me become a better qualitative researcher,” she says. “The skills I learned in the field school have been incredibly helpful in the research projects I have pursued over the past year, and I will continue to draw on them as I begin my dissertation research this spring.”

After a week of intensive classroom training, students work with Folklore Studies and field school faculty (myself and LOC colleagues Guha Shankar, Stephen Winnick, Todd Harvey, and Maggie Kruesi) to develop a professional documentation project that can be completed within the six-week summer term. Months before the field school begins, I conduct preliminary fieldwork, including a history of local neighborhoods and a list of potential research informants or subjects. Thiis step allows students a lead once they begin their research. From those initial contacts, students work in teams and are expected to develop independent research goals and select informants in consultation with their instructor. Students conduct oral histories using broadcast quality digital recording equipment and participate and observe the day-to-day activities of the research site.

The final project for the summer course includes a written research report and a public presentation. In summer 2012, this presentation was held in Arlington, where Columbia Pike residents, Arlington County offcials, and others were invited to respond to the students’ work. The field school plans to present to a similarly prestigious audience each year, though the exact locations are to be determined by project. At the conclusion of the semester, the materials are collected and archived in a local library and at the Northern Virginia Folklife Archive at Mason.

The field school is a natural outgrowth of the types of learning experiences the Folklore Studies Program has promoted during its 35 years at Mason. The goal of the Folklore Studies curriculum is to create a classroom experience that encourages students to apply the research methodologies and theoretical approaches to fieldwork that are discussed in class. The field school offers an exceptional learning experience. It is a course that mimics real-world expectations of a professional documentation project. Students learn how to plan, implement, and conduct research, but they also learn about the challenges of working in teams and a local community. Students are allowed maximum autonomy when completing fieldwork, which for many is the first time they’ve been asked to make independent research decisions of this magnitude.

In 2011 and 2012, during the summer field school’s documentation of Columbia Pike, the students learned a lot about the area’s culture and traditions. “The Pike” is locally known as Arlington’s International Main Street, and home to one of the nation’s most diverse communities. During the field school, the Pike was in the midst of a planned revitalization; many of the community’s apartments have undergone and will continue to undergo renovation or reconstruction. In July 2012, the Arlington County Board voted to develop a trolley line that will run along Columbia Pike. These changes promise to transform the community, which has caused angst for some local residents.

“The field school opened my eyesto the living—and dying—history in my own neighborhood,” says Ben Norris, a graduate student at Marymount University and Arlington resident. “I found what I learned to be just as fascinating as any popular historical topics because people are just so complex and interesting.”

The field school also created ties between Mason and the Columbia Pike community.

“Mason has always made efforts to support the Northern Virginia communities that have adopted the university, and hosting the field school is a unique way to do so,” says Eric Olson, BA Communication ’09, who is pursuing a graduate certificate in science communication. “It was an opportunity for so many of us, including the students and the project participants, to interact in an exciting and constructive format. In the span of only a few weeks, we learned how to perform and took part in the kind of hands-on research that we only get to read about in most cases. Without the use of a single textbook, we gained insights about useful technology, crucial research skills, and, most important, people and their stories. I am excited to contribute to the project, enthusiastic about our discoveries, and proud to be affiliated with the field school legacy.”

In addition to the Mason field school, I worked with Mason’s Center for Field Studies to organize a one-week residential field school in West Virginia as part of my Appalachian Folklore course in May 2012. After completing the spring term course, 10 students took an optional 1-credit course in Morgan County, where students explored traditional Appalachian culture and the transformation of Berkeley Springs, a small town known for its mineral springs and spas. The West Virginia field school demonstrated, in a way that I could never show in a conventional classroom, the diversity of experience in the Appalachian region, which is too often viewed as homogeneous and backward. It was powerful in that the students were able to see it for themselves as they worked on their documentation projects. As the Folklore Studies Program grows, my colleagues hope to take the field school to more locations.

While developing a field school course requires more time and energy than a conventional course, I plan to make this a standard part of the curriculum. When I see the results of the field school, what the students learn and their response to the experience, I know I’m offering something vital to the Mason educational experience.