Copenhagen & EPIC 2008

The end of the conference is nearing and it has been quite an interesting and educational experience for me. I even had photos to share of the workshop and venue but the free wireless access at the Copenhagen McDonald’s has an upload speed that is much too slow! I arrived in Copenhagen a couple of days prior to the conference and was able to see much of Copenhagen via the metro and train systems, walking, and in truly Danish spirit, I also rented a bicycle!

I did not previously know very much about why Copenhagen was chosen as a venue for EPIC, other than a brief comment that one of my professors made about design being a very important element in the city. I had no idea how I would see this manifested. The moment I got off the airplane I began to see what was meant by this. The airport has beautiful architecture, the metro trains are comfortable with a stylish interior, and they were so easy to use that I quickly figured out how to get where I needed to go even though the ticket machines, signs, and everything else was in Danish. In addition to this, it is the little details found in public places that are clean, simple, and beautiful in their designs: water facets, tourist information centers, even trash and recyclable receptacles. It made me wonder why anything ever had to be aesthetically unpleasing or unnecessarily complicated. Sometimes it can be a matter of opinion but in many instances it can be easily measured. I immediately compared the comfortable, clean, stylish interior of the Copenhagen metro with a metro system I am more familiar with: the dirty, uncomfortable interior of the BART metro system of the San Francisco bay area which makes me cringe to sit or touch anything. It is no surprise to me that designers, ethnographers, and usability researchers have played a crucial role in many areas of Copenhagen’s public facilities, services, and strategies. This makes the city a perfect venue to support, highlight, and engage the spirit of the EPIC conference.

Held in the beautiful University of Copenhagen building, the theme of this year’s conference was Being Seen: Paradoxes and Practices of Invisibility. A wide variety of research topics related back to this theme, each bringing an intriguing new element to the challenge faced by the researchers and ethnographers as to the methods needed to unveil that which was being hidden, or going unnoticed, or being unspoken. While the panelists, presenters, and artifacts were too many to describe with enough depth to truly appreciate here, a general idea of the discussions may be evident with the session topics which included: “Working and Playing with Visibility”, “Representation in Practice: Utilizing the Paradoxes of Video, Prose, and Performance”, “Navigating People and Praxis Across Space and Time”, and tomorrow’s session, “In sight on site; revealing and sustaining valuable knowledge for coroporations”. The proceedings of the conference are already available on the website: http://www.epic2008.com

I was able to attend the workshop “Cut it out in cardboard” presented by Jacob Buur and Larisa Sitorus (SPIRE, University of Southern Denmark) which focused on different activities used with research subject or focus groups in order to inspire design and gain crucial usability information and data. Participants were asked to bring samples of activities that they themselves have utilized in their research. The most important thing that I took away from the workshop was that the limits are really endless as to the tools one can use in these research activities and creative activities or installations can truly create a safe environment which allows research subjects to step away from what they think they know about how something should look or work and really explore how the product, service, or system could work better for them. Among the tools used in some of the activities: play dough, video collages, materials to create “things” such as cardboard and post-its, and installations in order to gain natural reactions to a change in an environment.

Unfortunately I missed out on the after-hours festivities such as the pub crawl due to a nasty cold that made my bed seem much more tempting than beer by the end of the day, but other highlights included tours to multiple Danish companies that work specifically in the areas of user research, usability, design, and organizational development. The panel session “Directors of the Future” provided entertaining scenarios, which created discussions about the future of ethnographic praxis in industry.

In this brief summary I certainly could not discuss the activities in enough depth, however, I’ve found blogs from other participants about their EPIC experience. Since we had to make choices as to which companies to visit, and which workshops and sessions to attend, other blogs may provide a look at the workshops I did not attend. I’ve found one other but I’m sure more will surface:

http://blog.catchingstories.com/2008/10/live-blogging-epic-2008.html

I look forward to attending EPIC 2009, which has been announced, will be held in Chicago! Thank you to Mark Dawson and Ethnography.com for the grant to attend the conference. It has certainly been a worthwhile experience for me.

Goodbye Germany, Hello Chico

Last year I took a break from my regular job teaching Chico State undergraduates, and taught graduate students at a private university in Germany. Classes were tiny, students hard-working, and engaged in the esoterica of social theory. I really liked it a lot. One of my students even managed to get a book review published in an important sociology journal, Sociological Review from the UK. Every essay, from all 14 students per semester, started with a concise outline, and the entire essay was carefully divided into an Introduction, Body, and Conclusion. Even though English was their second language, the essays were well-written, well-argued, and balanced in their presentation. With so few students, I always knew when someone was cutting, and to be honest few ever were interested in trying.

But now back to the real world of California State University, Chico. In my classical social theory class I routinely give lectures about the significance of 1848 in European history (quick, who was Napoleon III, and why was he important to both de Tocqueville and Marx?). American students want to know how a particular theory might help them back up their pre-conceived opinions about America’s health care problems, and political preferences of the day (sorry, but de Tocqueville would probably not have been interested in the choice between Obama and McCain). On top of it, there are at least 110 students, each with lives, and papers to hand in for grading And the conclusions in the papers they write for me are too often really short and stubby (no balance I remind them—a cat needs a tail for balance, and your essay needs a conclusion for the same reason). And I don’t even know all of their names yet, even after six weeks. And I notice, that attendance drops during midterms, or after a particularly big fraternity party.

The American students are also anxious about jobs, having heard since they started college that Sociology majors never end up with a good job. Last month , we worked through an alumni survey that said that Sociology majors do typically turn up middle class, and satisfied with their college experience. I hope that it reassures.

I even had one student who works with foster kids come back after a two or three year hiatus. He is a man with a large heart, who puts it into caring for youth who few will put up with; he views his own struggles with college level work as being important because it is an example to “his boys.” Unfortunately, his writing in the past tended to be brief outbursts of hyperbole and anecdote. But this has changed. His commentary has become more nuanced and his last paper for me even had a good conclusion (the cat’s tail is lengthening). He is still not quite ready for Sociological Review perhaps, but his letters on behalf of his foster kids will be more clearly argued. And he even mentioned once what the salutary effects on his boys of pursuing a MA degree might be! So good-by elite German graduate students, and hello again Chico!

Headed to Denmark…

The EPIC conference is fast approaching and thanks in part to Ethnography.com I’ll be on my way to Denmark at the end of next week to attend the EPIC conference at the University of Copenhagen. I am excited and nervous about the trip! It is my first time traveling to Europe and only my second international trip. I’m excited because this is the first conference of this kind that I will be attending, and I expect that I will learn a lot about new and different ways that ethnographic research is being used, how people are successfully presenting their ideas and research, and of course I hope to learn a thing or two about the Danish. I look forward to being around creative and innovative people. Being in a creative environment always helps spark ideas in my own mind. I am nervous because travel plans just never seem to pan out the way they are supposed to! *knock on wood* After the conference I’m heading over to Paris, France to check out the sights there and to visit a friend who is currently working on her Masters in French History.

I’ve obviously been a bit absent from posting on Ethnography.com so I guess a bit of an update might be due for those who were wondering. I graduated with my degree in anthropology and history in May, and have continued to work as office manager of a non-profit organization. I thought I’d have more free time after classes were over, but it has been one project after another! My latest project has been submitting my applications for a Master in Business program.

I look forward to blogging my EPIC experience! If anyone else is attending please contact me!

A view from 2 months in Iraq with a Human Terrain Team

I have been in Iraq as an anthropologist with a Human Terrain Team for a bit over two months now. The best description is that it’s like, well everything in life. I get excited about the work, I get discouraged. I feel like I am doing things that can have long term value and I wonder what the hell I’m doing in this screwed up place. I have learned that the backs of my ears may never be clean again, the ex-pat life agrees with me, I miss beer and sushi, and now I know what it feels like to take pictures of young men that die two days later.

Depending on the day you ask me, I will say that the problems with the entire HTS program are so insurmountable it should be started over from scratch, and on others, I see progress. We focus on being as much help as we can to our brigade in their efforts to help improve living and security conditions for local people as best we can. We often feel like we do this in spite of our bosses back in the states. How many times have we all said that our lives would be better if “the man” would just get out of the way and let us work? (I wonder how far up the food chain this feeling goes? Do Vice-Presidents feel like that about Presidents?) I go from wanting to quit to wanting to stay here for at least a year because there always seem to be another interesting project we can do.

In others words, it’s a job just like jobs everywhere.

The reality is that we do operate with almost 100% independence from the mothership back in Ft. Leavenworth. We want to focus on the work here, they want us to focus on the work here and that seems to suit everyone. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of problems in the program, including hiring practices, but I simply don’t think a blog is the appropriate place to air them. I mean really, would you blog about every bit of dirty laundry in your academic department or office? It’s frankly a disservice to everyone.

And no, I am not feeling any more charitable towards the vocal minority in anthropology or the co-called “Network of Concerned Anthropologists” (for my money, I am not sure who they are showing concern towards, god knows it’s not the people of Iraq, I don’t even think it’s for anthropology). Spend a few months over here and get some real data people, but alas getting actual data might not support your preconceived notions. There really needs to be a new category for your kind of anthropologist. I mean, “Social” may well still apply, but heavens knows using the title “Scientist” is a privilege you have long since lost.

What’s it like. The Army has been helpful, hospitable, arranged about any kind of fieldwork we wish to do. It should be no surprise that they were polite and helpful, but deeply skeptical over any really value we might add other that eating the food in the Dining Facility (DFAC). But now we have gotten a seat at the table so to speak, people request our assistance on various topics and generally we are little happy worker bees.

Looking at the AAA controversy after two months actually in the field makes some of the issues laughable. This idea that Human Terrain Teams are involved in gathering intelligence for example (we’ll, ignore for the moment the error of jargon people make, you don’t “gather” intelligence). I have seen this written about as if there are people in trench coats and dark glasses hovering by the HTT door just dying for a chance to peek at our work! Lord what a load of nonsense. I don’t know how many times this can be said, no… we don’t, ever. They don’t even want us too. Why, because it’s not our jobs, and they have professionals for that. It really is that simple, sorry to burst your conspiracy bubbles. We look at people in transition from jobs in one sector to another, how effective governance is in areas, issues of economy. The meetings I sit in are about building schools, putting in water purification facilities, trying to help local governments get more support for their communities from the Iraq national government, understanding complex issues related to agriculture and the economy. Hate to break it to you, but any anthropologist involved with development work would be pretty at home here.

I think what has stuck me the most since I have been here are the relationships that the military have built with their Iraqi counterparts helping them creating their own local governmental structures. Most of these young women and men have been trained to lead tanks and infantry companies. They showed up in Iraq and someone told them to establish security in an area and help the local population create an effective structure for representation to the provincial and national level. I have done part of my fieldwork in these meetings all over our area of the country. It’s amazing and impressive. They have made it happen with no training little support. Its fragile, rough, does not work always the way it should, but it’s indeed on the way. These military people figured out how to make it happen simply because they had no other choice but to try. They have all told me they wish anthropologists and governmental experts had been there to help them 12 months ago. Sorry, I have to say, that’s apparently not an ethical activity according to the Anthropology Association.

I’ll admit, I don’t hide my contempt for the stance of the AAA when I talk to people over here because its so poorly informed. I see a lot of people doing a lot of things to make the world better here. They are trying, failing a lot, succeeding sometimes and often doing it on native wit and common sense. Why? Because unlike many anthropologists, they chose to try, instead of complaining about the sorry state of the world. Fortunately there ARE anthropologists that do chose to try in whatever country they are in or whatever cause they support. I don’t think it’s ever occurred to the AAA or NCA that those people that chose to try are rarely going to be sway by me or them. They long ago found the value of action.

Look, the debate about the legitimacy of invading another country ends when the first bomb gets dropped. At that moment it becomes a historical discussion to be wrangled over by others. There is no “way back” machine, and we have to deal with the world as it is today. I am of the opinion that we broke it in a lot of ways, and I see no moral high ground in turning our backs on the country after we have done that.