Undergraduate Seminar: Doing that 1st fieldwork project for class

At some point as an undergrad, particularly if you are taking a social science class you may be asked to do some kind of field project as an assignment.  The kind where you have to go out and talk to live, squishy people… preferably strangers, write down what they say and do some form of perfunctory analysis of it.

Now of course you have some decisions to make as we talked about in other entries on this topic: you’re thinking about the grade you want, how much time it is going to take, and how to fit it in with your hectic schedule of binge drinking and procrastination. Start as usual and place the page with the description of the assignment someplace on the floor where you are sure to kick it under the bed until about a week before the due date. After these prelim’s it’s time to get down to some serious panicking. This entry is aimed at very short projects, not semester-long / team field projects.

Break down the assignment:
What, REALLY is the instructor asking for?  I have seen this in business and in class: people turn in projects that are missing the basic issues spelled out in the assignment or contract.  Does the instructor have a specific topic area they want you to cover (or a list of topics that are not to be done)?  Do they spell out exactly how they want the paper or presentation formatted.  Do they give a minimum number of people to talk to or other sources to be used? These are the minimum requirements, if you have not fullfilled them, don’t get creative and hope your cleverness will cause someone to overlook that your blew off half the requirements:  you are NOT that clever.  Yes, getting an “A” means doing above average work, but it also means you met and surpassed the requirements.  This feeds into your strategy for choosing a practical and maybe even memorable choice for your topic (Unless of course that topic has been pre-chosen for you).

What is your topic?
If the topic is not assigned to you, then you need a topic that is realistic and at least a little interesting.  Before you do anything, talk to your instructor about what you are planning to do and listen to their reactions.  Take notes because may well lay it out for you what you need to do.  If they say… “well, if you are committed but I am not sure that fits the assignment.” DO SOMETHING ELSE.  You’d be amazed how many students just pass right over that speed bump and are shocked they don’t get a higher grade or have to do the project over.  Does the instructor have a pet topic or like to see the exotic?  I once went to a nudist camp for a project, it was something the instructor had not seen someone do before and I was able to tie in some theory and I got an A.

Make sure it is doable
You want something that is realistic, can be done while you are working on your other classes, can be done again if something goes terribly wrong.  What I mean by that is don’t choose something that happens one time a year between the hours of 3am and 3:23am and if you don’t get all your info in the time span you are screwed.  Likewise you don’t want to choose something where you aren’t sure you will even get access.  For example, if you are planning on talking to people in a shopping mall, you have to get permission from the mall to do fieldwork there, as it is private property.  Don’t let that put you off, people are often very cooperative with student projects, and the worst you get is a “no.”  But by all means find out in advance so you don’t have to do last minute changes.

Don’t apologize to people for doing the project
I have seen this time and time again: People sometimes feel self-conscious about asking people to participate in class projects.  This sometimes manifests itself with them saying things like “Well, I just have this lame project I have to do for class and I would appreciate if you could help me out.”  If that is the approach, why not just say “HI, I am going to waste your time and mine and take up 30 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.”  I understand this feeling of unease you may have in getting these conversations started.  After having started countless conversations with strangers over the years for research, I still feel a little uncomfortable on the initial approach and getting started.  I have no idea why, because in nearly every case you wind up having an interesting conversation with someone you never met and that is happy to talk to you if they have time.

Do something you are interested in if possible
Fieldwork and the very active listening it requires is more tiring that you might think.  There can be a lot of standing around and just observing.  Your first interview or two may not yield much while you figure out the best way to approach topics.  If you are working on something you are interested in it can help your motivation to keep going if things get a little tough.


2 Responses to Undergraduate Seminar: Doing that 1st fieldwork project for class

  1. I will ask students to do “Goffman-like” observations in a public place. They generally like this assignment a lot! The assignment asks them to spend two hours in a single place watching and observing. The trick is to find a time when things are busy, and as a result peoples’ normative antennae are up, and faux pas are likely to happen.

    I usually kick off the assignment with Spencer Cahill’s description of behavior in public restrooms, which his student did. This is a great article to understand the technique, but a lousy one to start practicing with (hey there, why have you been in the public restroom for the last 75 mintues???)

    The most common places that students choose are bars, often on a Friday or Saturday night. These are great places to watch how people present themselves, and navigate social interactions, particularly as they get drunker….

    Oh, and if it is part of a class project, don’t forget to ask your professor about the Human Subjects clearance. Believe it or not, for American universities, anyway, these do fall under federal guidelines which require a paper from your universitiy’s “Institutional Research Board.”

  2. you can never go wrong starting students with Goffman.