Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Job You're Supposed to be Terrible At: Lessons from Six Months of Fieldwork

As of this morning, I've officially been in Japan for six months, at the pleasure of the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science.  I have six months left on my current appointment, which was granted to me to fund research into Japanese hip hop.  Ethnography/fieldwork/journalism/ “research” is something you can only learn by doing it, and despite some previous experience this stretch has been full of new challenges. I guess it's a pretty rare situation I find myself in, but maybe more universal principles can be derived from the various ways I've screwed up.

Writing is an Excuse for Not Working. In the afterglow of completing a dissertation that was at best 15% fieldwork, this has been the biggest, hardest lesson.  I had worked hard to develop a craftsman's discipline – getting up every day and writing for three or four hours, crawling bit by bit through a big project.  Writing was the be all and end all, the Alpha and Omega of my existence as a doctoral candidate, and as a job seeker in the academic market.  So it was strange when, on finding out about my posting, a member of my committee gave me this sterling advice: “Don't worry about writing.  Focus on research.”

Research is What Happens While you Make Plans.  It's important – even vital – to have a research agenda.  There are, of course, plans to be made, appointments to set up, contacts to cultivate online.  But it's even more vital to figure out the right place to spend time doing nothing.  This may seem like the most obvious thing in the world to properly trained ethnographers or anthropologists, but particularly for someone trained in theory, it takes a while to sink in.  I end up with notebook pages full of hot leads, new contacts, and essential facts just from sitting in a bar or in someone's office with no particular agenda.  It's a lesson for life, really – be ready for anything, including boredom.  Boredom, after all, is the seedbed of opportunity.

Booze is in Fact Not an an Ethnographer’s Best Friend. I (and I know I’m not alone in this) drank a lot in graduate school.  Considerably more, even, than I drank in college. Since most of my initial research took place in bars and nightclubs, the habit naturally continued during my doctoral research. And on some level I found it a lot easier to interact with people in Japanese after downing a few beers.  But there comes a certain inflection point where that method of connecting to people becomes less and less effective – particularly, this is true once you’re already a known quantity in a community and the job becomes much more about following up on leads and interviewing people, or more generally about pursuing a particular agenda rather than just learning “the lay of the land.”  I actually had to quit drinking entirely for health reasons about a month ago (don’t mix booze and allergy meds!), and I’ve found myself a lot more effective since then, because I’m able to be more methodical and less impressionistic.  Not to mention the crazy amounts of money I’ve saved.

Quit Getting Up So Early. Depending on your specialty, a corollary to Lesson 2.  In the world of music, the only things that are going to happen before noon are things you do alone.  And that's not where the action is.

Shit Happens (So Take Care of Yourself). On top of the predictable challenges and time-consumption of moving and settling into a foreign country, I got pretty ill for about two and a half months this past fall. This wasn't a life-threatening illness, but rather a combination of allergies and sinus infections that took my energy levels and focus down to about 70%.  I spent this period repeatedly cursing myself for collapsing exhausted before getting out to shows where I could do research (see also Lesson 3), meanwhile feeling certain that health was just around the corner.  What I didn't do was go to the frickin' doctor.  The language barrier was certainly an intimidation factor, but I  should have known better.

And finally, Blogging is Fantastic. Not only does an online notebook give you a great place to collect the random thoughts and tidbits of information that collect like whitecap flotsam during a project like this, without drawing you into the vortextual depths of overthinking, it simultaneously gives you a platform for networking, an increasingly vital element of research - to say nothing of the infinite joys of self-promotion.


My said...
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My said...

Thanks for your posting on the SSJ-email list today which made me discover your blog. I feel inspired! Thanks.

David Z. Morris said...

Glad you found me, and that this is all somehow useful. Check back anytime!