Changing India: From Decolonization to Globalization Conference 2013

I am looking forward to the inaugural conference of the New Zealand India Research Institute, which starts tomorrow. The conference theme is Changing India: From Decolonization to Globalization and it will critically examine the changes that have taken place since Independence.

I am just putting the finishing touches on the following paper, which I plan to develop into a journal article:

Bastis as “forgotten places” in Howrah, West Bengal, India

Kolkata’s poverty is world-famous. Howrah, located on the opposite side of the Hoogly river and Kolkata’s twin city, fares worse. Howrah’s bastis (slums) have been described as “deplorable”, “dirty”, “filthy” and “overcrowded” since the late 1800s. India’s recent rapid economic growth has not improved the lives of those living in poverty – many of whom are Muslim – in Howrah’s bastis. This paper argues that Howrah’s bastis are “forgotten places”, historically and politically constructed habitats that are neglected, but nevertheless deeply inhabited, by the state (Lee & Yeoh, 2006: Fernandes, 2010). In these bastis, services that are the responsibility of the state – such as access to civic amenities – are not adequately provided for. It discusses how such “forgotten places” leave a gap that NGOs and grassroots organisations try to fill, and draws on ethnographic fieldwork to describe the efforts of Howrah Pilot Project, an organisation that runs grassroots-level development initiatives in one of Howrah’s bastis. Such organisations can be viewed as a response to processes of ‘active forgetting’ but need to be augmented by a responsive state in order to achieve meaningful, long-term, beneficial change.

Check out the rest of the NZIRI 2013 Conference Programme to see what else people will be talking about.

AnthroPod: The SCA Podcast

Seems I’m not the only one who likes the name anthropod!* The Society for Cultural Anthropology has recently launched a podcast series dedicated to interviewing cultural anthropologists about their work and experiences in the field.

The two podcasts available so far feature interviews with Michael Fisch (episode 1) about his research on commuter train suicides in Tokyo, and Richard Handler (episode 2) about how he helped to found the graduate Global Development Studies programme at the University of Virginia. Both Fisch and Handler have recently published articles on these topics in the journal Cultural Anthropology, and the podcast links to those articles (one is available through open access, the other is behind a paywall).

I was pleased to discover that the interviews don’t simply repeat what is in the articles; instead they provide the anthropologists with an opportunity to talk about their work in a more informal manner. I enjoyed hearing them enthuse about their work, discuss the challenges of fieldwork, and talk about how they developed their research projects and theoretical frameworks. Prof. Handler’s interview in particular was thought-provoking because of my own research interests in development, and like him I have found a lot of anthropology students are keen to work in the field of development.

The SCA promises more podcasts featuring interviews like this as well as shorter snippets explaining what anthropology is and what anthropologists do. If these first two are anything to go by, I will be a regular subscriber.

* anthropod: a term sometimes used in science fiction to describe humanoid alien beings. (That’s where I came across it, at any rate!)

Live-tweeting at academic conferences

With the Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference taking place at Victoria University this Monday, I have been thinking about how we could use Twitter. I crowdsourced a hashtag for the conference on Twitter (#AAHSC thanks to @prancingpapio) and in last week’s class mentioned that they would be welcome to use it to tweet from the conference. I like making anthropology public and this seemed like a good way for me and my students to share research findings, get the hang of live-tweeting, and practice presenting anthropology to a wider audience on Twitter as well as at the conference.

After class finished I remembered last year’s #Twittergate. I’m not sure what sparked it but in September and October 2012 academics used this hashtag to debate the ethics and etiquette of tweeting and blogging live from academic conferences (journalist Steve Kolowish from Inside Higher Ed summarises the debate which led The Guardian’s Ernesto Priego to list 10 rules for live-tweeting from academic conferences). Issues raised during the debate included privacy, control over ‘publishing’ unpolished ideas and research findings, accuracy of information, and respect (‘academic assholes’ use Twitter too).

Having followed some conferences from afar through hashtags on Twitter, I can appreciate why some don’t like live-tweeting. There is a real skill to summarising someone’s research ideas clearly, concisely, respectfully, and in a way that makes sense to those not at the conference. This is a skill I want to develop myself and in my students.

I want to encourage good live-tweeting habits at #AAHSC – basically all of the ‘do’s’ on Vanessa Varin’s excellent crowdsourced article on live-tweeting etiquette. When I open the conference I will inivte the audience to tweet using #AAHSC and briefly go over Varin’s list (which includes clearly identifying speakers, using Twitter handles, and careful listening). I plan to use Storify to collate the tweets after the event.

What ethics and practices do you follow when live-tweeting from conferences?

Why I use social media in teaching

I used social media a lot while I was working on my PhD. I visited blogs dedicated to the joys and pains of thesis writing (such as The Thesis Whisperer), used the Twitter chat channel #PhDchat to connect with others working off-campus most of the time like I was, and surfed YouTube channels looking for interesting videos related to anthropology. I came across a short video called A vision of students today by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch which revolutionised the way I thought about social media and why I should use it as a teacher.

I sought Wesch out on other social media platforms and was struck by his approach to new media and philosophy of anti-teaching:

“Anti-teaching is about inspiring good questions. Since all good thinking begins with a good question, it struck me that if we are ultimately trying to create “active lifelong learners” with “critical thinking skills” and an ability to “think outside the box” it might be best to start by getting students to ask better questions.”

Wesch goes on to note that many students – especially those in large introductory classes – rarely ask ‘good’ questions and instead ask questions like ‘what do I need to know for this test?’ I have heard this a lot and it always makes my heart sink a little. I know studying is hard, especially when you have to juggle full-time study with work and family committments, but to me this question feels like another way of saying ‘I want to make sure I don’t accidentally learn too much so please tell me exactly what you want to see in my work.’ Wesch’s strategies for encouraging ‘good’ questions – especially his World Simulation for first year cultural anthropology students – resonated with my own teaching philosophy, which is based on educationalist Paulo Freire’s approach.

Today social media is an important part of my teaching practice. I use social media as a pedagogical tool to take learning beyond the classroom, teach transferable skills, encourage reflexivity and critical thinking (by having them look at how and why they use platforms like Facebook), and to model how anthropologists can use social media. (I’ll talk about how I use social media in another post.)

I also use social media for my own professional development. It is a great way to learn about what other anthropologists are doing in the classroom, to source new ideas and teaching materials, and to engage in online conversations about teaching anthropology. It is particularly good for networking and I have had conversations with Mike Wesch about adapting his World Simulation for the large first-year cultural anthropology class I teach at Victoria University.

I am curious about the reasons why others use social media in teaching. Why do you use it? Why don’t you use it? I’m sure I could learn a lot from your practices!

A template for writing fieldnotes

For my PhD I carried out ethnographic fieldwork in different locations: bastis (slums) in the twin cities of Howrah and Kolkata (India), and urban and peri-urban settlements in the city of Lae (Papua New Guinea). I knew from earlier visits that these different settings would mean that I was in for very different fieldwork experiences. I also knew I was unlikely to have much control over events. However, I could take steps to standardise my data collection and notetaking processes as much as possible. In the early stages of my research I decided to create a fieldwork template with that goal in mind.

After reading what others had to say about ethnographic fieldnotes (including A Thrice-Told Tale by Margery Wolf [1992], Fieldnotes: The Makings of Anthropology edited by Roger Sanjek, [1990], and Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes edited by Robert Merson, Rachel Fretz and Linda Shaw [1995]), I created a fieldnote template (originally in MS Word; now I use Pages) with the following sections:

In these sections I insert the filename of each document as a header, give each fieldnote a short title, and record the date.

This is for describing what happened during the day as accurately as I can. I take a ‘who, what, when, where, why, how’ approach and try to stick to ‘facts’ to create a verbal snapshot of what happened. This includes noting direct quotes and snippets of conversations, text messages, filenames of voice recordings, and what photos I took.

I am aware that all fieldnotes are constructed, and what we choose to take notes about are influenced by a range of factors, so in this section I try to minimise that. My aim is to keep description separate from analytical work for as long as possible while recognising that these snapshots are just that; a glimpse of a point in time from a particular perspective, through a particular lens.

I reflect on the day’s experiences, writing about how I might have influenced events, what went wrong (and what I could do differently next time), and how I feel about the process.

Here I note questions I might ask, potential lines of inquiry, and theories that might be useful. This is where I start to do some analytical work.

This is a ‘to-do’ list of actions. I usually include a timeframe alongside each point.

How it works for me
I usually type my fieldnotes at the end of each day and use this template alongside handwritten notebooks, which I carry when I am out and about. I find that people often want to look at (and correct!) what I’m writing in notebooks so I use them to record people’s names, questions I want to ask, specific times of events, and for participants to write notes about what they think I should pay attention to.

I draw on all of the above sources, as well as photographs, emails, voice recordings (and their transcriptions), and my memories, when I write. I find the description section of my template is extremely useful for providing the context for photographs, recordings and transcriptions, and as a point of comparison for my memories, which change over time .

I have not (yet) started using digital media in my fieldnotes, although I am interested in how this works. I have been following EthnographyMatters since Tricia Wang’s post Writing Live Fieldnotes: Towards a More Open Ethnography about ‘live fieldnoting’ on Instagram. A recent issue of Popular Anthropology Magazine (Vol 4, No 1, 2013) has a section dedicated to blogging fieldnotes.

I am always keen to hear about how others take fieldnotes. What is your process? What are your thoughts on ‘live fieldnoting’ or blogging from the field?

The art of asking conference questions

Asking a ‘good’ question is an important skill for anthropologists. It is something we practice in a variety of situations – at conferences, during classes (as students and lecturers), at meetings, in conversations with employers and clients, throughout the research process, when we write, as we supervise students or staff, and when we reflect on our teaching. Since my annual ‘conference season’ is almost upon me I have been thinking a lot about the art of asking conference questions.

In particular, I have been thinking about a blog post on one of my favourite blogs, The Thesis Whisperer. Earlier this year Inger Mewburn (aka the Thesis Whisperer) wrote about Academic assholes and the circle of niceness, a post which resonated with a LOT of people. The post talked about academic colleagues who are ‘rude, dismissive, passive aggressive or even outright hostile … in the workplace’ and many of the comments focused on the kind of aggressive and nasty behaviour that audience members at seminars and conferences can display.

You are probably familiar with this behaviour. There are those who ask questions to show how much they know (and, by implication, how much you don’t) about your topic. Others have a particular axe to grind about x, y, or z (which may or may not be related to your presentation). Some basically are just assholes and make it really, really hard not to roll your eyes as their ‘question’ turns into a 3-5 minute statement on … what was it they were saying again?

I am not interested in the kinds of questions academic assholes ask. They are generally neither constructive nor helpful, and they close down the discussion rather than opening up new possibilities for ideas and understanding. I am much more interested in the art of asking ‘good’ questions.

I think the art of asking ‘good’ conference questions involves:

  1. Taking your role as an audience member seriously. This means actively listening to and engaging with the speaker’s ideas.
  2. Considering the Strategies for constructing a question outlined by George Washington University. These include: listening for questions posed but not pursued by the presenter; listening for keywords; listening for the larger theory/issue the presentation addresses; making connections among presentations; and drawing upon your own experience and knowledge.
  3. Asking to inquire, not to impress. This tip comes from a post on about the art of asking questions and essentially says ‘don’t be an asshole’.
  4. Being constructive. This is about opening up possibilities for discussion. A constructive question could probe for more information, give the speaker an opportunity to expand on something there wasn’t time to address, or suggest new ways of thinking about a topic.
  5. Being courteous. Start your question with what you found interesting about the presentation. Try not to interrupt as he or she is answering, and when the speaker has answered your question, thank him or her for the response.
  6. Being clear. This can be difficult, especially if you are still formulating your question as you are talking. However it is important to ask your question as clearly and concisely as you can in order to generate a thoughtful response.
  7. Timing. Is your question something that the speaker will be able to respond to during the time set aside for discussion? Do you want to ask about something specific that might be of interest only to you and the speaker? Do you have a serious concern about an aspect of the presentation, one that is likely to undermine or discredit the speaker? If so, you might consider asking your question in a one-on-one setting rather than in front of an audience.

I enjoy question time at conferences and often learn as much from the questions and responses as I do from the presentations themselves. I appreciate a ‘good’ question as an audience member and speaker, and admire those who have perfected the art of asking questions. (Disclaimer: this is not an art I have perfected myself! I always think of brilliant questions a day or so after the event.)

What do you think? What strategies or tips do you have for asking ‘good’ conference questions?

VUW Anthropology Honours Student Conference 2013

I am currently coordinating one of the Honours courses in VUW’s Cultural Anthropology Programme. In it, the students design and carry out an independent research project on a topic of their choice. Part of the assessment involves them giving a seminar about their work. This year the students will present papers based on their research in a 1-day Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference.

Why a conference?

In other courses the students make hour-long presentations (often in pairs) to one another on various aspects of their work. Since they will become quite proficient in making long presentations by the end of the year, I decided to see if they wanted to do something a little different and run a conference instead.

I love going to conferences and have also spoken about my research at less formal events (such as Rotary and Save the Children meetings). I believe that it is important for anthropologists to be able to speak about their work in a range of public settings and thought it would be fun for the students to get involved in organising their own conference.

My teaching goals for this conference are:

  • to complement the oral presentation skills they are developing in other courses
  • to provide them with further career training
  • to provide them with an opportunity to try out their ideas and gain feedback on their work in a constructive forum
  • to showcase what our Cultural Anthropology Honours students are doing to other students and staff.

How we organised it

I pitched my conference idea to them after the mid-year break. Everyone seemed keen so in July we decided on a date, time, and conference theme. Although no two research projects are the same, we had noticed in earlier class discussions that a number of people were addressing the concept of agency in some form, so this seemed like a good theme to loosely link the papers.

Students will present 15-minute papers in panels of three followed by a 15 minute panel discussion where the audience will ask questions of the presenters. This format seemed less scary for first-time presenters, and panel discussions can be a good way to draw out connections and links between the papers.

The students all sent me abstracts which I collated into a booklet to distribute at the conference: Anthropology and Agency Honours Student Conference Abstract Booklet. Some also volunteered to take on the role of session chair, which involves making sure everyone keeps within their allotted time and facilitating the discussion. Through this conference students will gain experience in:

  • writing abstracts
  • conference organisation
  • writing and presenting short papers
  • answering questions ‘on their feet’
  • asking thoughtful, constructive, critical questions of their fellow presenters
  • tweeting updates with the #AAHSC hashtag (for those so inclined)

The VUW Anthropology Society has organised a post-conference gathering at Hunter Lounge. (The VUW Anthropology Society is also on Facebook.)