Blog Archives

Stay on target! We’re too close! Stay on target!*

by Rachel Ridley

     After all the weeks of coding, re-coding, exporting, and now pulling it all together in a final analysis, we are finally at the end. We went through elephants, fences, and machambas [agricultural fields] all the way to standing water, hospitals, and weather (for Health in the SES Model, at least). It seems like we covered so much ground in so little time. I find myself still thinking back to coding interviews about elephant damage and realizing just how extensive this research was and is. I’m continually amazed by it as I sit down and try to bring it all to a close.
     One of the biggest struggles was having to organize all of the exported codes together and find themes in them. The problem is, not all of us (in my group) coded the same things in the same way. At first, this seemed immensely problematic. I kept thinking, “How is this going to add up to make any sense together at all?” But in the end, I think it was important that we had experience working on a project such as this in a group. I know I gained a lot from looking at the way the same thing could be interpreted in multiple ways.
     But now that we’re working on our final analyses, I realize that that wasn’t the hard part. Somehow we’ve got to pull all of what we’ve done through the whole semester into one analysis paper. I keep going back and forth, worrying that I won’t have enough to say and then realizing I probably have too MUCH to say to be concise! How to pull together these complex, interrelated themes without minimizing them or making them larger than life?
     Not to mention it’s the end of the semester (finally!) and there’s all kinds of absurdly long papers and cruel, unusual final presentations to do, and it’s hard to keep focus. I want to make sure that the material I create to finish up this project does the full experience and research justice. I keep stalling by making more and more maps or finding some new way to tie them together (I’m using online mapping software) and waiting around, as if I expect that if I do enough maps, a beautifully crafted full-length analysis will pop into my head, fully formed.
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     In all, I think it’s bittersweet. Of course, here in this moment, I want everything I have to do for the semester to just be over and done with. I want to move on to holiday celebration, sleeping until 2pm, and not having any deadlines to even consider. Yet there’s a whole other part of me that wants it to continue. I want more time and more space to write about it, because in many ways, the interviews – the issues themselves – that we studied became important to me personally. I find myself regularly thinking about the problems and subject matter that I spent so much time organizing and analyzing. In some ways, it has become larger than life for me.
     We’ve all got until Friday to pull our masterpieces together, and I’m hoping we can make them just that! It has been more than fulfilling to spend so much time with this research, so here’s hoping we can all produce some worthwhile thematic analysis from it.
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     The KRAC Lab research assistants this term have struggled mightily to work though a ton of crazy data.  They’ve ridden a rollercoaster from learning how to code all the way through to their final analysis.  Their learning process is very much the same that socio-cultural anthropologists of all levels go through – down to the part of having so much to say and so little space to say it.  Their analyses has contributed to one submitted NSF proposal and two more in the works.  Their work will also go into a report for the Mozambican government and local communities, as well as multiple anticipated articles (and depending on how much work they’ve put in may include their names as co-authors).  I’m really proud of all of them.  ~ JS
* Gold Leader to Gold Five, Star Wars: A New Hope (Ep. IV)
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Initial Fall 2014 Updates

Well it was a thankfully brief and interesting summer.  While most of my colleagues wish that their summers were longer (and don’t get me wrong, most years I do), I was so happy for the Summer of 2014 to end.  It came after an equally interminable year of riding a mental, emotional, and physical roller coaster.  I hit 5 life milestones in one year – something I would never recommend – getting married, buying my first home, buying my first car (without my dad checking it out first to make sure it is safe enough), and the deaths of both my parents (they died exactly 6 months to the day apart).  The first three are exciting and certainly the first is a very happy occasion, but all this was marred by the loss of two people I have loved, and who have loved and believed in me through thick and thin, my entire life.  But I study resilience.  I know what it takes to walk on.  And despite the cliche, as my mom would say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  So I’ve climbed back up on my horse and I’m charging back in to the battle.

Belief, Optimism, Connection, Humor (Leadership Elements blog)

Belief, Optimism, Connection, Humor (Leadership Elements blog, 9/16/13)

As I take a look around, I see that my students are doing and have done well.  Phew!  That is a huge relief.  Katie Chen is working full time and being paid at University Research Co., LLC where she took a chance on an unpaid summer internship last spring.  Raquel Fleskes is thriving as a brand new doctoral student of molecular anthropology at Penn.  Maria Sharova is back after a successful summer being paid to analyze environmental protest text at SESYNC.  Jordan Tompkins survived not only her crazy supervisor (me), but also killer elephants, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and hoopty transportation in Mozambique’s bush.  Rebecca Alberda learned a lot about a new (to her) type of disaster – terrorism – and working for the US government as an anthropologist in her masters internship at START.  Her blog post about the experience highlights the many connections in natural and man-made disaster risk, as well as the large group of individuals working to improve communication during catastrophes to protect more lives.  Alyssa Nutter received rave reviews for her work with the Peace Program field school in the Gambia, and her supervisor assures me that she remained safe from potential Ebola infection.  I have not heard from Amanda Hathaway though.  I hope that she is working at a job she really enjoys and enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of Colorado.  All in all a good group of women going places.  Seeing their success boosts my optimism that things are looking up!

In the meantime, I have seven new students, and one doctoral student, working in the Shaffer lab.  Each of them brings a new perspective and fresh ideas.  This term the undergraduates will be learning how to do text analysis.  Jordan is taking the lead on their training (learning and practicing her people management skills), and I am learning how to step back and delegate.

Field Updates (long post)

I’m finally in the field. It was a struggle this year between dealing with personal life issues – some major milestones – and all of the last minute baloney that comes with teaching large courses – final projects, final exams and whinging about grades that would have been better had students put in the time earlier in the term.

This past week I (and my trusty field assistant Jordan) ran a workshop on quantitative and qualitative methods at Universidade Eduardo Mondlane.  Five intense days of lectures and activities that were scheduled to run from 9am to 1pm every day but usually lasted until 2-2:30 as people had questions about coding or interpreting data.  Jordan gave 2 brief lectures in all of it on coding interviews and quant methods (freelists and triadic comparisons).  She did a smashing job and gave me a short break to rest an increasingly sore throat.  Our topics ranged from writing good interview questions to turning interview texts into numbers to visual research methods, social network analysis, and participatory methods.

The Dept. of Biology hosted our workshop and its 15 attendees were faculty, research staff, and graduate students from biology, botany, geography, sociology, economics, environmental education, and agricultural engineering.  One of my best moments came at the end of the workshop when one of the botanists, a professor and research, stated that “Social scientists really have to know a lot.  You use so many different methods and analyze your data in many ways and you then have to interpret what people say.  Plants are so much easier.  Your sort of research is really complicated.  Plants are so much easier.”  She took a lot of notes, and given that her research involves plant distribution, use, and conservation, I think she was very interested in trying out some of the methods we discussed.  I shared her statement with Jordan, who laughed and agreed.  It isn’t just anthropology graduate students who find our tools complicated.  🙂

When not working, we’ve been enjoying the World Cup – people here get together to watch everywhere.  Oh, and what is up with Spain?  Boo!  There’ve also been new experiences like going to Xipamanine Market, where you can buy anything from used clothes, to food, to AK-47s, stolen tech, flip flops, capulanas, etc.  listening to new music, making new friends, and trying new foods.  Okay, Jordan’s done most of the new stuff since I lived here for a year and a half and have been coming to Mozambique since 2004.  But for me, it’s fun to see someone encounter Mozambique for the first time.

Initial field experiences from our lab members have been trickling in.  I also prodded Jordan to write a little about her initial thoughts on Mozambique.

From Rebecca at START (19 June):

I am finishing up the third week of my internship and I thought I would send you a quick update on how things are going.

I have thus far been working on several different projects and attending enrichment sessions/trainings that are offered through START. The nice thing about START is that they realize that their internships are unpaid, therefore they offer as many opportunities to their interns as possible to gain stills that are relevant to future employment, so that they can become employable and get a paying position once the internship is over.

Things I have been working on:

  • Literature Review: Learning APA (and becoming a master!)
  • Meetings: Brainstorming, updates, informational – you name it.
  • Interview Transcription: This is a skill that I am learning. It’s not easy and pretty much makes me feel like my brain is leaking out my ears, but this is the tedious end of qualitative methods, is it not?  [Yes, this is tedious but it could always be worse.  I prefer transcription to measuring spines on bryozoans under a microscope and then entering the data into a computer.  Yep, did that for a whole year once.  But that’s what scientists do when they start out – the grunt work.  I’m sure you’re doing a great job though.  You are really detail-oriented and that is exactly what is needed in transcription work.]
  • Proposal Work at START

 Additionally I have begun to reach out to Anthropologists in the government, to set up informational interviews. I haven’t worked on this portion too much yet but plan to in the coming week.

From Maria at SESYNC (4 June):

I started work with Dr. Hadden this week–she’s very nice! Right now I’m doing a lot of background reading–social movements, methods of social movement research and environmental policy. She hopes to interview 10-15 environmental groups this summer and I am to help her prepare for the interviews (writing up profiles for the organizations/people). After they are done, I will be transcribing them. I’m also to do “Protest Analyses”. We haven’t exactly talked details, but I will be using Atlas.ti to code news stories about environmental protest from the past five years and looking to see how media portrayal of protests has changed. Its an interesting complement to my work this past semester with comparing pictures!

SESYNC itself is really great. Their office is in Annapolis, and its super nice (they’re doing some construction/expansion right now, but its very cool). The other interns also seem great–a lot of variety. Materials engineer, marketing, environmental science and policy students…I’m excited to get to know them! We meet either on campus or in Annapolis once a week, which will be a nice break for my independent work.

I’m working on my own for the most part, and Dr. Hadden doesn’t care if I’m physically working in the office or not. Except for the Atlas.ti stuff, because that’s only on the office computer but I haven’t started that yet. None of my roommates are living in our apartment this summer, so I’ve been mostly in solitary confinement. Definitely a weird change, but I’m not that sad about it!

From Jordan in Maputo, Mozambique (18 June):

The first 4 days in Mozambique have been exciting and exhausting. There’s so much I could write about, but I thought I’d make this entry about funny things I’ve learned in Mozambique, so far.

Disclaimer: This is coming from a foreigner who has been in Mozambique for a total of four days.

The first rule I learned in Maputo is to always carry my own packet of toilet paper. It’s not uncommon to come across a bathroom without toilet paper. And don’t flush said toilet paper. If you do, you might clog up the system (this is common in many countries). No one wants to be that person. Also, check to see if you can find a stall with a trashcan inside it. The reasoning here should be evident.

The second rule I learned is that you should speak Portuguese or travel with someone who speaks Portuguese (the official language) when travelling in Mozambique. There aren’t many Mozambiquans who are fluent in English, although many can hold a short conversation. But when you need someone to tell you where you can buy a bottle of wine, or you’re trying to understand how much said wine costs, finding a Mozambiquan who can tell you (in English) is a gamble. So learn some Portuguese before you travel, or carry a Portuguese dictionary if you don’t want to be attached at the hip to your Portuguese-speaking travel companion (shout out to my travel companion!). Here are the words I’ve learned so far, spelled according to what I’ll call Jordan-phonetics.

  • Bom dia: good morning
  • Bom tarde: good not-morning (I think it means good afternoon) [that would be boa tarde]
  • Ob-ri-gado: Thank you (I use this one a lot, especially since it’s the only word I remember consistently)
  • Tudu beng: How are you? [tudo bem]

o   Ee tu: and you? (you ask this when someone manages to ask how you are before you ask how they are) [e tu?]

  • Esto beng: I’m well (there are many ways for people to respond to “tudu beng”. My rule of thumb is to smile like I know what they’re saying, hope they added “ee tu” somewhere in there, and respond with “esto beng”) [Estuo bem]
  • Na-o falu Por-tu-gesh: I don’t speak Portuguese [Não falou português.]

Here are the phrases I want to learn next:

  • I’m sorry (I need this one several times a day) [desculpa me]
  • How much does this cost? (not everyone has a cash register, yo) [Por favor, cuanto custa?]
  • Do you speak English? (I usually ask this in English, but in an effort to be less obviously foreign, I shall learn the translation) [Fala ingles?]
  • Where’s the bathroom? (I probably should’ve learned this one first) [Onde esta es la banho? o toilet?]

[Jordan has the phonetic spelling here. Pretty awesome for someone who doesn’t speak the language and was thrown to the lions 4 days ago.  She has been really taking it all in stride and is not afraid to just dive right in.]

Finally, I’m beginning to learn the road rules here. Roads are always interesting in other countries, and Mozambique will not let you down. There are very few roads with lines or stoplights here. The strategy works well for Mozambicans; everyone knows which side of the road to drive on, when to swerve out of someone’s way, and how to just generally keep from causing a traffic accident. But as a foreigner who is used to stop lights, pedestrian crosswalks, and cars that stop just to let you cross the road, it’s a bit terrifying. But then again, it’s an adrenaline rush…kinda like cliff diving, but with cars. From what I can tell, the rules of the road are as follows:

  1. Drive on the left side, not the right.
  2. When there is no one on the right, you can drive there too.
  3. Passing is fair game almost any time.
  4. If you’re driving down a narrow road, be ready to swerve as far to the left as possible when another car (coming in the opposite direction) gets within 10 feet of you.
  5. When you see pedestrians in the middle of the road, slow down enough so as not to hit them, but drive fast enough to hurry them along. (Side note—if you see someone running across the road, they’re probably a foreigner. Mozambicans generally walk).
  6. If you ride a motorbike, you do what you want.

I hope you enjoyed today’s “Taste o’ Mozambique”. We’ll be back soon with another entry.

From Alyssa in The Gambia (17 June):

I figured you would be interested in having a link to my summer blog. I started this site when I went to Gambia last time and will continue to use it over the next few months.

http://seahawkinthegambia.tumblr.com/

I am on it, slowly slowly…

These past two weeks I’ve been wearing my “program assistant hat” much more than my “research assistant hat.” My primary responsibility has been to train nineteen University of The Gambia students in SPSS (for those who don’t know – a statistical program utilized to store and analyze data in the social sciences). The students have been doing very well, reaffirming my conceptions of UTG students as passionate and engaged learners.

The purpose of training the students is to utilize their skills in a nearly decade-long project surveying Gambian high school students on their health, social lives, and risky behaviors. Each survey takes approximately three hours to administer and contains over 550 variables in the SPSS database. This summer, 300 surveys are being collected and in an effort to enter all of the data before leaving The Gambia, I have been working with three shifts of UTG students over eleven hour workdays.

Needless to say, these days have been exhausting, but it is exciting to observe the students’ progress and help them to successfully enter enough data each day to keep up with the flow of incoming completed surveys.

For Americans, living in Gambia is constantly one massive exercise in patience. Changing the abbreviation GMT to “Gambia Maybe Time” may be funny, but it is also a reality. Things just tend to move at a slower pace here, often frustrating Westerners. But it’s important to recognize that in keeping with the worldview of many if not most Gambians, God is in control. If a scheduled meeting doesn’t happen today or a professor doesn’t show up for class or you’re running two hours late…it just means that all of those things were meant to happen. It isn’t a human’s place to argue with the way things are, so they accept the amount of work that is successfully done each day and only make long term plans with the caveat – inshallah, or God willing – added to the end.

I think that living here in 2011 made me a bit more understanding on days when things didn’t go my way back home, but it’s nice to have this refresher course and remind myself that I can always be a little more patient, and it’s not always my place to question why things aren’t happening at the pace I would like them to. This data entry process has been tedious at best, but it is absolutely worthwhile and it is meaningful work that the UTG students and I are doing.

In both of the predominant local languages, Wolof and Mandinka, a common greeting is to ask someone how the work is – “Naka ligeey bi?” – in Wolof. The response is a phrase that I tried to make my personal motto throughout my first year of graduate school – “Mangi ci kowam, ndanka ndanka” – I am on it, slowly slowly. This phrase is a great reminder to take a breath, slow down, and realize that the things I’m stressing about probably aren’t as serious as I am building them up to be in my head.

As long as I am on it ndanka ndanka, I will continue to make progress…and probably maintain a bit more of my sanity along the way.

Students in the field

Our lab’s masters students have begun their summer research projects.

Rebecca is close to home at START.  She is based out of College Park, but will be working in Washington, DC.  Rebecca sent me an updated proposal last week with an extensive section on risk, vulnerability and risk communication.  The work she does now on the lit review will come in handy for discussion at her internship but also during her internship write-up.

Alyssa has left the continent.  She is posting to a blog, Seahawk in the Gambia, while in the field.  I hope she enjoys herself.  Alyssa’s proposal was ambitious – always good – but Africa is Africa.  Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t.  I look forward though to reading about a place I have not been to but have heard much about.

Jordan is still with me in College Park.  With my dad’s illness and death, our departure date was set back two weeks.  In the end it has all worked out because it gives us a little more time to prep.  We’re both going to try and post from the field to this blog over the June/July field season.

And Now For Some Happy News

We deal with lots of bad news in our field of research.  Natural disasters, ongoing drought, household economic loss, environmental destruction, political change, epidemics, etc.  Bah!  Sometimes I wonder why more folks in our field aren’t taking depression medication – or maybe they are and I just don’t know it.  So when we get happy news we should definitely bask in it’s sweet aura while we can.

Lately, we’ve had a run of good news in our lab – internships, graduations, honors, and awards.  So here’s a virtual HIP HIP HOORAY!! shout out to our lab.

Alyssa Nutter will be traveling to The Gambia this summer for her master’s internship with the PEACE Program out of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  She will be serving as both a program and research assistant, aiding American and Gambian student participants, teaching stats, and working to develop a comprehensive assessment model for the study-abroad program based on ethnographic methodology.   Dr. Bill Roberts, an applied anthropologist, program director and founder of the field school, will be her supervisor this summer.

Rebecca Alberda landed a masters internship with START, a national consortium for the Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.  Her fieldwork will take her to Washington, DC – our nation’s capital and a place that experiences frequent disasters in the movies (and some would say in government).  While Rebecca can’t tell us a whole lot about her work this summer, it will involve improving risk communication to vulnerable populations for new technologies related to…  Hold on, someone is at the door.     Just kidding.  Effective risk communication surrounding new technology is extremely important – particularly in the area of natural disasters, epidemics, and other environmental change.

Jordan Tompkins‘ masters internship will take her to southern Mozambique where she will assist her supervisor, Dr. L. Jen Shaffer, with data collection on the Signals in the Noise research project.  conduct a small research project of her own mapping local mental models of the connections between ecological change and malaria.  In addition to her work as a research assistant, Jordan will be helping teach interdisciplinary research methods at a training workshop for Universidade Eduardo Mondlane students and faculty.

Katie Chen will graduate with honors this May from the anthropology department.   Her paid internship with the University Research Company, LLC. in the Human Resources/Business Development Department will continue through until early September.  Kate says that she really enjoys her work and hopes it develops into something full time, but if not she plans to look for another internship or job related to Human Resources.  She’s also interested in exploring issues of environmental health related to climate change at some point.  On a more personal note, she’s looking forward to her sister visiting from California this summer and knitting the Fourth Doctor’s scarf from Doctor Who in preparation for next winter.

After graduating with honors this May from the anthropology department, Raquel Fleskes will be heading to George Washington University in the fall to begin a masters in Anthropology.  She’s considering participating in their museum training certificate program.  Raquel also landed a paid internship with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for the summer.  She will be lab looking at animal bone samples from the Chesapeake Bay region in Dr. Doug Owsley’s lab.

Amanda Hathaway will also graduate this May.  She’s been working hard in the lab all term to complete our skull catalog.  We are down to 16 skulls that are either unidentified, unnumbered, or both.  I, and the ANTH 222 students, owe her MAJOR thanks for that tedious and long-suffering task!  After graduation, Amanda plans to head out to Colorado for work.

This summer Maria Sharova will be participating in SESYNC‘s Summer Internship Program.  She will be a paid intern working with Dr. Jennifer Hadden on an environmental policy project in UMD’s Department of Government & Politics.  Maria will return to the lab next fall to continue her visual research with historic African images as an honor’s thesis project.

Next Wednesday, 16 April, Jen Shaffer will receive the 2014 BSOS Teaching and Mentoring Award during the annual College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Faculty and Staff Recognition Reception.  I’d just like to say thank you to all my students, colleagues, teachers, mentors, and mentees over the years that have inspired me to do my best.  I also want to say thanks to my mom and dad, both teachers, for teaching me how to teach and inspiring me as well.