Monday, March 4, 2013

Thoughts on Horizontal Mentorship

It is my nature to think about process. I've always been interested in learning how things happened, not necessarily why they happened.  I have not been one to ask "why me?" in the states of crisis.  And I don't usually attribute the success of myself or others to personal and moral triumphs.  I'm typically more invested in figuring out the roadmaps to success.  I suppose this is why I'm a sociologist.

So you're all asking yourself why is she talking about process under the post title: "Thoughts on Horizontal Mentorship."  Let me explain.

As a graduate student you are expected to develop, design, and implement research projects on your own with only (sporadic) guidance from faculty mentors.  But what I've come to learn is that discussing research and the research process with fellow graduate students at various stages in the research process is incredibly gratifying and inspiring for me as a scholar, and more importantly as a friend.  I've discovered that talking about unfinished thoughts, crying together, and observing others in the process of research unmasks much of its uncertainty for me.

This past week I went up to DC to attend my very first Signmark concert as both a fan and researcher.  I experienced quite a bit of role conflict during the concert as I tried to work out how to embody both roles.  Not long after I arrived to the venue full of nerves, anxiety, and a head cold, I heard someone call out my name.  I turned around and saw the face of a woman I had met at the Deaf World/Hearing World conference in Berlin this past December.  Small world!  She was there also for multiple purposes: a researcher, a fan, and the mother of a 7 year old fan.  I immediately felt pressure to be a mindful researcher in her presence.  She mentioned wanting to interview Signmark, and while my first thought was "yeah me too!" it wasn't long before I started to feel unprepared linguistically an scholastically do conduct such an interview.  Thankfully (or not), neither of us had press passes so we couldn't speak with him.

The show started with one of my favorites, Speakerbox, and I was so lost in trying to get my flip cam to work, observe the audience, and enjoy the music that I missed almost the entire song.  Throughout the 50 minute show I slipped between researcher and fan roles: sometimes turning around to watch the audience, other times waving my hands in the air with the beat.  The show ended with another favorite, Smells Like Victory, and after working my way to the front of the crowd for a picture with Signmark, I said my goodbyes and headed back to Sarah's for the night.  I left feeling like I had failed in both my roles.  I was too focused on work to enjoy the show as a fan, and I was too anxious to abandon my role of a fan to be fully observant of the sociological event I was partaking in.

Upon returning home I wrote several pages of fieldnotes and tried to process my feelings of failure.  It was in that moment that I realized exactly what I needed: I needed some horizontal mentorship.  So I called my good friend Erin, a 6th year graduate student in my program who is finishing up her dissertation on fatherhood and work/family balance.  Erin did just what I needed her to do in that moment.  She first let me cry and release all of fears, anxieties, and nerves about an early experience in the field.  Then, she reminded me that ethnographers spend months in the field often before ever doing a "formal" interview.  I had put pressure on myself to conduct formal, eloquent interviews with audience members, and even Signmark, at my first show.  What I failed to notice as success was that I had begun the task of immersing myself into my field site, building rapport with audience members, and observing what was happening around me.  She also reminded me that when I do talk to people I don't have to be Carly, but instead I can be Carly the sociologist.  This freed me from all the anxiety and fears of rejection.  I felt guilty for having not embraced the role of new ethnographer in the field, but was encouraged to keep moving forward with the research process with the cliche "it gets better" in my head.

In talking to Erin she reminded me of several pieces of advice I've been told from the beginning of this process: 1) everything is data, and 2) as a researcher you can sit anywhere on the bus.

I am greatly indebted to my all my horizontal mentors for helping me discover what exactly this research process is, and for continually reminding me of these two invaluable pieces of ethnographic advice.  Onward!


See full video from the concert here.

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