Fieldwork can be lonely. I knew coming into this year of fieldwork that I wold struggle with the position. A position where I interact with people everyday, but yet somehow those interactions become tainted by the reality of research that hits when I sit down at my computer to write fieldnotes. This reality is painful for me. I'm still working through ways to negotiate the role of researcher so that I can savor the authentic relationships I am forming with those who have become friends here at Gallaudet. (I will ignore my sociological urge to debate the concept of authenticity here.)
I've always known that I do not have a large arsenal of personas, or selves, in the way that Goffman teaches. I have pretty much only 1 frontstage Carly. She is loud, thoughtful, curious, sometimes inappropriate, funny, etc... But that's it. That's my one presentation of self. Perhaps I don't play the role of researcher very well because "researcher Carly" is a lot like "go out on Friday night Carly," who is a lot like "attend a business meeting Carly." But perhaps, on the flip side, this lack of divergent selves actually makes me a better researcher? Because in having a more uniform presentation of self I do not get caught up in monitoring my own performance, and can instead focus on the performatitivy of others.
Either way, I've been struggling with the pressure to disconnect from research, from my participants who have become friends, and from a campus community that has started to feel like home. How does an ethnographer manage the seemingly opposing roles of "participant" and "observer?" To begin to answer this question I needed to unplug.
So, along with my college roommate and DC bud, Stephanie, I signed up for a one-time art class/wine event out at a small gallery in Rockville, Maryland. For some unexplainable reason I was nervous on the ride out there. I knew that my artistic abilities were limited to my photography skills. I knew that I shouldn't expect much in terms of my brain-to-hand-to-canvas abilities. But this didn't stop my fears. What was I afraid of? Perhaps I was afraid of failing? Or of doing something "wrong?" Or of not being a good enough artist for this class?
True to form and my expectations, my painting was awful. But I am proud of this painting because in those 2 hours I learned that there is no way to fail at art. There is no right and wrong. And that there are no prerequisite artistic abilities to enjoy a basic painting class.
After some lengthy Buddhist support from Rene, our teacher, I left the gallery with my painting in tow and a realization that my fears, loneliness, and saddness about my research are connected to the fears in my head that I might fail as an ethnographer. I might make connections with participants that are "wrong." And, that I might not be a good enough sociologist to do this research.
My painting will not be sold in the gallery it was created in. And my dissertation will not win me a Nobel Prize. But more art classes will help me improve my skill. And revisions of my dissertation will improve the research.
In this class I learned to be patient with myself as a painter. I am hopeful that I can transfer that patience to my research and begin to accept my research persona as one who is connected with her participants and her research beyond the scope of strictly "data collection." I hope that I can begin to accept that my fears of failing, and of doing something wrong, and my struggles with impostor syndrome as roadblocks to something that, with practice and revision, could be really good. I'm going to sign up for another art class. And I'm going to go back into the field tomorrow unapologetic for the researcher/friend/colleague/and person I am.
In case you need a laugh, here's my painting:
(The penguin was added to prove to myself that I could actually paint something that resembled a real life object, even if fruit in a bowl wasn't something I could manage.)