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Remote fieldwork: Q&A with Thomas Grant Richardson

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This post is the third in series about remote fieldwork in our current environment, and part of the American Folklife Center’s efforts to facilitate conversations about cultural documentation practices (Read the first post here and the second one here). Unlike the previous two posts, this one is a conversation with a guest. Thomas Grant Richardson is an independent folklorist (PhD Indiana University 2019) currently based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Over the past two months, he and I have had several conversations about remote fieldwork, and I was able to sit in on two webinars that he has run about doing remote fieldwork. The structure of the post is a Q&A that took place through a phone call (recorded with remote tech setup pictured in previous post) and an email exchange. Thomas and I have edited it collaboratively for coherence and flow.

John Fenn: So I would love for you to describe your immediate path to remote fieldwork. How did you get into it? What pushed you to start thinking about conducting fieldwork remotely?

Thomas Grant Richardson: The immediate path was that when the pandemic hit in earnest and we finally came to terms with what was happening in March of 2020, I was under four different contracts to do fieldwork with different state agencies. I’d say that the actual start for me was an early March cancellation of a trip to do some oral histories in rural, Southern Utah. So, it’s been a “figure it out” moment ever since then.

JF: And had you already established relationships with the people you were going to do these oral histories with?

A male stands behind a camera on a tripod in a field of snow, with trees in the background.
There’s a difference between doing fieldwork remotely and doing fieldwork in remote locations. Thomas in Jokkmokk, Sweden, approximately 10 kilometers north of the arctic circle. 2017. Photo courtesy of Carrie Hertz.

TGR: Yes, to a degree. I’ve found it’s hard to do discovery fieldwork in remote situations, in absentia. I’d been to rural southern Utah, Green River (population 900), and I had met the people I wanted to talk to. But I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a well-known player. They recognized who I was and might say, “Oh yeah, I kind of remember you from when we talked a few months ago.” But our relationship wasn’t fully established. Also, I had met some of the people in Missouri who I was following up on for another contract. I had never met anyone in Wisconsin connected to the project I was doing there. Here in New Mexico, I have good relationships with the people I’m working with. And so that has actually been the easiest in terms of already having relationships.

JF: I’d like to go back to the term “discovery field work,” which you’ve indicated is a little bit harder in a remote scenario. Is that a term that you would have used before the current situation we’re in? And, what do you mean by it?

TGR: I think I would have used it, but maybe not as self-consciously. In any fieldwork, whether a project with a narrow focus or a more open-ended survey, there’s a certain phase where you’re just trying to understand the players, the lay of the land, the scope of what’s going on in the local cultural context. With survey fieldwork you’re usually assigned a region. The most recent survey fieldwork I did in person was last fall around Lincoln, Nebraska. I was given a geographic region to document, and the contracting agency said, “Okay, find whatever cultural traditions you can in this area.” So you just drive around and look around and you knock on doors and walk into businesses and say, “Hey, what’s going on?” And so there’s a certain early stage where you’re kind of just wandering, just trying to figure out who you want to do deep interviews with.

I definitely see “discovery” as a phase of fieldwork. And I don’t know if it’s been more difficult remotely, but the results are different.  Working from afar, I don’t have a good internal gauge telling me whether or not what I’ve found is really something worth pursuing. When you’re in the field physically and you meet someone or you wandered upon a cultural phenomenon, there is almost an internal VU meter that spikes and says, “This is it. This is what I was asked to document.” And I think that it’s harder to figure this out remotely if you’re looking at a Facebook group or blog post—is this a cultural thing you want to explore?

JF: This tension between perspective and distance bridges into the next question I wanted to ask: what have you learned by doing remote fieldwork? You can think about skills or different ways to understand concepts that are already embedded in fieldwork practice, but what’s an example of something you’ve learned over the past several weeks?

TGR: I don’t know if I’ve “learned” this, but it certainly has reinforced that by and large most people want to tell their stories, and want more people to know about their cultural practices, which means that fieldwork is a valuable tool for human connection.  Even during the pandemic I found everyone incredibly flexible as to how we do this thing, and I think there’s a lesson for the future and a reminder that our subjects, our interviewees, or as Henry Glassie would say, our “friends,” are very much collaborators in this process and willing to work with us as documentarians to get those voices heard.  That happens with in-person fieldwork too, of course, but maybe it’s not as obvious.

JF: What about a skill or something discrete that you’ve learned or gotten better at by doing remote fieldwork?

TGR: Yes. I have learned to focus my questions. With in-person scenarios, I tend to structure interviews more like conversations, so I don’t want to be too rigid in terms of having very specific questions lined up. I have a sense of what I want to learn through the interview, and the questions come organically during our time together. I have found that with remote fieldwork, because of all the myriad social cues and kind of vibes that might be compromised, it is helpful to have a plan to fall back on, to have a list of questions or topics. I should note that this always made me uncomfortable during in-person interviews, if they could see a notepad with questions, because then it struck me as just something we need to get through. And I didn’t want to come at it like that. I’ve always taken interviewing to be an inviting process: I want to understand something, I want to know something about you and your life and your practices rather than let’s just get through these questions. But now, because of the kind of herky-jerky interviews that can happen over Zoom or the phone, I’ve learned to become much more focused in my questioning. Having a list in front of me helps. In conversational, face-to-face interviews, I unfortunately tend to over-elaborate my questions. And I find that in remote fieldwork that isn’t helpful, as the in-person cues and sense of shared time is missing.

JF: Because it’s a different space conceptually and socially, totally different than what maybe we are used to working in…

TGR: Right. Even though people are often happy to talk and happy to be interviewed about their traditional art or cultural practice, that conversational space is very different if you don’t have a deep relationship established. It’s an important point to keep in mind around remote fieldwork.

JF: I’d like to talk about training a little bit. You’ve been involved in a couple of webinars now in collaboration with the American Folkore Society (AFS). I’m wondering what might the field think about in terms of helping mid-career or established folklorists get into remote field work? What type of training opportunities are out there or should be out there?

TGR: I think that everyone who does any kind of fieldwork should learn all these digital [communication] technologies, just like how they learn how to use a recorder or a camera. As you and I have discussed previously, the technologies, the gear is actually the easiest part. And there’s no excuse not to know it. I’m not advocating that everyone knows everything, but I am saying that these tools are fundamental capturing devices of our practice.

It shouldn’t be that fieldworkers are blindsided by this moment. And I’ve been both disheartened and encouraged by the last three months. I’ve been disheartened by the number of people who have never considered the potential need to use “remote technologies.” I’ve been encouraged by those same people stepping up and figuring it out. You and I have been on a very fruitful email exchange with a particular person who was a participant in one of the webinars. She’s been awesome, a model for an approach that can be summed up as: “Okay, I’ve got to just sit down and figure it out.”

A laptop computer connected to a Zoom digital audio recorder, headphones, and a microphone.
Thomas’ system for recording a VOIP call via a Zoom audio recorder (recording Zoom with a Zoom) as an audio interface. Photo by Thomas Grant Richardson, 2020.

JF: Yes. Recognizing what the constraints are on her particular situation—and then working within those.

TGR: She did it. She Googled the right things and said, “Okay, this adapter goes here”….And she never lost sight of the fundamental concepts and questions, which are: Does this work for my people, for my community, for the people that do the fieldwork and participate in it? Does this tech solution make sense? How does it work? Is it cost effective? All these things. She just sat down and figured it out. And I am happy that more people are willing to take this approach. What I will say is that in terms of training, everyone needs to know comfort around technology, and this is not just a pandemic thing. I started sorting my tech solutions to remote fieldwork by going back to something Jon Kay taught me years ago about taking a VoIP feed out of my computer in order to capture remote phone interviews in a way that sounded better than just two phone voices.

The other big thing is how you do remote fieldwork should be informed by what your goal is. I mean if you’re a public sector state arts agency folklorist and trying to launch a podcast or create a digital exhibition, you have a lot more technical considerations than a student trying to write a dissertation.  When I was working on my dissertation I did a good number of interviews over the phone just using a smartphone app that recorded the call. The recordings didn’t sound very good but I still captured the information.  Again, it was also easier because I already had relationships with those people.

So this idea of remote fieldwork is not brand new, necessarily, and it’s not just a pandemic response. Or, maybe even though largely it is, it shouldn’t have been. People in the field were thinking about the role of remote work already. For more practical reasons, you know, like the person they need to talk to is a thousand miles away and maybe they just need to do a follow-up interview.

JF: Right, and the perspectives and questions we’ve both been hearing lately point to a need for training around comfort with technology, getting people who already know how to do fieldwork comfortable with newer technologies that they might encounter in everyday life, but haven’t used in fieldwork to any great extent. But I’m also interested in hearing specifically about what you see as opportunities for graduate training— for students who are emerging folklorists or ethnomusicologists or cultural documentarians. What kind of training could be offered that would specifically attend to some of the issues in remote fieldwork? Is it gear based training?

TGR: First and foremost, the fundamental tenets aren’t different. And whether or not you had graduate training in fieldwork everyone could benefit from AFC’s cultural documentation guide.  I’ve been doing this for years and this is still an essential part of my fieldwork bag.

Male sitting on couch playing an acoustic guitar.
Thomas’s father, Myron Grant Richardson, with his 1968 Martin D-18. Photo courtesy of Malon Richardson, Thomas’s mother, taken using her iPad (2020).

But I think remote fieldwork offers some unique chances to train and practice and fail better. What’s that Samuel Beckett quote, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better”? Something like that. I’ve advocated this before and I continue to do so here because I think it is an all-around win: every single person who is interested in this should do some remote fieldwork with their family. I think that they should test out the techniques with family—however “family” is defined by the fieldworker. People have a range of relationships with their family, so what I mean is people who they’re close with and who will forgive them. And, for whom, on a very micro level, the resulting documentation might prove to be important in the future.

So, I’ve been doing that with my parents, who are both in their seventies. They’ve been quarantined in Salt Lake City, Utah. I cannot visit them. They cannot visit other people. And they have a twenty-year old PC computer, a fifty-year old Olympus 35 millimeter film camera, and an iPad. That’s their technology in their home. I have been advising my mother on using her iPad to take photos and make recordings. I’ve also prompted her and my father about things that I want to hear about, and they have done some self-documenting. This is an option for remote fieldwork. I said to them, “Do you want to do it yourself?” I’m trying to meet the desires of the interviewee, which is not a concept exclusive to remote fieldwork, but one that is resonating right now in particular ways.

JF: There’s one more question I want to ask you. Right now remote fieldwork is essentially a necessity. To get any kind of fieldwork done, as you’ve experienced as a contractor, you have to engage with people remotely. What do you see as a place or role for remote fieldwork in the future, after we’re out of the COVID-19 pandemic and the stay-at-home situations? What do you see as a role for the skills and approaches in ethnographic documentation more generally?

TGR: I think that going forward remote fieldwork will just be an option to consider­—both for the fieldworker and the participants. I do not think we are headed to a future where people don’t want to sit down at a kitchen table with a stranger, but I think that everyone right now, particularly students who are just getting started, will need to embrace this as a route that will not only be expected, but will be desired by the people they want to interview. I would argue that it was always important, but, you know, this is just a moment to shine the light on how important it is because again, it can be deployed in so many important ways even outside of the pandemic. I’d say that we all need to think about these practices very seriously because moving forward they will become integral, and we need to be as good at doing fieldwork remotely—attending to the social and mechanical particularities — as we are doing it in person.

JF: Great, and thanks for your time and thoughtful reflections, Thomas.

TGR: Thanks John, and thanks to all y’all do at the AFC. We’d be lost without you.





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