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Perspectives on remote fieldwork & finishing a project

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This guest post is by two of our current Archie Green Fellows, Joe O’Connell and Josephine McRobbie. They received a 2019 fellowship from the American Folklife Center to conduct an Occupational Folklife Project focused on midwives and doulas in North Carolina. You can read more about their award in a post from last year. We recently invited them to discuss the approach they developed for completing their fieldwork project after in-person interviews  became untenable back in March 2020.

Since July of 2019, we have documented the intersecting occupations of midwives, birth assistants, and doulas around the state of North Carolina as Archie Green Fellows. You can hear our interviews to date at this temporary access website. In-person meetings with interviewees/narrators have been invaluable for helping us get acquainted with participants and further contextualizing the work they do. In our interviewees’ spaces, we found plenty to take in: wooden cervical dilation charts, fetal dopplers, massage tables, birth balls, children’s toys, scrubs, personalized nurse ID lanyards, belly molds, graduation photos with nursing classmates, and many evocative birth-related slogans on t-shirts, necklaces, bumper stickers, and office artwork. These were social spaces, too; we got to meet partners, kids, colleagues, and pets, and learn a bit about who these practitioners are outside of their jobs. All of this sparked discussion during our interviews about the details of the occupational experience: the uses of material culture objects; the influence of family and community; and, the more personal aspects of how individuals found their way to their work.

A collage of photos of birth workers based in North Carolina. Tina sits in front of a bookshelf in her office displaying stethoscopes and a salt lamp. Latoya’s photo is taken from across the table in our interview setting, with our two microphones visible on the table. Nancy stands in front of a display of instructional items including an anatomical model of a female pelvis and a soft plastic model of an infant.
L-R: Raleigh-based CNM Tina Braimah, Burlington-based birth worker Latoya Castro, and Asheville-based CPM and birth center administrator Nancy Koerber, in photos taken during the 2019-2020 project. Photos courtesy of authors.

When COVID-19 began to impact the U.S. earlier this spring, we checked in with potential interviewees about what was going on in their worlds. We learned that they were grappling with urgent and emergent issues, such as advocating for the number of support people allowed in maternity units, absorbing an increase in demand for home birth practitioners, and working to mitigate maternal health disparities during the pandemic. In many ways, it seemed like a more important time than ever to document what people in these professions were up to. But it was also more hazardous. Our concerns went beyond just the risk of COVID-19 exposure or transmission. Given the immediate stress on healthcare workers, we wondered about the appropriateness of requesting more reflective, oral historical conversations? Are there circumstances in which emphasizing documentary goals in a crisis might even be harmful, as discussed in this recent Smithsonian Magazine article? From a public health point of view, how would we record interviews without putting anyone at risk? If we sanitize mics, for instance, could we safely conduct outdoor interviews? Alternatively, if we “wait out” physical distancing, how long might we have to wait, and at what costs?

In these exploratory conversations, several contacts told us that they were up for participating in physically-distanced interviews. So, we turned our attention to the technical challenges of “remote fieldwork.” Our goal became to devise a remote interviewing process with the following characteristics:

  1. Easy for participants to access in their home environments
  2. Conducive to collecting good quality audio
  3. Not prohibitively expensive for us to purchase and use

We chose to use a web platform designed with podcasters in mind, called Zencastr [NB: The American Folklife Center offers the name of this platform for informational purposes only, and does not endorse it over any other options]. The workflow for connecting with interviewees is similar to popular web videoconferencing apps. The interviewer generates a link and sends it to the interviewee. For the person on the other end, following the link launches a browser window where both parties are automatically connected via VoIP (i.e. internet phone). This browser window functions as both a phone (audio-only) connection and, on our end, a recording interface. The recording process generates two independent local recordings–one via each of the two connected computers. Once complete, the platform uploads these recordings to a cloud storage location designated by the interviewer.

Equally important to the interview call, we think, is the communication that leads up to it. Our approach is “slow.” After we have answered questions about the project and received a commitment from an interviewee, we make sure to take a couple additional steps. First, we communicate what to expect from the online interview experience and what equipment will be needed. Second, we schedule a brief call using the web platform. We originally called this a tech rehearsal, but one of our interviewees had a name for it that we like even better: a soundcheck.

An excerpt from an email that reads “These interviews are about an hour long, and we've been facilitating them using a Zoom-like software called Zencastr which allows me to record our audio call online while we chat. On your end you would need: a laptop or desktop computer, a stable internet connection, either the Firefox or Chrome web browser, headphones that you have used with this computer.”
An excerpt from email correspondence prior to a soundcheck call. Image courtesy of authors.

We try to keep the soundcheck call about 15 minutes long. We work with the participant to adjust input and output settings and get comfortable with the “recording room.” After doing a few of these soundchecks, we have learned where to set our own technical expectations. At times, it has been more effective to have the interviewee use a built-in computer microphone than to configure a more complicated input/output set up with the eclectic selection of gear they have on hand. “Soundchecking” does add an additional time commitment for both parties, but we think it offers a tangible benefit. It has helped us to get to know one another a little more in advance and make sure all logistics are taken care of so we can all relax and focus on the conversation during the interview.

This is a screencapture of the Zencaster remote recording web interface. It shows menu options for adjusting recording settings, creating a new recording, postproduction, cloud storage, and hanging up a call, as well as the buttons that allow a user to download the completed tracks.
A screenshot of a soundcheck call recorded by Joe (our LLC is Local Echoes) with Pittsboro-based Certified Nurse Midwife Nancy Harman. Image courtesy of the authors.

The interview calls themselves have been fairly simple, but obtaining the files afterward can be tricky. The platform we use saves a local recording to each user’s computer. Afterward, these files automatically upload to a designated cloud storage location. Optimally, both users “hang up” the VoIP call but leave open the browser tabs where the file upload is occurring. The speed of this upload will depend on the file size and speed of the connections involved. If no interruptions in internet connection occur, and the upload completes, we can immediately access the interviewee’s file in our cloud storage. However, we have had to fall back on other means of accessing this remote recording. One retrieval method built into the platform allows the interviewee to re-try the upload. Another, with a higher tech-proficiency bar, requires the interviewee to identify the file on her/his machine and send it independently of the platform itself. Depending on how tech-savvy your participant is, this can be an impediment to the process, or even a risk factor in “losing” interview audio.

Certified Nurse Midwife Carrington Pertalion stands in front of a background of trees. Along with a blue t-shirt and eyeglasses, she is wearing a Wonder Woman-themed mask made with a blue and white illustrated fabric pattern.
Boone-based Certified Nurse Midwife Carrington Pertalion sent us this selfie featuring a Wonder Woman-themed facemask. The image will be in the collection when it comes to the AFC. Image courtesy of the photographer/authors.

In addition to the online interview, we gather portrait photos and release forms from a distance. We had, pre-COVID, been taking portrait photos of participants at the time of interview. Now we ask for either a favorite high-resolution photo or for the interviewee to snap a new photo using the best equipment they have at home (often this is either an iPhone or digital camera). We miss taking the photos ourselves, but we’ve received some great selfies that illustrate the personalities of interviewees! For release forms, we’ve simply “snail-mailed” them with a self-addressed and stamped return envelope to the participant after the interview, or digitally sent them to participants who have a printer/scanner in their home or office.

None of our methods are without flaws, but the good news is that, in general, this process has worked for our particular project. It helps if both sides of the interview are able to put in a little bit more time to work around the snags, and we are grateful to anyone who is willing to do this. It also helps if participants, or others in their household, have reliable technical resources (which birth workers assuredly do, in our experience!): a stable internet connection, some office and digital communications equipment, and foreknowledge of how to navigate their computer and software settings. We’re missing out on the “field” part of the fieldwork, but, with some additional effort on both sides of the connection, we’re still creating a robust and even intimate documentary record. We look forward to continuing this work, and are wishing interview facilitators and narrators/interviewees successful transitions in their own fieldwork.

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