Monday, January 31, 2011

Why Field Study?

I'm still kind of amazed that I actually went through with my field study to South Africa. This time last year I was still skeptical about it, trying to figure out something to study, wondering how I'd get the money and approval necessary to go, questioning whether it would actually be the best thing for me to do at this stage in my studies. Then somehow I made it through the prep class, got a passport and a bunch of vaccinations, found a flight, flew to Africa, lived there for three months, and came home. Crazy. Through all of it I had a lot of second thoughts and worries, but in the end they were all unfounded, and I had an amazing experience.

The thing about a BYU Field Study, as opposed to a Study Abroad, is that it's entirely student-driven. On a study abroad you travel with a group of students and at least one professor, and you take classes and tests just like usual, but in a different cultural setting and with a more centric cultural focus. On a field study, you're with a group of students, but what you do is entirely up to you. I was there in an unusually small group, with only four girls, one of whom (Macrae, the facilitator) had been there before and was able to show us how to get around and what to do, or not to do, to make it in East London. We did a lot of things as a group and were constantly learning from each other, but each of us had our own projects and course work, and had to be entirely self-motivated to complete it. This allowed for near complete freedom in what we chose to study and do each day, which is both liberating and frightening. It was exciting to direct my own learning, but there was always the worry that I was focusing on the wrong things, not doing enough, or trying to do too much. It was definitely stressful, but what I really appreciate is that it taught me how to do things for myself. I chose my own topic, created my own project, found my own contacts, and did my own analysis. I had loads of help along the way from professors, facilitators and organizations, but any help that I wanted, I had to seek out on my own. After having to do all of this for my field study, I feel as though I know how to get things done in the real world. I feel comfortable approaching professionals and experts on topics that I'm interested in, and I feel as though I have something valuable to give back to them, whether it's expertise, opinions or just enthusiasm. This field study has been an incredible cultural experience, giving me a new perspective of the world and the ability to live in a different country, but even more importantly it's been an amazing educational opportunity, which has taught me how to direct my own learning, do my own research, and have the confidence to make it work.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

That Good Old Sublime

For those of you who have been following my blog for very long, you know that I have a real fascination with the concept of the sublime (for definitions, click here). Before I left for South Africa, I'd put a lot of effort into understanding this concept and making connections between it and various other aspects of my studies, especially through my exploration of the modern technological sublime. I hung onto this concept as I prepared for my Field Study and then throughout my time in South Africa, and as it turned out a huge proportion of what I learned and saw in the field related back to this idea of the sublime that I love so much. I realized that my project on ecotourism related directly to the sublime, and the more I learned about each of them, the more connections I saw. These posts show my progress in discovering these connections:
The more I looked at it, the more I realized that the whole tourism industry is really dependent on people's desire to have sublime experiences. The brochures I collected for South African game reserves, parks, lodges and adventure companies all advertised the fact that they were giving you something different, as far from home and familiarity as you can get, where you can experience seclusion, adventure, and/or untouched nature. They say they can transport you to a distant past, through forests yet to be explored and cultures unchanged by time. People want their world to be stretched; they want to find some hidden part of themselves through travel to far-off lands (think Eat, Pray, Love); they want to reassure themselves that something exists outside of human creation, which is greater than anything humans can create. Tourism companies and lodges offer all this, without the challenges that come from seeking it out on your own. They bring you to the edge of the cliff, allow you to see the sublime view, and give you a commemorative t-shirt. I may sound cynical, but the truth is that some of my own favorite experiences in South Africa were just like this; in fact, at Cape Point, either a wide, well-paved path or a rail car takes you quite literally to the edge of a cliff overlooking an incredible expanse of ocean. Maybe not a very impressive journey, but I consider this to be one of the most mind-bendingly amazing sights I've ever seen, and in combination with the feel of standing there blown by the fresh wind (according to some, this point has the healthiest air in the world) and encompassed by the perfect silence coming off of the ocean and all the way up from Antarctica, it was really a sublime experience. I think this is what every tourist and traveler is looking for. And that's why ecotourism works: it offers up amazing, authentic natural and cultural experiences, along with the promise that everything's going to stay just as it is.


It's been two whole months now since I came home from South Africa, and looking back it's amazing how much I feel like my time there has affected me, my education, and my plans for the future. I'm still working on the formal analysis of my research, but however that turns out I think what made this Field Study worth the money, time and challenges was the incredible experiences and people I was able to find there. The most amazing thing about South Africa, which I know I've mentioned over and over again, was the people. Not just my host family and close friends, but the strangers who talked to me on the street or in the mall, the amazing people I was able to interview, all the talkative/confused/flirtatious/helpful taxi drivers, and of course the wonderful people of the East London 3rd Ward, where I attended church every week. These people taught me so much; welcomed me into their country, their homes and their lives; and never ceased to amaze me with their strength, knowledge and friendliness. If you want to get some idea of the kinds of people I met and what made them so amazing, these are the posts to read:
The great thing about all these interactions with people (besides the opportunity I had to become part of a new, South African family) is how much it helped me understand the culture of South Africa, and how I could be a part of it. In the prep course for this Field Study I was told that South Africa was a dangerous place not just because of its crime rates, but because of how familiar it feels. Students tend to feel comfortable there, much more at home than in other countries like Ghana or India, and then get themselves into trouble when they forget to be cautious and overlook subtle but deep-rooted cultural differences. This is something that, initially, I struggled with. On the surface East London seemed just like an American city - people dressed the same, most spoke the same language (at least to me), they generally acted the same, and they talked about the same things. I felt comfortable almost all the time, but then occasionally my ease and comfort would be shattered when I suddenly realized that the situation I thought I was in was not at all the reality. This led to some awkward and confused moments where I doubted my ability to get by in this country. Thankfully, though I didn't notice it as it was happening, as time went by I began to understand and, more importantly, accept the things that were different. They weren't things I had to write down and memorize - in fact, I don't know if I could have written them down - rather, my cultural understanding came gradually and naturally, from my constant interactions with the people of South Africa. And this understanding is something that will stick with me far beyond my next exams.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Crossing the Street

I've been back from South Africa for three weeks now, and for the most part have entirely readjusted to good old American life, with the exception of one thing: crossing the street. This is one thing that is so vastly different between American and South African culture that I just can't get used to it. First there's the issue of the cars driving on the wrong side of the road. It took me ages to get used to cars driving on the left in SA - having to look right, left, right before crossing, and getting into the passenger seat of the car on the left side. Since I spent so much time convincing myself that the direction of traffic that seems right is wrong, now I'm just confused nearly every time I get to an intersection. In the end I just look each way several times and expect cars to come at me from every direction at once. It seems like it would be so easy to figure out, but it confuses me endlessly as I walk and bike through town.

Then there's the actual crossing of the road. In East London, you can't just walk up to a crosswalk, watch the cars slow and stop for you, then take your time walking calmly across. It doesn't take long living there to realize that the pedestrian right-of-way does not apply. Cars will not stop for you, under any circumstances. If you're in a parking lot and walk in the way of a car, it will not stop and let you pass. It won't even slow down to give you a chance to get out of the way; instead, it will most likely speed up, honk, and you'd better be out of the way before it hits you. If you're on one side of the street and decide you want to be on the other side, you have to wait until there's a gap in the traffic in the lane nearest to you, rush across, and wait on the line in the middle of the road until there's a gap in the next lane. I spent a lot of time worrying about my toes, standing in such close proximity to so many speeding tires. If you're at an actual crosswalk, and the cross traffic has a red light, you have to make sure you're entirely across before the light turns green, because they will go whether or not you're in the middle of the lane. And you always have to be watching in every direction, to make sure no cars are about to turn into you as you cross. It makes crossing the street a challenge, often a terrifying one, but it certainly keeps things interesting.

In King City, California, cars will always stop. They stop for me before I even reach the crosswalk, and just wait. They don't creep forward or honk, or suddenly hit the gas when I'm right in front of them. They just wait. I honestly don't know what to do with them. Every time I cross the street, after having my mental debate about which direction the cars are going, I keep watching the traffic, waiting for someone to make a move in my direction, ready to jump out of the way at any second. But they never do, and I never have to. You'd think it would be a relief, but instead I just get that eerie feeling when things are just TOO easy or TOO quiet, like all the cars are plotting something. It's really quite unsettling.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


They tell us that Field Studies are difficult, but they don’t prepare us for the things that are the hardest. In the prep course I learned about culture shock, safety concerns, project challenges, susceptibility to disease, traffic accidents. They warn us that we’re set up to fail: that almost none of the projects that students plan and prepare for actually work as anticipated, and that we just have to be flexible and willing to accept changes and failures. We were cautioned not to take on too many class credits for the time we’re there, because it will be far more difficult than we think to get everything done, and we don’t want to spend too much time on class work when we could be out interacting with the culture or spending time with our host families. We’re told to be prepared for challenges in our living situations, to be clear about our roles within the host family, and to communicate with our group members, to avoid disagreements or harboring grudges while living in such close quarters for so long. So I left the United States prepared for all of these possible setbacks and difficulties, but not at all prepared for East London.

Almost none of the issues that we covered in the prep course affected me, at least not to a degree worth mentioning. The second I landed in East London I knew I was going to love it. I’d just suffered through 36 long, sleepless, nervous, uncomfortable hours in airplanes and airports, fretting the whole time about what I was getting myself into, worried about my project and being on the other side of the world. In the airport in Johannesburg I felt exhausted and isolated, distant from anything and anyone I knew and loved and unsure of whether I’d make it through the following months. But a couple hours later, stepping off the plane at the East London airport, staring around me at the incredibly green trees and breathing in the salty coastal air, everything felt right. It was such an intense and unexpected sensation after so many miserable hours travelling, but I knew then and there that this was exactly where I needed to be. I never lost that feeling in my entire time in South Africa. I missed my family and friends, but no more than I ever miss the one when I’m with the other. I faced frustrations with my project, but never anything I couldn’t work around. I had my disagreements with roommates, but never over anything very important, and never anything that lasted. None of the problems I had been warned about and had prepared myself for showed up as problems. Nearly everything was perfect.

In my first week I wrote a post to this blog, in which I described some of the first people I’d met, how they shaped my impressions of East London and South Africa, and how they welcomed me immediately into their lives and families. Later I wrote about how even the ocean and the forest seemed to offer me an invitation accompanied by total acceptance, willing to take in this total outsider. Everything and everyone that I saw and met in South Africa welcomed me and shared with me. So many people were happy to help me with my research, and then so often wanted to do more, to share their lives, their culture, their friendship and their country with me. I was able to spend so much time with incredible and inspiring people and organizations, learning so much from them constantly, and learning just as much about myself in the process. The people of South Africa really did shape my whole experience and make everything I did possible.

This is where the problem arises, the one that the prep course and all my preliminary research and preparations could never have prepared me for. I had to leave. After all of the connections and unbelievable people and experiences I found in and around East London, after putting all of myself into making these connections and getting to know these people and seeking out these experiences, after finding my niche in this community and feeling entirely whole and accomplished and ready to live life and make things happen with all of it together, I had to pull the plug and fly away, leaving all of it behind.

Standing in the East London airport the second time was so much the same, but in such a bittersweet way. I could feel so strongly that same sensation I felt on my arrival, the feeling of welcoming and rightness, but twisted on itself, because this time I was going in the wrong direction. Glancing back from the waiting area I could still see the crowd on the other side of the security check, my huge extended family that had come to wave and cry and say goodbye. Why was I leaving again? And then I had to breath my last breath of East London and step onto the plane. I don't know where those three months went, but they weren't nearly long enough.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Trouble with Interviews

No matter how good interview methods might be, they don't do any good without people to interview. This was the biggest challenge I faced in my project, and was a huge issue, because a study on people is worthless unless you have people to study. The main reason that this was so difficult for me was that my population was too broad for me to find them easily from one organization or location. I wanted to interview men and women between 18 and 30, from various backgrounds and education levels, to give me an overall perspective from the up-and-coming generation - those who will have the most control over the near future, and who have lived most of their lives in the New South Africa outside of Apartheid. It seems like it should be easy to find a bunch of people around my own age, which is what I thought initially, until I tried to actually do it.

My first batch of people came from Fort Hare University, where I was able to pass around a sign-up sheet to a couple classes for those students willing to be interviewed. It wasn't hard to find some people who were happy to participate, but I had some serious challenges actually meeting with these students - mostly scheduling issues. There were a number of them who I tried to meet with many times, setting up a time, checking multiple times to make sure that time worked, arriving at the agreed-upon meeting place and then finding out that they had to change the time . . . over and over again. This got old very quickly. Another problem was the method of contacting. I quickly learned that email didn't work well, since a lot of people don't check their emails regularly, if ever, but I spent a lot of time making calls before I figured out that texting was the way to go. Most people respond pretty quickly to texts, and written no one has trouble understanding another's accent through text. Those people I did manage to meet with from Fort Hare were great though, and some even connected me with other people to talk to, which was a big help.

Unfortunately, Fort Hare does not have a very diverse population - everyone there is educated beyond high school, and the majority of the student body is black. Also, once exams started in October, there were no regularly scheduled classes for me to pass sign-up sheets around in, and it became more difficult for students to find time for interviews. So I had to turn to other sources.

An easy fallback was always members of my church, since I saw them twice a week, but I didn't like to abuse that population too much (or introduce that additional bias into my data), and one of my fellow students interviewed most of the women (17-29) from our church for her project. I felt it would be too much to ask of them to be interviewed again, and it seems wrong to have exactly the same study participants, so I kept my church-gathered population to a few of the men.

Other than those two sources, my participants came from random acquaintance or referral. I interviewed one worker from the internet cafe I frequented, two men who talked to me on the street, two friends/acquaintances of men who talked to me on the street, one co-worker of someone from church, and a number of other very diversely gathered people.

Besides the issue of finding participants and working around schedules, the biggest problem I met was in communication. Most people I interviewed had a first language other than English, and though they were usually fluent enough that it didn't pose any problems, occasionally I found someone who just couldn't quite understand me, or who I couldn't understand, and that would lead to a very awkward and usually painfully short interview. It also made it more difficult when I wanted to ask questions having to do with environmental issues or conservation, because my participants were unfamiliar with a lot of the terms I wanted to use in these questions (like conservation, or environmental), and it was hard to see whether it was the terms or the concepts that people were unfamiliar with. For all of these issues, I just had to do my best to work around them, and try to learn something new from every interview I completed.

The Evolution of Interviews

A huge part of what I was doing during my time in South Africa was interviewing young adults to determine their perceptions of tourism and natural protected areas in South Africa, and particularly the Eastern Cape (piece 3 in Shaping my Field Study). I initially wanted more of a central focus around ecotourism (defined in A New Direction or the TIES website), but very few of the people I talked to knew about ecotourism (outside of those people who are involved in some way in the tourism industry), and even fewer had very well-formed opinions about it. In fact, bringing ecotourism into the equation, even if I tried to explain it simply and thoroughly, usually just confused my interviewees and made them less confident in their answers to my following questions. So, after the first few interviews, I shifted my questions to more general tourism, with a focus on community benefits/consequences and nature-based tourism. I also moved from asking about their opinions for the whole of South Africa and centered in on the Eastern Cape, the province East London is in and the poorest South African province.

One of the first lessons I learned in my interviews was that the less I talked, the better. I had a list of questions I wanted answered, and initially I would focus in on this list, asking the questions one at a time, with awkward attempts to transition from one to another and little deviation in the order. I usually found what I wanted, but the interviews were choppy and there was too much pressure to stick to the topics and points that I'd selected, without much room for things that might be more interesting to them, which is really much more important. In the end what worked really well was for me to just ask, "What do you think about tourism in the Eastern Cape?" and let them take it away from there. I still had the same main points I wanted to hit, having to do with community, positive and negative aspects, environmental effects/sustainability, challenges, and so on, but when I let them start the direction of the conversation, I was always able to find a natural place to fit those questions in, and a surprising majority of the time they brought up these issues on their own, without me having to ask. Asking such a general question also allowed for the interview to stay at much more of a conversational level, shaped by each individual and free from the pressure to have the 'right' response that can become such a problem when asking specifics. My first few interviews were really stressful, and initially I tried too hard to get the answers I wanted (in some cases I really wanted to get a 'for' or 'against,' when really they just didn't care), but once I was able to relax I genuinely enjoyed hearing each person's perspectives and opinions.

There were some challenges with the actual gathering of the interviews that always kept things interesting (and frustrating), which I'm going to address in my next post.