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.