As I’m sure my readers are all well aware of by now, I have been posting research practice to be transparent about my process for my current project. On March 3, my Research Methods for Writers class met in our campus student center to practice recording ethnographic field notes. Post 1 focused on translating jottings into complete sentences, and post 2 focused on creating narrative scenes from my field notes. The final task for this practice assignment was to compose a short, descriptive piece about a student’s hair and a reflection about my experiences as an observer.
Not many 20-something women can boast a flawless hairstyle in the midst of a two-day rain and sleet storm. Most have sloppy top knots and twisted messy buns that droop with dampness to this side or that. Not this girl, though. Sleet, rain, and impending snow be damned. Her hair had style, and she was pulling. it. off.
Her fashionable “do” was a thick collection of box braids, a unique mixture of jet black plaits and a dark, caramel colored brown twists. Think of the square-shaped caramel candies a grandmother might carry in the pocket of her housecoat and then deepen it by two shades. They didn’t hang long, but were gathered just above the nape of her neck. Brown braids fell over black. Black braids snaked through brown. The colors intertwined artistically within the confines of a single, black elastic. To my surprise (as a person with extremely thick hair), the elastic wasn’t looped more than once; the thick mass of braids rested within–more than they were held by–the rubber. The twisty, knot-like ponytail didn’t sag with heaviness. Instead, the long tresses hung to her shoulder blades and draped over the top of her backpack. So thick were her locks that they puffed up a bit at the crown of her head, reminiscent of pageant participant bouffant. Beyonce’s “Flawless” comes to mind in the sense that she looked neat and polished but also effortless, almost as if she “woke up like this.”
The braids pulled all of her locks back from her hairline tightly, framing her face elegantly. Not one hair was out of place. Not one hair curled. Not one hair frizzed. Not one hair fell in front of her eyes. Her hair knew who was boss: she was. Her style reflected complete control.
Her style also reflected fearlessness.Her jacket’s hood was tucked beneath her backpack, suggesting she hadn’t worn it during her trek the student center and probably wouldn’t put it up before leaving. Absent from her hands was an umbrella. She, and her braids, remained un-phased by the weather, much to envy of those of us with damp, frizzing, and waving tresses.
At the start of the assignment, I found myself hesitant and confused, unsure if I had a thorough understanding of the expected tasks. Though I had spent 20 minutes discussing with my group what aspects of observations could be deemed “field note worthy,” I continued to ask myself, What’s worth it? What will be interesting enough to put down on paper? What’s interesting enough that someone would want to read about it? How long should I sit in one place?
I realized, after completing about 40 minutes worth of observations, that I was fortunate to have selected a central location that saw many people. I was able to take in a great deal, including setting, clothing, actions, and conversation. My notes spanned many topics and many “characters,” which helped me write a few interesting posts and scenes. I was impressed with the quality of these products.
I also conducted a brief interview during my observation, something I was terrified to do at the start of class. It was weird at first, but after a minute or two, especially when I stopped focusing on taking notes while speaking, the “interview” felt more like a normal conversation I might have with a classmate or friend.
I learned that when I conduct interviews in the future, I should be careful to give my interviewee enough time to think of answers to questions I ask. My interview subject that night seemed a bit caught off guard and nervous when I asked him questions, and therefore, took a lot of long pauses in between answering. I filled the silence with jabber. I might have gotten even more interesting information than I did if I stopped being terrified of an awkward silence and let him think a little bit more.
I also might try to listen to people more when I conduct observations again. I focused a lot on things I could see and ignored most of the other senses, but there were many students around. I might have picked up on some more interesting conversational tidbits if I paid more attention to the conversations happening in the space.
Finally, I spent more than two thirds of the observational time with my back to some of the space. To avoid losing sight of half a space, I might try to slightly alter my physical positions in the space throughout my observational period to ensure I’m getting a complete snapshot.
Overall, I enjoyed my research practice a great deal. Hopefully, I can use these techniques when I visit some new churches and church services later in the semester!