Yesterday, I passed my publishable paper requirement. It’s a triumph and a milestone worth celebrating, particularly because I failed my first defense.
I was really, really surprised that I had failed. I had done everything students in my program were supposed to do to pass the publishable paper requirement. I developed the paper in my methods classes, brought the paper to a workshop, took a class on academic writing to edit it, presented it at a conference, and I received positive feedback every step of the way. A lot of that positive feedback came from members of my committee. Two members had even recommended an earlier draft for publication at the top journal in my subfield. Just before my defense, the chair of my committee had talked about how she expected the paper would pass easily, leaving time for my committee to discuss expectations for my dissertation. Walking into my defense, the requirement felt like a formality and an opportunity for some additional feedback before I sent the paper out to the next journal on its long road to finding the right home for academic publication.
Travel with kids is rarely a vacation. But the trip we took last week left me utterly exhausted. And that exhaustion left me angry and on-edge. Which in turn sent me down a late-night rabbit hole into the research on parenting and sleep.
To give you the bleary-eyed backstory, we were visiting my in-laws in Florida for Thanksgiving. And my one-and-a-half-year-old went on a sleep strike. He’d go to bed fine around 7:30pm. But sometime between 10pm and 1am, he’d wake up screaming. And refuse to go back to sleep. My partner would try his best to soothe him, but kiddo would just scream and scream. And with a condo full of people (including a sleeping four-year-old down the hall), we couldn’t risk letting him get too loud. So I’d scoop him up and try my best to get him back to sleep. Sometimes I’d nurse him. Sometimes I’d walk in circles and sing to him softly. That almost always stopped the screaming. And most of the time I eventually got him back to sleep. But, inevitably, thirty minutes or so later, he’d be awake again. One night, he woke up more than ten times.
When I couldn’t take it anymore, usually sometime between 3am and 5am, I’d bring kiddo in bed with me. I’d tuck him into the crook of my arm, his head resting softly on my shoulder. And, almost immediately, he’d settle into a quiet sleep.
Now, that might sound like a sweet solution (and it’s not an uncommon one), but it was far from slumber-full. Because babies don’t actually sleep like babies. They sleep like wriggling worms. Kiddo would start off all curled up beside me. But then, thirty minutes later, he’d want to be on my other side. Then on my chest. Then, his favorite, with his face pressed up against mine. So even when he slept, I rarely did.
And the less sleep I got, the more the normal frustrations of parenting grated on my nerves.
Was recently asked what I thought was most important text published in the past 5 years in soc of race/ethnicity. Tho it’s hard to pick 1, the question got me re-reading notes from past years, rediscovering how many amazing texts there’ve been. What say you, Twitter colleagues?
This tweet produced a lot of great answers and interesting discussion. One thing that struck me in trying to compose my own answer is that beyond some really excellent work in the sociology of race proper (my answers were Golash Boza 2016 and Fields & Fields 2012), there’s also been a tremendous amount of fantastic work at the intersection of the sociology of race and various other subfields.
Let’s say you’re working on an ethnographic project. And you just spent an hour – or three – in the field. Now you’re sitting at your computer. And you know you’re supposed to write fieldnotes based on what you saw. But where should you start? And what should you write? And how should you write it?
It’s easy to assume that fieldnotes are just a running log of everything that happened during your visit to the field. But that running log approach is problematic, at least on its own.
As a reviewer, I’ve read countless studies where the methods section describes how the author conducted both interviews and observations. But then only the interview data appear in the text. The fieldnote data are nowhere to be found. My hunch is that, in most of those cases, the fieldnotes just weren’t useful. Because they weren’t detailed enough for a reader to make sense of them. Or, worse, because they weren’t detailed enough for the author to make sense of when they went back and looked at them six months later.
How do I know this? Because when I first started my dissertation, I wrote my fieldnotes as a running log of everything I saw. And the stuff I wrote in those first few weeks of data collection ended up being almost completely unusable. Because it lacked detail. And because it lacked context.
So, why not write a detailed, contextualized description of everything that happened? Because there aren’t enough hours in a day.
And that means you’ll have to make choices about what to include in your fieldnotes and what not to include. But that’s okay. Because the point of ethnographic fieldwork isn’t to describe in detail everything you saw. Rather, the point of ethnographic fieldwork is to gather the data you need to answer your research question.
So here’s what I tell my students:
After you leave the field, write a brief, running log of everything you saw.
Circle the three events or interactions most relevant to your research question. And definitely circle any incidents that don’t fit your hypotheses or the larger patterns you’ve seen.
Write up each of those three events as a short story, with clear context, characters, action, motivation, and resolution.