Fieldwork lesson: Everything is a skill

Read a reflection on recent fieldwork from RECOMS fellow Zhanna, who to her own surprise found herself at a farm in the Bavarian forest.

by Zhanna

Fieldwork is exciting because for once you get to leave your desk and try to apply in the real world what you've been reading about for the past however months. Fieldwork is scary, too, because for once you get to leave the comfort of the desk and go interact with the real world. So many thoughts crowd your consciousness, and as the day of departure approaches, you find yourself so emotionally agitated, that the only thing you want to do is to get over with the whole ordeal. Some things are transient, some inevitable, and for certain disciplines fieldwork falls into the latter category. Be cool, it's the showtime. 

About a week ago I went to a farm in the Bavarian forest to live and work with people about whom I’d written about quite extensively without knowing any of them personally. These purely cerebral creatures whom I studied but barely interacted with, and now I was going to share a tiny chunk of life with them. And a farm, too—I’ve read John Berger and was repeatedly tricked as a child to go work in the garden by my admirably cunning parents—and that’s pretty much all. I can distinguish a bell pepper from an apple, but mostly because they are located on different shelves in a supermarket. I know, tell me about being divorced from reality.

To be perfectly honest, I had not the slightest idea of what was waiting for me at the farm. Yes, I spoke to one of the owners a couple of times, but since the conversation was all in German and in German a significant portion of my brain shuts off, it was pretty much a leap of faith. My most ambitious hope was that this fieldwork wouldn’t be featured in a newspaper under a rubric of local crime.

And how wrong I was! Of course, I didn't die, but all my concerns and silent fears could not have been farther away from reality. Now, to be fair, work at the farm was possibly one of the most physically demanding things I've done in my life, yet at the same time every day was full of discoveries, heart-warming conversations (not only in German, but in Bavarian German!), good food fresh from the garden, and lots of cuddling with their two cats and the dog Emma. One pleasure of monotonous physical work comes from the fact that while the body is exerting, the mind wanders. I had plenty of time to think about a million different things while weeding or throwing hay around a field to dry.

And here’s something that occurred to me: everything is a skill and anyone can learn. Of course, some learn faster and seemingly without any strain while some others struggle every step along the way. But the principle is quite simple — with enough time and dedication one becomes proficient. At that particular point I was thinking about plucking beans from a stick, but the idea applies to most, if not all, tasks one might encounter in life.

For instance, I remembered the first day I started my PhD and met other doctoral candidates at the Rachel Carson Center: this one speaks five languages, that one has just come from one big conference and is about to go present at another international workshop; someone else has published a book and is working on a contribution for an edited volume, here’s a person who knows complete bibliography of some arcane author. Everyone seemed so incredibly proficient, and I didn’t know how I’d made it thus far. And sure, a major part of this existential crisis came from the infamous impostor syndrome, but at the same time objectively there were skills that everyone else had and I simply didn’t. Yet. Again, not (necessarily) because of some innate character flaw—rather, because they’d spent quite some time doing their PhD projects and I was just about to start mine.

Now, looking back at the path I’ve covered, I’m realizing that I’ve learned a lot and there’s still plenty of things to learn. And all those skills that I consciously or not picked up along the way happened because I invested time in them.

This progression is easy to observe at a farm: you don’t know how to take care of sheep, but a few days in their company make you sufficiently good. A couple burns later you learn how to cook in a wooden oven, a week of raking hay makes you excellent at raking hay.

In the academic world, personal evolution can be less apparent, but what's worth to keep in mind is that it is happening—with bumps and lots of hours feeling inadequate, but consistently nonetheless.