During some moment in my first few years here at UL, I noted that I had seen the building’s cleaning crew playing cards in the faculty lounge after hours, and I wondered what game they were playing. A few days later I found a note in my mailbox from Phil Gooding, one of our folklore students at the time:

Phil Gooding's Note

Phil Gooding’s Note

Icon Resources

I’m still thinking about creating an iOS app for field researchers. If I do, then I definitely want it to have a decent-looking icon. [Icon Resources]( offers a series of tutorials and materials that are useful — and the designer behind them has nice taste.

Field Recording with an iOS Device

Much like smartphones have displaced the consumer point-and-shoot market, I think the same devices have the potential to displace the consumer audio device market. The potential here being any interest in the manufacturers in delivering a reasonably good audio experience. There has been some competition over the past five years that has raised the floor for camera lenses and image resolutions, but I am less certain that there has been, or ever will be, a concomitant concern for audio recording. The market, from what I can tell, just isn’t large enough. Better audio playback, sure. Better audio capture, I am not so sure.

That noted, one of the things that popped into my head about six months to a year ago and has refused to pop back out again is the idea of a field recording application for my iPhone that would allow me to have the same kind of flexibility as


  • FiRe 2 – Field Recorder ($6)
  • Pro Audio To Go ($30)

In terms of hardware devices:

  • Tascam IXZ Mic and Guitar Interface ixz
  • Tascam iM2 Channel Portable Digital Recorder


  • TASCAM TMST1 Condenser Microphone (mini-stereo)
  • Blue Microphones Mikey 2.0 iPod Recording Microphone (30-pin)

Second Thoughts on Notebooks

My trial of the Whitelines notebook was short-lived. I had forgotten its one great limitation, which many may find a feature and not a bug: the spine is not designed to lie flat. The image above pretty much tells the story. In the middle is the Moleskine I use for fieldwork; on the bottom is the Whitelines. Great notebook. Great paper. But it doesn’t lie flat, no matter how much you flip through the thing and press down on the open pages in an attempt to get the spine to “break” a little. (Oh, the simultaneous shudder of bibliophiles everywhere as those words were writ.)

Listen to This

Every folklorist I know should listen to the Radio Lab short podcast entitled “Loop the Loop” which tells the story of Lincoln Beachey, a daredevil pilot who established many of the genres of air show acrobatics. More importantly, he is all but forgotten to history, except for his presence in a jump rope rhyme:

Lincoln Beachey had a little dream
To go up to Heaven in a flying machine
The machine broke down and down he fell
He thought he’d go to Heaven but he went to…

As is often the case, Radio Lab does good work here. If this podcast excited you, then you should also listen to their podcast on Tic-Tac-Toe where they first sent listeners to ask for the game by that name, and got few results, but when they sent listeners out to demonstrate the game, they found it was quite common. I plan to use this with my field research class as an example of being careful how you ask a question. (There’s a lot more to unpack there, but I think most of my folklore colleagues will get it.)

By the way, RadioLab people, if you are reading this, then you don’t always get it right. Your hosts completely blew it in the episode on talking to machines when they belittled the computer scientists for staying inside too much and not knowing enough about the “real world.” Hmmm. Sounds a lot like the pot calling the kettle black when you have your show narrated by two guys sitting in a  sound booth. That is, we all have our moments when we spend too much time inside — be it rooms or just our heads — and when we need to get outside, whatever that outside may be.

The Pain of Ethnography

I occasionally field questions from my colleagues about what it is I do when I am “out in the field,” a question which is sometimes accompanied by something like a wave in the general direction of “out there.” I don’t really mind the question: it, and its presumptions, are really based on the fact that the paradigm within which I work sometimes contrasts sharply from the paradigm within which they work.

When I am engaged in ethnographic research, I am building my data from scratch. It does not exist as texts already in books, nor as texts readily collected. It exists only as a set of discrete experiences which I detail in field notes and in the accumulation of experiences into something like knowledge based on patterns and designs gleaned from those experiences. As most of my fieldworker colleagues know, accumulating experience is the key, and trying to do so while also teaching, and being a member of a functioning family, is tricky to say the least. The work proceeds slowly.

And so I am delighted when I have been in the field long enough that the individuals with whom I work, well, put me to work. That is, they assume that I am competent, and they ask me to do something, for example, swap hydraulic lines on a crawfish boat.

On Thursday afternoon, Gerard Olinger asked me to grab a pair of wrenches — he assumed I could find them but he also gave me the sizes, knowing that I would not know, nor be able to judge, what sizes were required — and swap a pair of hydraulic lines on a cylinder we had, together, moved. Asking me to do the work freed him up to do a few other things — he can do many things in the time it takes me to do one — and it also put me in a familiar spot: underneath the bench of a crawfish boat, a space I have spent some time previously in his shop. (Gerard has had me do some basic nuts and bold work before.)

Gerard’s son Paul had put the lines in, I believe, and Paul has a good fifty pounds and considerably more muscle on me. I had to really lean on the pair of wrenches to get the lines loose. When a fitting finally gave, it gave quickly and the back of my right thumb met the underside of the bench:

Ethnographic Injury # 213 (or thereabouts)

And that’s after three days of antibiotic cream and large, home-made dressings. The infection was worse than I thought: I figured the wound would have remained fairly sterile since in the moment it occurred a fairly large amount of hydraulic fluid came out of the newly-freed hose end. Apparently hydraulic oil is not sterile. (Note to self.)

Sketching Ethnography

When I teach a fieldwork class or work with students doing fieldwork, I like to take some time, when the moment of fieldwork photography comes up, to talk about shot composition. It’s not something most students are prepared to discuss, in part, because composition in photography seems to many to be the realm of the fine art or professional photographer. It doesn’t help that many people think of composition in purely two-dimensional terms and thus have some sense that they can fix a problematic image in processing.

But that’s confusing cropping with composition. And while cropping can do wonders sometimes it cannot get into a frame something that was needlessly left out and now can never be put back in — there are too many pieces of reality even for Photoshop masters.

A recent [iStockphoto]( article on [“The Sketch”]( got me thinking about better ways to communicate some of these ideas. I am particularly fond of the illustration the author offers.

His task is to compose an image that captures the idea of waiting, and while we can envy him his opportunity to work with a model and location that are pliant to his needs, we should also envy him his forethought. It’s my experience that too many folklorists, and and anthropologists and journalists, simply start snapping shots in the middle of an event without any real thought of what is happening and how best to represent it. Only then can you decide what are probably the best vantage points from which to take a photograph.

No doubt seasoned veterans like Henry Glassie, an amazing photographer in his own right, do much of this work quite subconsciously, but it’s not because he hasn’t thought about it quite consciously for years and years. I know because I have spent time talking to Glassie about his photographs and I have had him with me in the field and had him advise him on better angles, better frames, better lighting.

To move this discussion along, I plan to offer up a few photographs of my own that I have either composed in this way or I have not and wish I did. I hope others will join me in a critique of this part of the ethnographic process. I don’t think we lose anything by raising to the level of conscious practice and articulate discussion certain dimensions of our craft. If anything, we enjoy amazing content and it’s time we thought about the forms in which we present it or represent it more clearly. We now have more choices, in terms of communication, than any of us thought imaginable even ten short years ago.