Episode 10: Fieldwork Q&A with Vera Ferreira & Hugo Cardoso (Part 2)

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Martha Tsutsui Billins host – Hello, and welcome to Field Notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. I’m Martha Tsutsui Billins and today’s episode is part two of our Q&A with Vera Ferreira and Hugo Cardoso. Hugo Cardoso is from the University of Lisbon and he works with speakers of creoles in South Asia, particularly the communities of Diu and Kerala in India, and  the Portuguese Burgher community in Eastern Sri Lanka. If you want to learn more about Hugo’s work, you can check out episode four of Fieldnotes. Vera Ferreira is from the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social and Language Documentation and she has done fieldwork with the communities of Minderico, Fala and Bavaria in Europe. If you want to learn more about Vera’s fieldwork, you can check out episode two of Fieldnotes. Some of the things Vera, Hugo and I discussed during this episode include how to deal with difficult recording situations and also how to reduce your environmental impact whilst in the field.

MTB: “How do you cope with the often tragic and/or uncomfortable history surrounding the top target language or culture?”

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, well…very often it doesn’t have to be because very often there will be some difficult stories or difficult circumstances that your consultants will talk about. If I know that a topic is going to be controversial or emotionally difficult, I don’t raise it in my interviews. If the consultants do raise it themselves, then I will engage in a natural way as much as possible because it’s always possible later on to decide whether or not this is something you want to publicize. If you’re uploading it to an archive, you can always edit it out, right? So, I don’t raise it, but I go with it. This happens often I think for different reasons in different communities. My latest experience in Sri Lanka has been interesting in this respect because the community I work with lives in the Eastern part of Sri Lanka, so they’ve been affected by two recent tragedies. One is the 2004 tsunami, a good number of people from that community were affected because they lived right by the coast. The other one is the civil war which only ended in 2009. So these were the two topics I was aware of when I started my research there and they keep coming up, but I’ve realized that the implications are different for both of these tragedies. In fact, over time speaking to them I realized these are not the same. In the case of the tsunami, even though it was obviously very tragic, the community seems to have made peace with this. So, if someone of their own accord and of their own free will talked about it in a matter of factly way about their own loved ones, I decided to keep it in the collection. When it comes to the civil war, that’s not the case because the reconciliation process is not over yet. So it would have been risky and also I work with video which means that it is impossible to anonymize the materials. I realized that even if I don’t fully understand the implications of what they are saying that this could be risky, politically risky. So I decided to err on the side of caution and edit out any references to it.

Vera Ferreira: The situations that I had were more personal stories that were very sensitive. The consultants have brought these topics up themselves, so I haven’t addressed the issues directly, but as you said, I go along with them. I haven’t archived or published these materials because they are really sensitive and very personal.

MTB: Yeah, but in the moment you can’t say, “Oh wait! Can you stop talking?”

Vera Ferreira: “Stop it!” Yeah, no, no, no.

MTB: Yeah, just have to go with the flow. “What is your must-take research equipment?” Hugo! We have a great list of all of your stuff in episode four. I linked all of your equipment, but Vera do you have any must-take research equipment?

Vera Ferreira: Well, a good camera. Is that the equipment that you are talking about? Good camera, good mics, several mics for different situations, not only one omni directional mic, but several types. If you have the opportunity, take an additional camera because you never know. Enough batteries because not always there is a possibility to buy batteries or to load your equipment, and don’t forget to turn on your mics when you are recording [laughs].

MTB: Do you like the Zoom Q8?

Vera Ferreira: Yeah.

MTB: Yeah, me too.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah, but I mean if you have the possibility to have the Zoom Q8 and another camera, I would advise you to have both not only the Zoom Q8. The Zoom Q8 is good, it’s really good, you can have very good images, but if you have the possibility of the budget to buy another camera that allows you to have another type of quality of pictures, movies and so on, I would advise you to have the other one too.

MTB: Do you have some suggestions for the…or you can tell me later?

Vera Ferreira: I can tell you later, I can send you the links if you want. There are some very good cameras out there that you don’t need to pay tons of money for, but the Zoom Q8 for someone who is starting now, it’s perfect.

MTB: Yeah. “How have you dealt with a difficult recording situation whether environmental, like excessive wind, or social?” I have a story about this. The worst, absolutely most devastating recording I ever did was where we were already outside, so that situation is not great but that’s where the elders were meeting, so I met them there. Well, it wasn’t completely outside, it was in a shack, sort of, with three walls, but one wall is open to the wind and also we were by the ocean. I was trying to record this one Amami grandma and she wanted me to peel these oranges, so I’m trying to record, peel the oranges, ask her the questions, make the notes and next to her is her friend who was listening in. The friend got bored and so she decided that she would fire up the karaoke machine…

Vera Ferreira: Oh no [laughs].

MTB: She started blasting karaoke about five feet away from us. At that point, I just said forget it. I decided nothing good was going to come out. Luckily it was someone that I had regular access to, so…

Hugo Cardoso: You could redo it.

MTB: I just totally wrote it off. Well, my hands were sticky and full of oranges, I was just like forget it.

Hugo Cardoso: [Laughs] well there’s always going to be things like that. I can tell you a story that happened recently in Sri Lanka which was a little bizarre if someone was watching from the outside. I wasn’t alone, I was there with the rest of the team, and we were interviewing a big group of performers singing songs outside in a beautiful courtyard and it was the perfect setting and all that. The session took longer than we expected, this is the late afternoon, and then suddenly the sun started to go down and in the tropics the sun sets very quickly. So at some point within the space of a song we realized the image is not going to be good; I mean we can’t see anything. So our solution at the time was to, each one of us had behind the camera, use our mobile phones [laughs], the little lanterns, and try to illuminate it from behind the camera which can only go so far, right? So at some point we did have to stop them, which is what we didn’t want to do, and we moved inside the house, but you know you try your best.

[Everyone laughs]

MTB: Did it help?

Hugo Cardoso: For a few minutes.

[Everyone laughs]

Vera Ferreira: Well I have some cases where children were playing around or came in the house when I was recording and you know, you cannot stop them, there is no way you can, you just let things go and then you see if you can transcribe because sometimes it’s really impossible to transcribe if there’s a lot of background noise. I’m not going to stop the recording just because some background noise is annoying me at the time. If you have the possibility of using different mics, this will allow you to cover or at least protect your recordings from a lot of background noises that you have. For instance, I had one recording, I was in a cafe and I put the camera and the microphone right in front of a fridge and the mic caught all the sound that the fridge was producing and I couldn’t transcribe it. I couldn’t use the recording at all. When I was monitoring it, it was perfect, it was good, but I couldn’t hear the fridge, so in the end, yeah. You need to select the best places where you put your camera and not put a camera in front of a fridge. So it doesn’t work. Or air conditioner!

MTB: Or kitchens. Kitchens in general are so terrible.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah, but of course, I think all of us have these experiences where some recordings have a lot of background noise and you cannot change it. A friend of mine is doing fieldwork in Nigeria and you have chickens around and you have other animals that interfere but you cannot say, “put your chickens inside the house.” There is no way, so you know where you are and you know that this will interfere with your recordings.

Hugo Cardoso: Perhaps sometimes you can actually use this interference as topics of conversation.

Vera Ferreira: Exactly.

Hugo Cardoso: That’s happened a couple of times. Once, I remember I was interviewing someone about Easter or something religious and there was this background noise that came on. I didn’t know what it was so I asked him and it was quite interesting because then he explained that next door his neighbour has a machine for grinding spices, and then we started talking about that. So if you can, use it.

MTB: “In what ways do you reduce your environmental impact in the field or as a researcher in general?”

Hugo Cardoso: Well, I haven’t always practiced everything that I am going to say but it is important to think about this and to put it into practice as best we can. Some issues have been obvious to me, some have not. I think one is that if you have to fly to your field site and if it’s appropriate and acceptable, then you should try to do it in one go to save on…

MTB: Like, stay as long as possible?

Hugo Cardoso:  Stay as long as possible. It’s not always possible to do that either because you have work or family constraints or because when you’re doing fieldwork for language description, if your idea is to produce a grammar, it may be a good idea to break it up so that you have time in between your visits to work on the data and come up with the next questions, of course. If you can do it in one go, that’s of course going to be beneficial. I work in relatively urban settings, which is probably very different from what a lot of our listeners will find themselves in, in terms of challenges but also in terms of possibilities. In my case, some issues that I think came up were to do with drinking water or rather the plastic that you will almost inevitably have to produce. The plastic waste you’ll have to produce if the tap water isn’t drinkable and you need to rely on filtered bottled water. In that case what you can do is, if you can have a filter in the house where you are staying, that’s great, so you can refill your bottle and use your own clean water. Some people use taps as well but if you do have to rely on buying water, then at least I think you should go for large cans rather than individual bottles. Try and find out whether there is a way to recycle and where you can deposit your plastic. I’ve come to realize that in many places, certain restaurants, for example, will allow you to refill your bottles with filtered water there. So that’s also worth asking around. There’s a few more things I can say, but I’m not sure if you want to…

Vera Ferreira: No, I think my concerns were almost the same as yours because I was also working in urban environments and plastic is one of the major issues that we have at the moment or at least that I was dealing with. I used filtered water all the time, and my own filter, I was filtering the water even though you can drink tap water. For some places I didn’t know very well, I had my filter water instead of buying bottles and bottles of water. I tried to avoid driving a car as much as I could. So I walked a lot and I used the bike. I could take my bike with me and I used the bike to go around, which was really good because people got to know me because I was always with the bike. They got in touch with me and they wanted to be recorded as well, so this is another side effect of things and I think it was good for the environment and for me because when you’re in the field, you don’t move that much or at least don’t move the way you should move. It’s not always possible to have a bike, but you can order one or buy one. I mean there’s ways of protecting the environment when you’re in the field as well.

Hugo Cardoso: In many ways, the care that you have to take with environmental issues in the field isn’t very different from what you should do where you live.

Vera Ferreira: Exactly, yeah.

Hugo Cardoso: There are specific circumstances, still on the topic of water, but how much water you use for washing. The first site where I did fieldwork, I was staying in a guesthouse and there was running water, but then one day by chance, I noticed that actually the water didn’t come from a public network. It came from a rooftop deposit and the deposit had to be refilled by a truck. So I realized, ok yeah, maybe I should be careful with how much water I use and you get used to washing from a bucket. Which is perfectly fine. The other thing especially in hot and humid places, like the ones I work with, is that if you happen to have air conditioning available, you may feel tempted to use it a lot but air conditioning really does use a lot of energy. So you should be careful about that. Oh, and the equipment is also something to consider because, especially batteries, if you can select…

MTB: Ohhh, rechargeable batteries.

Hugo Cardoso: Right, so if you have some sort of equipment that has an in-built battery, that’s ideal. If not, then you should, if possible, use rechargeable batteries and bring your own charger, otherwise you’ll end up producing a lot of waste.

MTB: Yeah I did that the second time because I didn’t realize in Amami there is only one day a year where you can get rid of your batteries, where you can recycle them. That one day in the year was not while I was there, so I had to give them to someone to save for six more months until that day came. “Is there anything you would advise someone to absolutely not do in regards to research or field methods?” This question is so broad, but…

Hugo Cardoso: There’s lots of things, but I think I’ll select one [laughs]. One piece of advice. I’d probably say that you shouldn’t assume that you can do proper documentation in a short period of time. Like a reporter would if they’re doing a piece on a particular community.

Vera Ferreira: So National Geographic, right?

Hugo Cardoso: Yes, that doesn’t work and for many reasons. For starters, your informants will probably feel used if you’re there for a couple of days and then disappear. Also the quality of your materials is probably not going to be great because at the very least it’s going to be partial but it’s probably also going to be very self-conscious. So you need to spend time there and create the necessary conditions of trust to really access the kind of materials or the best materials possible. So, that would be my advice, don’t think that you can just go, even if you’re only looking for a very small amount of materials, for a couple of days and get it.

MTB: Yeah.

Vera Ferreira: Also, after you have built this trust and you think, ok now you are going to do the best recordings ever, the first recordings are normally not the best ones. Don’t feel frustrated if it turns out that the recordings that you have done are not usable. It comes out later, so if you practice, and the people get used to you and the way you talk and the way you conduct the interviews, then you get much better recordings in the end. So it’s normal to have the worst recordings at the beginning and of course if you are going to the field now and they know you, you are going to collect good recordings, but it’s not that automatic to do good recordings at all.

Hugo Cardoso: Or they might feel that the material is fantastic. I think it works if you are doing a pilot visit. It’s fine if you go there for a couple of days because the intention is always to keep…

Vera Ferreira: And it’s a lifelong project, it’s not one-way. So you go there, you collect data and then you go home and you have the materials now.

MTB: “How do you manage self-care while in the field?”

Vera Ferreira: Self-care?

MTB: Like mental health.

Vera Ferreira: Oh, take some breaks. I would say take some breaks. I know that we have this pressure of, we need to collect the materials, we need to engage with the community but we also need our own time for ourselves. It’s good when you’re planning the fieldwork to plan some days off, for instance, if you say one month, just plan one or two days off that you go somewhere else. You’ll be without other people and if it’s a very small community then everybody knows you and you really need some time, some fresh air, so just go somewhere else and spend some days or if you can spend a week, then spend a week. Do some other things and then come back again. Another thing that I’ve done is some sports. It was difficult to get out of Minderico it’s not impossible of course you can get out, you have the car there, but I didn’t want to use the car very often and I had the bike, so I could go for some rides and that was good.

Hugo Cardoso: Yeah, it helps if it’s easier for you to communicate with people at home. Which it is in my case because as I said these are usually urban areas where you have mobile phones and internet and things like that. I can imagine if you don’t that could be a problem. I had the experience of doing fieldwork on my own and with a team and it’s so much nicer with a team in that respect. So if you can, if there are some colleagues who want to come along with you or can come along with you, that’s great, it helps. 

MTB: “What are some surprisingly effective elicitation techniques and/or your old reliable methods and why? These can be topic specific.”

Hugo Cardoso: One that I’ve become very attached to and a big fan of is walking tours. Which I have been able to do in my last project because I have a wireless lapel microphone, so it makes it easy to walk around, and those have been fantastic. We’ve used them for demonstrations – cooking demonstrations, demonstrations of crafts such as carpentry or blacksmithing. We have a video of someone making a knife and explaining how it’s done. Tours of buildings, we have a tour of a cathedral given by the priest. Tours of workshops, workplaces, which are great because if you do something like this the topics of conversation just come up naturally but also you will encounter objects and topics of conversation that you would never think of if you were having a static interview. For example, when we did this tour, a walking tour of a carpentry workshop guided by a carpenter, I heard the names of all sorts of tools and techniques which as a non-specialist, I would never have been able to ask for, so this is great, I highly recommend it.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah I’ve done house tours so they could explain the different parts of the house and what they do. I wanted to elicit the names of the different rooms but then they started telling me what they do for Christmas in this particular room, what they cook when we were in the kitchen for instance. I had an interview where she was explaining the different parts of the kitchen and then she started telling me what she has prepared for lunch and what she is going to prepare for dinner and in a very natural way. So I am also a fan of these walking tours.

MTB: That’s such a great idea. With the wireless lapel mics, have you ever had the connection break?

Hugo Cardoso: No, ok wireless lapel mics are, I think, quite expensive, but if you can, invest in a good one then you won’t have problems like that. The one I have works very well. On one of the tours which was a tour of a particular area of a town and one of the residents was giving us this tour, I wasn’t the one asking the questions, so I could be filming from a distance sometimes, and that worked very well. Even then I was perhaps, 100m away sometimes and it wouldn’t break. So if you have a good microphone, then this should work.

MTB: I’ll link the one again that you have. 

Hugo Cardoso: It is one of my favourite pieces of equipment.

Vera Ferreira: Yeah they are really good, and you can do a lot of very good recordings with them.

MTB: If our listeners want to learn more about your work, where can they find you online?

Hugo Cardoso: I think the easiest in my case would be to go to the Centre of Linguistics for the University of Lisbon because all the information about my different projects is there with links to the collections on ELAR and all that. 

MTB: Perfect. And Vera?

Vera Ferreira: In my case, people can go to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social and Language Documentation, which is www.CIDLES.eu and yeah there are descriptions of the projects. If they want to learn more about my work, additionally, they can visit ELAR, the Endangered Languages Archive.

MTB: Ok, thank you Vera, thank you Hugo.

Vera Ferreira: Thank you.

Hugo Cardoso: Thank you for having us. 

You’ve been listening to field notes, a podcast about linguistic fieldwork. This podcast is hosted and produced by Martha Tsutsui Billins with production help from Laura Tsutsui. Our music is by Lobo Loco and our logo is by E.Vill Designs. If you have a question or a fieldwork experience to share, you can email us at fieldnotespod@gmail.com. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram @lingfieldnotes. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave us an Apple Podcast review. Thanks for listening!

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