Thursday, October 20th, 2016
Why did you decide to enter your field?…Tell me about your journey.
I got a BS and MA in History. I decided there was no future in that after I finished a thesis on the Holocaust. I felt powerless. So I decided to pursue something more proactive: policy. When I started that degree, I found that I was lacking in quantitative skills. So I spent a great deal of time acquiring them. When this position opened up, I thought it was a great fit. I was interested in having an international focus. And, my mentor was the same person whose book was used for the course I would be teaching–William Dunn.
How would you explain your practicum course a/o fieldwork?
The topics and locations are subject to change from year to year. In our first iteration, we had two students: Aaron Ebner and Adam Stieglitz, the founding members of Team Peru. They were established in Peru; had their own NGO, the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development; and they were very successful at grassroots organization.
Robert McCleery came up with the idea of conducting research involving Team Peru. Then, I suggested involving students. We were soon joined by three other colleagues: Fernando DePaolis; Kent Glenzer; and Jeff Dayton-Johnson. The plan soon evolved from sending students down during J-term to a three course progression. First, students would be prepared to conduct research. Next, they would actually work in the field to gather the information we need. Last, we would work with the students to evaluate and analyze the information and create a deliverable for a client. That started the “wraparound” progression that we have today. We now have a 2 credit course during the fall semester (Field Methods) where students train in building surveys, and conducting focus groups and semi-structured interviews. The second class is the J-term Fieldwork. The last class, Advanced Policy Analysis, focuses on analyzing the collected data and preparing reports based on our findings. Not everyone has to take part in all three courses. But, all three courses together constitute a project, and students have an actual client, for whom they prepare a policy deliverable. Students must not only learn, but also apply skills for research and policy analysis from these and other classes. This is one of the most practical field research opportunities that we offer at the institute.
Peru was our original program location, and this year we are doing the same process in Nepal and Salinas. Each location will likely interest different groups of students. In Nepal, the research question will focus on communicating and building support for NGOs. There might also be work with the local population. In Salinas, the Mixed-Methods Evaluation, Training and Analysis (META) Lab has been hired to do a program evaluation. This is centered on Why’D You Stop Me (WYSM), a program that teaches locals about what the police are up against while also teaching police how not to escalate or how to deescalate a situation. We will be really looking for the source of tension in the community. This is a primarily Hispanic community and it will be interesting and lively especially in light of what is happening across the country. There has been a lot of buy-in with the Salinas Police Department and we try to work a lot with them.
Why Peru vs. Ecuador vs. Honduras?
We used to do Peru and El Salvador. They already had students going and we just helped analyze their data. With Nepal, we had two students familiar with the country. And one had been a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who served in Nepal who was able to get extra training. One student has agreed to come back and lead it this time. It always depends on whether you have an NGO and a client to help do logistics and gain access to populations. And, it makes it valid research. It’s a service learning approach, so we need to be in service to somebody if we are giving the final deliverable to someone who counts on what you are giving them.
What connections do you have there?
In Peru we have past leaders from Team Peru. Adam and Aaron, were my students years ago and when they graduated they maintained their relationship with Middlebury and MIIS, so that was easy. The other NGOs have people we are very familiar with. We continue building rapport with some of them. And now we are in discussions with a new NGO. They supplied all the interpretation last year.
In Salinas we had been working with the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace (CASP). We still attend all of their network meetings. MIIS and the META Lab are well known there. We want to be present so we can work with them and pick up projects and give back to the community. I mostly go on my spare time and sometimes are able to cover the cost of travel for META Lab staff attendees who represent MIIS. Because of that several NGOs know us well. We were asked specifically to participate in the grant that supports our evaluation work. Fernando DePaolis will be the faculty lead for the project.
What draws you back?
I like being in the field. If you can’t get your feet dirty, why do you even do this stuff? If you talk with native Quechua speakers and talk with the people who have been there for thousands of years, it is amazing. It’s the kind of experience you don’t get any other way. I’ve always loved being in a research environment. I’m very dedicated and interested in methods of doing research. If I’m going to teach it I’d better be able to do it.
What would a student get out of this experience?
Every place they could go and get a degree they would have an opportunity to do projects. Very few would allow them to do actual fieldwork with actual deliverables with someone who really needs it. Being able to collect data in person is unmatched. What you will see is that some of the well known institutions will take students to do some professor’s project. This isn’t that. This is something students develop, vet, manage, execute and analyze. There is no other school doing this.
How would you advise a faculty interested in leading a class abroad for the first time?
Play to your strengths. Team up with someone who is interested so you can distribute the load. This started as the effort of 5 faculty members, so don’t take it all on yourself. Use those who are knowledgeable in the area, and come up with a compelling question so you can motivate students. In your recruitment the main thing you are looking for is motivation. Brilliance is something they can work on, but motivation you can’t get any other way.
Can you tell a story or share some of the challenges you’ve faced leading these programs?
One is just trying to help with another site while on-site myself. We happened to have some truly talented people available last year and that was our great luck. But when you are out there actually leading one of these, you have to be HR, IRB, an instructor and a manager. So there is a lot to balance at this time. And people have to realize that you are in charge not the NGO. You have to keep logistics straight, keep research valid – do the work to get a random sample and keep people motivated, though that could be a challenge. It’s a stressful environment. People get rest, but not enough. Nerves get frayed. People realize that this isn’t what they want to do with their lives while others fall in love with it. You have to be ready to help someone see how they fit in and get people into the right tracks that will keep them and keep the project functioning.
Is there a story that captures one of your most rewarding or significant moments or could you share what drives you to do these types of programs?
For me the most rewarding part comes in the third course when people look back at what they’ve done. Normally it’s not me telling them but the students themselves realizing what they’ve accomplished. This is a year of effort and people realize the scope of what they’ve been through and what they’ve produced. The flip-side is that they realize that actual research is messy business. And they get a better idea of what they can and cannot do with field research. You might realize later that the questions initially asked were totally useless or the people on the ground weren’t interested.
What research or practices guide your approach to offering these programs?
[Looks over at bookshelf and laughs] There are a lot of resources. About seven to ten of these are great books that I go to all the time. I also troll the web. One thing is that you can’t expect to find what you are looking for in one book. Check two to three sources to get an idea of what is meaningful to you.
Is there anything you’d like to add/share?
I find this rewarding, but don’t take my word for it. I’d rather you go and talk to someone who went. It really is real work and it will feel like it, but that has a lot of rewards. It’s a whole lot better than Disneyland.