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Time to Learn the Ropes

Summer in the Sea Islands introduces undergrads to fieldwork protocols.

NEW TWISTS: Students will hear of changes in communities known for sweetgrass craft.

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Authors Gloria Naylor and Pat Conroy painted evocative portraits of the Georgia and South Carolina Sea Islands in their books Mama Day and The Water Is Wide. In July, three undergraduates will travel to the islands of Daufuskie, Dewees and Hilton Head to do oral histories with Gullah-speaking residents and to conduct their own research projects.

“The Sea Islands were the first stop for a lot of slaves who came from the Caribbean and Africa, and because the islands are isolated, there's a real sense of cultural preservation,” says sophomore Sasha Novis.

Novis works with the Stanford Theater Activism Mobilization Project and was energized by Social Movements and Collective Action, a sociology course she took last year. She wants to look at the history of social movements in the Charleston area, where the students will be staying. That, in turn, animates Paulla Ebron, an associate professor of anthropology who is overseeing the monthlong summer field school.

As Novis refines her research topic, Ebron can point her to the archives of Charleston's Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, where the students will be working part time. It happens that the Avery Center holds the papers of civil rights activist Septima Clark, who started Citizenship Schools in the 1950s to foster adult literacy.

Sophomore Jillesa Gebhardt, who plans to major in anthropology, was still deciding which of several topics she would explore as the six weeks of the pre-field seminar concluded on campus. She was fascinated by the data that could be mined from GIS (geographic information systems) technology, and was equally interested in African-American history and folk healing methods. “There's so much you could do,” she says. “I just want to get there and see what jumps out at me.”

Novis, Gebhardt and freshman Darius White are piloting the new seminar, funded by the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education. They have kept project journals, posted questions to a class wiki and done some serious reading on spatial approaches to landscape, historic crops and the ethics of fieldwork. All in an effort to learn how to do research.

“Having mentored a number of students, I've seen them in high panic once they get a [research] award,” Ebron says. “It seemed like if you took students who didn't know what research is like in the social sciences or humanities, and gave them a foundation, that would pull them in their third and fourth years toward an honors project.”

Ebron is co-teaching the field seminar with Claudia Engel, a lecturer in anthropology who specializes in demographics, and with Rachel Engmann, a graduate student in archaeology who studies 18th- and 19th-century Islam in West Africa.

In addition to learning how to work with material culture and read demographic evidence, the three undergraduates also are learning about the ethical issues involved in social science research—including the protocols of doing oral histories. One focus of their work will be interviewing sweetgrass basket makers in the Charleston area, for an exhibition of their wares at the Gibbs Museum of Art.

Anthropologists have long been concerned about how to make their research relevant and useful—“instead of taking the research, getting what you want and getting out,” Ebron says.

The exhibition at the Avery and the presentations the students will make to members of the Charleston community may help to build some relationships. “Translating the research we're doing with sweetgrass [baskets] and making it available to the public is one of the new things about fieldwork,” Engmann says. “[Anthropologists] rarely do that.”

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