From Tree Planting Camp by John Bodner, MUN
A Personal Look at Research and Safety in the Field by Contessa Small, MUN
The Interview by Deva McNeill, MUN
From Tree Planting Camp
by John Bodner, MUN

In the summer of 1997 Memorial University's Department of Folklore released another group of MA students loose on the general population.  This uncontrolled experiment is also called fieldwork.  It is a vital part: of folklore research, but one with its own hazards and growing pains.  I hope that by bringing together some fieldwork experiences both the writer and the reader will expose the process of data collecting and the imprecise science behind the polished (we hope) thesis or paper.

J. Bodner in the field...
My own fieldwork took me to northern Ontario to a tree-planting camp.  I knew what I was getting into since I'd done the work before.  That is, I'd tree planted before; fieldwork was another story.  Unlike many fleldworkers, I was fortunate enough to have a study group with a high level of formal education who knew what the process of fieldwork entailed.  I would often be hauled aside by someone who "had something for me."  This meant that I'd run and get my tape recorder in order to collect whatever it was that they thought was important for me to know.  Most often it was great and surprising.  Also surprising was the planter who came up and wanted to know how I was going to deal with the theoretical problem of participant observation and the inclusion of myself in the observer/observed paradigm.  All I can say is that the folk are no longer who we think they are.

There are some technical problems that I have encountered that the average fleidworker may not have faced.  Tape recording and photography in a communal shower come to mind.  In each case the equipment and my ingenuity were not up to the task--scratch one chapter. One day I nearly had the opporuuinty to tape record my own death when I heard the sound of crashing and general mayhem in the bush behind me and thought it was a bear.  Luckily it was a crew boss.  Unluckily I missed my chance to be the most famous folklorist to never complete an MA.  In the end, neither my tape recorder nor my camera survived the bush.  All the Luddites might want to know that my pencil and field journal stood up quite well.

On the whole I was surprised by the trust and generosity of my informants, even though this is the nature of tree planting.  I collected stories of lost love, of found love, of pain and success.  There are hours of foolishness and horseplay on the tape and an annoying amount of me nervously laughing.  As I struggle over the tapes, what their contents means and how it fits into the structure (or straitjacket) of our discipline, I have only one hope: to display with respect and joy the beauty of people's lived existence which they allowed me to capture and use. Thanks to the hardcore crew of Mile 82 and Cariboo Cut 1997.

A Personal Look at Research and Safety in the Field
by Contessa Small, MUN

During the summer of 1997, I began fieldwork for my MA thesis entitled, "Occupational Narratives of Pulp and Paper Mill Workers in Corner Brook, Newfoundland: A Case Study in Occupational Fieldife."  As a young female student, preparing myself for field research within a male dominated industrial workplace was not an easy task.  Upon consulting the works of Robert McCarl and Jack Santino, I was advised to join the mill workers' group as a participant observer.  The simple fact is that finding the time and the connections to join a work force does not happen, nor does placing a twenty-three-year-old woman among seven hundred men in hope of passing her off as "one of the boys." However, I was not discouraged. I eagerly sought to discover and apply strategies which would enable me to collect occupational narratives from male workers in both a safe and academically credible manner - the ultimate challenge of every female fleldworker in such circumstances.

Having first familiarized myself with the occupational environment and working conditions of the mill, I began to conduct personal interviews with workers from various mill departments and positions.  While I did not engage in group "story swapping" events or have the advantages of participant observation as McCarl would have preferred, I feel that these research methods provided me with equally valuable narratives.  Safety is, however, the most important consideration for any researcher.  Not unlike the cautionary tales I collected from the mill workers, I too have heard and heeded fellow folklorists' narratives of sexual harassment and violence in the field.  As a woman, the best advice I can offer regarding this issue is to always remain aware of and alert to potential danger when conducting interviews.  I am convinced that my successful and rewarding field research experience has partially resulted from my cautious behaviour and my own personal fieldwork guidelines--guidelines which every fleidworker must personally create and abide by.

While these few words have by no means resolved the issue of research and safety in the field, it at least brings to attention the importance of preventive measures for women field researchers.  I invite other female scholars to share their stories and their suggestions to further promote both safe and engaging research.

The Interview
by Deva McNeill, MUN

I don't think I will ever feel prepared for fieldwork.  Each time I foray out in the field with my tape recorder and notebook, I encounter some experience which throws my carefully laid plans (and preconceptions) to the four winds.  The first thing I think I need to get over is the idea that I'm the one conducting the interview.  After having been questioned on my name, birthplace, kinship ties, marital status and current place of residence, my informant gets to work with the more serious questions.  I have been grilled several times on my political views and religious beliefs, which are admittedly eccentric by anyone's definition.  I've found that honest general statements of respect are usually enough to ease through the awkwardness of the moment.  I am usually questioned about exactly whom I've spoken to so far, who told me to contact them and what has everybody else said. I have yet to find a neat satisfactory and ethically aware response to those inquiries (read. "help!").

When I take my son with me to an interview, I'm treated to either voluminous praise on what a fine young lad I have, or a saddened comment on the lack of discipline with kids these days.  I've found that letting my son hang out with anybody who might be playing or puttering in the yard makes everyone happy (especially him!).

Finally comes the questions which make my stomach turn over.  What do you want to know that for?  Is that what you wanted to hear?  What kind of job do you think you're going to get going around collecting ghost stories?

But then I suppose it is the unexpected that makes fieldwork so exciting, and some of those questions have made me take a hard look at what I'm doing.  Now if I could just stop feeling guilty for having so much fun at it... 


Send comments or queries to

 version 2001