Introduce me to your field of study with an experience
May 6, 2009 10:25 AM   Subscribe

Please introduce me to your field of study (or work) in a way that one can experience

This will be an odd question, but please humor my inner geek.

I studied a lot of biology (undergrad, PhD, and then taught uni bio courses for a few years). Looking back, some of the most incredible moments for me regarding my particular field were the experiences coupled with studying the material. For example, not just reading about physiology and anatomy, but when taking or teaching such a course, it was actually dissecting and studying the (shark, mink, human cadaver)– it was the experience that made it spring to life/along with teaching me the material. Another example was spending time looking at animal or human bones, or taking a behavior of zoo animal course where you learn about the behavior of the animals and walk around and look at them at the zoo.

I consider myself almost borderline illiterate when it comes to other fields but everything else fascinates me. Can you introduce me to your field of study (if you completed a BA or almost have done so, you are the expert) or your job if it is technical, can you introduce an outsider to your field? What could I do that would introduce me to your field – it be great if it is interesting, representative, and accessible and involves an experience.

You may feel that for your particular field, a person needs to read about it – that is okay too if you want to throw down the title of a few journal articles or one topic in a textbook – there were moments that I learned about biology, and did not appreciate it until I read a couple journal articles, so I understand that too, although primarily I am looking to experience these things.

So please hive mind introduce to your field.
posted by Wolfster to Education (23 answers total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Check out a rectangular formation of objects, like say the buttons on your phone. It's three columns of four buttons each. Then again, it's four rows of three columns each. But the total number of buttons is the same, no matter which way you count; so it must be the case that 3 + 3 + 3 + 3 = 4 + 4 + 4. Or, in other words, 3 x 4 = 4 x 3. Not because you learned it that way in the times table; because that's the way it has to be.

You now understand what it's like to be a mathematician.
posted by escabeche at 10:55 AM on May 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

In my lab we've taken cloned luciferase - the gene encoding the protein that allows fireflies to produce light - and stuck it inside of viral vectors. I work on trying to rationally come up with ways to direct the viral vectors to specific tissues, such as muscle tissue for muscular dystrophy correction or tumor tissue or brain tissue. After spending about 2 weeks making a new virus, I inject it into a mouse. Then I wait a week and inject the mouse with luciferin - the substrate luciferase acts upon. Then I stick the mouse inside of a photon collector and see which parts of its body light up. This is how I can tell what tissues of the body my virus is infecting. If whatever part of the body REALLY lights up, I know that not only is my virus specific, but it's doing it's job well. Getting the virus to specific tissues is the hard part: you can stick any gene you want inside for the most part.

Welcome to gene therapy.
posted by sickinthehead at 11:02 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Let's say you wanted to write an article about this man.

Is he:
* The president
* The Presdent
* The President of the United States
* President Barack Obama
* Barack Obama
* Barry Obama (as he was known in school)
* Barack H. Obama
* Barack Hussein Obama

Each usage is more or less correct, depending on the context, but each has a different meaning. For each, the reader will infer something different about the man, or about you.

This is a small slice of what it means to be an editor.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:09 AM on May 6, 2009 [6 favorites]

Take a stack of post-it notes. For one month, see if you can remember to stick one on the wall every single day without forgetting. The next month, do the same thing, but before you put up each sticky note, you have to write a joke on it you'd be comfortable showing to a couple of thousand people. The next month, do the same as you did in the second month, but now you also have to draw a picture on every one of those post-its, one you'd be happy enough to sign your name to. Repeat this every month for ten years ... and do it while working another job.

Welcome to being a syndicated cartoonist.
posted by lpsguy at 11:10 AM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

So the farmer wants it here, 'cos then he can get his spray booms around it for the no-till farming he does. Unfortunately, that's right in line with where his neighbour has been planning a summer house with a view of the lake for the last 20 years, so it would feudin' time if it went there. The next best location puts it right up against another property line, where we'd need a minor variance from the municipality (and giving those councillors a chance to jockey for votes as they mess around with bylaws to show they won't be pushed about by outside folks) and that landowner's dead set against the things and we'd probably have a noise issue anyway. The only location we can all agree on has the least wind resource of the whole site, would require an innovative (read: $$$, untried) foundation design, six kilometres of access road and collector line, and is directly on top of the last known nesting site in Ontario of the Lesser Spotted Audioscrobbler.

You've just heard some of the siting decisions we have to deal with in siting a single wind turbine. A typical wind farm will have at least seventy of these, and each location affects the others around it. Welcome to my world.
posted by scruss at 11:32 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Tuning back in because I think I didn’t use my own editing skills to make my question clear.

First, I do have a basic ideas as to the other fields/topics and jobs, so I am looking for something beyond introductory level. Think of something you may have been introduced to after a few years of study.

Also, experience is the key for me. So if I wanted to introduce someone to biology, for examples, I could suggest that they ordered a (prepared for dissection) frog, pig, sheep brain, perhaps look at anatomy text X or website X, and spend time looking at it. If someone were going to study a dissected mink, though, it would take weeks to do that well, probably not just an hour or a few minutes.

I apologize, I think I wasn’t clear, or other fields may not lend themselves to the same thing the same way that biology did.
posted by Wolfster at 11:33 AM on May 6, 2009

Someone comes into the place where you work and says "Do you have any books about caves?" You need to figure out, in the least intrusive way possible...

- what sort of books or information they want (if the book is even for them)
- what their reading/interest level is
- what their computer proficiency is
- whether this is for homework or pleasure reading
- how long their attention span for listening to you is
- given this, what might be good for them
- whether you have that item
- if so/not how to find that item and get it to them
- how well they follow directions
- how to convey that to them in a way that they hear and understand (especially tricky if they *think* they want one thing but you're pretty sure based on decades of experience that they're going to want something else.) how to get it for themselves
- how to follow up without seeming like you're spying on them whether they got what they needed

Repeat all day long, and tell people what time it is and where the bathroom is at least twice in between each "real" question. Also you repair printers.

Welcome to being a public librarian at the reference desk.
posted by jessamyn at 11:34 AM on May 6, 2009 [6 favorites]

I have a PhD in Political Science and teach courses on international security. The first day of my intro class, in my mind, gives students 80% of the way toward understanding strategy. I know you wanted something beyond the basic level, but that's the thing - I think this is, even if it doesn't seem that way at first blush.

Me: I need two volunteers.

Two volunteers: OK.

Me: Play Rock Paper Scissors. Now two more volunteers.

Two more volunteers: OK.

Me: Play Tic Tac Toe.

Then we discuss which of the two is more like war, and why.
posted by brozek at 11:52 AM on May 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

I'm not sure how well your question can be answered for non-science fields.

I have studied Protestant Systematic Theology at the three leading institutions in my field, including schools in the US and Germany. I cannot begin to suggest where you would begin an examination of the field excepting that I presume my study has been authoritative. That is, I assume I have built upon the foundational assumptions of the "correct" thinkers, as the field by definition involves empirical that is available to me. The Resurrection is not something I witnessed, nor can I ever witness it. Therefore, I study accounts of the Resurrection. I study critiques of the accounts of the Resurrection. I study critiques of the critiques of the accounts of the Resurrection. My field requires decent analytical skills, a tolerance for ambiguity, an appetite for research, and (frankly) a willingness to devote oneself to study of something that might not be real but you'll never know it unless it is.

I suppose I would say pick up the Bible. Read enough to become thoroughly confused (a paragraph, at best, methinks). Then read the wikipedia articles on Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Barth. Decide which sounds least offense to you, then go to the primary source (Answer to the Pelagians, Summa Theologicae, On the Bondage of the Will, Church Dogmatics) Read enough to become thoroughly confused (a sentence, at best). Then google to standard critique on this thinker. Read enough to find the first reference to Kant and the first reference to Hegel. Then teach yourself post-Enlightenment philosophy. Then go back to the Bible.

I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed with the Humanities, here. Everything is up for grabs...
posted by jefficator at 12:08 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yes, this is difficult for generalists.

Imagine reconciling the ideals and the beliefs that got you interested in your work, with the practicalities of dealing with people who know far, far more about niche parts of your area than you ever will, and people who know far less, but are hell vocal about it, and probably cordially hate you. All the money there is available to do your job is spent, and there isn't ever going to be any more. You have to be, at all times, infinitely knowledgeable about everything, and prepared for any eventuality you can think of, and you have to be able to write in such a way that your boss, who is not as well across the subject as you are, can express the complexity at the same time as deliver a memorable message. You are constantly, oppressively, aware of how difficult the praxis of turning theory and desires into tangible outcomes is. Oh, and your job can change areas entirely without notice, or end at any time. Welcome to political work.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Know your values and identify your self-interest. Power is the ability to act. There are two forms of power - people and money. Organize people and organize money and you will gain the power to change the world based on your values. Relational meetings/one-on-ones are the building blocks of organizational power. Have twenty of these a week. Submit a new grant every two months. Now you're a community organizer, in the traditional sense.

To best learn what it is like to be a community organizer, you have two options. Get thee organized, or get thee trained. I organize for the Gamaliel foundation... I see that we have four affiliates in New York - any one of them would delight in helping you uncover your self-interest and start organizing.

The best organizer training I ever attended was developed by Steve Max and the Midwest Academy. Steve is an old-school SDSer and his training was awesome. Go to training! You'll learn how laws get made, policies passed, communities transformed, empires crushed.

Read Alinsky.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 3:06 PM on May 6, 2009

Sit for hours — an entire day usually — in a boring meeting that no member of the public would ever want to attend.
Take complicated information and write about it so an 8th grader could understand it.
Try to write down a complete quote accurately from someone who speaks really fast and in incomplete sentences.
Keep a straight face while windbags are carrying on about how great they are.
Sift through file cabinets worth of financial documents, contracts and legal filings looking for miniscule details that could, maybe, mean something.
Make dozens of phone calls that are never returned, feel like a stalker.
Interview people who have had children murdered.
Freeze to death in a overly air conditioned courtroom, sweat to death at an outdoor protest and stand for hours in heels at a crime scene.
Write in creative, concise, and informative prose under a daily deadline.
Turn out multiple stories in a single day.
Work 15 hour days, often six or seven days a week for about $25-35,000 a year.
Meet interesting people, learn something new every day.
Feel that what you do is a meaningful contribution to society, if not one that is always appreciated.
Expose government corruption, put people in jail for stealing taxpayers money.
Tell the stories of the voiceless, give exposure to good causes, show communities the strength they have.
Spend all your time ensuring that all your information is accurate, yet people still believe you make it all up.
Get told on a regular basis that you don't know how to do your job by people who couldn't hack it if they tried.

This is just a small part of what it takes to be a journalist. And I wouldn't have it any other way.
posted by I could but I won't at 6:44 PM on May 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You're going on a hiking/mountain climbing expedition and since you're a beginner, your guide has asked you to pick 25 out of a list of 50 essential items to carry for survival aid. Your backpack is pretty small and unfortunately you can't afford to purchase a larger backpack.

Assuming that each one of these 50 items are equally important and are only different in dimension, you want to pick the optimal combination of 30 items that would result in as many items fitting into the backpack as possible.

Now consider that different items would have different weight as well, and you can only carry up to a limit of 15 kg. How would you pick them?

Further investigation into this question will lead you down the path of Combinatorial Optimization.

An alternate formulation of the question would be "Can we put in X items without exceeding the limit of Y ?"

Trying to come up with a formula/method to answer that an alternate question will lead you down the path of Computational Complexity Theory.

Bonus point for coming up with a way of being able to answer the question quickly (we'll leave the definition of 'quick' for later), which will lead you to world fame, advancing mankind's technology a great deal and bagging a cool $1 million prize in the process as well.
posted by joewandy at 7:22 PM on May 6, 2009

I'm a geologist.

Go hiking somewhere. Go to the beach, go to a river, go to a mountain. Then just look around. If you're at the beach, freeze the frame in your mind and try to rewind it at rapid speed by a few thousand years. Watch the dunes move over hundreds of kilometres, depending on winds, which depend upon ocean currents, which depend upon the movement of the continents. Watch the sand get formed from the mountain in the distance, eroded piece by piece, washed and scoured and rolled all the way down to sit between your toes.

Rewind a little faster now, to a few million years back. Watch the climate get cooler, the sea level fall, the vegetation die off a little. Watch the rapid erosion of soil due to the lack of vegetation. Watch the giant canyon that forms then the river to your right drops with the sea level and cuts down into its banks. Watch as the shore starts speeding up towards another continent.

Rewind even faster now, go back tens or hundreds of millions of years. Your whole continent is flying across the planet, tearing open the sea floor behind you and thrusting oceanic crust underneath the continent you're about to crash into, creating volcanoes that launch hundreds of thousands of cubic kilometres of material into the air. The continents hit each other, buckle under the strain, and as they crumple together they form a mountain range higher than the Himalayas. As they do, the sediments and sands within them are cooked, under intense pressure, to form all kinds of weird and wonderful rocks. There's a good chance that the area is riddled with faults and earthquakes, and a good chance that along some of these there will be millions of tonnes of copper, or gold ore, being deposited.

And then flick back to the present. The ring on your finger? The gold in it lived within the planet for billions of years before one day being shot up through the crust in superheated fluid to cake itself onto a rock, where it waited for millions upon millions of years more, until it was found and cut out for you. The sand between your toes? That single grain was walked on by the earliest precursors of dinosaurs, it was washed down prehistoric rivers, it was thrust up into a mountain range then stripped out and driven to the sea, just for you to walk on. The wind on your face? It's shaped by the mountains behind you, by the desert behind them. If North America was a little further north, it would be different. If Australia was further south, it would be different.

Look around you. The shape of the coast, the way the waves break, the temperature of the water, the strength of the wind, the plants that are growing- all of these things have histories that extend unimaginably far back, way beyond the limits of human understanding. We exist in a infinitessimally small blip of time, and everything around us has been slowly unfurling and contorting itselt into just how it is, here, today.

And that's my geology experience.
posted by twirlypen at 8:22 PM on May 6, 2009 [7 favorites]

Stare at a computer screen for no less than 8 straight hours. One-by-one, review documents you barely understand, largely removed from their original context, that supposedly relate to a lawsuit you've been given a terse briefing about. Try to figure out which documents are "relevant," based on vague criteria. Click your mouse several thousand times in the process. Repeat the next day for however long is necessary to get through all the documents - days, weeks, months. Then, start on the next case.

Sorry to be depressing, but this is a large part of the life of many junior associates at law firms. Lucky ones won't have to do a ton of doc review, but unlucky ones may wind up doing nothing but. Not every job can be made to sound interesting.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:26 PM on May 6, 2009

Have a day. No, really. Just live through a day. It doesn't have anything special, just a normal oring day. Now, that evening think back on your day. What one moment stood out to you? Was it a nice cloud, or the sound of a bird? Maybe it was a feeling that you can't even find a word for. Think on this event. Mull it over until you can recall every nanosecond of this event and are sure you will be able to share it with others in a way that they will be able to feel exactly like you did at the precise moment.

Now go grab some paints, or metal, or clay or pick up your camera or other recording equipment and recreate that moment. Agonize over every detail. Blood, tears and sweat are optional, self-doubt and frustration are not. Place your creation in a public space and talk to people who stop and look at your creation. See what they feel. Revise your creation, then bring it back out in public. Repeat process until you have perfectly recreated that moment for at least one other person. Glow like a mother-f*cking star, because you, my illustrious friend, are now an artist.

Now take that same object, and place a price on it. This will hurt. A lot. Now convince anyone to buy this creation for the marked price. Dicker, bargain and beg. This will hurt even more. Did someone buy it? Now you are a working artist.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 8:04 AM on May 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

At work: for most of the day, correspond and converse with authors, publicists, copyeditors, sales managers, production staff, and colleagues about nitpicky little things like what the photo credit is for a picture in the insert, whether your boss is available to meet at Book Expo America, if you have copies on hand of a book that was published five years ago, whether or not an author's contract should contain an option clause, why an author can't have a jacket with orange type, etc., etc. Keep the authors on deadline.

Attend meetings to discuss book proposals and manuscripts that have been read recently. Give your two cents on a novel the London office really likes (you didn't like it; the London office is going ahead with it anyway). Bring up a novel you really like, ask for folks to read it. Once it's been decided to pursue a book, spend lots of time on the phone with agents to negotiate terms for a contract. Go to weekly production meetings to be hounded for bits of the book as they come in. As publication nears, go to meetings to launch books to the publicity and marketing departments, and present them to the sales staff.

Remind authors about their deadlines.

Write five versions of promotional copy for each book: in house sales sheets, copy for the catalog that goes to booksellers, an audio description that will be put on a CD for sales reps, descriptive copy for the book jacket flaps, and, once the book is in paperback, copy for the back cover.

Did I mention you should keep authors on top of their deadlines?

Once the authors finally turn in their manuscripts (and it's always after the deadline), reformat their manuscripts to take out whatever fancy formatting they've put in, add page numbers (they never remember them), and combine the individual word documents they've created for each chapter into one document for the book. Give this to the managing editor, who will give it to the copyeditor.

At home, outside the 45+ hours you spend at the office each week: edit books. Read proposals and manuscripts to bring up in the editorial meeting. (This is usually what people think of when they talk about being an editor; it's the best part, but never gets done at the office.)

That's what it's like to be a book editor who's just starting out.
posted by ocherdraco at 12:41 PM on May 8, 2009

Computer programming. Imagine if you have to design and then build a series of machines, some simple and some built on simple machines and some built on machines built on simple machines. Once built, they can be easily duplicated and reused (and usually are) thousands and thousands of times. Now, calling upon all your accumulated experience and intuition, build the machine such that it is correct where "correct" is defined by somebody else, usually someone who makes more money than you do. Along the way, build the machine such that it maximizes at once elegance, performance, and safety. Spend a lot of other time communicating with other builders and documenting so future builders can continue or maintain your work.

If I were to introduce somebody to computer programming, I would probably spend a lot of time with them one-on-one because no book is ever going to beat out a (handsome, charming) human and, when you set out, a lot of it is pointing out how a computer works. Most people know large bits of how computers work, but there are always holes to fill in. (I still have some holes. We all have holes. Holes holes holes.)

A good introductory programming language is Python. A bad introductory programming language is Java (hello, computer science departments around the world). After Python, probably Java. And then cover C, a Lisp, and an ML. After that, programmers are hopefully strong enough to learn languages by themselves.

So programming boils down to good teachers and a strong sense of curiosity and practice. Being handsome and charming also helps. Picking up a computer science degree will fill in a bunch of theory holes that you couldn't fill in otherwise.

> Look around you.

Look ... around you. (Sorry.)
posted by shadytrees at 6:09 PM on May 8, 2009

There's a lot that could be done for photojournalism but I think this might be one of the easiest ways to approximate the emotions and difficulty of photographing horrible situations and tragic events. Wait until you're in a really heated, emotional fight with a member of your family or a loved one, best if there are tears. Now, when the anger is at its height, pick up your camera and take a picture that conveys the emotions of the person you're arguing with but which doesn't convey your own emotion. Make sure you're in a dark room, because lighting is never perfect. And, if you can, get other people (whose interest aligns with the person you're arguing with) to jostle you around while you're taking the picture. Ideally, it will be extremely difficult for you to take a properly exposed, in focus picture, and you will feel like the worst, most callous person in the world.

This isn't perfect, though. There are a lot of rewarding feelings that come from the work, but those usually happen after you're done actually taking pictures. But, I think the above would work to replicate a lot of what comes flooding in when photographing house fires for the local paper or photographing angry protesters in an unstable society. Of course, in those you're usually photographing strangers, but many photographers have a great deal of compassion to those whose situation they're covering (hence the family connection in the above example).

On the other hand, suppose you want to experience what it's like to do long-term documentary photography. Go to a neighborhood in your city where you've never been. Find the most interesting house, and knock on the door. Chat for a little bit, and then ask if you can take pictures of them waking up and preparing breakfast each day for the next week. You might need to stay the night at their house to be there bright and early. Figure out a way to do that. If they're skeptical, pick another house in the same neighborhood and figure out a way to meet a gregarious third person who likely knows the person inside the house. Earn that third person's trust and have them introduce you to the person in the house and create a relationship between the three of you that involves you taking pictures of the house person waking up and eating breakfast each morning for a week. Also, it's best if you pick someone who will choke on the 4th day of breakfast, so you can simulate the nature of what happens when what seems to you like one story turns into a completely different story. This will also simulate the need to identify subjects for stories that will draw out aspects of the story that you never realized were part of the story.

In this case, your story about breakfast, which was probably going to be really boring anyway, turns into a story about the difficulties of the US healthcare system. You need to realize that this is the more important story and the one that you were really interested in photographing, even though it only seems like your subject choked on a piece of bread and wants to reschedule the breakfast shooting for when the subject is out of the hospital. Then you need to convince the subject to sign the appropriate documents to let you photograph them in the hospital and then you need to convince the hospital pr person that, yes, that's all you really need to do to be able to photograph in the hospital. And then something else that you didn't expect will happen.... And then something else. And then your car will get towed. And somewhere in there you need to figure out how and when to take pictures that address your new story.

Oh, and, then when you think you're done taking pictures, or during the week you're taking the pictures. Find 10 or 100 people on the street and ask them to buy your pictures. Hopefully they will all ignore you. Every once in a great while someone will stop and look and give you some money. Even less frequently, when you are at a restaurant on date, one of these people will call you and ask you to go take pictures of somebody eating dinner ("Shoot it just like your breakfast story. I loved those pictures!") and they need the pictures by tomorrow. They will pay you money for these pictures in a month or two. This is what it's like to try to get your pictures published in a magazine.
posted by msbrauer at 7:08 PM on May 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Splitters and lumpers are not confined to biology. Imagine for a second you don't have the Linnaean taxonomy and you are starting from scratch. Yay! Great fun right? ! Yeah definitely.

Now imagine you are applying a classification system like that to stuff in your workplace. So, you might want to decide how you're going to break everything down by subject as in Dewey or you may be required to break things down by function. You will identify a number of activites that come together so the function is performed. Then you will identify transactions or products of these activities.

So you have to start investigating all the things your business does and how all those things relate to each other. You will do some research on the business, read annual plans and strategies, annual reports, relevant legislation and even foundational documents.
You will spend a lot of time talking to people in your organisation and asking them what they do, how they work, what kind of structure of information might make their job better.

In my case I work for an agency that has client files for the whole of government. Gee, well that's about 4000 things (I'm from a small country) to organise so let's think how we start.

So what do we do?
We audit.
Hmm, okay, well what makes one audit different from another?
Well the structure of the organisation we're auditing, it might be something as small as a mowing trust for a group of schools in a rural area who pool together to pay for lawn mowing services or it may be a huge ministry such as the Ministry of Health, so we have different sets of instructions for audits of different types of government bodies.
Right, so how many different sets of instructions?
Great let's start there. What else can you tell me about each type? ....

Doesn't have to be something as dull as accounting, could be a classifcation system for a laboratory or a rodeo. The joy of it is you will have the ability to analyse a business and pick up specialist knowledge as you go.

By the end of the process, you will understand your business well and will be able to construct something that will make sense to the people in your organisation. You have to consider how your classification will work in an electronic and physical environment, whether it will affect, say, your accounts department or your external clients. You have to balance out the competing needs of various teams and produce something that makes everyone happy (which is near impossible but don't ever let that put you off).

Next question you ask is "So what do we need to keep and for how long?" That's the face-off between the hoarders and the chucker, way more acrimonious than any debate about homo habilis.

That's what you would do if you were a records manager.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 5:06 AM on May 9, 2009

Pick a religious event or location in your area. Do research, make sure they're OK with you showing up, dress appropriately.

Go in. Sit at the back (if seating is available), and take note--mentally only!!--of everything you see. Decor. Languages heard. Diction. Wardrobe of the people. Politics of who sits where. If you speak the language of the liturgy (if applicable), try to memorize the order of the liturgy and any interesting quirks in terms of word choice, etc. If there are any bookshelves visible, try to memorize the titles. Notice if touch or fire or some element is repeated, and guess as to why. Engage in idle chatter with the participants, to try to make them feel comfortable, so you can get an "emic" (insider's) view of the service. Then get into your car or bus and begin writing down everything.

Then go again and again and again. Start interviewing people. Learn the language, if applicable. If the religious tradition you're studying could be seen as being "in diaspora" (Judaism most popularly, but recently North American and European Jainism and Hinduism have been put into this category), and the people suggest you go to a certain location to get a sense of how it "really is," do so, if only to get a sense of why they would consider the tradition in that place to be 'authentic' as opposed to their 'diluted' form.* Try to develop a sense of the scope of how people from the same religious tradition, in the same congregation, will see the same ritual acts differently.

Keep on doing this for multiple years.

I'm a student studying religious studies, with a fieldwork-oriented perspective, which comes from having profs who all focus on sociology and anthropology.

*One of my profs did just that, and went to north India to study Jain monastic communities.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:03 PM on May 10, 2009

Oh, and I forgot to even mention the typical aspects of academia, like writing paper, applying for jobs and grants, and if you have a job, dealing with institutional responsibilities.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:04 PM on May 10, 2009

  • Pick one of your relatives - it could be someone living or dead, but ideally, someone who is older than you.
  • Begin cataloguing the events of this person's life, gathering as much data as possible. You may want to divide the person's life into 5-year or 10-year chunks, and set up a matrix or table with the 5-year increments down one side or running across the top. Along the other axis, you might create headings like "Biographical," "Local," "National," "Global," "Technology," "Pop culture," "Legal," "Contemporary acccounts," etc. Try to think of all the categories of historical information that could illuminate this person's life.
  • Fill in your grid. Under "biographical," put in the dates and basic details of this person's birth, important events, moves, marriages, military service, immigration, schooling, experience - whatever they went through. Under "legal" you would put mentions of the person that appear in the legal record with documentation - marriage license, deed transfers, discharge papers.
  • Your grid will have lots of holes that you don't know about - but you will know where they are. Conduct research to fill in your grid. You will need to use general information sources for national and global events, local sources (like newspaper archives and county court records) for local and legal information, magazines and newspapers and maybe TV and radio for pop culture information, journals/letters/diaries from people with some sort of connection for the contemporary accounts of experiences related to your life.
  • Document all the sources from which you are pulling information for your grid. Keep copies of the legal documents, articles, research papers, diaries, accounts, etc. A binder system becomes really helpful here.
  • When the grid is basically full, think about what your goals are in sharing this information. You could create a webpage, slideshow or multimedia interactive, or make a physical exhibit - either a formal exhibit with framed documents and object cases, or a re-created environment, or sequential immersive experience. Alternatively, you could write a book or stage an event.
  • Identify the most important and significant themes or elements in the person's biography. Was it their lifelong commitment to justice? Their business acumen? Their pioneering character in breaking through barriers? Their inventions? Their dedication to family? Boil the themes down to 3-5 main, strong points. Look, especially, for themes that illuminate the conditions of a historical time period and for humanities themes that themes which have some universality. Be sure you are giving your viewers a reason to care beyond the fact that this person was in your family. Connect to emotions as well as intellect. Every now and then, step back and view the story you are building and ask "So what? Why should anybody care? And be sure your narrative answers those questions.
  • Choose the mode of interpretation and present your information. Depending on the mode, you may need to do some fabrication - building exhibit elements like object stands, theatrical-style sets, electronic interactives, or cases. OR you may need to write a script and record an audio presentation. Or you may need to create a storyboard spelling out the stages a visitor will go through in experiencing the story you're telling.

  • posted by Miko at 8:14 AM on May 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

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