Public Engagement in Portland21 March 2014
Sam Murray, Second Year PhD Student
For PhD students there are millions of buzzwords and key phrases expect of us during our time of study, some of these can confuse and contort whereas other can be rather enriching and rewarding. For an ethnographer public engagement has become a blessing in disguise, a perfect way to articulate the ethnical responsibilities we have as people who study other people.
Here at Cardiff we have a wonderful collecting of ethnography and ethnomusicology researchers studying a wide variety of musical cultures from Welsh Language Popular Music to musics of Albania and we all have responsibilities to those we study to ensure we don’t misrepresent them and assume things about their cultures. Public engagement offers us a way to connect with the people we are studying during our fieldwork and inform them how we are using their contributions be it their musical performances, words spoken in interviews or experiences we share with them.
This buzz-term does what it says on the tin and asks us to share our work with the field of study, but it also invites us to share our work outside the constraints of the academic world, to bring the core essences of our studies to anyone who may be interested.
The focus of my PhD has been to conduct a popular music ethnography of the music scene in Portland, Oregon in the USA. This may seem straight forward; I go to the US with a recorder and talk music with musicians, record shop owners, label managers, producers and fans. Yes in majority this is the essence of my study but I have to be considerate of several factors.
I am a Yorkshireman in the Pacific Northwest of the USA and there are great cultural differences; not only do we have slightly different lexicons when taking out the trash or walking on a sidewalk but we have different cultural values and belief systems, I come from a country with left wing politics whereas in the US socialism is considered an offensive word. There are many things I have begun to understand through my work and conducting interviews has become easier the more I take time to understand the local cultural values. We do however share musical interests with Portland’s music being in the majority part of the trans-Atlantic popular musical exchange that has created milestones in the history of music in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
So what are my ethical responsibilities when it comes to my PhD work?
It all starts when I make email contact with a potential interviewee. I am obliged from the off to fully inform them of the nature of my work as well as how their words will be used. Once an interview is agreed we meet and I once again discuss the nature of the study and explain how the words will be used giving the contributors the right to view their contributions in context, during the write-up process which comes later, and also the right to withdraw and withhold information form the study which may be somewhat incriminating to personal relationships within the scene. For example if an interviewee makes an incendiary comment about a fellow musician but later comes to regret making this comment.
I then switch the recorder on and ask several important ethical questions to have recorded evidence of the agreement so I can’t be accused of deception. I will ask the interviewee: to give consent to record the conversation, to identify the position of the recording device and confirm it is not in a place of concealment and to have their permission to use content in my thesis with view to being able to examine their own responses and withdraw incriminating comments if necessary. This can give assurances to interviewees who may feel uncomfortable about being recorded. This ethical responsibility and framework is the difference between ethnographers and journalists although we share a certain path with journalism in our extraction of information.
As ethnographers we gain great joy in delving through our collected primary data and piecing together stories of people and places. This excitement can sometimes be uncontainable when the light bulb in the head goes on and we love to share our findings.
During my first fieldwork trip I met with a not-for-profit organisation that specialised in public engagement whereby citizens of Portland were offered chances to engage with the interesting stories of their city’s past. This organisation is called Know Your City and they have organised a variety of events and initiatives to talk about Portland’s history and future. One of the Know Your City initiatives operates through the creation of walking tours of the city where a knowledgeable guide will take locals on a unique journey through the city opening their eyes to fascinating occurrences in mundane spaces.
After meeting with director Marc Moscato we decided to work together on a musical walking tour called ‘Sing a Song of Portland’ where we’d bring the musical history of Portland’s West Burnside Street to life by combining interesting stories with a sing-a-long at every stop where attendees would sing historically important songs connected with Portland from The Kingsmen’s ‘Louie Louie’ to Pink Martini’s ‘Hey Eugene’.
I worked on a script for the event using my research, gathering together not only interview data but accounts of Portland’s history from books and newspapers. As the airfare is rather expensive to the US, I couldn’t make a trip to be the tour guide due to rejections from funding scholarships, which are increasingly hard to come by for PhD students, in my place we asked a local professor to lead the tour and give her input on the script from her personal music scene experiences. We also paid a local musician to be our roving troubadour leading the sing-a-longs.
I managed to watch the tour via a webcam on a computer tablet and received positive feedback that the tour opened up stories that Portlanders had never heard about. The event was fun and one of the two tours managed to sell out. We also had one of the sing-a-longs used as an advert for the state health insurance group ‘Cover Oregon’.
The tour was such a unique and wonderful experience to be involved with that I knew I had to organise and participate in another public engagement event during my second fieldwork trip over New Year’s 2013/2014. After talking with Marc at Know Your City we decided that a tour wasn’t possible due to the cold weather but perhaps a talk of some sort would be better and something new.
I’ve done a few conferences now but wasn’t sure a conference paper would quite capture the imaginations of Portlanders to attend. As most of my work is interpreting the words of scene members I thought that I had an opportunity here to gather scene members together to have an open forum conversation about their city and their music scene and thus ‘PDX Conversations’ was conceived as my next event.
Because the conversations needed stimulus and direction I began to put together a panel of scene members I had already interviewed and found I had enough members to do two dates. Know Your City had asked the Waypost, a bar in north east Portland to hold the event, and they kindly agreed to us doing the two sessions.
The panels were fascinating and saw scene members assess the problems in the music scene and try to find a solution with audience members giving their opinions towards the collective goals established. The events succeeded in having an open conversation across musical genres about the problems all those involved with music in Portland are facing from alleged institutional racism to the lack of all ages spaces and the lack of cross-genre collaborations.
I also was fortunate to have consent to record the event and collect a vast amount of very specific data. As I was moderator for the event I steered the conversations to cover topics that were developing in my research so that now as I write this I have an idea of the chapter I am going to write for my thesis.
These two experiences in public engagement have given me a thirst for more events of this nature as they are not only incredible experiences in themselves but a unique way to sound out your ideas and opinions forming about your field of study. I am soon to go back to Portland for my third and final fieldwork trip to tie up loose ends and to test out my theories with the people who helped shape them.
As I continue through my second year of study I have become passionate about public engagement and as I bring the stories of Portland to conferences and through my writings I hope that I have manage to represent those I have interviewed in a way that is ethical and responds to the challenges these people face in their everyday lives.
The PDX Music Scene Project – keep up-to-date with Sam’s own research blog.