The Community Studies Center at Dickinson was developed in 1997 as an effort to support and extend faculty-student fieldwork, including ethnography, participant-observation and oral history. Those involved in the creation of the Center are firmly convinced that the approach to knowledge facilitated by fieldwork is of unique value to students and ultimately to the world, because of the soundness of its philosophical base, because of its grounding in the "reality of everyday life", because of the kinds of relationships that are forged, and because of the flexibility combined with discipline that fieldwork of high intellectual and ethical quality demands from its practitioners. Cultural study through fieldwork has a long and honored history in anthropology and sociology, but is a relatively new technique in historical work, developing hand in hand with U. S. social and cultural history in the post-Viet Nam era.
Responding to the postmodern criticism of all knowledge as determined by power, recent fieldwork seeks to go beyond the relativist bind that post-modern understandings create, to explore the complex and multiple ways that people make meaning that allows them to act in the social world. This necessarily involves scholars (be they students or professors) in what Clifford Geertz has called "thick description," by which he means cultural analysis that is extremely self-conscious in method, detailed in observation, rich in context, attentive to the individual as well as the group, and complex in interpretation. Because such work is taxing and time-consuming, it has often been left to graduate study, but we who formed the Community Studies Center have found that it offers much to undergraduate students and is perhaps uniquely able to develop some of the attributes that Dickinson desires to instill in its graduates.
In the various projects which Community Studies supports, a community of inquiry is inevitably developed. As faculty collect materials and resources for the study of a community, they develop working relationships with various institutions within that community as well as with individuals who both contribute to the knowledge base and provide intermediate contact with others who may want or at least agree to be interviewed. To study a community is to become part of it, at least temporarily, so fieldwork has the advantage of involving community members in the generation of new knowledge and reflection on their own lives within that community. These particular communities of learning constitute themselves, then, as automatically grounded in the realities of life in the community being studied and in disciplined study as understood in the academy. Students learn to explain their projects not only to academic audiences but also to members of the communities they study. This teaches a unique responsibility to both the academy and the community. What is produced is collaborative in the best sense of that term.
Working with Global Education, the Community Studies Center has a long-range goal of internationalizing some Center projects. The time-tested structure of the College's abroad programs provides an excellent platform for exporting community-based research. The Center's Steering Committee sees the College track record in international education, plus recent outside funding for the American Mosaic program and for the diaspora-community project will lead to the development of an increasing number of international Mosaics like that in Patagonia. Our Crossing Borders Program (FIPSE funded) has already established a new model for intercultural education, both domestic and international, with its explicit emphasis on the similarities between learning about a non-US culture and learning about the diverse cultures of the U.S. Hoping to stimulate interest in fieldwork at our centers abroad, Community Studies has just completed its first intensive (7 days) training workshop in oral history for faculty working at those centers. Through both faculty development and student preparation, Community Studies would like, eventually, to establish "virtual centers" in all of the communities where Dickinson has a presence.
Recognizing that curiosity itself is a form of knowledge, fieldwork teaches students that there are questions to be asked about all social interactions, both those that form communities (the field) and those that collect data (the fieldwork itself). They learn that asking good questions, ones that engage respondents and interviewers alike, is not as easy as it might seem and, in learning this, they learn the meta-fact that their questions will have a direct bearing on the kinds and quality of the information they gather. The second thing that fieldwork cultivates is responsible and attentive listening, and the realization that being able to listen well requires considerable background preparation surrounding the issue/event/person focused upon. Here is the heart of the kinds of response an interview elicits. Being prepared shows respect and interest in a way that simply saying one is interested cannot. Good listening also requires good follow-up questioning, whether that be in a single session or in a later one.
The third thing students learn is how to make use of the different forms of record (field notes, audio recording, video recording) that might be employed in investigation along with just what advantages and disadvantages the use of each of these forms entails. The fourth thing they learn is that analysis, including relating what they have collected to theory (narrative as well as cultural), to demographic, statistical and structural concerns and to previous study, precedes any form of production and dissemination, be it a paper or an audio or video production.
Finally, they learn that those who disseminate the results of study have a deep responsibility to those who have responded to the questions. While respondents, students and faculty may reach differing conclusions about data than the respondents alone might offer, there is nonetheless an honorable way to present them that recognizes those differences and reflects on the situated character of all analysis. To subject the accuracy of one's own analysis and observation to the scrutiny of respondents is a unique discipline, and one which helps to develop patterns for ethical treatment of others. In this work students also acquire interactional skills that cross all sorts of boundaries of race, class, sex, gender and generation. Community Studies sees these skills as precisely the ones needed to produce citizen-leaders that will make Dickinson proud.
The Center itself also becomes the archive of the materials collected, recorded and transcribed, and the resultant analyses. Here, within the parameters defined by those interviewed, others can come to study and draw on unique primary materials. Future historians as well as the communities themselves, then, will have a record of a sort often missing in the past: ordinary citizens' lives in ordinary communities within Dickinson's sphere. This, in some small way, returns to the community itself something in exchange for its allowing our students to participate in these joint projects.