This project has already had an incredible impact on me. I might have predicted that it would, but I have been so consumed in building the project and reaching out to friends to connect with the Silent Generation that I wasn’t paying attention to myself.
Becoming a Better Anthropologist
An important change is my becoming a better Anthropologist. Anthropology in relation to ethnography, to me, means removal of self for the greater good of a project or understanding of a group of people. We learn this in school, in addition to critical thinking and best practices, but it’s easy to forget in day-to-day life. Our gut reactions and upbringing play a role in all that we do. Most of our interactions depend on our NOT dissolving our personality – our friends want to know what we think, colleagues want to know who we are. Acting as a Faceless Man would draw suspicion.
But when conducting ethnography, it is best to fade oneself out. This is hard to do, and it is obvious to a project when an Anthropologist is unable to do so. At the beginning of the project, I found myself bumping against this wall like a piece of driftwood against the levee. I knew that the wall needed to be dissolved, but I wasn’t sure how. Most of the stories I was hearing weren’t in large conflict with myself, so the urgency wasn’t there.
The challenge came when I was in the South. It is a cliché that the South is religious, but several of my interviews took that slant. Some even went so far as to be anti-other-religion, which is hard for me to support. This is where my levee finally broke. You see, this project isn’t about me. I am just a conduit. I had felt as such at the beginning, that I was being given these stories in trust that I would direct their flow with care to their final destination. Now I had stories I didn’t necessarily agree with.
I’ve always said I want to be able to represent a people or situation as accurately as possible, without sensationalizing as the news does. For me to remove any part of a story because I didn’t agree with it would be falling into the very habits for which I frown upon the news. It would also negate the trust I am building with the participants. My walls are down, and it feels good.
When I started the project, I thought I might do best if I crowdsourced the stories. I don’t know all 300 Million Americans. After circulating the project in my own city, and getting a little local PR, nothing happened. Not one story came through. So I started calling friends.
This is where the snowball effect began. I currently have five stories yet to transcribe, and fifteen more scheduled in the coming month. The national map is growing, too. I’m confident that the project will reach a critical mass wherein strangers will begin referring interviews as well, but it’s not there, yet.
The best part of all this is reconnecting with people I haven’t spoken with in a long time. I am calling friends all over the country, people I have loved. Hearing their voices, catching up on lives, leaves me a bit stunned. Why in the world did I ever stop talking to them? I don’t mean Facebook talking. I mean really talking on a personal level. Sending full messages, and spending the time on a phone call.
This project is overwhelmingly about connections. It is about adding flesh and blood to the cold fact bones of history. I am so lucky that a side effect of this is enriching my own connections once more.