Folklore & Fiction Supplement: Keeping a Journal in Uncertain Times

Keeping a Journal in Uncertain Times

When my husband Sean was in college, he worked part time for the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, digitizing weather reports from the 19th century. These reports were daily accounts written by average people who went outside and wrote down what they observed. At the time, their work might not have seemed critically important to them, but in a university department where irreplaceable ice core samples were kept in a freezer never permitted to go without power, these humble, daily weather reports contributed fundamental insights about the history of Maine's climate. 

Let me tell you another story. The Memorial University of Newfoundland Folklore and Language Archive houses over sixty years of Newfoundland folklore including fairy and phantom ship encounters, recipes for food and medicine, boat-building techniques, regional history, and many other kinds of knowledge. Most of this material was collected by students in folklore classes who went home and spoke to their families, friends, and communities about the topics assigned to them, but I've utilized MUNFLA's holdings to learn and write about folklore genres in general. Now I tell my own research participants that their interviews, which will eventually be housed at the archive, may offer insights to future scholars that neither of us can presently imagine. 

There are key similarities between these stories. First, they're about ordinary people who knew things and wrote them down. Second, they're about the value of that knowledge to the people who came after them. These are important because everyday human knowledge is often devalued, even by the knowers themselves. Sometimes this happens because literate societies view written knowledge as authoritative, which causes other kinds of knowledge (orally-transmitted, embodied, etc.) to be overlooked. Often literate societies also value academic knowledge over non-academic knowledge, even though books and classrooms are only two of many places we might learn things. 

But you are still a knower, and your knowledge matters, especially now. My friend Aodán recently reminded me that "the events we are living through today will be written into the history books in years to come" and recommended that his friends keep a diary. I couldn't agree more. Yes, we will have plenty of authoritative writing and scholarship about the pandemic, but we need everyday writing as well, and it's equally important. So while I earnestly hope you'll share your nuanced stories of this time with your families and communities, I also encourage you to start keeping a journal and pass it on in due course. 

With that in mind, I'm going to outline my techniques for taking ethnographic field notes in the hope they might inspire you. The kind of journaling I'm advocating isn't the sort of introspective writing you do for yourself; it's the kind of writing that serves as a record of the times and your reflections upon them. So I'm advocating these particular techniques because I think they'll help you sort various kinds of information in a way that could be useful to other people later.

Header

I begin with a specific header that includes:

My Name
The Date
The Place Where Observations Took Place
The People Who Were Present/Involved

Chronicle of Events

I write this section of my field notes in black ink, and it includes a chronicle of events as they happened along with a rich description of the environment I was in. Here's an example of what I mean from Henry Glassie's ethnography Passing the Time in Ballymenone, in which he describes a ceili. These are the first few sentences of that passage:

Joe places a bog sod against the backstone, turf-side out, replaces the red coals, and leans dark brown turf in a semicircle over them. P in his work clothes, black suit and heavy shoes, holds the violin upright, facing him, and plucks the strings tuning it. Recently he sold his other fiddle to the father of a beginner, and this one lay in disrepair until the hay had been won. Now he has glued its cracks and strung it anew (Glassie 1995, 96). 

Now, Glassie is a master, so don't be daunted by the beauty of his prose! Instead, take a look at what's happening in the passage. Glassie tells us what Joe is doing and gives us a bit of P's history in a way that brings us right into the environment. We can see the red coals and brown turf, the work clothes and heavy shoes, and the glued cracks in the fiddle. This is important for your journal as well, so write down what happened and what you experienced with your five senses. Remember that you're writing for future readers (including your future self).  

Analysis, Impressions, and Observations

I write this section of my field notes in purple ink, and it includes my analysis of events, my intellectual and emotional impressions of them, and my observations about them. Again, let's look at the way Glassie analyzes the ceili he has described:

It would be wrong to approach communication among the ceiliers of Ballymenone with radically individualistic assumptions that turn the participants in social interaction into rival merchants in a market, or contestants in a sporting match, or attorneys in a court of law, or apes in combat. When people in Ballymenone create a ceili, they order their conduct so their communication will be pleasureful, purposeful, collective action, as much like a prayer as a play, more like courtship than war (Glassie 1995, 111).

Again, don't be daunted by Glassie's academic language! All he's doing here is applying a particular set of lenses to what he's seen. He observes that Ballymenone ceilis are places where people gather to communicate in ways that are pleasurable and purposeful, and he goes on later to discuss the particulars of this observation in his analysis. 

You can do this too. Apart from your chronicle and description of events, what do you observe about them? What are your impressions? Do you have an analysis to offer? It may help to know that I sometimes write poetry in this section of my field notes because it helps me think about what I've witnessed. But whatever way you choose to approach this section of your own journal entries, remember that it's where your thoughts and feelings belong. 

Three Questions

When I was in field school, Bonnie Stone Sunstein visited us from the University of Iowa to discuss field journal writing techniques. She suggested ethnographers ask themselves three questions when writing field notes, and I use those questions in my own work now. Here they are:

What surprised you? (This gets at your assumptions and helps you get past them.)

What intrigued you? (This gets at the positions you hold about things and helps you better understand them.)

What disturbed you? (This gets at your boundaries and biases.)

Asking and answering these questions might be a good way for you to conclude your journal entries and reflect upon what you've written.

A Template

Here's an abbreviated version of what I've written for you to copy into your journal if you like.

Header

  • Your Name
  • The Date
  • The Place Where Observations Took Place
  • The People Who Were Present/Involved

Chronicle of Events

Write and describe what happened.

Analysis, Impressions, and Observations

Write down your thoughts, feelings, and conclusions about what happened.

Three Questions

  • What surprised you? 
  • What intrigued you?
  • What disturbed you?

Conclusion

Any notebook will do in a pinch, but I recommend a paper journal over a digital one. Digital formats change, and electronic documents can be corrupted or deleted, but paper lasts for generations. Once the pandemic has passed, invest in a good journal filled with acid-free paper, and keep writing! As Galadriel herself said, "The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air." We will emerge from this time in history changed, and those who come after us will want more than a scholarly or journalistic account of these days. They'll want our memories, our thoughts, and our stories. Let's make sure they have them. 

Glassie, Henry. 1995. Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.