Amid the stresses of classes, essay writing, deadlines, and preparing for upgrade exams, postgraduate students whose work focuses on Latin America and the Caribbean face an additional challenge: preparing for their first fieldwork trip. It can become something of a silent anxiety.
Just as everyone accepts that students who study another culture will necessarily need to spend time in the ‘field,’ what they should actually do while they are there is often taken as a given. Nonetheless, while postgraduates have developed the skills they need to conduct research in the UK, designing and executing their first research trip in Latin America or the Caribbean is a particularly intimidating task. It is for precisely this reason that the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) and the Centre for Integrated Caribbean Research (CICR) have jointly organised a postgraduate training day on conducting fieldwork in Latin America and the Caribbean for the past four years.
By drawing on its close relationship with the organisation Postgraduates in Latin American Studies, ILAS has been able to respond to a specific need identified by the national student population itself. Moreover, its national role in facilitating and promoting research across the UK ensures that ILAS (and CICR) can draw on an extensive network of scholars to offer a truly interdisciplinary and comprehensive programme of fieldwork preparation.
As the reputation of the training day has grown, so too has its attendance. This year, 36 postgraduate students from throughout the UK travelled to London to participate in the event. Given that Latin American and Caribbean studies are relatively small fields in the UK, this high level of attendance clearly demonstrates the School’s ability to offer a unique training programme that responds to a specific demand.
During the training day, experienced researchers introduce students to a range of strategies and techniques that will help them in the field. Several sessions focus on the practical aspects of carrying out ethnography, conducting structured interviews, and using the extensive archives and libraries found throughout the region. One of the most important sessions is that run by Dr Chandra Morrison, a former ILAS fellow who works at the London School of Economics.
Focusing specifically on ‘dealing with challenges in the field’, Dr Morrison discusses a range of problem areas, both personal and academic, that can arise during fieldwork in Latin America and the Caribbean. By giving participants the opportunity to voice concerns and by having senior academics share their own experiences, meetings like this prepare students to undertake their work with confidence.
While the training day addresses the immediate and specific task of preparing postgraduate students to conduct their first research trip, it also contributes to the wider ILAS and CICR missions. In the first instance, it ensures that a new generation of scholars learn about the institute’s unique national role. Following the training day, students frequently contact staff members with specific enquiries and remain in touch, attending Institute events and applying to other programmes.
This year, a new session facilitated by Professor Mark Thurner (ILAS) focused on working jointly with Latin American partners. By introducing students to this type of collaborative work at an early stage of their research careers, ILAS hopes to foster international relationships that will bear fruit in the coming years.