Dispatches: Undergraduate Researchers in the Field
Nineteen Harvard College juniors received summer travel grants from the Weatherhead Center to support their thesis research on topics related to international affairs. Since their return in August, the Weatherhead Center has encouraged these Undergraduate Associates to take advantage of the Center's research environment. During the 2012 spring semester, the students will present their research in a conference (February 9–11) that is open to the Harvard community. Four Undergraduate Associates write of their experiences in the field:
This summer, with support from the Weatherhead Center of International Affairs, I was able to spend nine weeks in Phnom, Cambodia, interning with the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) and conducting fieldwork research at the Tuol Sleng Genocidal Museum. I had the freedom to visit the museum and conduct interviews with foreign tourists, look through photographs and prisoners' confession records, go on tours with the museum staff, and meet with the director and deputy-director.
The museum was first opened in 1980 as a tool of political propaganda by the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK), the successor regime of the Khmer Rouge, to demonize the Pol Pot- Ieng Sary's clique while highlighting its own role in the nation's liberation. The exhibits that had been placed at that time—the victims' mug shots and their clothes, torture materials, paintings by former survivor Vann Nath—all came together to present a demonized narrative against the Khmer Rouge regime, for the state to govern the historical narrative of what should be remembered or forgotten—when such discourses will occur and on what terms. This is significant because the displays have remained the same throughout the years—mug shots used by the state in asserting its own authority upon the population and legitimating its means of governance.
There will be two parts to my research. First, I will focus on how the Cambodian state uses the Tuol Sleng Museum, a public commemorative site, in constructing a certain kind of social memory for both the local communities and the international public. And second, I will place the site in a broader context of discourse concerning international tourism and political economy, to study how trauma and memory have become politicized and commodified. It is important to note that the museum, as it stands today, misses its local audience. The local residents do not care to visit the museum, even when admission is free. The older generation does not see the point of re-experiencing the pain they had suffered in the past, while the younger generation is more interested in development and modernization. Furthermore, the Cambodian state refused to incorporate Khmer Rouge history into the school curricula because the issues are highly politicized and some current officials are former members of the Khmer Rouge. As a result, many students do not know that the genocide occurred or do not believe the stories their parents tell them regarding that period.
I was absolutely captivated by the people I met along the way: Former genocide victims and their inability to forgive and forget but having to move on, their endless search for missing relatives and friends, and their desire to create a memorial so that the dead can be remembered and honored. Former Khmer Rouge perpetrators and their notions of victimhood, the discrimination they face in their own communities, their desire for national development and amnesia. “Memory culture” organizations with staff who have dedicated most of their time in searching and documenting the truth, seeking a means for national reconciliation, existing as the bridge between the victims and the perpetrators.
The biggest concern I had during the fieldwork was connecting reality to theory: How could the experiences of victims, perpetrators, tour guides, and visitors support or negate the notion of a museum as a power-legitimating, memory-managing institution? But eventually, I learned that I had the process in reverse—nothing should be more important than the individual and the narrative he wished to tell. It was about immersion, taking part in interactions that are deeply open and personal, going beyond judgments based on temporary facial expressions or outward appearances. The fact that Cambodians respond in initial social interactions with a smile does not necessarily mean that this gesture serves as a coping mechanism for trauma, as some scholars suggest. Nor do such reactions necessarily show the loving nature of Cambodian people, as tourists would like to assert. Certainly, the smiling housekeeper at DC-Cam reminds me of my mom who greets me with a bear hug when I return home for the holidays; but, there is also the moto-driver who had greeted my friends and me with a smile, only to steal my friend's purse and leave her vulnerable and confused.
As I proceed with my thesis, I hope to do justice to the people I met and interacted with, the people who have made me into a better individual and scholar.
The ten weeks that I spent traveling and researching in Peru this summer, were by far the most stimulating, challenging, thought-invoking, and character-building weeks of my life. I stepped off the plane in Lima and was quickly faced with a taste of the bustling, almost erratic energy that filled this city, as well as the political tension that permeated the country as a whole. The airport was closed due to a polarizing presidential election occurring the night I arrived in the country, and the waiting area was eerily empty.
While driving to my apartment that night, I saw restless groups forming in the poor outskirts of Lima, only to quickly break apart. But as I moved into Lima's wealthier areas, the streets became quiet again. Perhaps its inhabitants were sitting in front of their television sets or their radios, waiting with bated breath for election results, which could have large repercussions for Peru's fragile period of economic growth.
My first days in Lima went like a blur. I was faced with new sights and sounds, and I had one of the most diverse and exquisite culinary experiences of my life. Each day I had numerous adventures, ranging from hang-gliding over the Pacific to haggling with clever taxi drivers. In the midst of it all, I prepared to leave the city and travel to remote regions of Peru and begin my research on the role of NGOs working on education projects in those areas. Before I knew it I was on a bus, beginning a ten-hour drive to my first research site.
By the end of my summer, I had conducted nearly 100 interviews with schoolteachers, NGO workers, community leaders, parents, farmers, government workers, politicians, and bureaucrats. I learned what it meant to live and breathe research. I would wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to take a bus and drive for over one hour to a small village where I would spend the day interviewing. I would often not return home until 7 or 8 p.m. I was both surprised and heartened by the warm welcome I received in the villages and in the schools. I was caught off guard by how people—politicians and schoolteachers alike—were willing to be interviewed and to share their experiences with me. Most of all, I was touched by the generosity and true kindness I felt from the communities I visited.
My time in Peru helped me realize how much people and my own research meant to me. During my sixth week in Peru, I was rushed to the emergency room due to sudden and severe respiratory problems. Hours after I was admitted to the hospital, with an IV drip pumping liquid into my veins and an oxygen mask over my nose, I was told that I suffered from high-altitude edema and would have to abort my research and return to the United States immediately. I was devastated. For the first time since I can remember, I cried openly and inconsolably like a child. The only thought going through my mind was, “not yet.” I could not go home, not yet. In my mind I could see the faces of all the farmers, teachers, and community leaders that I had met during my interviews. I could not give up on them. Nor could I give up on the chance to look for solutions stemming from within their own communities.
The doctors conducted more tests and I was diagnosed not with edema, but with pneumonia—which meant I could stay. I could continue my research, even if it was from a hospital bed. I convinced co-workers to bring interviewees to my hospital room. I remember the puzzled look on the nurses' faces as politicians in business suits came in one by one and sat at my bedside, as I sat propped up on my bed in nothing more than a hospital gown, holding a recorder between us.
I will never forget my experience in that hospital room or the time I spent in Peru. I believe that because of this wealth of challenging and character- building experiences, I left Peru a better, stronger person than when I first arrived. I felt that I had accomplished more than I would have ever imagined, not only in my thesis research, but also in terms of my own personal development.
This summer, as part of my social-engagement thesis in the Department of African Studies and Social Studies, I implemented and evaluated an arts-literature project in an impoverished high school in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. I trained six teachers and four artists on how to teach literature through the arts, including fine arts, music, poetry, and dance. The purpose of pairing teachers with the professional artists was to allow the pair to work together to combine quality creative activities with genuine literature and pedagogical substance. The teachers and artists then taught approximately seventy students for ten weeks in an after-school program at Nkulumane High School. Using Chinua Achebe's work, Things Fall Apart, as their foundational text, students painted scenes from the book, wrote poems about characters and themes, dramatized scenes, and interpreted character movements though dance. At the end of the program, the school held a one-day showcase where the students performed and showcased their pieces of work to parents, teachers, community members, and officials from the Ministry of Education.
This project was adopted from Harvard Professor Doris Sommer's literacy model, “Pretexts for Arts” which she implemented in the US, Colombia, and Mexico. The reason I chose to implement this program specifically in Zimbabwe was twofold. Firstly, I wanted to give the students in this poor, high-density area an opportunity to explore the arts; for many of the students, this program was their first formal exposure to arts. The second, more academic reason I implemented this project, was to answer the research question how a student-learning centered program such as this would contrast or change the current rote-learning and highly disciplinarian teaching methods used in the Zimbabwean education system. In particular, I tested student reading enjoyment levels before and after the program, and I also did pre- and post-program interviews with the teachers, students, and artists. My hypothesis was that the program would give the students an opportunity to learn from one another, to be creative, and to develop critical thinking skills in addition to understanding that reading can be fun. It would differ drastically from the regular classroom situation in which rote-learning bored the students and corporal punishment made them afraid to ask questions and shamed them in front of their peers. Having personally been through the Zimbabwean education system and experienced corporal punishment and rote-memorization teaching methods for 15 years of my life, this project challenged me to question the entire education system and think analytically about student experiences, in addition to my own.
As the school term was coming to an end, the teachers sat me down and told me that they did not believe that these impoverished students would have any incentive to attend the program during the school holidays. The teachers were therefore surprised when the 35 students attended three two- to three-hour sessions a week for three weeks. The students also became actively involved with organizing the showcase that was planned for the end of the program. Two weeks before the show, the students assembled themselves for an extra two hours a day, perfecting the artwork, poetry, dramas, and dances they had been working on throughout the program. Through my ethnographic recordings and interviews, as the program progressed I began to realize that just as teachers had underestimated the eagerness of the students to learn through arts, they had also underestimated students' learning capacity, creativity, and personal talents. In the post-program interviews, one teacher stated, “Pupils have got so much talent that is lying idle and does not come out in the classroom. I think these students are more openminded and expressive. They are also able to analyze the content that they are given. This program made me realize how talented our students are. None of their talents are put to good use with the lecture methods we use in our classroom.”
In terms of my own personal experiences and growth, this program challenged me to think critically about the role of education in society as well as implementing community-development projects. I loved working with the teachers, artists, and students. It was a wonderful feeling to watch their increasing communication and eventual ownership of the project throughout my ten weeks.
The school has since decided to keep the after-school program running, and the Ministry of Education's Culture and Arts wing has created a seven-member committee, including four of the six teachers, to expand the project to other schools in the district.
For my summer research, I was based in South Africa where I studied how NGOs and the South African government have addressed HIV/AIDS in marginalized sexuality groups with a focus on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people, sex workers, and straight-identified men who have sex with men (MSM). Over the course of the summer, I interviewed activists, clinic workers, government leaders, and educators about the ways in which these marginalized groups have been included (or not) in HIV/AIDS advocacy and how pressure from international funding bodies (such as the United States and United Nations) have influenced the approach taken to addressing “controversial” sexual practices.
I became interested in this topic when I learned about what the US conservatism built into programs like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). I was frustrated to learn that programs receiving funding from PEPFAR were restricted to abstinence-based education and forbidden from openly aiding sex workers. Because my interest was initially so politically charged, I started my project with some significant biases. After I received no responses to my first round of e-mails and calls for interviews, I realized I would have to correct these biases if I was going to have more productive interviews—especially when it came to talking about the politics of funding.
However, what I discovered was that a majority of organizations shared my same distaste for the ideological power America and Europe had in HIV/AIDS funding. All the organizations knew the famous “ABC” method well (Abstinence, Be Faithful, Condomize), but, more importantly, knew the “A” and, to an extent, the “B” to be ineffective (at least in regards to my populations of interest). While it is well known that multiple concurrent partnerships are the leading cause of HIV transmission in South Africa, the problem remains that it does not do much good to preach to a sex worker or a married MSM to “be faithful.” Their needs, when it comes to HIV/ AIDS prevention, fall far outside the accepted language and approaches, and it doesn't seem much is being done to fix this besides handing out condoms anywhere and everywhere.
While my initial hypothesis was that programs like PEPFAR were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, the new “un-biased me” wanted to figure out what shape that hole actually was. What I discovered was that once a nation becomes overcome by an epidemic such as HIV, it is forced to start talking openly about sex. I was shocked and impressed by how frankly people discuss sexuality and how honestly it is portrayed on TV and other media. What the US and UN need to put money into is to find out why people are not doing what they know they should. The fact that South Africa still has the largest number of persons living with HIV/AIDS in the world means that the country still has a lot of work to do, but they also deserve credit for the things they are trying to do right.
One of the biggest lessons I learned over the course of this research experience was the importance of language, both the language used to talk about HIV/AIDS, sex, and sexuality in South Africa, and the language I use as a researcher to talk to people about these sensitive topics. Because HIV/AIDS is so intrinsically tied to sex and sexuality (always sensitive topics), it requires careful consideration of the language to use. At least within the world of NGOs and government organizations, political correctness was huge. In one interview, I received a very intense scolding from the head of the South African National AIDS Council for using the acronym LGBTQ in an email. Apparently, “queer” is not appropriate to use in South Africa as it is in the US.
As I sort through interviews and research materials, I am finding the topic of language to be incredibly interesting, especially in a comparative sense to the language used in US-based health programs. Through legislation and the equal-rights clause of the Constitution, sexuality itself has become a much politicized topic. I am interested in exploring this politicization and the way sexuality has become constructed and discussed in policy and in the culture of urban South Africa.