An EPIC First Timer

“Stand up if this is your first time at EPIC.”

As I stood up on the first day of EPIC2017 in the HEC auditorium I looked around to the other sheepish, wide-eyed, somewhat overly-confident first-time attendees.

The lights were bright as ken anderson and other veteran ethnographers looked around to see half the room stand up. You could hear the collective gasp from the attendees. I’m still not sure who was more surprised, the old guard realizing how EPIC is changing or the new guard unsure about the magnitude of their role.

I came to EPIC2017 to learn and apply more structure to my work as an explorer. For the past few years, I’ve written and created videos on the lives of locals in heavily-dense tourism sites under the pseudonym Everyday Explorer. Even as an International Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (London) and member of The Explorers Club (New York City) I am still confused as a travel writer, content producer, or simply (but erroneously) a blogger. My innate curiosity to discover, internalize, and share others’ stories brought me to Bad Babysitter, and thus, the EPIC community.

I can only learn so much through armchair absorption even though EPIC has extensive resources of the articles, books, videos, etc. that are published through its site. I would sit for hours following and reading the work from EPIC members such as Sam Ladner, Melissa Cefkin, Christian Madsjberg, et al. All of their work only created more curiosity, however, since it revealed an assortment of topics I had never even considered.

I realized the best way to become immersed in this practice was to bring everything into the mix. So, on a sultry, New Orleans summer day I bought a conference ticket and a flight to Montreal from my own pocket. It was a bigger financial investment than I previously imagined, but in order to learn I knew I had to go.  As Simon Roberts put it, “Anthropologists are committed to learning through engagement and first-hand experience because we understand that people learn by doing, by embodying other people’s tacit knowledge.”

 

Perceptions vs. Reality

As I arrived to the HEC the first day of the conference I kept going over in my head topics I could talk about in conversations, people I wanted to meet, and self-directed commentary on how to remain open and simply listen. (This is also recognized as my attempt to be calm and collected instead of bombastic and wide-eyed.)

I am brand new to this world of “applied ethnography”/”business ethnography”/”anthropology in business”. I don’t even know what the correct terminology for it is, type-of-new. It was disheartening and enlightening that in almost every conversation among the EPIC congregation, there was a feeling of, “How do people view ethnography/ethnographers in the current business world?”

I kept wondering, “If EPIC doesn’t know is there even an answer?”

Many new members are reaching out to catch hold of some ethereal idea of how to incorporate more empathy in business and their work. On the other side of my time in Montreal, however, I am still uncertain about how to go about doing that.

In the Salon “New to EPIC?”, there was no set age or experience level to the participants. Everyone came from diverse backgrounds and had arrived here, at EPIC, in order to pursue a deeper version of their work - a version they had sensed, but not managed to cultivate.

Through the various presentations I believed that question would be answered, but as another new member in my salon put it, “Ethnography needs a publicist.”

 

Highlights and Transition Forward

One of my favorite papers was Seeing and Being Agents of Hope: Human-Centered Designers, Transportation Planning and Drip Irrigation Kits by Emilie Hitch. In her presentation she spoke of how humans thought about the future: they act on desire but hope guides their vision. Through EPIC, I hope new members can build a better environment for ethnographers.

Progress may be difficult since, as Sam Ladner put it, ethnographers are “often the bearer of bad news”. That is something I have yet to experience personally, but aim to prepare for. It’s a hostile world out there, so encouragement and support go a long way.

For my first time attending an academic conference I think I did fairly well by not once falling asleep as I did in college courses. There are some book learners and then there are “street smart” learners. I am in the latter group.

Luckily, most presentations kept my attention. The papers, PechaKuchas (one of my favorite sessions), films, case studies, and my salon all provided various perspectives and methods of storytelling so the conference did not seem stagnant.

On the unlucky few presentations that relied heavily on monotone regurgitation of reports I still gained insight from these. Hey, you can learn from the bad things just as much as the good things.

I give credit to the PKs as they were my favorite most likely due to the reliance on brevity and story arcs. Storytelling is of vital importance in education. To transcend from information to knowledge to education takes a variety of skills and a large amount of patience.

I look to EPIC because I want guidance to take my current skills and funnel them into an applicable infrastructure of study. I hope that older ethnographers will relate to younger hopefuls and create connections through new and expressive teaching . Young professionals are learning about the changing scape of business as they also build the future of it. That is a pressure I can assure the veterans we do not take lightly.

 

What do I hope to get out of EPIC moving forward?

I am eager to learn more about business ethnography and how I can contribute to the community as a whole. I agree (with my minute understanding of the landscape) with the EPIC board’s consensus on what is in-store for ethnography:

  • strong ties between theory and analytical thinking

  • improve business literacy/client understanding

  • being flexible and adaptable in day-to-day practice

  • integrating various forms of data

  • developing succinct and constructive deliverables

On a personal level, I am looking for flagship contributors who create honest work but are willing to share their successes to the next generation. Or as Carolyn Rouse said, “People want to work/contribute...don’t discourage, teach.”

On a professional level, I am looking for examples of “credibility markers” to build into my efforts of ethnographic practice. I look forward to the professional development track under Martha Cotton.

People and projects involved in EPIC make me excited to go to work everyday. To find the environment where I can advance not only my work, but the recognition of an entire field of study is an exciting place in a career. It was worth my personal investment this year, and in the future, I hope it will continue to be worth that investment.

Written for Bad Babysitter.