"Tell me about your project."
Usually this can be translated as, "please give a synopsis of the boring academic side of your trip to India that does not exceed two minutes in duration." People are generally disinterested in the relationship between Tibetan cultural preservation and digital media, so I feel like a professor lecturing on the history of economics to a class of sleeping students. No matter how enthusiastic you are about The Wealth of Nations or technology in developing countries, some listeners won't care.
When Ashley asked, though, my two-minute synopsis didn't satisfy her. She wanted to know what I'm doing and how I'm feeling about what I'm doing. She asked about my anticipated final product, a hazy vision that's slowly and privately been taking shape in my mind. She wanted to discuss my interview questions and read my survey and meet my informants. Best of all, she wanted to help me improve my efforts. In that thirty minute conversation Ashley encouraged me to articulate the focus of my project and decide what I was most interested in. "Your interview questions right now will get you a lot of background information, which you don't need anymore. How about you revise them so that they focus on cultural preservation? Also, you might email Sandee and ask for permission to conduct a few informal interviews with students. Have you though of talking to people here in McLeod as well?"
Like the wise mentor in Kenneth Grahame's "The Roman Road" from The Golden Age, Ashley has a vision that far surpasses my own. She's been to Rome, as it were, and come back to tell me about it.
The next day, Ashley and I headed up to the TCV in a green and yellow auto rickshaw. I showed her around the campus until my interview with the middle section headmaster. Unfortunately, my interview was a rather uncomfortable, unnatural one, enhanced dramatically by my intimidation from both the headmaster and Ashley. Thanks to Ashley's clear thinking, however, I scheduled two more interviews directly afterward with staff member that the headmaster suggested. A third interview subject was more difficult to reach--he was the manager of the small company that provides the internet for the TCV. After some difficulty, the interview was arranged, and Ashley and I immediately set out for his office. After a brief but informative discussion with him, we headed back to the mess hall for lunch.
"My interview was too short," I said with regret, remembering that I'd only hit thirty minutes.
"You used your questions as a crutch," said Ashley. "I want you to try an interview without looking at your questions."
Wait, what? That is not the sort of thing that sounds pleasant to a perfectionist.
"How would I do that?"
"Just treat it like a conversation. Ask questions about things that interest you. Here, why don't you practice on me?"
For a short while I interviewed Ashley about her first field study, when she studied in India as an undergraduate like I am doing now. She told me a bit about her study, which involved religious ideologies and development. I paused the interview at a natural break.
"How am I doing?"
"Better, but you're still too much in your head and some of your questions aren't specific enough."
As she said that, I recognized where the flaws had occurred. I said in mild consternation, "interviewing is hard!"
Ashley laughed. "Please come tell that to the prep class! They never believe me." That's true--I certainly didn't see why an interview would be difficult while I was back in Provo.
I practiced some more on the rickshaw back and voice more concerns about unscripted interviews.
"Be sure you're showing interest in the things your informant is saying. You can occasionally share some information about yourself, too--that makes the informant feel more comfortable and might cause them to think of some tidbit that you'd never even know to ask about." Ashley is a wealth of knowledge on this topic.
In the Bean cafe we split a Hello to the Queen and I asked my last question. "How is it fair that we get your help in field when the other students don't?" I knew, of course, that Ashley had come to India to see about moving the field study location from McLeod Ganj to Bylakuppe, and furthermore I had been more nervous about her visit than excited for it, but now I was feeling particularly privileged to have her insight.
She just smiled. "I'm glad I could help."