How to expect the unexpected. Or how being prepared never prepares you.

Before I stepped foot into the field, I had a lot of notions about how it was going to go. Beyond that, I had notions about my notions and a whole stack of literature that had me analysing my notions. Words bounced around in my mind: privilege, reflexivity, neutrality, boundaries. I met with seasoned academics and asked them about their fieldwork*. And, as one would expect, many of these notions and learnings did little to prepare me as to what my first encounter would be like.

Being poured strong tea with a side of homemade cake made by the woman I was to talk with while drawing different bird species with a bouncy child was certainly not how I thought it would begin.

Maybe I should back up here? Talking to mothers who migrated by boat or came through the resettlement program into Australia is the focus of my PhD project. I have spent the last year reading, writing, and forming chapters about border protection policies, harms which can emerge from them, gendered experiences of migration, and engaged with a host of theoretical literature from state crime to intersectionality.

However, coming from an undergrad and master’s in the traditional US style, my background is in statistics and numbers, categorizing and containing. Critical criminology was a footnote to the “more important work to be done” and I had to go out of the criminology department to even find a qualitative methods class.

Don’t get me wrong—there is a place and time for numbers, and I am the first person to start the discussion around how important mixed methods are, but here, in this moment while desperately trying not to let cake crumbs drop everywhere on the rug, was not one of them.

So I fumbled. A lot. I apologized. A lot. I overthought. A lot.

When did the social time over tea move into the more formal interview so I know when to turn on the recorder? When was a good time to prompt questions and when was a good time to be silent? Was I being too friendly or too pushy? How many sweets could I actually eat before I fell into a sugar coma?

This all must sound doggedly naive of me. You would think I had never worked with refugee and immigrant populations within the States through my work in the legal field or had not conversed with advocates from multiple Melbourne refugee agencies or, really, ever talked to another human before.

But there is a difference between being perched at the edge of a well-worn couch looking into the face of a woman who traveled with her daughter by boat after escaping war and asking her for her story, and anything else I have ever done in my life. And now I have talked to others, and still others will speak to me in the future. I am thankful for the preparedness that my supervisors attempted to instill in me and the literature which existed to give me insight into my place as a researcher.

Most of all though, I am thankful for that first woman who sat down with me and shared her story.

*Most notably, I would like to thank Anne McNevin in this capacity. Between her amazing chapter (Confessions of a Failed Feminist IR Scholar), her pep talk over too much coffee, and a continuing flood of resources about fieldwork, I am indebted.


About brandyc

PhD Candidate, Momash University Communication & Media Strategist, Border Crossing Observatory: Research Assistant Post-Graduate Representative, Sustainable Transport Committee Blog: Twitter: @brandy_cochrane