Libby and Rachel met on the Ethnography unit. Rachel was studying Theology with Sociology and Libby single honours Sociology. They chose the unit for different reasons: Rachel because she wanted some empirical research experience and Libby because Esther was teaching it. Esther could have been teaching the history of toilets and sanitation and Libby would have taken it. She was a big Esther fan.
The other students on the course were not fans of Libby. They saw a pretty, affluent woman wearing the much mocked Brennan fashion of flared trousers and trainers with long, artistically messy bed-hair and smudged eye make-up. Her laptop was a Mac air, placed in a Fjällräven Kanken backpack and she carried herself with a quiet air of assurance so baffling to her more insecure, body conscious peers. For the 9 am Ethnography class she arrived early with her usual Starbucks coffee in hand. Her coffee ethics were also not likely to endear her to Chloe, Phoebe and Clara, who made a point of arriving with their recycled bamboo mugs carrying the ethically sourced and fairly traded coffee from the Artisan coffee shop on campus. It is doubtful Libby noticed their glances, raised eyebrows or head shaking. She was re-reading a passage on the problems of researcher familiarity and she thought the authors were simplifying the issues. Her fieldwork in Wolf Alley had revealed a Brennan to her that she had not fully realised existed. Her problem was not one of familiarity, but one of feeling like a fish out of water. Her night visits with Rachel had further shown her that a ‘familiar’ place could be utterly transformed when the commuters, coffee vans and over-priced burrito sellers had gone.
Last night they had both been standing in one of alleys talking to a group of homeless people (though Libby increasingly hated that phrase as it implied they had no home when clearly Wolf Alley was their home); when her arse had been grabbed from behind. Turning in fury she was faced with a man in a wheelchair, high on drugs and possibly a bit special needy. Libby was trying to not label or categorise this person in a hurtful way, bearing in mind all she had learnt about researchers exoticising the field in problematic ways. But this person had still grabbed her arse and was laughing in her face. The disconcerting thing though was that she wasn’t angry anymore. Instead she felt as though an axis had titled. According to her reading, fieldworkers had this power to write and document others, often without those others fully knowing what the end result, the ethnography, might contain. So she had been conscious of her researcher power in the field and her need to constantly check and question that oral informed consent had been given. But now that power was gone. Instead she was a young woman who had been groped by a man who was clearly vulnerable (in researcher speak) but also a bit of a dick because of the arse grabbing. She had looked over at Rachel, given her a brief nod, which was their code for ‘need to leave now’ and ten minutes later they were sitting in a pub.
Watching Libby sip her hot tea and ponder what this incident meant for issues around consent, vulnerability and power in the field, made Rachel realise for the umpteenth time what a total geek Libby was. Initially going to Wolf Alley with Libby had been a convenient way to make sure that she fulfilled her weekly fieldwork quota, but as the evenings got colder and darker, they had started going together out of safety. It just felt better if the two of them were there talking to people together and when nothing happened or it got too cold, they would head off to the pub and chat over what they had seen (or not seen). Rachel had never really met anyone like Libby in all her years at Brennan. Libby was someone who took her studies very seriously. More seriously than drinking (which she didn’t really do). Or partying, or even it seemed, friendship. Studying always came first. Rachel hoped she would manage to scrape a 2:1 at the end of the year, but Libby was heading for a shining first and nothing but a first would do for her. Sometimes Rachel would get texts from Libby at 7:30 am saying she was in the library and had saved Rachel a seat: did she want to join her? Rachel texted back at noon saying, quite truthfully, that she had been sleeping and was only now getting out of bed. Turning up for a 7:30 am study session, let alone the 9 am Ethnography class, were times of the day which should be reserved for sleep and only for sleep. And now here she was, 30 minutes late for Ethnography and Libby was giving her these significant looks as Esther talked about researchers operating on an ‘ethical fieldwork continuum.’ Rachel wasn’t really sure what that meant, but Libby obviously did and clearly wanted Rachel to agree to something. Rachel sighed, whatever Libby wanted to say at least it would be interesting. That was the upside to befriending a geek, it was never really boring. A bit earnest and sincere at times, but boring it wasn’t.
‘Esther’, Libby began, ‘Rachel and I are having some challenges with our fieldwork and wondered if we could have a meeting with you in your office?’ So not what I thought she was going to say, thought Rachel. A meeting and alone in Esther’s office, of all things!
In the end though, Rachel acknowledged that the meeting had been kind of interesting. Esther was a little scary and Rachel didn’t really understand Libby’s enthusiasm for her, but she had at least been helpful. Libby, as Rachel had guessed, told Esther all about the groping man in the wheelchair and how confusing she found the entire incident. Rachel had surprised herself by adding that because they were both women they had decided to do fieldwork together at night, for safety. Esther thought this was fascinating and had encouraged them to write about it. She had even suggested that as they were doing their fieldwork together, that they might want to think about writing a collaborative auto-critique? Libby got very excited about that and started talking about ‘overcoming researcher bias’ and ‘multi-vocal ethnographies’ and ‘situational truth’ – which meant very little to Rachel, but seemed to make both Esther and Libby very happy because they wittered on in this vein for some time. The most important thing that Rachel got out of it was that now she and Libby would be writing one of their assignments together, which was actually pretty cool. With Libby as her writing partner, Rachel reckoned this collaborative writing thing would be done quickly and speedily and best of all, might even be quite good. Rachel wondered whether she should mention that ‘the wheelchair incident’ as they had taken to calling it, might get them a good grade. She was fairly sure Libby would have lots of lovely wanky academic words and ethical issues with that. She decided against it however, as she really couldn’t be fished with Libby running to Esther for another meeting. Once was enough and really, this ethnography unit was already taking up far too much of her time.