kit for the portable academic…

I’m currently doing a week of intense ethnographic research at Tate. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because I get to be a real researcher for more than half a day at a time. Because I live in the middle of the country and Tate is in London, being a real researcher means I have to stay away from home. It’s much too time consuming to come in and out every day. So a Tate ethnography week is always associated with a suitcase – and making sure I pack everything I’m going to need. Once I’m actually researching I don’t have time to rush out and replace anything I’ve left behind because I’d miss what I was there to do. I have to make sure I have everything I might need with me. I have to be a portable researcher.

So what’s in my take-away ethnographic kit?

Well, the first thing I make sure I have is a new notebook. The notebook is THE signature of the ethnographer and so it’s always the absolute first thing to be sorted. This is a Goldilocks exercise. The notebook has to be just the right size – big enough, as I don’t want to run out of pages, and small enough so that there’s not stacks of empty pages at the end of the week and I feel like I’ve killed trees for no reason. I also like each fieldwork notebook to have a different patterned or coloured cover so I can pick them out easily on my bookshelf. After a bit of trial and error I now always use a particular brand which my university bookshop stocks; they’re ones with V and A museum covers just in case anyone is interested!

Then I must have a workable pen. I always seem to have lots of those complimentary biros that everyone and their pet project now gives away, but most of them are pretty fragile. (Cheapskate publicity right? They don’t think about the contradictory effects when they break In two. You heard that RCUK?) So I have to do a bit of pen testing beforehand to make sure I’ve got at least one pen that is robust and that has enough ink to last a week’s scribbling. It also has to be a distinctive external colour so it doesn’t get easily misplaced. I generally have a spare pen too as I inevitably lose the first one. My notorious pen-losing habit, or maybe it’s my pen-borrowing friends, are why I never have a fancy costly pen and always go for the often-dodgy free ones.

I invariably include a reasonable quality point-and-shoot camera with a good zoom lens. Zoom is crucial because it means I can get close to the action without being too intrusive. Of course I also have to have the right camera battery charger and a lead for downloading if I decide I want to examine or use any of the pictures before the week is out. I sometimes bring a flip video camera with me but I’ve learnt that video data is not that useful in this particular project. If push comes to shove I can use the camera I have for short video clips.

I have an audio recorder as well, one with a reasonable quality small external microphone. My current recorder produces better sound quality than the equivalent in most mobile phones and it’s thus much easier on the ear for anyone transcribing. (That also means cheaper transcriptions as I don’t ever have time to transcribe for myself any more. ) I do have a very good – and big – microphone which I use for formal interviews but I don’t do any of these during ethnography weeks so that stays home. I have to have spare batteries for the recorder. This week I have the recorder with me but I haven’t used it. That often happens. The audio recorder is more a just-in-case bit of kit and I’m currently thinking I might start to leave it at home… But then next time I’ll want it and I won’t have it, deep inward breath, so maybe I’ll keep bringing it.

These days I have an iPad with me all the time anyway, regardless of where I am. In ethnography weeks I use it to take some pictures, to tweet and occasionally to blog during the day, particularly if there is a Tate blog on the go, as there is this time. The iPad needs a cord and plug. I also have earplugs for the iPad, as I use it for music on the train and sometimes in the hotel room.

But I do often bring my Mac notebook with me too, on ethnography weeks, so I can type up notes at night. I also use it to manage any other teaching or admin work I have to do, particularly anything which involves downloading big files. I don’t like the iPad keyboard, I’m not alone there I’m sure, although I will use it if I must. Like the audio recorder, the notebook is a bit superfluous and I must confess I haven’t used it at all so far this week. However if anything were to happen to the iPad, bigger deep inward breath, I do have a back-up.

I have a phone supplied by my university which is incompatible with the iPad and notebook (grrr), so it also has a plug. However, this plug fits my Kindle which I have for reading detective novels in bed at night. While I can read on the iPad I do find it a bit big for comfortable in-bed reading… hence an entirely dispensable additional bit of tech.

And because I have to walk to and from Tate I also have to have a small shoulder bag I can use to cart all this gear around. The IPad, camera, notebooks and pens stay in the bag for the entire duration of the time away from home.

I know I could economise on the stuff I have, but at present this is what I do. This is my ethnographer’s kit. I have had even more than this in the past. So, as well as now leaving video recorder and big microphone behind, in recent years I’ve jettisoned portable USB drives in favour of cloud storage so that has reduced the kit a little too. I dare say I really could do with less, but I do feel very well prepared for all eventualities with all of this stuff. I’m confident I can manage what I need to do with these particular appendages, even though of course they do take up a fair bit of room in my suitcase. However the suitcase is not sooooo heavy I can’t manage it on and off the train, although I dare say the hotel room cleaners are a bit bemused by the array of chargers and plugs that greet them when they come in to check the fridge.

Having all this gear means I’m not anxious about breakdowns or missing any opportunities that arise. But I wonder, is there anything I’ve forgotten or that I truly ought to have and haven’t yet thought of? And how does my kit compare with yours? What do you find you can’t do without when doing research away from home?

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in Ethnographic kit, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to kit for the portable academic…

  1. Haitham Al-Sheeshany says:

    You seem pretty much all-ready-to-go Pat 🙂 – down to the detective novels even!

    I think you have got all the bases covered. I would say that having a spare pen close is always handy, you never know when an idea pops up unexpectedly and you search for a pen to jot it down while you are in the middle of something. Also, I like to have a pen with a different colour, I use that for reminding myself that this particular “note/idea/observation” needs something more, and because I am in a hurry I just highlight that using the different colour.

    Good luck and enjoy!


  2. lizst says:

    Nice list – I add big paper and marker pens for visual mapping and roll this all up in a lightweight plastic art/plans tube that has a shoulder strap. I like my iPhone for really high quality image and video because it provides a real ‘fly on the wall’ service in terms of being right there in your pocket and also very non invasive for others. My own tea bags come high on my travel kit list 🙂


  3. peyjune says:

    Absolutely agree on the pen-losing thing. Have settled with a box of economically-friendly (aka cheapo) ballpoint Faber-Castells.


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