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Linguistic Fieldwork at Rutgers – Adam McCollum (Vol. I)

Your name: Adam McCollum

Info about the language(s) you did fieldwork on:

Most of my fieldwork has been on Kazakh, with less on Kyrgyz, Uzbek, and Uyghur. I’ve also done fieldwork on Yazgulyami, an endangered Iranian language of Tajikistan.

What led to you doing fieldwork?

I used to live in Central Asia, in Kazakhstan specifically. While I lived there I travelled around the region some, and in particular the linguistic diversity of southeastern Tajikistan was really fascinating. Every different river valley is a different ethnic group with a different language, and many of these languages aren’t mutually intelligible. I remember driving through the middle of the night to make it to the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan and sitting at a little teahouse on the side of the road by the Afghan border. I asked the proprietor what language he spoke and he said Yazgulyami, and we got into a conversation about the languages spoken in the area. As I heard about languages spoken by a few hundred, remnants of languages remembered only for a few domains, and of the peoples living on what they call bomi dunya ‘the roof of the world’ I was hooked.

Did you set out with a specific goal in mind, and if so—did you accomplish it?

When I first got into fieldwork I had two goals. One of them was really big, the documentation of Yazgulyami, and the other was so small, trying to get right the description of the rounding harmony in Kazakh. I have certainly failed at the first, and as for the second, I don’t think I’ve gotten it “right”, but have moved the needle forward some, which is probably about all I can hope for.

Are there any problems/challenges unique to your language(s) or region(s)?

The biggest challenge I face is governmental interference. Where I work it’s hard to get permission to work without an overly eager local official getting very interested in things. For some reason, people love to think that I’m a spy. Visas can also be tough, and I’ve been forced to leave several different countries due to intractable visa issues. Other than government, there is religious extremism creeping into certain corners of the region. I’ve sat around a fire with community leaders discussing what they like about groups like ISIS, while at the same time being followed by local police or KGB.

Was there any collaboration with other linguists (or anyone else) during your fieldwork?

I haven’t really worked with anyone else during my fieldwork, although I’d really enjoy working in a team setting.

What do you wish you had known going in?

Actually, I went in with a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into. Because I had worked in the region for a few years I had met with the KGB before, had been kicked out of a country before, and had informants follow me around. I had had people laugh at me for making ridiculous language mistakes, and had performed some truly remarkable gastro-intestinal feats.

Any major setbacks or disasters?

When I went to do some documentation work in 2016, I had my visa withdrawn at the airport, and ended up with a tourist visa, which didn’t allow me to actually do any work. I spent my month in country fighting opaque bureaucracy, some fierce giardia, and struggling to make sense of what I was supposed to do now that my dissertation project had been derailed. I met some ISIS sympathizers, had interviews with the local police, all while fasting for Ramadan. The folks in the village thought I was the kindest non-Muslim guest they’d had because I fasted with them. I didn’t tell them that fasting was much better than eating because I was so sick the whole time.

Any lucky breaks?

Every time I find someone who wants to help out it feels like a lucky break.

What’re some of the best methods of data collection and organization (including equipment) that you’ve used?

“Best” really depends on what your goals are. Controlled studies are helpful when the goal is very specific. For more naturalistic data, though, I’ve enjoyed the Edinburgh map task, where one speaker has to explain directions to another but doesn’t know that the maps are different. It makes for good dialogue. The only thing to watch out for is shame. I’ve had some speakers express a sense of shame that they didn’t get things “right”, rather than seeing it as a fun game of sorts. The challenge is to prep them for fun without letting them in on the secret.

What about the worst?

Honestly, the most challenging issues I’ve had have been with working with speakers much older than me. They have enough cultural cache to do whatever they want during our sessions, and often don’t do anything that I ask them to. I’ve had a surprising number of little old ladies vehemently reject any prompting and instead sing old Soviet anthems for me. Anyone interested in researching Soviet music, I got some very willing participants for you.

Was there anything you wished you had brought with you?

Always more pictures of my family, and of life in America. It’s just hard for people in Central Asia to understand much about my life here, and so whenever I can contextualize my life and work for them, it helps make connections. I don’t really care too much about the comforts of life, but I have wanted a toilet seat a number of times. Some friends actually attached a toilet seat to a wooden stool from the bazaar and gave it to me as a present. That might’ve been the best gift I’ve ever gotten.

What advice do you have for anyone just starting out with fieldwork?

Know that your identity isn’t on the line. I say this to people all the time, but it’s the truth, especially in fieldwork. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll fail to understand what’s going on. You’ll probably make a fool of yourself. But if you can know that you are not your work, and can laugh at yourself, it’ll make the whole experience much richer for everyone involved.

What’s the “coolest” thing you’ve learned through your experiences?

I’m not sure. Probably just that humans are all, at our core, the same. We want the same things, whether nomad or urbanite, rich or poor. That makes it possible to move into a community knowing what to expect, and that is really empowering. The decorations may be different and the weather may be rough, but every community is a ragtag bunch of people trying to love and be loved, to find significance, and a sense of togetherness.

Any fun stories?

I’ve got lots of these. I’ll give you a few snippets.

  • In one country I was asked to do a little international modeling.  I know you’re probably wondering what in the world happened between then and now, but I don’t think my appearance has changed that much, so I’m not sure what they were thinking.  I did a set of internationally-broadcast commercials and people still come up and tell me that they recognize me from tv.
  • I’ve sat back-to-back with a stranger to help keep each other from falling into the massive hole in the community outhouse.
  • I made a language mistake and told a middle-aged woman that I had a bigger chest than her.  The comparative form I wanted to use was irregular, and the form I tried out ended up meaning ‘breast.’  She laughed really hard and called everyone at the bus stop over to share in the moment.
  • A bus operator thought I was an intellectually disabled Russian boy and kept making other bus drivers give me free rides because she said “We can’t take your money.”  In the end, I got some discounted bus fare, along with a whole lot of humble pie.
  • During Ramadan I took a 17-hr car trip from the capital to the village I was staying in.  The temperature was 113 degrees and we couldn’t eat or drink anything.  A few hours outside the capital, we stopped on the side of the road where someone was slaughtering sheep.  We got about half a sheep, rolled it up in a mesh bag (in the dirt), and strapped it to the top of the small car that was temporary home to all 7 of us.  For the rest of the trip blood dripped down the side of the car, which kept us from rolling the windows down, and in the absence of A/C, it was like living out one of the first cantos of Dante’s Inferno.
  • On one little foray into the mountains to go fishing, I was getting a fire started with some wood I had gathered and a box of matches.  As I was getting things going, this nomad rode up on his horse, returning from a hunt.  He hops off and pulls this blowtorch out of his saddle bag.  After Johnny Nomad laughs at my little boy scout’s fire, he blasts the wood with the blowtorch and says, “Welcome to the 21st century.”
  • A local tv station came out to see the American living in the village and they wanted to get some good action on camera.  So they made the old man of the house boss me around, making me shovel lots of manure and chop wood.  I’m pretty sure they just wanted to make fun of me, because they made me chop the tiniest pieces.  Seriously, these things were practically toothpicks. And when I tried to chop them one-handed, they told me I had to use two hands, with the axe up over my head.  They ended up broadcasting this video of my laying into tiny shards of wood after all the manure had been sufficiently tossed about, and my status of house servant was firmly established.  A lot of folks have commented about that video, and I don’t think anyone has ever said anything that made me think they didn’t just roll on the floor laughing when they first saw it.


Anything else you’d like to share?

If you have questions or want more details about anything, just let me know.

Thanks for reading, and thanks again to Adam for the fantastic responses! If you’d like to know more, you can contact him at his email below:
adam.mccollum [at] rutgers [dot] edu