Expect the Unexpected

One lesson we teach all of our students is to expect the unexpected. While we definitely advise having sound plans in place so that you can hit the ground running, you should also expect for things not to go as planned, especially in field research. By expecting the unexpected, it helps you to adapt creatively to unique situations.

Our Compassionate Engineers had just nine weeks on the ground in India to recruit participants for the Braille Tutor comparative study, set up the Braille Writing Tutors and Stand-Alone Braille Writing Tutors, train teachers and students to use the tutors, and establish a system for:

  • Regular use of the tutors,
  • Continued documentation of how the technology is used as well as technical problems encountered in the field,
  • Periodic data collection on student and teacher feedback, and
  • Regular communication with the TechBridgeWorld team based in Pittsburgh, US on findings in the field
Amal (left) and Minnar (right) engage teachers in a discussion on the SABT

[By the way, the students were simultaneously working with the Mathru’s Center for the Deaf and Differently Abled on technology solutions.]

Things seemed to be going well until they encountered a bump in the road. We share another post by Minnar on what the Compassionate Engineers encountered in implementing the comparative user study and how they resolved it.

June 15, 2015 – Minnar Xie

By week 3 we had thought we settled into a groove in our work. When we arrived in Bangalore we were trying to make sense of how our research goals and projects would be translated into daily and weekly schedules and explained across the language barrier. This was all happening as we simultaneously tried to figure out how to even live in this foreign city when so much of our capacity to do things depends on the help of our community partners. But by week 3 we could independently go grocery shopping and cook our own meals, and our biggest and most uncertain questions about our work, like ‘How are we going to go about observing classes and talking to teachers?’ seemed to have been resolved.

Or so we thought.

We had been given a timetable of braille classes to observe each week, based on the schedules of the teachers that our community partner had selected for us. Amal and I arrived at our scheduled Tuesday classroom observation with an armful of braille tutors, just as we had the week before. The teacher seemed somewhat surprised at our presence, hesitated, and said that she needed to ask for permission first from the principal (the same thing had happened last week, but we thought maybe she had forgotten the schedule). We followed her to the principal’s office in confusion. When we arrived he smiled at us, gesturing to her that it was fine, and told her she should teach braille and use our braille tutors this period. Through Hindi, Amal learned that this wasn’t her braille class; in fact, this year she isn’t teaching braille to this grade at all.

All of a sudden, we realize that last week she had only being teaching braille to show us, and this was not the school’s actual timetable. In fact, none of the teachers in the timetable given to us taught braille when the timetable indicated they would. Few even were scheduled to teach braille this year at all.

I began to wonder, have I just not been paying enough attention?

The principal turns to us and reassuringly says he will change the timetable so she is teaching braille at this hour. I insist that’s not necessary, we do not want them to accommodate us. After all, we are trying to understand how teachers decide to adopt the braille tutors and in what ways they use them. He says it is no problem; he will change the timetable. I try to explain that wereally do not want them to accommodate us. Following an artificial timetable where teachers are required to use the braille tutor for our viewing could not, by definition, help us understand how the school chooses to organically use or not use the tutors.

At that moment another teacher, who has been heavily involved in the braille tutor projects over the years, happened to be nearby and the principal calls her in. The principal and the two teachers begin to converse and negotiate in Kannada, and again, the principal turns to us and say he will be changing the timetable. At this point my head-nods and hand-waving (local gestures I have adopted to try to communicate that things are too much or not necessary) is frantic, I reiterate that we are trying to understand how teachers will choose to use the braille tutor. If the teachers are not teaching braille or they do not think it makes sense to use them in class, they shouldn’t use them. He looks at us, pleadingly, that it is easy for him to change the timetable and everything would be fine.

The teachers and the principal erupt into conversation in Kannada again, and one teacher brings up the afternoon extra braille practice session for weaker students. “They can use the braille tutor then. Are you free at 3:30 PM?” they ask.

I begin to suspect that this is, again, a way to please us. I exclaim that we are trying to see how they will use the braille tutors as if we are not here. If we had simply dropped off the additional braille tutors and not stayed for the summer, how would they have chosen to use them? They should decide if and how the braille tutors would be useful for that extra practice session. The one teacher pipes up, “Even if others are not using, I will be very happy to use all of them!”

This conversation had been going on for a solid 15 minutes now, and we all became aware of how this was cutting into precious class time. We wrap up to say that the teacher we had planned to observe should not teach braille now. Instead, we requested a schedule of all of the actual braille classes being taught and by whom. I left feeling somewhat defeated; there was still a lot of clarification that needed to happen and I wasn’t sure how to make myself any clearer.

Later that day I met with the one teacher who had been involved in the braille tutor project over the years. I apologized to her for the confusion, and tried to again clarify and establish common ground about what we’re trying to learn through this project. She understood me, though told me that, “Of course we should accommodate you. You’re here to help us.” I responded that by allowing us to observe their classes, generously giving time during their prep periods to talk with us, and providing opinions and feedback, they have done more than enough to meet us halfway.

I asked her how we might be able to convey our goals to the principal and the other teachers, and she said she would “consult with him. He can speak to the others.” She also suggested that we host a teacher training for the braille tutors, since few teachers actually know what the braille tutors offer. In the past the school has only had two braille tutors, and only one set of speakers. Thus, not many teachers were interested in using them in their classrooms because of their limited availability. She was willing help set up the training, and lead it. She was confident that other teachers would see the value once they tried it and learned about it. I felt more at ease; the school and the teachers were reclaiming more ownership of how the braille tutors could be used.

The training with the teachers happened this past Saturday, and while not all teachers were able to attend, those who did gained a lot out of it. Each of us worked with each teacher one-on-one to review the braille tutor, answering their questions and encouraging the teachers to explore the different modes. A new teacher who teaches multiple classes of braille was incredibly enthused. He mentioned that as he is blind and had a difficult time learning braille, he wishes this could have been available to him as a kid. Another teacher, who is sighted and both new to the school and to learning braille, took it home for the weekend to help her study the alphabet: “It’s very important for me to learn this, I have a difficult time grading my students’ homeworks if I am not strong in Braille.” Multiple teachers provided suggestions on what new modes and games they wanted to see added for their students. For the first time in our past three weeks, I felt like all of the teachers were genuinely excited, engaging with the tutor out of a personal desire, and weren’t simply trying to please us. After playing with the tutors they had began to think of it on their own terms.

Fieldwork has a way of always keeping you on your toes. It’s the part I find most exciting but also the most exhausting. No matter how many times someone tells me to expect the unexpected, when it happens I still find myself grasping. In the back of my mind I’m always constructing timelines:We’ve got 6 weeks left so that means by the end of next week we’ll be here, so that in two weeks we can start this, and so that means today I need to…. And so on. In most of my endeavors it keeps me in check and on track. But the reality of fieldwork is that you can only be so prepared, and the rest of the time you accept being humbled by how things are perceived differently or change course, and you adapt.

Moving forward, I think we’ve actually become closer to our ideals of participatory research and community empowerment, and it took being shaken up a little by the realities of fieldwork to get there. As someone who was drawn to iSTEP and TechBridgeWorld’s work specifically for those ideals, it reminds me that these words are empty if they aren’t being constantly reassessed. What seems like a setback is actually a space to reevaluate and grow, as individuals and as researchers working with underserved communities.

Here’s to embracing the unexpected in the coming 6 weeks!

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