Conclusion: The Potentiality of Parks, Public Space, and Ethnography

Jennifer Erickson with help from this class of intrepid anthropologists!

The Potential for Ethnography

This class provided students with more tools in their anthropological toolkit. They conducted participant observation in the parks, attended meetings, led interviews, and learned how to analyze data. They learned how to take field notes, create interview protocols, code, and write an ethnographic argument, not to mention co-create this website. In the process, they also learned about parks, public space, and Muncie.

Last day of class, December 16, 2021

Teaching ethnographic methods, like conducting ethnography, does not proceed in straightforward, linear ways. It is one of the reasons that I (Jen Erickson) love both ethnography and teaching. I do not feel particularly dependent upon predictability or sameness, at least to an extent, but many of my students understandably take comfort in structure with clear guidelines and have a right to know what is expected of them. As both a science and an art, ethnography’s flexibility and unpredictability can make it frustrating. I have seen more scientifically-minded students struggle with ethnographic writing, shy introverts struggle with talking to strangers, and the artistic-minded students struggle with the social scientific rigor that our field also demands. As Ruth Behar has eloquently explained, ethnographers can be vulnerable observers and the best kind of anthropology breaks your heart. I think a lot of us felt vulnerable and frustrated this semester for reasons that are similar to and different from from Behar’s experience as a long-term ethnographer in a faraway land. Students struggled with being “forced” to leave campus for assignments and to find time to do so in between their busy work schedules, other classes, and family and social lives. Others were quarantined for a time due to a positive Covid-19 test, chronically sick and tired, or spent much of the semester care taking for sick family members. Nevertheless, we persisted.

In response to the question: “What advice would you give to future students in this class?”, one student wrote:

Perhaps like any artistic and maybe even scientific pursuit, ethnography can really be understood as a set of contradictions that one ought to look out for and have an open mind and open heart about. It will come in handy during the truly stressful periods.
You will both understand what you are doing and not understand it at all. 
You will feel pride for accomplishing your work and learning new skills, while feeling ashamed for not getting it right, if you can get it right. 
You might think that you are the only one struggling, but you are not and you will not be. 
It is uplifting and quite engaging while it beats you down physically and emotionally (Fieldwork is exhausting!).
There are highs as well as lows, and you will have to navigate through them. 
It can be annoying, but it can be fun, too, if you let it be.
I think the same can be said of the class itself. And I think that’s okay. Despite having taken this course, completing all of its work, and overcoming obstacles along the way, I still feel as though I am woefully unprepared to take on something as daunting as fieldwork and research. But I am more prepared than I was. 

Douglas W.

Some students in this class, even at the end, were not interested in parks and because the content was not interesting to them, neither were the methods. For others, parks were interesting enough, but the methods did not pull them in. Still others came to appreciate their home-away-from-home in Muncie more as a result of this class while those from Muncie struggled with being “native anthropologists.” In order to better understand what worked and did not work about this class, I asked a series of questions to help me understand what they learned. Here are some highlights from a range of answers:

Did this class change the way you see city parks and public space? If so, how?

  • I have been a resident of the Southside neighborhood since the beginning of my sophomore year. I live…relatively close to Heekin park. At first, I was overjoyed to live so close to a large green space and dog park but then the realities of being a young single woman in a public space became apparent. I was often scared to go by myself and was at times hesitant to walk to Heekin even though I was so close because if I needed to escape an uncomfortable or dangerous situation I wanted to ensure I could get back home safely. This class really pushed me back into the park and also pushed me to better understand the people around me and the communities who use Heekin. I had lost a lot of the original connection I had with Heekin and this project allowed me the space and excuse to be there and to be very present. I not only had to explore the park but I also had to evaluate the feelings I had while there. I had to understand why I felt the way I did and also observe how others felt. It was through this exploration that I came to better understand Heekin and also the communities surrounding it. So in many ways, this class did change and challenge the assumptions I had originally created about Heekin. It also allowed me the space to both validate those feelings and challenge those feelings. I also became very ingrained in the larger community over the course of this class and I think the most significant thing that changed the way I felt about parks and public space was meeting so many incredible and diverse people who love their parks and care deeply for the communities who use them. No person I ever came into contact with didn’t want to talk about parks or things about parks. Every person who was informed of this project was so quick to offer information, advice, or ideas that I was never struggling to talk to people about parks. I became aware of how much parks have fostered communication and memories for the people who use them and even for the people who have abandoned them. This contrasts greatly with how I originally felt about this project, I thought who cares about parks? What is there to care about parks? Is it even anthropologists’ job to care for parks? But I realize now that it is everyone’s job to care about parks and switching that narrative for myself was the first step to switching that narrative for others as well. In many ways, my ideas about parks and public spaces have been altered and my work in this class has shaped the way I see many other things as well such as government, neighborhoods/ communities, and the parks and recreation system. —Olivia V.
  • This class was very eye-opening to me. Before this class, I thought that people stopped going to parks because they were run down, when in reality oftentimes it is the other way around. Sometimes parks start to look run down because people stop going. This changed my perspective on what I think a “successful” park is because there is no way to quantify if a park is successful as long as people are enjoying it, and with Tuhey, people are thoroughly enjoying it. —Brooklynn K.
  • Yes, this class made me re-evaluate the importance of city parks. Before this class, I did not think about parks all that much. I grew up going to a few in my neighborhood, and even having the chance to visit national parks later down the road. Yet, the concept of public space and parks did not come to me. There is a complex system behind the scenes of what we see anytime we visit a park. Funding, politics, and other social factors all contribute to park systems, Muncie’s included. Imagine a world in which all land was privatized, no one would be able to go anywhere for free. People need public space to more healthy lives, and interactive parks can play a huge role in this. —Sammy T.

What is your biggest take away from this class? What, if anything, do you see yourself using in your future?

  • I took away a new appreciation for research and researchers. I have never done research before, not to this extent, and it was much more involved than I thought originally. In the future I will use what I learned in this class to guide me through higher education and my career, as I plan to continue studying anthropology. –Tommy R.
  • I really learned that the work required for anthropological work is much larger than I previously thought. I learned how to do field work and will take away the knowledge attained in our readings and group work. My biggest takeaway is that anthropology takes lots of work regardless of the size of the group working on it. —Parker P.
  • I thoroughly enjoyed this class and it has made me realize how important city council meetings are to attend. My biggest takeaway would be that, go to city counsel meetings. –Kierstin P.
  • My biggest take away from this class is to see your own seeing. I realize that bias comes into play with just about anything cultural anthropologists study, and is something I will definitely take into account when studying other things in the future. –Phillip O.
  • My biggest take away from this class is there is more to things we pass everyday than meets the eye.  We often pass by things or places without thinking anything of them, and taking a closer look would reveal a far bigger picture than we could have imagined. —Sydney L.
  • My biggest take away would be the knowledge gained on how to analyze data after collecting it and that is something that could play into many other future jobs/scenarios. —Mason M.
  • The biggest takeaway is that research takes time, and you can’t do everything by yourself sometimes. I can see myself using these skills to connect to a community that I decide to settle down in and look more closely at the spaces around me. —Claire D.
  • I learned how to be social. I learned how to put myself into the community, and help. I see using this project as a way to be a better member of the community and the neighborhoods here. —Zoe L.
  • My biggest takeaway from this class is that nothing is as it seems when conducting research with ethnography. I think I was surprised at how interconnected and complex the park system was in Muncie, and how this complexity impacts the general public. It was amazing being able to follow the patterns through participant observation all the way to interviewing park employees. I also think that creating ethnographic research can be very stressful at times, but also very rewarding once all the work has been complete. I now understand why it takes researcher years to publish their research because this is a slow and difficult process. Yet, that does not make the research any less meaningful. I am still unsure if ethnography is right for me, but I think the research methods and field experience will be useful for other potential research projects that may be in my future. I will be applying more urban anthropological theory as well, because it is relevant to our current times. I had not thought too much on this branch of anthropology before, but with a majority of the world’s population living in urban areas, it is vital to look into these theories. —Sammy T.

All of this is to say that, not surprisingly, students took away different things from this class, from methods, to content, to how to be a more engaged citizen. I will likely never know what most of these students actually use in their lives from this class, if anything, but I believe in the potential, the (after)life of ethnography, beyond the classroom, to transform for the better the way that we see the world. Most, if not all, of these students learned that a park, like other ethnographic sites and topics, is tied a much larger network of people, places, and ideas that extend far beyond the local. Though you did not read much about this on this website, I learned from students who attended the Indiana Park and Recreation Association annual meeting in November, that they learned firsthand that other municipalities in Indiana are facing similar challenges, but that some of Muncie’s challenges are particular to Muncie (for example, the political make-up of the Parks board). We learned through readings and podcasts, that the fight for building and maintaining public space is widespread and ongoing, if not universal. A park is so much more than just a park. Parks are a lens for how much a community values public space, green space, recreation, safety, accessibility, and community events, and for the relationship between public and private spheres, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more. As such, I want to conclude with a few thoughts about the potentiality of Muncie Parks and Recreation.

The Potentiality of Muncie Parks and Recreation

In reading through these researchers’ field notes, interview transcripts, survey data, and archival information, one of the most common patterns was that big park plans in Muncie have often been a dream deferred, though this seems to be changing. The other common pattern is that people value their parks.

The current park superintendent worked hard to create an active Parks board, but has faced some challenges. One park board member passed away at the beginning of this semester, and another has never attended a meeting. A third is appointed by the Muncie Public Schools and often pulled away from parks business to attend to school business. As such, meetings are sometimes cancelled due to lack of quorum. But work still gets done. On the upside, the city approved the first ever Parks Program Director so that parks programming can engage more Muncie residents. Muncie parks and trees are among the current mayor’s top priorities (he has a 1,000 trees program and understands the important of parks for attracting and maintaining a healthy, happy community. Led by the collaborative efforts of Muncie residents, the Parks and Recreation board and staff, City of Muncie, and other public and private partners, time will tell if these efforts to revitalize Muncie Parks & Rec pay off. Arguably, this would be easier if park positions were depoliticized and more stable over time. Though we did not ask park users, we strongly believe that people from all different political backgrounds use municipal parks, and as such, should benefit from parks. Politics should not get in the way of the everyday park maintenance. In any case, like ethnography, Muncie Parks & Rec has a lot of potential and time will tell whether and how it is realized.

Some of this potential will be realized through the Muncie Arts and Culture Trail, which will connect Ball State, Minnetrista, Tuhey, Downtown Muncie, and Heekin.

In closing, student researchers and I collected more data than we have presented here, a problem of all ethnographers. I hope to work with more students in the future to update and expand this website and our study of parks. One park that operates differently than the rest of Muncie parks is Prairie Creek Reservoir, which is located approximately five miles southeast of Muncie. The reservoir and park area boasts 3.3 miles of aquatic recreation and more than 750 land acres of natural landscape. The park offers boating, swimming, fishing, camping, hiking/biking trails, ATV trails, and horseback riding trails. It also hosts several events, such as triathlons, concerts, festivals, and family reunions. Prairie Creek has its own director, who raises money only for Prairie Creek, and its own events coordinator, which I hope will be information for future Ball State anthropology students.