by Emma Welsh-Huggins
Brett and Susan work the night shift in Kenyon’s Maintenance Department. They empty trash and clean College vehicles. Their shift takes them across campus — including to the Brown Family Environmental Center (BFEC). And all semester, Dan Kipp ’14 has been right there with them.
Kipp is one of nine students in Visiting Instructor of Sociology Joseph Ewoodzie’s Ethnographic Methods seminar. Placed in workplaces both around campus and in Mount Vernon, these students have been conducting field studies that will all result in a paper, a presentation and, in many cases, eye-opening experiences.
This story focuses on the work of three students. Along with Kipp, Alison Zarider ’15, Sierra De Leon ’14 and Celia Cullom ’15 have focused their fieldwork on members of the Kenyon Maintenance Department.
Amelia Li ’15, Mary Bank ’14 and Jenny Ware ’15 shadowed AVI workers, while Symone Roberts ’15 and Lauren Wolfe ’14 have been working with the swim team.
The class reflects the ability and ingenuity of both Ewoodzie and the students who have participated in it wholeheartedly. Throughout this bitter winter and semblance of spring, Kipp has followed Brett and Susan on their night shifts.
“We’re doing … participant observation, so you’re both participating and observing what’s going on,” he said. Kipp has followed Brett and Susan on their maintenance route to buildings such as Farr, Ransom Hall, Olin-Chalmers Library and Peirce — finishing with the BFEC at the end of their shift.
Willa Sachs ’16 and Anna Peery ’14, both sociology majors, have spent the semester working at Mount Vernon News, which serves as the only major local news source in the Mount Vernon area. According to Sachs and Peery, the staff has been welcoming, kind and receptive to the project.
“It’s not like a huge urban newspaper or something where I’m sure you won’t know a lot of your co-workers,” Sachs said. “Here it’s such a close-knit community, so not only do they know each other, they know each other’s grandkids and each other’s lives.”
As Peery and Sachs bounced from department to department within the newspaper over the course of their stay, the focus of the project evolved. Working one day at the circulation desk and another in the mailroom, Peery and Sachs developed a good relationship with the staff of the News.
The nature of the newspaper guided Sachs and Peery to focus their research on “looking at the interactive basis of the newspaper [as] a whole and how that shapes how people react to them and react to each other in the community,” Sachs said. “We’re sort of surmising that the newspaper acts as a force that contributes to the cohesion of the community.”
The easygoing pace of small-town journalism has led to a social and hospitable environment, as reporters come in and out throughout to the day in pursuit of various stories. The majority of that cohesion is a result of hard work by each reporter and employee to cater to the desires and interests of the Mount Vernon community.
For example, a recent story about a homeless dog at risk of being euthanized galvanized the community and made front-page news.
“People love pets,” Perry said, laughing.
At a larger publication, similar stories probably wouldn’t make it further than an overlooked brief. “This newspaper, I think,” Peery said, “is representative of Mount Vernon.”
While Sachs’s and Peery’s studies led them to focus on the community that the Mount Vernon News has helped to shape, Kipp centered on the community in which the maintenance workers participate.
From a sociological perspective, Kipp has been privy to the hierarchal system of Kenyon employees during his fieldwork. Those who are new to the job, or those who previously worked part-time but are switching to full-time, are considered “very low on the totem pole, and there’s totally a totem pole,” Kipp said.
“[It’s] based on seniority, [which] gives you a better chance of whatever [shift] you want,” he said.
Employees slowly work their way toward regular shifts, but this can take more than a few years of working the late-night shift. But there was little sense of bitterness or frustration from Kipp, Brett and Susan.
Even as the clock ticked toward 11 p.m, their easygoing camaraderie pervaded the nighttime air. The late nights and elbow grease that went into Kipp’s research led to him “really getting to know [Brett and Susan] and really forming … a friendship with them.”
“I think I have a slightly better understanding of how the school works,” Kipp said. “I think just my eyes have been opened to jobs at the school that need to be done that I don’t ever think about.”
Smiling, he added, “The other thing I’ve really taken away is how to double-bag trash bags.”
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