Filter, organize, synthesize, analyze: How to be a research assistant

A few weeks ago a friend asked for advice on how to be a research assistant: “I know how to research, but how do you assist?” I decided to expand my reply into a blog post. I got to wear the hat of “assistant” a few times in my life: researching on a couple book projects, doing background for journalists, and as the not-lead writer on international development evaluations, among other stuff. Here are a few (hyper-organized) tricks and habits I used. I’m sure other research assistants (or the authors who have benefited from such assistance) have different experiences, advice, and best practices, which I’d love to hear about in the comments!

So, coming out of college or grad school doing your own principle investigating and lead authoring, what makes being a research assistant different? What exactly is the assistant’s role?

Research assistant jobs, as I understand them, are basically:

  • organizing and keeping track of source material and people,
  • filtering vast bodies of knowledge to pull out the relevant information, and
  • analyzing and writing– balancing your own thoughts paired with your interpretation of your author’s message to write out material that could be re-interpreted, paraphrased, or used verbatim in the author’s work.
  • Maybe a little copy-editing, too, depending on your author :)

I like to think of myself as a translator, translating my author’s message through the language of sources that back up (and shape) his or her arguments. This may mean we need to go back-and-forth to make sure I am interpreting that message correctly. I also have a responsibility to critique, refine, and counter that message when it doesn’t stand up to the evidence.

Read more…

[Book Review] Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story

Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love StoryIrritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story by Mac McClelland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great book. Important book. A “thank you for writing this” sort of book.

McClelland is a journalist who experienced trauma while reporting in Haiti, and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. This book is a first-person memoir of the experience of having and healing PTSD, girded by research and resources on the science, psychology, and impact of PTSD in the world and how to heal it.

McClelland masters a delicate balance between wrenching, deeply personal experience and situating that experience within the context of other trauma survivors, particularly sexual assault survivors and soldiers. It’s a hard balance and I cringed often in the early pages of the book, which leans more heavily on the author’s personal history, but she does this purposefully. First she lays bear the trauma of experiencing trauma, as only a self-pillorying writer can do, critically examining and over-honestly recounting awful nuances of psychological pain. And crazy bitchiness. McClelland is brutal in her unveiling of the way PTSD can turn one into a crazy bitch– overwhelmed by or deadened to emotion, hypervigilance unveiling itself as anger and self-protective cruelty. I write as one who also has PTSD, whose experiences have embodied so many of the words McClelland was able to write down. Things I can apologize for or give heads up to lovers about, but cannot articulate. Like I said: Thank you for writing.

I embodied similar experiences of suffering and healing in my own PTSD journey that McClelland writes, right down to embracing the explicit consent of BDSM sex as a healing mechanism, testing physical boundaries with a loving partner to demonstrate to myself that no, it wasn’t the physical pain of my assault that was traumatizing– I can handle pain, can embrace good kinds of pain– it was the violation, the lack of control, the inability to protect myself. For me, BDSM play was a way to explore and differentiate assault and abuse from the act of sex, things that look very much alike but are so very very different. I remember reading the short essay she wrote soon into her recovery and the controversy that surrounded outting the use of violent sex as a healing mechanism– even as survivors of sexual assault have long explored consensual BDSM play as a means to physically take back ownership of sex perverted by assault. Controversy is intellectually good, and it’s worth reading the critiques of whose story is whose to tell, deeply considering the words to talk about the secondary trauma of witnesses and providers of support. But I am so thankful McClelland braved a world of shame and stigma to share her pain and process in all its mess. That’s how this shit is. It is messy and complicated, surprising and embarrassing and awful. That’s what McClelland captures– the whole of it.

This book is a treasure because it’s not a textbook but it is substantial. I have my list of psych resources I can list off when I have a new lover or am helping a friend. Those books can help someone learn the technical skills of coping. But what I appreciated about Irritable Hearts is that it tells a story of experiencing these textbook symptoms, and it shows the application of the healing process over time, in all its yo-yoing, layered complexity. It shows the difficulty and importance of growing relationships and love as a part of healing despite the ease with which trauma and abuse can transfer and replicate. This is one you can hand someone who cares but does not understand, one that is harsh and scary at times but shows with clarity and honesty the way that, yes, things can get better. It’s a lot of work! But you can heal.

One final thought. I understand that it was some legal and care issues that prevented McClelland from fully disclosing the traumatic incident she witnessed that she feels pushed her over into PTSD. That means the things she does share in detail were all sexual assault close calls. This absence was so important. It prevented the reader from comparing herself with McClelland or other survivors, underlining the point that traumatic stress comes about through complex interconnected lifelong experiences of trauma interacting with one or many traumatic incidents over time. It kept the book readable for triggered trauma survivors– I don’t think I could have handled graphic details of sexual violence at the same time I was absorbing all the descriptions of psychological pain. And finally, it pushed McClelland to focus on the “close calls” themselves: sexual terror, as she finally allows herself to call it late in the book.

If you’re trying to heal or understand PTSD, I also recommend:
Trauma and Recovery
Healing Sex: A Mind-Body Approach to Healing Sexual Trauma
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
Aftershock: Confronting Trauma in a Violent World: A Guide for Activists and Their Allies
Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others

View all my reviews

Post-PTSD: A counter-offer

I have post-trauma symptoms from humanitarian aid work in CAR.

I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from sexual assaults a decade ago. They never tell you this, but…. Well, what they tell you is that a PTSD diagnosis makes you much more vulnerable to trauma in the future. Once you have PTSD, you have a much higher likelihood of getting re-traumatized and developing post-trauma symptoms. I’m cautious about who and how I let know about my controlled and healed PTSD because of the potential stigma it could ignite in employers and co-workers. Aid work in conflict zones means exposure to trauma. People balk at the idea of working alongside someone suffering from it– with good reason, to some extent, since you want the people coming from afar to help to be capable of helping, and to make good decisions about security that are not rooted in either disproportional fear nor trauma-driven self-destructive martyrdom. You don’t want to be depending on someone else to save you or save lives when they experience terror and freeze, drop the ball, cannot handle the danger. The responsibility will fall on you then, to suck it up and handle it despite your own terror– how can you even be allowed to feel terror if the person next to you is subsumed by it? No. There is stigma against traumatized aidworkers.

I have a counter-offer.

A yoga podcast told me, while my forehead lay on the concrete ground of my CAR bedroom in child’s pose, “Responsibility is your capacity to respond.”

Healing trauma increases one’s capacity to respond to trauma. How do you heal PTSD? You take months or years to investigate what trauma does to your body and brain, and you learn active methods to address its symptoms in the moment and to reduce occurrence of symptoms in the long-term. You know, coping strategies. The process of healing PTSD– not just having PTSD, but actively working with a therapist or rape crisis counselor or self-study to learn to live with it and feel whole– teaches you to feel your body’s reaction to a trigger (a sub-conscious reminder of your trauma), to identify the trigger and your body’s physical and emotional response to it, and finally to react to reduce your body’s response or find safety from the trigger if need be. In healing post-trauma, you learn and practice essential skills for navigating trauma.

Read more…

[Borderlands] Drops in a sea of sand

The US/Mexico border falls on deserts. For the past few months, I have been walking along it in the Sonoran. My footsteps along National Park trails, rough wilderness roads, and through dry washes and prickly desert scrub intersect paths taken by people crossing the border on foot from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other places, toward hope of safe havens, reunification with family, jobs, and other reasons. This part of the border is a Death Zone, one far from urban populations and their infrastructure: kind people, tap water, shelters, pro-bono lawyers, air conditioning, cell service, hospitals, road signs. This is a place where people cross because US policies and Border Patrol tactics have made crossing elsewhere too risky, so the mountainous desert seems safer, until it isn’t.

last an empty Mexican water jug

This is one of those projects that is as small and useless as it is huge and important; right place and time make all the difference: hauling gallon jugs of water and canned beans on human backs (how pitiable a means of transport is a human back! how weighty a gallon on water!) a mile or two at a time from parked 4×4 trucks to place in crossing points of migrant paths far from other sources of aid, near polluted water points, or in particularly dangerous areas because of heat and distance and ease-of-getting lost in the sharp turning hills and valleys of terrain cut by erosive downpours.

Thirst. The heat and stress makes you sweat, too much exertion and you puke precious liquid. Drinking water polluted by cows or wild animal shit makes yours runny diarrhea. Advice on the far side of the border often tells people it is a 3-day walk: but get injured, get lost, get scattered from your guide by a BP helicopter that “dusted” your group, get left behind because you move too slowly, get lied to about the length of your route–who can cross these mountains in 3 days? And who can carry enough weight for more than that? At some point you run out and trust your body to be strong but they just aren’t strong enough sometimes.

So people die here. So good samaritanos place meager offerings of agua pura where we hope they will be found and used, where we hope they will not be slashed and emptied by sadistic hunters, racist vigilante militiamen, murderous Border Patrol agents (humanitarian aid is not a crime). Often they are; we come upon knifed and stomped gallons and cans and have to debate: leave more in hopes someone in need will find it before vandals do, or leave the area as a lost cause?

Taking a break from brutal hikes laying down water, sometimes people write little messages on the bottles. Strength, courage, may God walk beside you. Where we leave this water, everyone still has a long long way to go before resting. What would you write on an ephemeral offering, a token drop of water in a vast desert that may or may not be on someone’s route when they need it, that may or may not be destroyed before it serves a purpose?

Read more…

[DIY Project] Cool compost bin from pallets

Obviously making anything is cool, but the post title refers to the type of compost you make in this bin: simple, basic, cold compost.

Compost can be a lot of things. It can be built to make fertilizer fast (hot compost), to inoculate your soil with beneficial microbes at the right pH (using science!), to make rich spot treatments in liquid (compost tea) or semi-solid worm casting (vermicompost) form, and to build new soil with raw materials (sheet mulch). The compost bin described here will eventually do all those things, only slowly; its primary purpose is waste management, a place to toss our household kitchen scraps so they don’t go to a landfill.

Cold compost. Start here. Cycle your waste and build soil where you are.

Here is the basic compost recipe, from Teaming with Microbes, a soil science textbook for non-scientists:

Besides the necessary soil microbes, composting requires heat, water, air, and organic materials with the right amount of carbon and nitrogen. … Mix these ingredients in the right proportions and you will end up with a rich, crumbly, dark, coffee-colored, sweet-smelling humus-soil that also happens to be full of life.

In a pallet cold-compost bin, we get heat through size (a pile that is 1 square meter / 3x3x3 feet is big enough to generate internal heat). Water is in our food scraps, French press dregs, and grey water catchment via a bucket for catching used dishwater from the sink. A tarp cover will reduce evaporation, keeping moisture in the pile under the hot sun. Air comes from the open slats in the pallets, the soil critters that will burrow up from the ground below the pile, perhaps an occasional turn with a pitchfork, or maybe letting our chicken peck at it. Kitchen scraps can be considered high nitrogen, and will need to be covered with a layer of carbon-rich material like dry leaves, straw, or wood shavings to get that soil magic ratio.

Here’s how I did it, making a lazy adaption of this how-to out of Making It, a highly recommended DIY project book:

Read more…

compost8

 

 

 

 

[DIY Project] Tippy Taps

So. You want to wash your hands after you leave the bathroom or before you handle food or serving dishes. You don’t want to cross-contaminate by turning on the faucet with dirty hands and shutting it off with clean ones. You don’t have plumbing. What do you do?

Construct tippy taps.

tippy3

Here’s a 1-pager how-to from the CDC.
Here are how-to videos from India, Uganda, and the Netherlands.
Here’s an advocacy website in case you love this and wanna sing it to the world: tippytap.org.

And here’s what we did in our desert camp, with scrap wood, rebar and a pole from broken tents, and used 1-gallon jugs:

Read more…

tippy2

2,015 book reviews (or close to it)

Every year I gather together the best books I read, to recommend and remember those that impacted my life or my paradigm somehow. Here are this year’s, with links to the review I wrote of each. Past years’ are below the cut, and all my book reviews (of every book I read) can be found on Goodreads.

From 2015 (out of 40)
* Peaceland: Conflict Resolution and the Everyday Politics of International Intervention by Severine Autessere
* The Color Purple by Alice Walker
* The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins
* Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis
* The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place by Judith Adler Hellman
* The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron
* The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
* Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
* The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron

Yours?

Read more…

Transition, Borderlands

The present.

How do you leave CAR? How do you come home? I signed for six months and I left on a forced evacuation flight over a year and half later, though long ready to go I guess: death, hospitals, aching distance from my love, the joyful moments as my value-added adds less and less value, as trainings and experience take hold and emergencies in need of support make way for developments in need of solidarity, relinquishing of leads. I did not come home. I bounced around a few former homes for a while, and then we, my love and I, packed up everything and shipped and drove and flew in bits and pieces to somewhere totally new to me.

Here I am, Tucson, Arizona. I staked the claim to home, potting a rosemary in a tin coffee can I put on the windowsill. Hung up indigo from Mali. Yoga mat unrolled on the floor. Bike patched and oiled and ready to move. French press coffee and little boxes of herbal tea, bakery bread and a fridge full of kale, beets, shiitake mushrooms, pantry of brown rice and lentils and dry beans. Finding pool at quiet bars and coffee shops, running paths along arroyos, library card and blessed inter-library loan, a DIY scene of community bike shop, open workshop makerspace, three free seed banks celebrating food and water conservation and local ecologies (1, 2, 3), $4 yoga classes. A list of museums to visit for intense aesthetic experience (nourishment).

I haven’t unpacked my books yet. The windowsill is waiting for its altar to the scents and colors of resilient mental health: Tulsi, lavender, chamomile, sage, mint. Lobelia and passionflower on the backburner. There are still blankets from Mali to hang or drape. I bought wildflower seeds from the native plant center and they are sitting next to me waiting for a plot I can call my own. My mantra in CAR was “there will be time” and I will need it here, though writing projects with deadlines and a border crisis press in. There are classes to take! Languages to learn! CVs to update! Inter-library loan! The long list of crafting projects, the existence of which stilled the guilt in your stilled, numbed hands in CAR when concrete walls and exhaustion shrunk life to working hours and the hours lying flat on mattresses reading John Grisham. I wrote down everything I was too tired to do. Mustn’t I do them now in this flat wide city with it’s glorious mountains singing open landscape and freedom?

***

I was passing through Bangui at the end of September when fighting broke out again. A young Muslim man, Amin Mahamat, was lynched by Anti-Balaka at the end of Eid. His body was thrown provocatively in Bangui’s Muslim ghetto, PK5. Though the squeezed-in, ghettoized remains of 2014’s horrific ethnic cleansing of Muslim people in Western CAR, PK5 is still armed and there’s still money enough amongst a certain class of inhabitants for reprisal. So reprise the violence they did, youth marching to an open-air market and spraying it with AK47 gunfire. The rumors said that UN peacekeepers saw, knew, and did not stop it. Militias responded with attacks; government and French soldiers and international Peacekeepers battled; a few tens of thousands of people fled homes in key central neighborhoods; 600 prisoners including war criminals were released from the infamous Ngarangba prison. Deaths.

Meanwhile the People protested. They marched on the government and the UN, demanding protection, angry over the unending sexualized violence perpetrated by United Nations Peacekeepers on children and women in CAR. Anti-Balaka seized the moment (or perhaps created it?) to stage a coup d’etat against the transitional government that banned former President Bozize, leader to many-but-not-all ABs, from running for president again (Bozize was Prez of CAR when the Seleka militia ousted him in 2013; he himself had come to power during a coup in 2003. This Crisis Group report gives the best timeline up until 2007, and this is the best for understanding WTF is the current ‘CAR crisis’). Across the northwest of the country, simultaneous Anti-Balaka raids on armories threw everything into high alert; Seleka started moving too.

And then, it quieted down. A delightful rumor said the ABs stole guns to march on Bangui but forgot the ammunition. The tit-for-tat attacks petered out. The better-armed international forces regained control of public space. Displaced people returned home, people buried the dead, some displaced made new homes, stayed displaced. Violence in Bangui, central CAR, and across the country returned to the new normal of occasional death, sporadic spurts of gunfire, tense but living.

I was already gone by then.

***

Last week I camped in the far southern Arizona desert. It was below freezing at night. I stuck my mummy sleeping bag and silk sleeping bag liner inside a fat puffy car-camping sleeping bag, stuffed my head under a hat and hood, my fingers into mittens. Melted ice on a burner to make coffee in the morning.

At some point on a hike scrambling through a dry canyon wash, bare arms scratched from little thornpricks and back weighted with gallons of water and a pack of cans of beans, I emerged to an overlook. Ahead was the tumble of tiny sharp peaks and water-cut valleys of the US-Mexico border region around central-southern Arizona. The sun was already low in the sky and casting sharp straight rays on the mountains, lighting up with red beams the side topography of mountains, usually obscured by overhead light’s casted shadows. Things were hard: cold, heavy, stumbling. Things were gorgeous, big, open. Things meant something: the water and beans were to be left on migrant paths where people cross the desert from Mexico or points south, to Arizona and points north, at a place too dangerous for travel, lacking potable water, shelter, food. I came here to Arizona to be with love and friendship, and I was sunk in the depth of care that comes from long days and nights of working together in small groups.

I have been home for almost three whole months but it’s only in nature and care and hardship that things started to feel right. I can write. I tried to eat high class food and overheat my home and buy good clothes and drink with crowds, pay my way to opposition of what my life had been in CAR. I did need to get out of the concrete box. I had to gain weight and health. But I also needed to be in the thick of someplace with loving people who place themselves too in the thick of things, living simplicity and struggle for a bigger something. Staying in a former home, I whined to a housemate that no one ever had a follow up question to hearing I was in CAR, to hearing I spent almost two years working with farmers to restore agriculture amidst violence and after scorched earth conflict, to hearing I evacuated after 48 hours alone surrounded by grenades and gunfire, leaving without goodbye to coworkers and friends, staring down the Mpoko IDP camp at the edge of the Bangui runway as Centrafricains from the camp stared down the planes of aid workers leaving them: “It’s too far from my experience, I just don’t know what to say.” On the hike, finally, there was context enough for questions.

[Centrafrique] Roadtrippin’ Bossangoa to Bangui

truck1

Some photos from a recent road trip across the Central African Republic, from Bossangoa to Bangui. (I wrote about the same trip by air awhile back)

Read more…

taxi1

taxi2

truck2

[DIY Project] Soft cloth camera case with pockets

1

Read more…