Iowa Writes

ADRIENNE LAMBERTI
Dr. Farm Kid


I didn't realize that I was a "farm kid" until I became an academic.

Now, if I said such a thing to an academic scholar, s/he might respond, "Of course not! You couldn't recognize your unique locatedness among oppositional identities until you were equipped with the proper analytical discourse to articulate the boundaries between 'farm kid' and 'academic.'"

A farmer would probably respond, "You don't have much sense, do you?"

But it's true. I didn't realize how much of my family's farm was under my fingernails, until I was a graduate student mewed up in an apartment in the middle of a city.  That's when I learned the most important lesson of my academic career.

I didn't realize that I was a "farm kid" until I became an academic.

Now, if I said such a thing to an academic scholar, s/he might respond, "Of course not! You couldn't recognize your unique locatedness among oppositional identities until you were equipped with the proper analytical discourse to articulate the boundaries between 'farm kid' and 'academic.'"

A farmer would probably respond, "You don't have much sense, do you?"

But it's true. I didn't realize how much of my family's farm was under my fingernails, until I was a graduate student mewed up in an apartment in the middle of a city.  That's when I learned the most important lesson of my academic career.

Having grown up on one of Iowa's Century Farms, having entered a doctoral program at a university renowned for agriculture scholarship, it made sense that my dissertation would follow suit: A case study about farming. Still, it had been a long stretch between my previous life on our dairy operation and my current student life, and during that time I'd evidently suffered a mild bout of amnesia. Passing muster with classmates from Manhattan, justifying my existence to demanding professors, I forgot where I'd put myself. My chore boots somehow managed to disappear. My colloquialism-peppered chattiness evaporated.

It wasn't until four years into my doctoral work that I came across myself in a cornfield. My dissertation research required criss-crossing Iowa to conduct interviews with farmers, and during one trip I overshot my destination and ended up in Clear Lake—a town so far north that they keep snow gates on their interstate on-ramps. Frustrated, I began to back-track, and it took a while for me to appreciate the journey. As I drove, I passed prosperous farmsteads with buildings painted in the traditional barn red. Posted on many barns were signs in support of Tom Latham, a Republican congressional candidate, a notable difference from the Democratic leanings of the southern Iowa farmers I'd interviewed. By the end of the trip, I realized that getting lost in the familiar world of farming had been good for me. I'd been reconnected with the fields, the crops, the people.

Fields, crops, and folks: these were the hearts that beat during my research interviews—not the methodology, the surveys, the data validation techniques that were common entities in my academic life. Try as I might to be the Serious Scholar, whenever I sat down with a farmer we'd end up discussing the rainfall and the efficacy of Roundup Ready beans. He'd tell me the story of how his neighbor wrecked a tractor. I'd tell him the story of how my uncle lost a finger to the haybaler. It was gratifying to watch as my tales about bad weather and barn cats worked their magic, and an initially reserved farmer would relax, less suspicious of the academic with her notepad and tape recorder and Human Subject Release forms.

One farmer, particularly unsettled during our interview, kept nervously petting his dog. Finally, I stopped asking my research questions and instead asked about Guinness. "Is he a lab?" I inquired. "We have a lab mix at our place, but he keeps running off.  How do you keep Guinness at home?" Immediately, the farmer began listing detailed instructions on the care and training of a wandering canine.  He then proceeded to discuss the rest of his farm's animal population for almost an hour. I left the interview with pages full of notes and a list of other potential interviewees.

In my academic myopia, I'd entered this man's house, sat at his table, and tried to call the shots. I'd fired interview questions at him in a desperate (and failed) attempt to gather evidence. But the moment I code-switched and became a farm kid again, telling stories and asking for advice, the walls fell and the evidence materialized.

And so I learned the most important lesson of my academic career, miles from any classroom. Rather than schizophrenically compartmentalize the farm kid and role-play a scholar, I quit fighting what came naturally to me and instead allowed my farm background lead me to the data. I let myself talk about the fields, the crops, and the people, and the interviews became more revelatory.

On many levels.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


ADRIENNE LAMBERTI

Dr. Adrienne Lamberti is a former farm kid and now the Professional and Technical Writing Program Coordinator at the University of Northern Iowa.

This page was first displayed
on December 12, 2006

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