Sunday, September 27, 2009

Brian spills the beans about what he's doing here

Brian’s first entry.

The first night, as we drove in from the airport to the city, we were stuck in rush hour traffic. The ride seems to last forever, making me think: “What was I thinking, bringing my family to this huge city.” These first impressions, fortunately, dissipated after we settled into our apartment. Belo is a great city—Brazil’s first planned city (1895 founding), which means that there are parks and activities organized in a very useful way. The kids are slowly adapting to life around them, although a major drawback is that they don’t have enough play dates and friends. Bas and Ginger were extremely happy the other night when they got to watch a cartoon in English—Bas’ mouth was literally open with a huge smile. Paula seems to be adjusting well to life in Brazil although there is a notable absence of friends in her life. Her “adult time” is limited to that brief time between 9 and 10pm when the kids are asleep.

Brazil, based on my brief experience of the past 5 weeks, is in its best phase economically since I started to come down here in 1995. The economy is booming, although there was significant slowdown this last year due to the failure of the US government to properly manage its financial sectors. It is rather ironic that when I started studying Brazil, the US lectured Brazil about getting its financial house in order. The lectures, shall we say, have stopped. Brazil is finding its way back to greater state involvement in the economy (think Japan, Germany, China, etc).

My work, which is the reason that we are down here, is off to a solid start. The biggest challenge revolves around the graduate class that I am team-teaching. The theory is dense and my colleague is much more of an expert in the areas that we are currently teaching. Deliberative Democracy is not an easy topic to think about, but doing it in Portuguese leaves me with a limited vocabulary and a tired mind. However, last Monday, I was finally in charge of class because my co-professor was traveling. I over-prepared because I didn’t know how it would go. I spent 45 minutes lecturing, which is the longest that I have spoken Portuguese in my life. We then had 1 hour of discussion. It went quite well, better than I expected it to. (This is in contrast to a public talk I gave the week before that didn’t go quite so well). I learned the lesson of needing to over-prepare to give a public talk in Portuguese.

My research project is getting off the ground, but it feels as though I have multiple balls in the air. It is possible that some of the balls will come crashing down because of time and money constraints. I hired three different research assistants. One research assistant works 15 hours a week. She is a Masters student. She is working on a project collecting data on the municipality of Belo Horizonte (lists of activists, budget data, setting up interviews). Another research assistant just graduated from college, and lives in a shantytown where I hope to apply a survey and conduct interviews in. He is working on Saturdays, just 5 hours a week. Finally, I hired another graduate student to build a database. However, if the dollar keeps crashing, then I may have to scale back my projects.

I don’t really have typical days. I go to the University a couple days a week. Other days, I try to read and write in the mornings and conduct interviews in the afternoon. I have conducted 4-5 interviews so far and have attended several participatory governance meetings. Part of the reason that I hired the research assistants was to have them set up the interviews, collect data, etc. This should now allow me to really get a lot of cool research done—expect a book in 2011.

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