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Part Two of “Teaching Culture and Methods to Novice/Non-Anthropologists” In my last post, I made the case for having students attempt ethnographic papers in courses other than “methods.” By introducing early undergraduates to the pleasures of ethnography, I think we showcase anthropology’s strong suit, but more importantly, I think it is a great way to scaffold them into ways of writing and reading that will serve them well in both the social sciences and the humanities.In this second post, I share the steps I go through to squeeze an ethnographic experience into what are admittedly short, one-term courses (12 weeks).I would love to hear from others who experiment with “hands-on” approaches in sociocultural and linguistic anthropology. Explore Sending students out into the world is less institutionally daunting than it may seem.
If in lecture I ask them to get together to talk or work through a concept or the readings, I ask them to do it in their research communities so that they are dialoguing new information with, and through, their own work/topics.
Their final reading(s) are tailored to their interests, using broad themes like religion, sports, work, gender/sexuality, food, the body, etc. Sometimes this means asking colleagues (or TAs, if you are lucky to have them).
I try and show them how this leaves little to work with when writing time comes.
I make the case for the old adage “show, don’t tell.” Because I send them out without a firm topic, I warn them that they will feel that their notes are about “nothing.” The trick then is to get down as many telling details as possible.
There are great sources out there on writing field notes. My preference is to have students read thematic content, and so I accept that the exercise of writing an ethnographic paper for early undergraduates is an incomplete introduction to fieldwork.
Instead of readings, I show them student samples I find online from similar courses and I share my own field notes.These don’t take long and are a nice break from lecture.I do these exercises along with them so they can see that thoughts wander and some pieces will be good, while others need work—lots of work.I generally choose “public spaces” as the ethics approval for these activities is fairly straightforward.I have sent all my students to the same place and have let them choose their own—both ways work.This challenges them not to leap to a criticism of the exhibit, but to attend to what happens through it. Gather and Narrow Once the students find a “there” to be at, I ask them to take field notes.I keep the instructions simple: jot notes in the field, expand notes immediately after, and write a paragraph on what they make of things.I have framed the essay question to be answerable with their collected data.I let them bring in a single page of notes and leave it up to them to decide whether that page has “raw” or “cooked” data (thanks Laura! This spares them writing an exam separate from a paper, and provides mental relief (for me, too).This anchors all the papers in the group to a debate. Revisit I almost always have them do multiple visits (2-3) because it usually opens up their observation skills and brings in richer data. Write To get them into the flavor and feel of ethnographic writing, I start one or two classes with free writing exercises geared at getting them to find their voice, or the story they are going to tell.Kirin Narayan’s book has great prompts adaptable to student projects.