One of the main purposes of creating a course structured around ethnographic writing is that ethnography, as a methodology, is used in many, many different fields. In addition to composition studies (the field that informs writing teachers) and anthropology (the field that largely invented ethnography as a methodology), ethnography and ethnographic writing are recognizable in the following fields and disciplines: African-American studies, Asian studies, communication studies, cultural studies, education, English studies, history, linguistics, nursing, psychology, sociology, social work, workplace studies, and women’s studies, just to name some of the larger fields.
In being asked to consider ethnographic writing, you will be asked to design and conduct original research, make cultural observations, notice patterns in those observations, come to a conclusion about those patterns and then say something about them. You will not only engage in this process, but will most likely be successful in this process, the exact same process that many, many academics, in a variety of fields and disciplines, engage in every day. Though you will not learn in this course all there is to know about ethnography as a methodology, if you grapple with the larger questions, if you concentrate on the research process, as much as the final product, you will be better prepared to understand the parameters of writing assignments in a variety of disciplines. During this class, you will be introduced to and evaluated on a number of writing and researching skills, the lot of which are translatable across the academy:
- Choosing a personally interesting research site (Chapter 3)
- Transforming your initial idea into a research proposal (Chapter 3)
- Engaging with your research from an inquiry (questioning, not answering) perspective (Chapter 1)
- Iterating the ethical implications of your research (Chapter 2)
- Building trust with your informants (Chapter 4)
- Creating a time-line for participant-observation research (Chapter 4)
- Writing fieldnotes (Chapter 4)
- Conducting relevant and creative secondary research (Chapters 5)
- Recognizing a viable pattern in your research (Chapter 5)
- Representing your research through rhetorical strategies of your own conscious choosing (Chapter 6)
- Representing your research as a composition (Chapter 6)
These are not the only skills you will acquire during this course; they are not the only skills that can be translated to a number of disciplines. These are some of the skills that seem to have the most relevance and impact for students in their future studies—at school and beyond. No matter which course it is that has assigned this text, it is likely that the process of writing an ethnographic essay will un-do any, if not all of your expectations about what it means to write a paper, pushing you to expand your own understanding of writing and see it as an activity that impacts many different disciplines, and connects, rather than polarizes, academic work.
It is true that you won’t be able to take what you learn in this class and uniformly apply it to every other writing assignment you ever get. But, it is just as true that if you take seriously the process, work to allow this process to be different than whatever you’ve already learned about writing essays/papers for school and come to see yourself as a researcher and writer, you will be that much better prepared to engage in any future writing project here in college or elsewhere. So, put your assumptions about what to expect here to the side and be willing to hear something new and to trust that there is a method in this madness, a reason why you should push yourself beyond what you already know and understand to be “writing for school,” or “writing for English.”
And, then, if you’re going to allow this text, this class, and your instructor, to be something different than what you expect, we urge you to give yourself the same latitude. This is not to say if you understand yourself to be an A student that you should expect any less of yourself for this assignment. The burden of the student who sees themselves as a good writer is not to talk themselves out of their A, but simply to not think you won’t have to work hard, that you already know everything that there is to learn. You will be choosing a project, a research site that, even if you have personal connection with, you cannot already know everything about because your observations will commence from this point forward. The student who has already been successful in English courses needs to remember that you will learn as you go. You need to understand that writers are always in the process of improving—even the best writers seek guidance, council and editorial commentary. You need to understand this larger project as serious opportunity to improve upon what is already a solid understanding of writing. You need to be willing to work beyond the obvious, beyond what is usually expected, to think outside the box and to challenge yourself in your project.
These same challenges are presented to all writers. The amazing thing is that while this difference in expectation tends to unnerve the traditionally good English student, it can be liberating for those who have never considered themselves to be good at writing. Therefore, if you do consider yourself a writer, explore all that you can do with this. If you don’t usually like English, or consider yourself to be a poor writer, or usually “hate” writing, you will also need to let go of your expectations and believe that this process—one that allows you to choose your own research focus, to engage on a personal level with your project, to write and write and write in a variety of styles and formats—will illustrate to you how it is that you engage with writing, with research and with academic prose.