1a- Connecting to Ethnographic Writing

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.