Introduction

This book exists, is here for you as a resource because we, the authors/editors of this text (Suzanne Blum Malley and Ames Hawkins), saw very similar, very exciting things happening in our classrooms using ethnographic research methods in our inquiry-based first-year writing classrooms. We have watched our students develop strong voices as writers, while also using critical analytical skills and addressing important ideas of ethics, identity, and representation. In our classrooms, we have seen a greater level of investment in ethnographic projects than we have seen in more traditional rhetorically based assignments. Ethnographic writing, by creating a very authentic role for the researcher and a connection to community, offers a means to address the alienation and/or boredom that many non-traditional writers and first-year college students feel when confronted with the traditional composition curriculum—any curriculum, actually.  More importantly, ethnographic research allows students to access what can seem so terribly difficult when framed in other assignments: to pursue a line of inquiry rather than a topic, to research ethically, and to write with authority.

Though we initially wrote this text with the first-year writing classroom in mind, we have come to understand that there are many courses that also present students with ethnographic writing assignments.  These courses may or may not be designed to spend much time on the question of how to get started with these projects. In addition, instructors might want to supplement the basic methodological approach with their own course content. We are also aware that textbook size and cost has exploded in recent years. We believe in preserving the internet as an open-source space and wish to reinforce our belief with practice. As a result of these realizations, we have reorganized the project in order to 1) Make it relevant and accessible to students in nearly any college classroom who might be assigned an ethnographic writing project; 2) Allow instructors to supplement the core methodology (presented here in Chapters 1-6), as they see fit, using any number of Supplemental Modules that offer additional materials, lenses, and multi-modal examples of and for issues and ideas discussed in the core text. 3) Make it accessible and available, via the internet and other technological platforms, to students and instructors everywhere.

A disclaimer: we want to make clear that while we use and invoke methodological principles and practices associated with ethnography, we are not claiming Engaging Communities as a text that teaches ethnography as a research methodology.  This book has been designed to help students (most likely undergraduates, perhaps high school, possibly graduates ) envision interesting, hands-on research projects that are eventually converted—translated—into written text.  Throughout the text, we often use the word ethnographic in order to describe our methodological presentation and theoretical concerns as this term reflects the pedagogical (teaching) and rhetorical (arguing) concerns of ethnography, rather than the actual disciplinary understanding of the methodology.  We choose to use to teach this way because ethnographic writing allows for specific discussion regarding how to involve and interest a reader, in evoking physical and emotional connection with writing, rather than simply becoming informed or persuaded by any specific piece of writing.

There are many reasons an instructor—in a wide range of classes—might assign and ethnographic essay. 1) An ethnographic approach to composition recognizes that writing is social and is tied to issues of identity, culture, and authority.  2) Ethnographic research provides a hands-on method for critical inquiry, through which students learn how to evaluate, question, synthesize, and apply what they are learning, and to extend and develop and qualify ideas. 3) Ethnographic research and writing gives students something to write about–something with which they become (or are) very familiar–so they are able to write as authorities and with authority. 4) This kind of research highlights and emphasizes a clear understanding of the difference between primary and secondary sources and how the two can be woven together. 5) It virtually eliminates the struggles with and temptations of plagiarism, because students have an opportunity to build their own primary databases.  6) In asking students to write about culture, one with which they are familiar, or an aspect of culture they care about, students are able to speak and write  in the language that signifies, that means, for them.  7) Ethnographic research and writing is ethical as it honors the literacies with which students enter the classroom, the many different dialects and languages with which they already deftly interpret the world.  8) Ethnographic research and writing is used and understood in the discipline of the course as a valid knowledge-making method. Whatever the reason you’re here, reading now, we trust that what you’ll get from the Chapters 1-6 of Engaging Communities is a clear, step-wise structure for writing an ethnographic essay.

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