Students can run into several problems with this assignment:They’ll choose a subculture to which they already belong because it’s most convenient for them. This limits their ability to analyze the strands of the culture, to see certain features as significant in the way an outsider can.They’ll focus on simply describing what they see and hear without moving into reflecting on what it means, what it tells us about the subculture. Often, students don’t quite know how to “see” a subculture, so they need time to understand how to do that. The activities and readings in this chapter will help them.They won’t manage their time well for interviews and observations.They will choose a focus that is too broad.Given these common problems, design your assignment to mitigate a few of them by following the suggestions in this chapter, as well as allowing enough time to complete the field research.
Refer back to the chapter readings as you present examples of how these characteristics are reflected in ethnographic essays.
A visual representation of what is in the textbook.
This slide introduces the methods of generating ideas and emphasizes the key questions students need to ask themselves as they are generating ideas.
Consider the sidebar “Researching Trends and Subcultures on the Web”: students will find a list of sources on the web they can use for either finding ideas for an ethnographic essay or doing research on it.
Now that students have a lot of material, they need guidance for narrowing down to a manageable topic. If you are having students write during class (the journal prompts, for example, or clustering), then you can use this slide to guide them as they narrow down to a promising subject. This point in the process is important to emphasize in class so that students choose subjects that are not only manageable, but ones about which they have not made up their mind or know much about.Once students have chosen a subculture to study with a manageable focus, assign them the following activities:Do the fastwriting prompts listed in the chapter.Discuss, in small groups, what they’ve written.Discuss whether this subculture will work for this essay by talking through/writing about the questions under “Judging What You Have.”Draft their plan for addressing the ethical issues that may arise, using the sidebar “Ethnography and Ethics” (page 360) for suggestions. At the very least, they should draft a permission letter for participants to sign.Midway through their research, have students bring to class all the field notes and interview notes they’ve gathered so they can share these with their small group and begin some initial interpreting.
Students will struggle with going beyond pure description to analysis.Emphasize that it’s important for writers to keep in mind how theirsubject speaks to a larger issue that others can understand, but also not to squelch their writing by worrying about audience and purpose too soon.
Consider the sidebar “Questions Ethnographers Ask”: The questions listed here will be enormously helpful to students as they interpret their observations and interviews, so go over them before they begin the assignment and then spend some class time in the middle of the process. Have them fastwrite on each one and begin drawing some preliminary conclusions (or discover new areas to research).Consider as well “Ethnography and Ethics”: this sidebar addresses the ethical responsibility which researchers have toward human subjects, and it suggests guidelines for conducting ethnography.
Practice with Field NotesFor the next class period, practice taking field notes. Choose a site—this could be a place where the people gather in the subculture you are studying, or somewhere on campus where people tend to gather (e.g., the student union, dorm lobby, library, quad, etc.), or somewhere off campus. Record field observations using the double-entry style. (Rather than drawing a line down the middle of the page, try using opposing pages for this.) On the left side of your notebook, record specific observations. If you can overhear a conversation, try to record dialogue. Use your descriptive powers: Describe exactly what people are doing and how they are doing it, describe the scene with as much detail as possible. Make lists of these details if this helps you get them down. Draw on all your senses.On the Left SideSpecific observations of how people in the group interactSpecific observations of individuals and what exactly they’re doingFragments of distinctive language, “insider phrases,” sayings, jargonNotes of overheard conversations or from interviewsSpecific descriptions of the placeRough sketches of the layout of the spaceSpecific descriptions of objects used by the participantsSpecific observations of how group members come and goSpecific observations of how group members respond to outsidersSpecific observations of clothing, and other cosmetic features of group membersSpecific accounts of stories members tell each otherAfter ten or so minutes observing, shift to the right-hand side of the notebook. Write down what those details/observations/descriptions might say about why people gather there, what purposes the place serves, what particular groups the place attracts, what behaviors the place encourages. Record your conclusions about this “culture.”On the Right Side Reflect on whether you see any patterns in the data you collected on the opposing page. Are certain behaviors repeated by group members?Do group members use the space in a characteristic way?Is the language they use distinctive? In what situations do they use it?Do group members reproduce certain ways of interacting with each other?What are “typical” situations that recur?How do members learn from each other? How is knowledge passed along?What kinds of behaviors are most valued by the group? What kinds of knowledge?How do group members view outsiders?What motivates members to want to belong?
If you have permission from former students to use their sketches as examples, this is a good time to show them.
Students should spend time in class, ideally, going through the journal steps outlined under “Writing the Sketch” (page 363) in the textbook.
As noted in the textbook, these are some general guidelines for writing a sketch. Review these before students write one.
A way to recap what the process has been so far. This can help students see visually that there is a method to what might seem messy.
It’s critical that students continue to visit and take field notes on the places where the group members frequent. They need an abundance of information in this project so as to make more reasonable, valid assertions about the subculture.Consider referring to the sidebar, “Useful Library Databases for Ethnography” (page 366): This sidebar lists a number of library databases where students can find published ethnographies. As Ballenger notes, students should consult these to find studies that have been done on the group they are studying.
A way to guide peer response to drafts during class workshop.
Revision is about shaping: arranging the draft to reveal what the essay is about.