Teaching Ethnography

Students hike the Paw Paw tunnel in West Virginia as part of the West Virginia residential field school (May 2012)

I’ve been teaching ethnography and ethnographic methods since I arrived at George Mason University, but in the last three years I made a conscious change in my priorities so that I teach a ethnographic field school each summer and at least one additional course on methods.  This year I’m fortunate: I’m teaching the undergraduate “Writing Ethnography”–a semester long course that asks students to picke a field site and create a project from start to finish.  We’ve just completed week four–to date students have read a lot about the process of ethnography and have written sample field notes.  Next week they begin their participant-observations and start the real work of research.

What’s fascinating is the range of sites my students selected.  I will have projects that look at the culture of a community police station, a roller derby team, a hospital nurses’ station, a winery that serves as a “pub” for a suburban community, a comedy club, a druidic community, a gaming community, and a jazz bar.  Several students have decided to document their own workplaces, in this case, big box retailers.  In these instances, the students are tasked with taking a step back and observing if there is a “there” there–their interactions as privileged workers who use the big box as a stepping stone to a better life, which I’m sure will contrast with the their fellow workers who may never have a better job or brighter future.

I enjoy teaching students how to do ethnographic work. It’s a skill that can be extremely useful and applied to any variety of workplace contexts.  I’m also strongly aware that this is an opportunity that is rarely offered to students.  Too few anthropology programs (which are far more numerous than Folklore Studies programs) elect to teach students the nuts and bolts fo fieldwork to graduate students, let alone undergraduates.  I can understand why: it’s incredibly labor intensive and requires a more intensive classroom experience.  Nevertheless, the courses I offer at George Mason University through the Folklore Studies program offer students a unique and challenging research-based experience.  My hope is that my colleagues across the country will consider teaching these courses more often.


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