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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: H 33 Composing Others/Composing Selves: The Ethnographic Essay
Reviewed by: Steve Simpson, teachersimpson@yahoo.com
Posted on: April 12, 2004
Updated on: April 12, 2004

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Chair: Bruce Ballenger (Boise State University, ID)
Donna Qualley (Western Washington University, Bellingham)
Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater (University of North Carolina, Greensboro)
Bonnie Sunstein (University of Iowa, Iowa City)

I tried, when possible, to avoid looking directly at the obnoxiously loud carpeting in each of the conference rooms in the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Hall, particularly the room I found myself in that Thursday morning. Instead, I surveyed the audience, trying to get a feel for the room and its occupants, which, given the fact that I was reviewing a session on ethnographic writing, was only appropriate. In fact, if I’d had the time to flag down a few eager conference-goers as they scurried out of the room to make the next session in the Hyatt, I might have asked them a little about themselves…. Who are you? Where are you from? And what made you attend this panel discussion in particular? Unfortunately, I was not able to do so. (Alas, I had to scurry off somewhere, myself). However, it would have been interesting to know why people chose this session over others. I knew why I was there (and here is where I identify my own biases): I had used Sunstein and Chiseri-Strater’s Fieldworking in a composition class, and I was very pleased with how well it had gone over with the students. Of course, I have a vested interest in the subject, too. I studied folklore in graduate school, and so I am always looking for interesting ways of incorporating material from my subject area. But just how appealing is the idea of student-written ethnographies to those outside the small circle of composition instructors with previous ethnographic experience? Most of the people I’ve spoken to seem to think the idea is wonderful, but, for various reasons, they’re reluctant to integrate it in their curriculum. (In fact, I’d almost managed to coax a few of my colleagues to attend this session with me, but most of them opted for a reportedly “fabulous” panel discussion on adjuncts in the academy….)

Had they chosen to attend this presentation on ethnographic writing, they would have been pleasantly surprised. The session was absolutely magnificent. As it happens, only two of the three scheduled speakers presented, as Bonnie Sunstein was not able to attend the 4C’s this year. Naturally, I would have loved to hear Bonnie Sunstein’s paper, but it was nice to attend a session in which the speakers actually had time to develop their ideas, present numerous examples from student work, and conduct an informative question/answer period.

Donna Qualley’s talk – “The Ethnographic Stance: a Rhetorical and Ethical Enabling” – discussed ways ethnographic strategies could be used to help students develop stronger critical reading skills. Ethnographers, as Qualley echoed in her handout, “seek to reveal how particular cultures construct and understand their own lived experience,” and thus she contended that “learning to adopt an ethnographic perspective can help [students] approach each encounter with difference openly, receptively, and reflexively.” Rhetorically speaking, the ethnographic perspective encourages student writers to identify their own assumptions and biases and account for the way they affect their interpretation of a given text. To illustrate this principle, she recounted an experience she’d had in a senior-level literacy and learning class, wherein she’d asked students to read and respond to Gloria Anzaldua’s “Speaking in Tongues.” This assignment, she explained, was not “ethnographic,” though it could’ve been (or, perhaps, should’ve been), as Anzaldua’s text proved to be a little too “different” for most of the students in the class. Some reacted strongly to Anzaldua’s manner of addressing racial issues, protesting angrily that they felt she was placing them “in a white box,” or asserting sarcastically that she must have been drinking too much wine. Others simply avoided the portions of the text that troubled them and honed in on passages they felt they could “relate to.” Qualley argued that her students had trouble with this assignment because she had asked them to respond to an unfamiliar text – an unfamiliar culture, even – without providing them with the analytical and rhetorical tools for doing so. Further, she felt her students weren’t given the time to immerse themselves in the text and explore the underlying assumptions, values, and cultural beliefs of its author and its intended audience. In contrast, the ethnographic stance encourages an intimacy with the text (i.e., students in her senior-level course on the ethnographic essay spend several weeks reading/studying Translated Woman, a book-length ethnography), and through the “ethnographic eye,” Qualley argued, students “see that it’s just as much about them as it is anyone else.”

While Qualley addressed mainly theoretical concerns, Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater tended to some of the more practical ones, particularly in regards to student-written ethnographies. In her talk, entitled “Fieldwork: Things Are Not Always What They Seem,” she argued that fieldwork – i.e., observing, interviewing, and studying the members of a subculture in their own context – teaches students how to examine groups of people from both an insider and outsider perspective and, ultimately, forces students to “interrogate[…] their own lives, as well.” As a result of this process, students become more aware of “what it means to be fully human.” She admitted, however, that the student-written ethnographies weren’t always successful (or, at least, they weren’t always successful in the way she’d originally intended). She spent the bulk of her talk describing some of these “unsuccessful” student ethnographies and detailing the various difficulties students have encountered selecting and researching their field sites. For example, she discussed the problems students have writing on subcultures in which they are already an insider. One such student – Steve, a member of the smoking club he studied for this project – found it incredibly hard to analyze his subject and even grew defensive as others suggested possible angles for him to explore. Another student – Rebecca, who wrote on Behold Him, an Easter performance at her church – attempted to approach this familiar subject from a “detached, observational” stance, but in doing so, neglected to explore some of the most essential values of this community (i.e., she assumed she had to analyze this religious performance without discussing “the religious perspective”). Chiseri-Strater also discussed students who were too shy to interview informants within their field site, students who neglected to take copious notes, students who could not achieve an insider perspective of their subculture, and students who initially thought they had an insider perspective but soon found otherwise.

The most remarkable part of Chiseri-Strater’s talk, however, was when she shared some of the personal reflections she’d asked students to write on their projects. In many cases, the students were able to identify why their projects were unsuccessful. For example, the student who wrote on the smoking club seemed willing to admit that he might have harbored a bias toward his subject, and that this did impede his study in ways. In my opinion, this is the beauty of ethnographic writing in general and the Fieldworking curriculum in particular: It is very tangible (and as many of my students have noted, creative) way of presenting to students some of the most fundamental rhetorical concerns (e.g., examining multiple perspectives, fashioning texts to suit the rhetorical situation, etc.). Furthermore, it helps students see the need for cultural awareness and (depending on how you implement the curriculum) encourages students to participate in community activities.

Overall, it was a very instructive session. The presentations were magnificent, and the question/answer period was wonderfully practical. Many of us who have assigned ethnographies in our composition courses found this to be an excellent opportunity to ask about some of the problems we’ve encountered. And who knows: The session was fairly well attended, so it is highly probable that someone in the room might have been exposed to this idea for the first time…. One can always hope for the best.

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