Results of my FieldWorking trial (three sections of freshman comp this past spring) were, not unexpectedly, somewhat mixed. On the plus side, students chose a variety of interesting subcultures and sites, resulting in increased student motivation, I think, and most certainly in livelier research papers. However, about 25% of them failed our department's portfolio assessment, a troublesome concern that demands some serious analysis.
Course overview. I structured the course as a series of short (one or two page) writing assignments, most of which could at least potentially be reworked into a culminating 8-10 page ethnography. We first spent some time talking about the idea of a subculture (a group of people with a shared system of beliefs, rituals, artifacts, and language who exist, at least part of the time, in a common space). What are the rituals and artifacts associated with (my ubiquitous example) the kindergarten class? Do the customers at Stop & Shop form a subculture? What stores do seem to have associated subcultures (a health food store, maybe, or Hot Topic)? Initial short assignments included writing about one's own subcultures and reflecting about experiences of being an insider/outsider. To introduce the process of taking field notes, I brought classes to the campus art gallery and instructed everyone to take notes; in later comparison we considered individual approaches, noting in particular the issue of subjective impression vs objective details (use of double-entry notetaking introduced here). Other short assignments included the following: a research proposal, place description, artifact analysis, comparison/contrast or classification related to subculture or field site, and an annotated bibliography. The final ethnography combined personal observation with background "traditional" research (approx. 4 text or Internet sources, generally to provide a broader context for specific field site chosen)
- Much of the success of this approach derives from the rich variety of field sites and subcultures chosen. My students' subjects included the following: tattoo parlors (do they still call them that?), a dance club, kindergartners, pool halls, the YMCA, a skateboard store, polka dancers, Renaissance re-enactors, dog-walkers at a city park, Express shoppers, a small-town hardware store (where my student's research ended up in a job), a cosmetics counter at the mall, the hospital emergency room, a karaoke bar, graffiti artists, strippers, nursing home residents, hair stylists, waitresses, garage bands, "hippies" (though I had my doubts about the cohesiveness of this as a subculture). In addition to making their final papers interesting to read, this variety livened up class discussion. For example, in discussing comparison/contrast we had some ready-made pairings: tattoo vs graffiti artists, polka dancers vs strippers, college dorms vs nursing homes.
- I also appreciated that the approach seemed well-aligned to many of my goals in teaching writing, in particular the necessity for opening one's eyes and doing the leg-work (in this case literally) to accumulate details. I hoped to remove some of their preconceptions about subject matter, to show that the world is full of interesting stuff, to awaken a little curiosity and creativity. Students, I hoped, came closer to understanding that seeing and reading, researching and writing should be active pursuits. The insistence that students chose a specific site helped to preclude ungrounded generalizations (though I still got them, particularly with hippies and strippers).
- Though many students were successful in choosing subjects, a few did struggle with the somewhat unconventional nature of the assignment. To a certain extent, this course had an "all-your-eggs-in-one-basket" aspect that bothered some students (and me as well). I suspect many of these students would also have had trouble finding subjects to write about in a modes-structured course; the student writing about strippers, for example, complained that she could find nothing interesting to write about, which left me speechless in amazement for a minute or two. Several students picked field sites that turned out, for one reason or another, to be not very accessible (a key criterion that needs a good deal of emphasis). Procrastination, as always, was a problem for others; it was more likely a fatal disease with this approach, as field work for most sites proved difficult at 3 am the night before a draft was due.
- The key issue wrt portfolio failures seemed to involve integration of text research with field work. Some students had considerable difficulty finding appropriate source material (the YMCA comes to mind). I ended up "helping out" more than I should have, I think, in terms of actually printing out database articles and locating books. Others had the usual difficulty managing proper citation (but to a greater extent than normal, I think).
Thoughts for next time.
- Consider sharper guidelines for choice of subculture. To what extent should students be encouraged to pick a subculture to which they don't belong? For the most part, students failed to pick ethnically based subcultures, which I had thought might offer rich possibilities in this area (a Portuguese bakery, fish market, social club, Asian market, Italian poultry slaughterhouse). ***More emphasis needed on scoping out available text research sources before students finalize subculture choice.***
- Work at more careful crafting of specific assignments, esp with a view to wards exercises that foster the specific/generality connection and identification of patterns. Introduce a short assignment that involves integration of research material and proper citation methods.
- Tighten schedule (with a completed first draft due at least two weeks before end of semester) and toughen up about enforcing due dates throughout.