Chatting While Waterskiing, Part 1

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  • posted byErika Hoffmann-Dilloway
  • dateOctober 31, 2016
  • commentsNo comments
CategoryMain Story

In this three-part blog series, Erika Hoffmann-Dilloway of Oberlin College reflects on the challenges she has encountered in trying to incorporate drawing into her work as a linguistic anthropologist. She begins by exploring the difficulties of engaging socially while sketching. The blog series precedes the November publication of Andrew Causey’s new book, Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method. We hope that you will join us at the AAA Annual Meeting in Minneapolis to put some of Erika and Andrew’s suggestions into practice! Follow us @TeachingCulture and share your sketches (#sketchAAA).

Reflecting on the experience of writing, Lynda Barry has commented that “you should be waterskiing behind it, not dragging it like a barge. Writing should take you for a ride.” * Despite my best efforts, to date I continue to experience my academic writing process as dragging a barge (though I don’t always find the grim exertion this implies totally unpleasurable). I can sustain this effort only in short bursts and manage to complete a text—including this one—only by overcoming, again and again, my desire to distract myself. However, when drawing I do experience the waterskiing sensation that Barry describes. In my experience (shared by many others, I’m sure), drawing allows me to become totally absorbed in a process that seems to emerge spontaneously, and which manages to tune out my surroundings until I’ve finished the image. It’s highly satisfying.

Consequently, I’ve begun to think about ways in which I might incorporate drawing into my work as a linguistic anthropologist. Until recently, I had considered its possibilities primarily as a tool for analyzing and publishing data. However, earlier this year a happy coincidence put me in a position to concretely explore ways of incorporating graphic methods into fieldwork methodologies as part of real-time, face-to-face, communicative interactions. I was spending my sabbatical in Malta, a small Mediterranean island country, where I was beginning a new project with a network of signers using Lingwa Tas-Sinjali Maltija (Maltese Sign Language). Anne Brackenbury, editor of the ethnoGRAPHIC series, knowing about my interest in graphic anthropology and aware that I was in Malta, brought to my attention the serendipitous fact that a graphic methods workshop was scheduled to be held in Gozo, a smaller island within the Maltese archipelago. Feeling lucky to be a short ferry ride, rather than an ocean, away from the program, I signed up immediately. In a short series of blog posts, I will reflect on some of the challenges I encountered during this workshop, and in trying to incorporate drawing, which I typically experience as such an absorbing activity, into face-to-face field interactions.

HDblog1image1Led by Kim Tondeur of the Université libre de Bruxelles and hosted by the Expeditions field school, the workshop drew on the program’s long-standing relationships with people on the island to offer participants access to a range of local settings and activities (e.g., observing a blacksmith make knives; experiencing the morning rush in a Gozitan bakery). In each of these contexts we were asked to observe, participate, and engage in a range of drawing exercises. I found that the very focus I usually enjoy when drawing made it difficult for me to engage socially while sketching. Andrew Causey, in his book Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method (published this fall by the University of Toronto Press), also identifies this problem, positing that “it’s almost as if you are paying for the chance to record the spirit and animation of what you perceive by reducing your own vigor, and that by stopping your attention to your own emergent life you are then able to channel it to the line” (Causey, in press: 122). He also notes that this potential conflict has long been a part of the “participant observation” dynamic (e.g., Ingold 2013), but which for some may be experienced more acutely (and thus potentially grappled with more thoughtfully) via the use of graphic methods.

HDblogimage2 (002)For example, during our visit to the bakery, I attempted to sketch the steps one of our hosts took in making a batch of ftajjar (a pizza-like baked good). While raptly engaged in the challenge of shifting my gaze back and forth between my sketchpad and her movements, simultaneously dodging the long handles of the baker’s paddles and the elbows of the customers picking up orders, I occasionally missed a vital action that could have clarified the subsequent moves I observed. As illustrated in the comic I drew to reflect on that day’s activities (we were asked to produce one such strip each day), when I complained about this problem, Kim, laughing, pointed out that I could have simply spoken up and asked our host to explain the step I’d missed. Despite my many years of fieldwork experience, I had been so focused on drawing that it quite simply had not occurred to me to just ask!

In fact, to varying degrees, all the workshop participants were initially struggling to maintain conversation and other forms of active social engagement while also drawing. Of course, this can’t be attributed to something inherent in the activity of drawing, but rather to the ways we had been socialized to engage in the practice and to frame it ideologically (just as, for example, reading can be practiced and ideologically framed as private, individual, and silent or as public, collective, and noisy) (e.g., Long 1993; Cody 2011).

In my next blog post, I’ll write and draw about the steps we took, as a group, to adapt our communicative ecologies to more easily incorporate drawing. (Causey’s book, which I highly recommend, also proposes a range of ways to pursue this). Then, in a final post, I’ll write and draw about some of the ways in which the workshop contributed to my broader emerging research project on Malta.

* This quote comes from the course description of the writing workshop Barry leads at the Omega Institute, which I was fortunate enough to take in 2013.


Causey, Andrew (in press). Drawn to See: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cody, Francis (2011). Echoes of the Teashop in a Tamil Newspaper. Language and Communication 31: 243-254.

Ingold, Tim (2013). Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art, and Architecture. London: Routledge.

Long, Elizabeth (1993). Textual Interpretation as Collective Action. In (Boyarim ed.) The Ethnography of Reading, pp. 190-211. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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