Chatting While Waterskiing, Part 3: Drawing as an Ethnographic Method

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  • posted byErika Hoffmann-Dilloway
  • dateNovember 4, 2016
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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. In this final post, she writes (and draws) about using methods learned in a graphic workshop in her ongoing research in Malta, and some of the ways in which local signers integrated writing and drawing into their own communicative practices. 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).

HDblog3image1As described in my previous posts, earlier this year I participated in a graphic methods workshop while developing a new research project focusing on signing practices in Malta and Gozo. The first weekend of the workshop I had the opportunity to integrate sketching into this ongoing research. Most of the social life of Maltese Sign Language (Lingwa Tas-Sinjali Maltija or LSM) takes place on the main island of Malta; deaf Gozitans who wish to regularly access contexts for LSM use, deaf social clubs, and sign language interpreters often relocate from Gozo. However, it so happened that the first LSM course to be offered on Gozo in almost a decade coincided with the graphic anthropology workshop, allowing me to participate in both simultaneously.

The instructor was a fluent deaf signer whose linguistic repertoire also included spoken Maltese and English. While she occasionally spoke with the class, however, much of the instruction took place in a signed medium. Consequently, the demands on students’ visual attention were greater than is typically the case in primarily spoken language based classrooms. When the teacher was signing, students could not look down to take notes, to gaze briefly out the window, or rest their eyes without missing important content conveyed visually. Sign language teachers, aware of such potential “knowledge gaps” (Bagga-Gupta 1999: 102), may draw on a range of strategies to minimize their impact. These may include positioning students in such a way as to increase the ease of maintaining visual access to the signed talk, monitoring students for signs of visual attentiveness, or repeating important content (Bagga-Gupta 1999; Ramsey and Padden 1998). Given my recent efforts to coordinate talk and sketching, I was particularly aware of the skilled way in which the LSM instructor carved out designated intervals during which students could look down to take notes (and during which I could sketch). While introducing content, she monitored students’ attention and comprehension by engaging us with requests to repeat signs or to guess at the meaning of a newly introduced form, but during the occasional intervals for writing, she held still, waiting for our eyes to return to her before resuming signing.

HDblog3image2I admit that, even as I was becoming more skilled at participating in spoken conversation while sketching, I had wondered if incorporating graphic methods into field research with deaf signers would be more difficult due to the primarily visual nature of talk in such settings. However, during this LSM class I realized I had not been considering the fact that deaf signers draw on a range of strategies to incorporate activities that can divert visual attention into signed interactions. The GAD instructor’s practice of going “on hold” while students wrote was one such strategy. Keating and Mirus (2012) provide another example, describing how some deaf signers adapt to signing while driving (challenging because of the demands driving places on both visual attention and on manual articulators) by creatively manipulating both the environment of the car (e.g., adjusting mirrors) and the forms of signs (e.g., by articulating a typically two-handed sign with one hand, while steering with the other). Attending to such practices in order to align my sketching activities with them could not only help me integrate drawing and signing, but also help bring these (often subtle) strategies more clearly into analytical focus.

Thinking about ways to represent signing practices graphically also made me wonder what kinds of notes the other participants were taking. Having become more habituated as a result of the graphic workshop to showing others the content of my notebooks and asking to see theirs, during a break midway through the session I approached several fellow students to see if they’d be willing to discuss their note-taking practices. They pointed out that few of the students had access to an LSM dictionary featuring detailed pictorial representations of the signs, so they were attempting to record, via a combination of text and images, the forms of the signs to better reproduce them when studying in between classes.

HDblog3image3It can be quite challenging to represent, in two-dimensional form, the changing shapes and complex movements that characterize signing, especially during relatively brief note-taking breaks. As I showed my classmates, I made my notes using both sketches and a systematic visually iconic writing system for sign languages called SignWriting that I have studied for many years (Hoffmann-Dilloway 2011; 2013; in press). The others had not previously learned such a system and most had drawn on familiar forms, such as letters, numbers, arrows, or simple shapes as extemporaneous “visual codes” to quickly capture enough information to trigger later a more detailed recalling (Causey, in press: 47). (Causey, in fact, provides a series of exercises to facilitate skill with this strategy in order to “increase the speed at which you are able to draw what you see” and “provide you with an additional way of documenting the fast-moving visual world around you” (Causey, in press: 47)). The process of comparing and discussing our relative visual codes functioned to jumpstart the process of getting to know my fellow students, leading to broader discussions of their motivations for taking the course and their understandings of the nature of LSM.

As my research in Malta is in a nascent stage, the role that graphic methods will play in its development is not yet clear, but I’m quite encouraged to keep experimenting. And I should note that while the graphic workshop helped me to cultivate an ability to engage interactively with my surroundings while sketching, I’m happy to report that the process of hunkering down in my office to make the drawings to illustrate these posts still felt like waterskiing, a wholly single-minded pleasure.


Bagga-Gupta, Sangeeta (1999). Visual Language Environments: Exploring Everyday Life and Literacies in Swedish Deaf Bilingual Schools. Visual Anthropology Review 15(2): 95-120.

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

Keating, Elizabeth and Gene Mirus (2012). The Eyes Have It: Technologies of Automobility in Sign Language. Semiotica 191: 287-308.

Hoffmann-Dilloway, Erika (2011). Writing the Smile: Language Ideologies in, and through, Sign Language Scripts. Language and Communication 31(4): 435-355.

—- (2013). (Don’t) Write My Lips: Interpretations of the Relationship between German Sign Language and German across Scales of SignWriting Practice. Signs and Society 1(2): 243-272

— (forthcoming). Feeling Your Own (or Someone Else’s) Face: Writing Signs from the Expressive Viewpoint. Language and Communication.

Ramsey, Clare and Carol Padden (1998). Natives and Newcomers: Gaining Access to Literacy in a Classroom for Deaf Children. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 29(1):5-24.

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