This is the second in a two-part post in which Lindsay A. Bell (SUNY Oswego) describes her attempt to organize a senior seminar course around producing a podcast based on student research. As a Canadian, she teaches the course “Life in America: Ethnography & Everyday Experience in the United States and at Its Borders” with sincere curiosity.
In my last post, I described how I used podcasting (or audio documentary) to introduce students to key elements of ethnographic enquiry and craft. In this post, I outline how to use it to introduce students to the dilemmas of ethnography (without having to be an expert in sound recording/editing.)
In terms of assessment, I broke the assignment into three parts: development, research, and production. Each offered opportunities to explore the course focus (Life in America) and to turn anthropology into more of a practice and less of a subject of study.
In practical terms, the development phase of the project culminated in students “pitching” ideas to the group. Essentially this was a 1-2 paragraph description of an idea they thought was intriguing and do-able in a term. As background, they listened to episode one of Jessica Abel’s “Out on the Wire” (a podcast about making stories), which focused on ideas: how to get them and why you should stick with the ones that keep coming back to you. Her website includes transcripts of the episodes that are useful models for scripting later on. The students posted their pitches to the class website and to be honest, almost none of them worked.
This led to dilemma number one. What does it mean to investigate a place, a process, or a group of people anthropologically? Teaching the art of asking anthropological questions is just about the most difficult part of what I do. It is both intuitive and emergent, meaning I have a deep sense of “knowing” anthropological questions when I see them, and yet I feel as though in my own work, I am reformulating/rediscovering what anthropology is and can be all the time. While as a discipline we aren’t necessarily in agreement on an answer, for the sake of teaching undergraduates you have to put some stakes in the ground and offer them a platform on which to build an enquiry. I found that in reshaping their ideas, I was able to ground a conversation about the ingredients of anthropological questions. For example, ideas like “hazing” or “diversity” already take too much for granted conceptually. Questions like “what does the community think of the university?” already posits clear divisions and a uniform interpretation. It also privileges individual opinions as the primary data source.
In the end, we settled on a kind of general interest in everyday life in a rust belt town. I had started the course with several news stories about our region being “the worst place to live in America.” They felt these representations were immediately unfair and un-nuanced. It became clear that they wanted to produce something counter to these accounts. They decided that their question/focus would have to emerge from going out and “being there.”
Dilemma #2: The “Ideal” Data
The nuts and bolts of this phase involved students conducting interviews and observations relevant to their interests. They began going to a local diner in shifts of two or three in the hope that they would meet people that they otherwise would not encounter. As a warm-up exercise designed to help students become keen observers, I used Lynda Barry’s Six Minute Diary. All the talking in the world won’t cultivate habits of attention required for ethnography, but when it came time to write the script, they figured out which kinds of observations and note-taking styles were the easiest to put to use. They discovered that the things that seemed insignificant (the fact that the diner was cash only, for example) actually revealed a lot in the telling of a story.
In pairs, students were responsible for interviewing one person they felt would help us have a better sense of how people make a life in the rust belt. We developed a set of questions together collaboratively in class. To test their questions out, and to model interview techniques and the writing of supplemental notes, I invited a guest to class that we interviewed as a group. After the visit, we discussed what made some questions “better” than others. This was also when I began to explore with them how interviews are always situated encounters. While students tend to want to imagine “ideal” data (we’ve all been there), it is good for them to experience firsthand the possibilities and limitations of interviews. Many of them returned disappointed from their interviews. They felt they hadn’t got “enough.” Many were surprised that normally chatty people were quiet once the recorder started. Again, all teachable moments. They learned that connections take time, and that sometimes interviews serve only to open a door, or to begin a new kind of correspondence with someone we may already know.
Dilemma #3: Recursivity
Boundaries between each phase of the project were blurred by the nature of the work. After collecting a substantial number of observational notes and interviews we had to ask the “so what?” question. We organized the conversation using the focus statement prompt from Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, Episode Two. It is pretty simple:
Someone does something…because…but…
This forced us to consider who our “someones” were. Did we have a coherent group that we felt we could represent well? The answer was: not exactly. Classic ethnographic dilemma: practicing recursivity. This one brings up a lot of frustration and confusion and accusations that the professor is impossible to please. Recursivity runs against the cultural norms of undergraduate research and writing. Students often plan and execute papers in a single sitting, fueled by energy drinks and sheer determination. It is common practice to assign paper proposals or outlines as a way to get them started early, but these tools have perverse effects in so far as they can foreclose the possibility of reframing one’s ideas in light of what one is finding through research or review of literature. Trying to frame our findings meant we had to go and do more focused research as we began writing.
Dilemma #4: Representation
The next dilemma emerged as the focus of the podcast became students in the class who were from the rust belt. While there was a desire to be frank about hardships they faced, some worried that the picture being painted was too bleak. Others didn’t want to write what they perceived as overblown optimism. I had to keep bringing them back to what they were seeing/hearing (and not what they already thought they knew to be true). The students were in the thick of thinking about what it means to take on the task of writing about duress, especially if it is (or isn’t) your own. There aren’t clear formulas here, but being in this dilemma was generative.
The production of the actual podcast forced the students back into all four dilemmas as they revised on the go. We had outlined “scenes” much in the way This American Life describes their segments. A lead writer framed the script while others gathered the necessary contextual details, quotes from the literature, or interview snippets. Once they recorded a section, they would listen to it and discuss if it was indeed anthropological. If not, what could they do to address that? Was it a fair, nuanced representation? If not, what materials should come next? Could other sorts of expertise bolster a claim? If yes, someone would need to track that information down.
These dilemmas proved to be far more demanding and fruitful than the technical production. When I designed this podcast class, I was counting on student knowledge of sound technology or their willingness to watch You Tube tutorials and find web-based tips. I lucked out and had one student pretty well versed in sound editing using Pro Tools. We used a variety of recording devices (my field recorder, iPhones, other smart phones). This led to some issues down the line, so I would advise standardizing the recording device.
As they scrambled during finals week to get the recording done between other assignments and a busy lab space, we learned how consuming the process can be. What they turned in, however, speaks to the value of this kind of process-based course. You can hear it here.
*I am grateful to the students of “Rust Belt Productions” who were kind enough to let me learn alongside them and wise enough to take space and find their own voice.