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Tweaking Assignments

posted: 2.18.11 by archived

Ever since I happened upon Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elizabeth Chiseri-Strater’s book FieldWorking, I have been assigning some form of ethnography in my first-semester comp classes. I wrote about the assignment in theory and in practice over six years ago. Since then I have appreciated the opportunities it gives my students for rich, varied subject matter; my students have written about waitresses, cashiers, saleswomen at cosmetics counters, dog-walkers in the park, graffiti artists, dance moms, weight-lifters, phlebotomists, Boy Scouts, VFW regulars, polka dancers, karaoke singers, pizza delivery “boys”, preschoolers, wiccan women, Renaissance reenactors, old-guy hockey leagues, garden club members, Bible study groups, and gymnasts. In addition to the (selfish) pleasure of getting to read such essays, I also like that the assignment positions my students to be active researchers and reinforces the sermon-message of my writing classes: keep your eyes open! But I’m trying something a little different this semester.

More like journalism than classic argument, an ethnography is not the sort of assignment that demands a well-defined thesis, but it does require a focal point and an organizational strategy, and which has been a challenge for some of my students. In the serendipitous way that I develop many of my assignments, I happened to rediscover on Malcolm Gladwell’s site an old (1996) article titled “The Science of Shopping,” in which Gladwell reports on the findings of Paco Underhill regarding consumer behavior and how stores can influence that behavior. I began to think that perhaps I could use this article.

So here’s the current plan (and what I hope it accomplishes):

  • First, I introduce the idea of ethnography, quickly limiting fieldsites to retail establishments. As a class we brainstorm a list of possibilities and discuss factors to consider: how “colorful” is the atmosphere? Do the customers constitute a well-defined subculture? How interesting/enjoyable would it be for students to study? Could students “hang out” there without drawing attention to themselves, or perhaps would multiple, short visits be possible? (Remember, it’s important to take the time to do this brainstorming.)
  • Next, I introduce Gladwell’s article. Because it’s so long, I divide the class into groups and assign each group one section of the article. I ask them to highlight important, general statements and compile a short bulleted list of the important points in each section. I collect this info and use it to annotate a pdf of the article, which I will then post on the course blog so that students have access to the whole article as well as the notes of their peers. (This serves as an introduction to how to annotate and summarize an article.)
  • Students will then visit their fieldsite, using Gladwell’s article as a framework for their observations. He writes, for example, about how the interior design of a store should appeal to its target “audience” of customers, how the behavior of male customers differs from females, how store layout encourages customers to venture deep into the store—all possible ways that students can focus their observations.
  • Finally, in writing their essay, students must tie their specific observations to the general principles in Gladwell’s essay, which accomplishes several things: it allows me again to talk about and them to think about the dialectical process every writer goes through, and it gives them an initial taste of integrating text from sources into their own writing (in a way that makes their contributions and observations the main point rather than merely the string that holds together pieces of undigested source material—that’s the hope, anyway!). The assignment will also allow students, if they wish, to do some minor (probably Internet) research to find info about the store, its history, sales figures, Web presence, and so forth.

I’d love to hear any feedback or suggestions about this assignment, or any tales from the field from those who’ve tried the ethnographic approach.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Holly Pappas
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