26 January 2017

Teaching ethnography

The anthro everywhere! authors recently came across an intriguing article written for the online magazine Quillette entitled "Tyranny of the Ethnography: How Lived Experience Corrupts the Social Sciences." This piece, written by Toni Airaksinen, an undergraduate student at Barnard College, argues that teaching ethnography is misleading students, and even dangerously so. Citing her experiences of most social science classes (though all appear to be in sociology), where professors are keen to assign recent works such as Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman, or Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D Vance, Airaksinen writes that:
Ethnographies — books based on “lived experience” — are one of the most powerful types of books professors can assign. Yet, most of these books give students an extremely distorted understanding of what life is like for people living at the lowest rungs of society. Academia’s multicultural oppression fetish, which permeates the social sciences, ensures assigned books will invariably revolve around at least one aspect of the Holy Trinity of Oppression: race, class or gender.
The complicated and nuanced issues that face people of color, women, and the poor do exist in reality, of course. But ethnographies are not reality. Instead, they are a collection of the most sensational anecdotes of a novel culture deliberately curated to convey the most shock value.
As anthropologists, our first instinct is to dismiss this statement as part of a clear misunderstanding of what ethnography is and is intended to convey to the reader. Yet, as anthropologists, we also have to respect the fact that these condemnations are (ironically) based on Airaksinen's own lived experience and observations as a student. For her, the real problem with ethnography is that "books like these give students the sense that they “understand” phenomena they’ve never had personal experience with."

As university instructors with backgrounds in anthropology, we can't help but read Airaksinen's complaint as a teachable moment -- for instructors teaching ethnography in their classrooms. If this is what students like Airaksinen are taking away from the ethnographies that we teach, where are we failing them, and how can we teach ethnography better?

While we don't have all of the answers, here is a short list of blog posts and online resources shared by anthropologists on how they approach teaching ethnography as text and method in the classroom.

On encouraging critical engagement with ethnographic texts in the classroom:
  • Julia Kowalski's outline for creating "Ethnography Labs: Unpacking Ethnographic Narrative" offers a useful assignment structure for helping students "recognize ethnography as a rigorous, empirical, and argumentative method by learning to identify where arguments are in ethnographic texts and to help them see the distinctions between argument and evidence." 
  • Carole McGranahan's post offers her experience of teaching and tracking "What Makes Something Ethnographic?" (Savage Minds, 2012) in her classroom.
These posts offer instructive reflections and suggestions for how to teach ethnography as a method:
For instructors/ writers reflecting on ethnography as a form of writing, these discussions may be useful:
If you have resource suggestions for teaching ethnography in the classroom (guiding students through critically reading ethnographic texts, as a methodology, or otherwise) we'd love to read them! Contact us via email or Twitter @anthrolens.