Today I attended a half-day workshop, “Out of the Classroom/Into the Streets: Ethnographic Research in Composition and Basic Skills Courses.” There was some presentation, but we also talked a lot about our experiences with Comp and Ethnography and broke into groups to analyze some classroom strategies.
The presenters, Jan Ramjerdi, Nancy-Laurel Pettersen, Belle Gironda, Peter Gray, and Todd Craig, were all from Queensborough Community College, an extension of CUNY, Bayside, NY. They presented a rationale for, sample syllabi from, and student writing examples of ethnographic work in composition and basic skills classrooms.
As it turned out, the rationale was largely unnecessary, since everyone there was there because they’d already bought into the idea. Still, it was nice to get a bibliography of research and history of ethnography in its composition framework, which is pedagogically different from its anthropological framework (although there are overlaps). In a nutshell, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways With Words is the seminal text for comp-ethnographies but the pedagogy develops through Mina Shaunessey’s developmental lens and James Berlin’s political perspectives, among other influences, to modern works by Wendy Bishop and others. The essential difference between composition ethnographic works and anthropological works, one of the presenters posited, was that ethnography of communication (describing/understanding how people communicate) characterized our discipline’s approach. In my mind, I expanded the word “communicate” to encompass “human interaction,” although there may be arguments with such a broad interpretation.
One immediate question was posed by a member of the audience–isn’t comp about learning writing? The presenter did a good job of staying focused: Comp can be about both, of course, and the particular tack one takes in teaching depends on the context of the course. A basic skills ethnographic course will not be the same as a Transfer-level comp ethnography class which will in turn not be anything like a graduate-level ethnographic study. We were given examples of different approaches.
The workshop went well beyond its noon cut-off and I have a stack of handouts related to it. The conversations we had ranged from the practical–how some of us (including me) are using ethnographic work as part of our classes–to more esoteric questions of theory.
I was particularly interested in its application at the basic skills level–Nancy-Laurel uses it in her reading courses–and we exchanged email addresses so we could collaborate on strategies. I was thinking how it helps comp classes linked to social science courses as well as the additional reading emphasis we need to add into our 251 courses. One presenter complained that her experience was that basic skills focused too much on the personal and the students don’t write enough length at the end of the course. Ethnography allows the personal, but also factors in a kind of research that students can easily accomplish with little “book knowledge.” Interview essays work well in this sort of research and it is not hard to build longer essays using this approach.
One presenter was using the approach to develop literacy narratives, such as “How did you learn ‘hip-hop’ cultural literacy?” to get student buy-in and have them write about relevant issues.
I was also interested in improving my course, and I got a lot of ideas from the presentation. Some people’s approaches seemed too prescriptive, others too loose. However, not only can I look through their syllabi and rubrics, but they included student writing samples as well. Fabulous!