"An ethnography is the telling of a people's story" (Translating Culture, 312).

What is it?

For us, it is a 10-15 page analysis of literacy as it functions in a particular context. "Ethnography"--both as a research method and a means for sharing the findings of this research--is "the study of people in cultures; also the text that is written based on that study" (FW, 500). In other words, "an ethnographic inquiry is a piece of written (down) culture, a book, an article or essay that examines certain elements, ideas, or behaviors in a particular research site. Ethnography is translated culture, most usually a translation from observations and fieldnotes to a more linear essay--a translating from physical experience to written language" (Translating Culture, 15).

In your ethnographic project for this class, you will be examining literacies as they function within a particular context among  members of a particular community.

Thus, you will be choosing a research site in which you will "experience" (physically, through your senses) literacy as it manifests itself within that community, taking extensive fieldnotes that will record those things you experience (see, hear, feel, touch, perhaps even taste) during your multiple visits to this research site, reflecting upon these findings, collecting relevant artifacts, analyzing and reflecting upon this collection, choosing accessible informants (insiders in this community) who can help you make sense of what you are observing and recording (through interviews), and sampling small populations through survey instruments you may develop to learn even more about this community under investigation.

All of these reflections, fieldnotes, surveys,  reflections, artifacts, and so on will be collected and organized in the Research Portfolio you will be developing and sharing and revising throughout the term.

How will we begin the research process?

The scholarly context for your examination of literacies in context will be set via the articles you read (and the shorter essays you write in response to these articles) in Literacies in Context. Any one of the three essays you write during the first several weeks of English 102 can be extended into your Ethnographic Project.

By midterm, you will be expected to have decided on your research site, attained permission to observe the site, and  developed your Research Proposal, which should outline your project in terms of what you plan to explore, why, and how.

After your Research Proposal is approved, you are ready to begin the process of collecting and analyzing your data via Field Observations (recorded and extended via fieldnotes), Interviews, and even Surveys (see Dunbar-Odom's suggestions in Chapter 5 of Literacies in Context). 

You will be expected to visit your research site on several times, taking extensive fieldnotes, extending these fieldnotes, assembling your Research Portfolio, reflecting on the contents and what they might mean, and otherwise negotiating the complicated process that is ethnographic research. Throughout this entire process, you will receive much in-class support and extensive guidance through FieldWorking.

How are we supposed to write this up?

In the last month of the term, you will be drafting and revising this ethnographic project--early drafts of which will depend almost entirely on your effective use of the Research Portfolio (for collecting, analyzing, organizing, and reflecting upon your field data).

As Sustein and Shiseri-Strater explain, "Students often find themselves assembling portfolios of written products to fulfill course requirements or institutional evaluations.

   But your research portfolio can serve a very different purpose. It can become a tool for documenting your learning and analyzing your research process. The artifacts you choose to place in your portfolio are the data that teach you about your own fieldworking process. The readers of your portfolio (which, of course, include you) need to know why you collected and selected the cultural artifacts you display. Your portfolio might also include a representation of what data you've rejected, what data you've left out, or what data you might collect more of in the future. Your own reflections on your portfolio artifacts need to accompany the selections to document your learning process. By writing reflections about each artifact, you'll learn about your unifying themes and be able to find tensions and notice gaps in your data." (220; see also Karen Downing's Portfolio on pages 221-232 of FieldWorking for how one might label, reflect upon , and make use of a Research Portfolio in developing the Final Ethnographic Essay.)


THE FIRST STEP to writing an ethnography, then, is the Research Portfolio. Before you develop your first draft of this Ethnographic Project, you should have spent several weeks reading, writing, reflecting, observing, visiting, talking, and reflecting some more on the research sites and what you might learn from it about how literacies (and the texts they produce) exist within a particular context among a particular people. By this point, you will have met with a few classmates about your Research Portfolio and your findings, had them take a look at it and tell you what they think, reflected upon the contents, reorganized, labeled, and annotated the contents (several times).


It is now time to sit down with that deeply revised Research Portfolio and begin to think again about what it might mean.


    I. Read through all your notes, artifacts, fieldnotes, extended fieldnotes, reflections (etc)--with a highlighter in hand--and mark those moments and prose that seem most important to you, most interesting, most useful.

    2. Share your Research Portfolio with a partner and your partner should--with a different colored highlighter in hand--mark those moments and prose that seem most interesting/important/useful.

    3. Read over all these highlighted bits and begin to make a list of these most important moments/ideas as you work through them. At this point it may be useful for you to indicate the sections of your portfolio (by number) that correspond with your separate list of important moments/ideas.

    4. Search for patterns in your list and make a new list of those patterns. (NOTE: It may be useful at this point to make a photocopy of the first list of important points--from #3 above--and then cut it up into units that you can then manipulate (kinesthetically) to identify these patterns. I find that method very useful in my own research. That way I don't end up bound to the original list, which may be chronological or organized some other way that is totally logical when collecting and analyzing the research but not terribly useful in the final analysis and write up)

    5. "From your list of patterns and connections, select ONE larger idea/pattern that interests you most; a larger pattern to which other ideas can then be connected." (from Translating Culture, "Ethnographer's Toolkit: Reviewing Fieldnote Analysis," Chapter 8).

    6. "Create a focus statement/controlling idea/thesis statement from your observations" (also from Translating Culture, same as above): 


Now you've got a focal point around which you can begin to organize your essay.


THE NEXT STEP is to start developing prose which you may begin to incorporate into your final write up. in each step, the best way to make it happen quickly is to allow yourself to develop what Ann Lemott has called "Shitty First Drafts" (see FieldWorking, 423-426), the same thing composition scholar Bruce Ballenger means when he teaches his students "The Importance of Writing Badly" (in Genre By Example: Writing What We Teach, Boynton/Cook, 2001) and journalist Jon Spayde celebrates in "The Miracle of Mediocrity" by providing a forum in which he, his wife (an artist), and their friends can make--deliberately and competitively--bad art (Utne Reader, March/April 2001 issue). As Spayde explains, "nothing lifts the spirits like the making of bad art."


Once you have developed a first--deliberately rough ("shitty"/bad) draft--you are ready to sharpen it up, fill in the gaps, and iron it out. That may require reorganizing. It may require starting over. It may require little more than cutting, extending, or merely cleaning it up. Whatever the case, wait until you have a draft to begin that revision process.


    1. If you haven't already, try the following exercises offered in FieldWorking: "Mapping Space" (Box 17, page 195) and "FieldWriting: From Details to Verbal Portraiture" (pages 302-305).

    2. Next, try out this exercise (from Translating Culture, "Ethnographer's Toolkit: 'Evoking Response,'" Chapter 7):


While it may not be THE most important element of ethnographic writing, I want to encourage/emphasize the need for you all to evoke a response from the reader, to write in such a way that your writing will resonate with them on a visceral level. In order to help you facilitate this process, here are two specific writing exercises, each of which might be used as an intro for a final piece.

1. Begin with a personal narrative that focuses on your relationship with the topic. Tell a short story bout the subject/culture/activity/person/ etc., trying the whole while to get the reader to feel your connection, not just understand it. In this 3-4 full-paragraph intro, you'll want to establish the connection, make clear how you feel/felt about it. How is it part of you? Don't make any conscious reference to the research yet. Just stick to what YOU know and feel about it from experience.

2 Choose a specific scene, instance, description of action, or the space of your research site [the "Mapping Space" and "From Details to Verbal Portraiture" exercises referred to in #1--from Fieldworking--will be useful here]. Work to describe it, to bring it to the reader in such a way that they can "be there." You may refer heavily to some of the more recent response papers [reflections], working to improve your initial writing. Again, the best bits of writing will focus on ONE story or space.

Regardless of whether you use this piece as your intro in the final draft, writing it now may help you think about how to engage the reader with your work, even as you work to make sure that there is a point to your research.

    3. Begin developing the first, full draft of this project (remember what Lamott tells us about that first, "down" draft). Remember your focal point (from "The First Step" above). To make this happen, we have three suggestions.

    Suggestion 1: Return to your lists from "The First Step" (above). Trace the patterns again as they relate to your focal point/focus statement/controlling idea/thesis statement. If you've cut these units out, you may begin tracing these patterns by piling like items together. From there, you can begin to decide which moments/ideas will be most relevant and which you may consider leaving out. From these piles, develop a (very rough) outline that might guide your draft. As you develop this outline, ask yourself, "In what order should you present the key patterns/evidence/ideas emerging from my data?"

    Suggestion 2:

    Suggestion 3: Just start writing! Remember to "write badly" for that first draft, leaving lots of open space that you can then fill later ("thickening your draft") when you return for revision.

THEN, revise, peer review, "thicken your draft," revise some more, review the Research Portfolio again, revise some more, get feedback from your instructor, revise some more. After all that (and making good use of all the guidance FieldWorking has to offer), your ready to turn that project in!

What are we supposed to do with the write up?    

Of course you should turn it in so your instructor can grade it, but you should also prepare it for the Celebration of Student Writing, to be held during finals week.

For some instructors, this will mean developing a one-page handout that briefly describes your project, your key research questions, and your findings.

For others, preparing for the CSW will mean including your revised Final Ethnographic Project with your deeply revised Research Portfolio, ready for presentation (to share with readers extending beyond the classroom's walls).

For still others, this will mean developing a Poster Presentation of your enthographic project, visually representing your experiences and your findings.

Some instructors may require all of the above--or a combination thereof. As always, ask your instructor what they expect of you. There should be no surprises.

What happens next?

A number of you may have projects that you wish to take even further than the CBW. Excellent!

If so, you should have already received approval from our Institutional Review Board, of course.

The main venue we'd like to encourage you to pursue is the scholarly, peer-reviewed journal Young Scholars in Writing Studies: Undergraduate Research in Writing and Rhetoric. If you are interested in trying to publish your essay in this journal, let your instructor know. We'll get you lots of support in this process through the Writing Center, through the Interim Director of First-Year Composition, and elsewhere in preparing this document for submission.

The deadline for the next issue is June 15, 2007.

If you or your instructor care to read a little more about this journal and its potential impact of the larger field of writing studies, take a look at Professor Amy Robillard (of Illinois State University)'s essay Young Scholars Affecting Composition: A Challenge to Disciplinary Citation Practices (College English 68 [2006]: 253-70).

Good luck!!