Here is the talk Sara and I gave at the “Public Ethnography: Connecting New Genres, New Media, New Audience” conference. The conference was organized by the ethnography.media.arts.culture network and funded by a SSHRC Aid to Scholarly Conferences grant
Professor-Student Reflections on Public Ethnography
JILLIAN POWERS AND SARA HARRIS
Thank you for inviting me, as you can see the other half of this presentation couldn’t make it. Like many of the undergraduates we work with, Sara is juggling many commitments and opportunities. Right now she’s in the midst of traveling back from her semester study abroad in Ghana and sends her regrets. What I will share with you today though represents both of our voices.
First I’m going to discuss the implementation of a public ethnography project in an undergraduate course in qualitative methods. I’ll give an overview of the course and discuss my intentions behind adding a public element. Next, I will share with you the findings from a survey Sara administered at the end of the semester. Drawing from two undergraduate methods courses with public components, Sara’s findings are consistent with the literature detailing the outcomes of undergraduate courses with experiential, community, or public elements. Students, for the most part, saw the value of public dissemination and were excited by this hands-on approach.
However, in the conversations I’ve had with Sara in preparation for this conference, we have stumbled upon a significant absence in the literature. While these articles all mention student anxiety when sharing and disseminating research with the communities studied or larger publics; they do not fully explain or detail the reasons behind this hesitation or what could be done to mitigate or utilize these anxieties (Broughton 2011, Huisman 2010).
Thinking reflexively about her experience, Sara sees student reservations existing within two larger frameworks—competency/authority and informant accountability. In our exchange we work to unpack this. Sara and I discuss what could be done to encourage students to see the classroom “as an important place to…utilize and develop all of our talents and abilities, [in order] to develop excellence that is not limited to the few (Shrewsbury 1987:6).
Public ethnography and public engagements are more than just making research public—its about a commitment to standing by one’s findings and continuing the dialogue once the research has reached “public” audiences. Therefore we call for more reflexivity and transparency in teaching undergraduate methods. To assuage fears, educators interested in incorporating public engagements must work to establish positive communities in the classroom, expose the productive aspects of the mess that is qualitative research, and present public engagements as the next intuitive step in this iterative knowledge generating process.
When designing a methods course, I wanted students to get their hands dirty and fully immerse themselves in the entire process. In addition to hands on methodological training that would give them a feel for the possibilities, limitations, and difficulties of engaging with field sites, I saw this an opportunity to do my part to encourage and establish the role of public ethnography and public sociological projects (Gans 2010). In choosing a topic for our study, I took a cue from Gans (2010), and picked something that I thought would be engaging to larger audiences and somewhat of a challenge for these novice researchers—a qualitative examination of the local Tea Party movement. 
One of my goals was to create an environment where students would begin to think critically about their own taken for granted assumptions and examine their own subjectivity. The Tea Party has seen much attention in the media, I wanted my students to work to look beyond the stereotypes and assumptions and uncover the on-the ground sentiments of members. This was not easy – a majority of students were initially apprehensive about engaging with such an infamous group. As Sara details:
Throughout the entire project, I struggled with pre-conceived notions that I held about the Tea Party Movement before I began the research. I had always thought the group had racist connotations, as frequently portrayed in the media. Thus, I held my own reservations about engaging in activity with the group. To overcome this particular hesitation, I explored why I held those beliefs and where my previous information regarding the movement came from. I informed my teacher and group members of my bias, and asked them to hold me accountable for any actions on my part that possibly reflected my beliefs. I continued to acknowledge my bias, and attempt to let the data speak for itself, rather than make the data speak for me.
If I wanted to truly impart a research experience unto my students, we had to work in uncomfortable situations, because qualitative research is uncomfortable and challenging. In addition, creating and managing a course with so many moving parts was quite a feat. Students completed the training requirements of the university’s Human Research Protection Office, familiarized themselves with qualitative research methods and software analysis programs, and were asked to consume quite a bit of course material. Although we reviewed some literature briefly in the initial weeks, this course was shaped by a holistic and inductive search for patterns grounded in observations and interview data—basically, grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967)
Based upon our brief review of the literature and observations at Tea Party events we created one single interview instrument incorporating the majority of students’ interests. Then, we broke up into three different research teams examining three different aspects of the local Tea Party. Their final project had two interrelated parts: a final research report meant to be shared in our class and a public component of their choosing designed to appeal to a larger non-academic audience. I was purposefully vague in my direction to allow for creativity. While this flexibility added to students’ sense of anxiety it also led to some truly innovative outcomes and, in my opinion gave students a realistic understanding of research.
I strongly believe that engaging in ethically responsible social science research requires this level of reflexive self-doubt. Dissemination butterflies are productive and lead to introspective and thoughtful publically shared products, as seen in Sara’s public project, a letter written for our campus’ Student Life newspaper, as well as another student’s development of an online student journal/blog for our program’s undergraduate majors and graduate student affiliates.
Sara’s survey results indicate that a public component can add a profound significance to classroom research—the public component gave students a sense of purpose and added a level of gravitas to their work. Students viewed public engagements mainly as a two-way dialogue between researchers and field site where both were viewed as equal contributors (Huisman 2010, Breunig 2005; Freire  1989; Giroux 1985). Yet, Sara’s findings and her own experiences indicate that this interaction comes with some serious hesitations. As Sara explained:
When I first learned about the public ethnography component at the inception of the class, I was very excited. Our professor’s expectation for the public ethnography was very open-ended, We had a great deal of freedom to explore whichever avenue of public engagement seemed most fitting to our particular topic. I initially was intrigued by the opportunity to creatively present our research, as I have become so accustomed to the traditional research report format. However, as the semester progressed, my excitement about the public ethnography component began to waiver.
Reading Sara’s concerns, I realized that I had a somewhat utopian and idealistic understanding of what could be accomplished.
INTERSECTING ANXIETY: METHOD AND DISSEMINATION
In looking at Sara’s understanding of the course, we can see two major places where students felt anxious or nervous about conducting research and sharing findings:
Although the idea of public ethnography is rather appealing to the university student, our limited experience in research seems to create a few barriers in our mind. I believe we can be very creative in the development of a public ethnography component, yet we may not want to take the risks necessary to engage in this public discourse. We are new at research; we haven’t had years of experience conducting research, and we tend to believe our methods are a bit faulty. Additionally, we have not fully contextualized our role as researchers in relation to the population that we study. If our claims are critical of their practices and beliefs, it is difficult for us to present those claims as we anticipate a negative backlash from the population.
Students’ worried about their competency and authority, and in turn worried about accountability to their informants. The anxieties students felt when sharing work and becoming public scholars incorporates fears endemic to the entire methodological process of qualitative research.
A main feature of qualitative work is engagements with informants that produce their own set of hesitancies and anxieties, as Sara shares:
We were hesitant to confront our main source of inquiry, The St. Louis Tea Party. The members who allowed us to conduct interviews with them were very open to the process. They tended to be excited to have an opportunity to talk to other people about their movement. When we attended St. Louis Tea Party events people were generally friendly and receptive to our presence. In making our final claims, we critically examined the foundation of many of their beliefs. We noticed a strong belief in a meritocracy, and a resulting lack of understanding regarding the strong systems and institutions of oppression that prevent a meritocracy for all. Because these were large claims that questioned the beliefs of the Tea Party members, we were nervous to place them in a public venue; we were nervous about how they would react to what we concluded. Additionally, we didn’t want the members to think, we used their time and participation for our own self-interests, essentially interviewing them only to attack their beliefs.
While I did work to foster deep discussions regarding ethics and engagements, more time was probably needed, especially if we ask students to share their work outside the classroom. Concern over reception is an ethical and necessary aspect of research, and in my mind does more to protect human subjects than university IRBs. Methodological butterflies are productive, and open and honest discussions of our doubts make our research more objective. In addition to informant accountability, students worried about conducting qualitative analysis itself. As Sara explains:
Getting accustomed to the interview process wasn’t easy. Additionally, we had a difficult time learning how to properly code our interviews, and then interpret what the frequency of the codes could possibly mean…Our group often became frustrated with our changing claims. We would interpret the data one way, and change our interpretations over time, sometimes due to the introduction of new data. Other times, our group struggled to find a consensus on the possible meanings beyond the data.
The murky, iterative process of qualitative research produces anxiety. However, it is also the crucial foundation that builds to nuanced and insightful portrayals of the social world. Embracing the anxieties is part of this craft. One of the functions of a class such as this was to give the students an opportunity to see exactly how research is carried out – this includes the false starts, the muddled process, the tentative steps, the wavering claims, the impasses and so on” (Bourdieu 1992:220). This muddled iterative process is the heart and soul of qualitative rigor. However, as Sara explains, even when educators try to encourage students, the messiness still frustrates:
At the beginning of the process and frequently throughout, our professor continued to remind us that research is messy, but the messiness continued to frustrate us and cause us great hesitation. Therefore, at the end of the research process and at the completion of our research report, we were not fully confident in our claims.
In our class meetings, I worked to interrogate where students felt their confidence lacking. We discussed the power of going “up” from the data. If we allow the data to speak, we can’t make large jumps that aren’t founded. As long as the excerpts are related to the general text, contextualized, interpreted and well organized—the work should speak for itself. By incorporating a public component in an undergraduate methods course, students hopefully learned that the rigor of qualitative research really relies upon these very fears and anxieties. In this course, these intersecting methodological and dissemination anxieties produced quality products, even if students still felt unsure and worried. If we are thinking about interventions, then more needs to be done to present the messiness of qualitative work as crucial to this craft.
The Craft of Research
By approaching qualitative methodological training as a craft that requires modeling and mentorship (Bourdieu 1992), educators provide supportive communities that are essential for creating knowledge (Richards 1986) and provide strategies for handling the myriad of anxieties that show themselves throughout the process.
The entire process of research requires continuous reflection where teachers can intersect and provide crucial autobiographical contextualizing. As scholars have shown, these anxieties are not just felt by undergraduate researchers. As Mark Bauerlein explains in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “everybody’s anxious” and Bourdieu tells us that “nothing is more universal and universalizable than difficulties. Each of us will find considerable comfort in discovering that a good number of the difficulties or incompetence are universally shared” (Bourdieu 1992:218). Sara agrees:
I definitely think it would help more if professors would open up about their own anxieties and hesitations in the research process. My group would, often, joke about your continual affirmation that “research is messy” whenever our anxiety levels were high. Even though we found it humorous, we simultaneously found it incredibly comforting because we never were completely sure that we were doing anything right. To know that the uncertainty is not just a part of the undergraduate experience was very comforting. So something just as simple as that affirmation from you helped curb a bit of our anxiety. Also, I think any student would enjoy hearing about specific incidents in their professors past where they maybe “messed up” or were frustrated with the research process.
Being overwhelmed is common and necessary. As sociologists Pamela Richards explains, everyone has moments where they feel like a “lump of a sociologist even when others are equally misshapen” (1986:113). We need to expose how exposing the research process truly is both in the field and in the process of disseminating knowledge, because in our autobiographical accounts we can give students strategies.
For example, anthropologist John Jackson created an ethnographic superhero Anthroman to handle his insecurities in the field:
Anthroman was a way for me to envision stepping outside of myself, to be fearless about social research by visualizing myself protected from harm by my own superhuman powers of observation and analysis. It somehow felt safer than just being some inconsequential graduate student. Jackson 2005:25
As John explains, without these performative strategies he “did not stand an ethnographic chance” (2005:25).
There are other anxieties also that come with the dissemination and presentation of research that we rarely acknowledge. Writing up research, as Richards continues “is risky because it means that I have to open myself up to scrutiny” (1986:113). If we are truly committed to opening the door to the academic cave, I believe we need to stress the dialogic nature of inquiry. Insecurities concerning one’s research are not debilitating if the product is seen as a work in progress.
While, Bourdieu states, Homo academicus relishes the finished product (1992:219), the “construction of an object” in his experience “is not something that is effected once and for all, with one stroke, through a sort of inaugural theoretical act” (1992:227-228). We conduct research to add to existing literature and share our findings with larger audiences to expand the conversation. These are therefore not ends, but beginnings. If we see public dissemination as an extension of the research process and not a final product we might be able to lessen some of these fears.
In this course, I hoped to, as outlined in the ASA’s Task Force on Institutionalizing Public Sociologies “to draw out students and arouse curiosity in beginners…and to excite students to extend learning beyond a particular course and understand its contribution to a body of knowledge” (2005:49). I whole heartedly believe, that adding public components to undergraduate courses is a great “investment opportunity” for new scholarship of the future.” We can see this in the reflexive and transformative public article Sara’s group wrote and another student’s interest in creating a pubic space for our program.
As a new professor I don’t have the answers or tangible implementations to share—while it’s easy to talk about this, I found it hard to convince students to “trust fall” into research and public dissemination. Mentorship is crucial—professors and established academics need to make the first step—and I’m only beginning this process. As Sara explains, this doesn’t need to be a complete break from the standard academic route:
The use of public ethnography in the social sciences should not be viewed as a radical transformation of academia; rather it should be thought of as a possible extension to the research process. Researchers interested in using public ethnography can continue to carry out the same rigor expected of the research process and publish their findings in the appropriate academic space; in addition, they can create a condensed, complimentary component to their findings that is more accessible to the general public…Here, we may begin to witness an evolution of information sharing from members of academia to the general public.
If we are serious about truly reshaping research, we need to do more to create courses that explicitly grapple with the ambiguities and difficulties of all aspects of intense intellectual activity, and remove the stigma of academic insecurity. As educators and researchers we have a responsibility to our “first publics, students” (Lal 2008:177; Abowitz 2000).
If we adopt these practices, and then share our histories, we might be able to engage publics and students and possibly influence the next generation of academics. As Sara explains:
As an undergraduate student considering pursuing a PhD in Sociology, I often critically analyze what my role as a social scientist would be in society. I hold a few reservations about the traditional role of academics. Primarily, my concerns revolve around the disconnection between those involved in academia and the greater public. Often times the results of academic research are not readily available to the public; typically research is published in journals that are difficult to obtain, articles are written using jargon and difficult for the general public to understand, and a working knowledge of the topic is often needed to understand the results of the research. Therefore, the general public is often unaware of the research completed by academics. If social scientists are using the public as their means to collect information, there findings may possibly benefit that same audience
In all my courses, students are “encouraged and trained to be relevant and rewarded for writing relevant studies” (Gans 2010:102). By incorporating public engagements into all levels of sociological teaching and training, I believe we can bring new audiences into academic research while simultaneously demonstrating and establishing the usefulness and utility of sociology as a discipline in popular arenas.
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 Teaching undergraduate methods experientially has a rich tradition in sociology (J.C. McKinney 1966:61, Broughton 2011:73) and is “widely accepted as a means not only to teach learning goals, but also [make] coursework more relevant and memorable for students (Keen 1996; Mobley 2007; Rohall et al. 2004; Wright 2006)” (Broughton 2011:73). In experiential methods courses, students gain an appreciation for the possibilities and limitations of qualitative methods as they exist in practice (Gray and Meighen 1980; Longmore, Dunn and Jarboe 1996; Ostrower 1998; Takata and Leiting 1987; Broughton 2011; Huisman 2010).
 Similar to Broughton’s (2011) think-tank approach to methodological training, students were limited in how they could guide the course resulting in some contention since students could not choose the initial topic and had to tailor their interests if it didn’t fit within the larger scope of the class or their smaller research team.
 I was working off Vannini and Milne who state; “in a rapidly evolving technological context in which students’ communication skills are often superior—or at the very least different—to those of scholars, academic learning and research can offer new opportunities for collaboration.” Whereas they focus on the power of incoming graduate students with diverse career backgrounds to make innovative links and inroads to public arenas, I thought that then undergraduates were the most untapped and raw form of creative possibility.
 “The craft of social inquiry lies somewhere between art and science. It combines the creativity and the spontaneity of art (although art can be hard work) and the rigorous systemic character of science (although science can be joyful)” (Alford 1998:8).
 There is an underlying assumption that expert knowledge is objective (and commonly then statistical). The domination of positivist knowledge “extends beyond their immediate producers, consumers, and promulgators in the academy, to gain a wide purchase in society at large” (Lal 2008:177). In teaching this course, I consistently battled with the assumptions of “objective” expert knowledge and worked to expose the overwhelming nature of research and demonstrate its power.
 As Andy Perrin reminds us in his experiences sharing findings on the Tea Party “The objectivity of science is the result of the methods, not of the objectivity of the scientist. http://scatter.wordpress.com/2011/09/02/tea-party-research-and-the-public-sphere/ Accessed May 9, 2012
 As Bourdieu states, “learning how to do research is a craft…that requires a pedagogy which is completely different from that suited to the teaching of knowledge” (1992:222).
 Mark Bauerlein. Insecurity in Academia. The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 15, 2012. http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/insecurity-in-academia/46864 Accessed May 22, 2012.