Ethnographic Experiments for Undergraduates: Reflections from The Ethnography Lab at the University of Toronto

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

Watching and analyzing TikTok viral videos, walking and engaging with students on campus, and attending meetings of a particular social movement are examples of exercises that undergraduate students can undertake in social science courses both within and beyond anthropology departments. In most cases, stepping outside the library, the classroom, or Zoom is very captivating for students, especially as we move back to in-person teaching in various parts of the world.

As a Teaching Assistant (TA) at the American University in Cairo between 2016-2019, I was fortunate to work with professor Soraya Altorki, who incorporated ethnographic assignments in most of her undergraduate courses. Because these courses were usually focused on kinship and religion in the Middle East, most students found it accessible and exciting to work with their own families. Undergraduate students from various majors, including engineering, economics, and psychology, interviewed family members, looked for family albums, and wove together autoethnographies tackling issues of migration, religious belonging, and family intimacies in Egypt and the Middle East. Students initially found ethnographic assignments awkward, asking questions such as: “Why is my family, myself, or my “hanging out” worthy of attention?” As the semester progressed, students not only appreciated anthropological perspectives, but in many cases ended up changing their majors or minors to anthropology. This brief and playful ethnographic engagement reoriented students to understand themselves, their surroundings, and their assignments differently and with a new perspective.

At the University of Toronto, I have been a lead TA for the Ethnography Lab, an initiative by faculty and graduate students to promote ethnographic practice inside and outside the university. Among other interest groups and activities, the Ethnography Lab invites other departments to incorporate ethnographic experiments in their undergraduate courses. What follows here is a summary of a conversation with Professor Tania Li, who has taken up the role of promoting ethnographic practicums in other departments around the University of Toronto and who shares useful insights for instructors wishing to add some ethnographic spice to their courses.

“Students initially found ethnographic assignments awkward, asking questions such as: Why is my family, myself, or my “hanging out” worthy of attention? As the semester progressed, students not only appreciated anthropological perspectives, but in many cases ended up changing their majors or minors to anthropology.”

How It All Began: Ethnography of the University Course

Dr. Tania Li (University of Toronto) began teaching an undergraduate course titled “Ethnography of the University” in 2006, inspired by Professor Nancy Abelmann, the founder of the Ethnography of the University initiative at the University of Illinois. As Nancy Abelmann describes on the Ethnography of the University website, one of the origins of this initiative extends to her own experience when she began research on Korean American undergraduate students at the University of Illinois. As she searched for some demographic information on students, she realized that there are a lot of people on campus whose jobs were to research and report on the university. It was then that she realized that it is useful to think of the university not as a neutral background but as an active agent. Collaborating with her colleague the co-director of the Ethnography of the University initiative Professor Bill Kelleher, they began teaching undergraduate courses that invite students to research not at but on universities. During a meeting with Tania in 2006, Abdelmann proposed that Tania begin a similar course/initiative at the University of Toronto (U of T). Tania began teaching her Ethnography of the University course at U of T in 2012—a self-selected undergraduate course with around ten to fifteen students, each in their final year of undergraduate coursework.

Each semester, Tania picks a theme for the course—something broad such as power, time, or work, and the students spend the first two weeks reading a set of common texts on that theme, while preparing for their ethnographic projects. The purpose of the foundational readings is to open up lines of questioning and provide a shared vocabulary for class discussions. So, for example, when the course theme was power, or more specifically how power organizes life at the university, students read essays by Foucault and Weber; on the theme of work, they read Kathi Weeks and Frédéric Lordon; on diversity, they read Sara Ahmed.

After these two weeks of set readings, students individually engage in ethnographic fieldwork on campus, while working towards their final essay submission for the course, and Tania mentors them throughout the process. At the end of every semester, students showcase their final projects in a conference that Tania organizes on campus and in which students invite their friends, family, and professors. Equally excitingly, students also publish individual blog posts on the Ethnography Lab website in which they summarize and reflect on their semester projects.

After teaching this course for multiple semesters, Tania decided to expand these ethnographic experiments beyond the walls of the anthropology department. Under the auspices of the Ethnography Lab, she applied for funds to promote ethnographic research in other departments, including political science, history, and area studies. While many faculty members were excited about the prospective collaboration, most were concerned about two challenges: 1) class sizes and 2) the elaborate ethics application process since ethnographic research projects would include involvement with human subjects. In addition, some faculty were confused about grading procedures for student projects (i.e. How can we grade participant observation or “hanging out” in a gym?). Through the funds that Tania received, she hired a Teaching Assistant (TA) [myself] who is responsible for supporting faculty in designing and incorporating an ethnographic practicum component in their courses, along with facilitating an expedited ethics approval process through an internal review committee in the anthropology department.

Beyond the Classic Essay: Why Ethnography?

In incorporating an ethnographic component into undergraduate courses, instructors invite students to find a topic that puzzles them, something they are curious about, or a group of people that they wish to understand better. They locate that puzzle in one or more field-sites, and simply “hang out” there, while attuning themselves to social interactions, power hierarchies, and whatever their field-sites offer. The final assignment submission can be more flexible than in more usual classroom settings, including a long essay, a number of shorter written reflections, or a final in-class presentation.

Insider’s secret: Students are exceptionally excited about these ethnographic assignments. Alongside asking them to “hang out” for an assignment (every student’s dream!), we also advise students not to do any external readings for this assignment. Rather, only rely on your hang-outs, observations, and participation in your field-sites. In this sense, we push students to focus their undivided attention and effort on training and cultivating their ethnographic sensibilities. But more importantly, the main reason for discouraging students from carrying out any library research for this assignment is that we would like students to appreciate ethnography as a unique form of knowledge production. Theory may stimulate a line of questioning but ethnographic fieldwork is also theory-building: it is not mere “data” to be distilled or translated through the words of theorists and their books. As Tania eloquently clarifies, students are usually unconfident about their fieldwork, and running to the library is usually the first thing for them to do in efforts to corroborate or prove the truth of what they observed. Inviting students to reflect on their fieldwork and to think of their experiences as a contribution to knowledge is a way to help students foster confidence in their budding ethnographic skills.

In this view of ethnography as a unique mode of knowledge production, students learn to develop a methodology of weaving an essay slowly and entirely from their firsthand fieldwork experience. This is always a good reminder for students: An ethnographic assignment is a slow craft, one that cannot be rushed or pulled together in an all-nighter. As the final deadline approaches, however, students realize that they have all the threads they need to weave their creative final submission. Their fieldwork provides all the “knots” of data, and all they need to do is un-tie and re-tie these knots to provide a commentary on an existing social setting. As ethnography instructs, students begin with the banal everyday hang-outs with their interlocutors and ask themselves: How are these everyday moments meaningful? What can they tell us about how a particular group sees and lives in the world? In this playful engagement with their ethnographic material, students practice situating their fieldwork in broader discussions about power, work, religion, gender, or other topics that fit the theme of the course. No need to consult theorists here, for the students and their interlocutors become the theorists as they work through a given social situation.

“An ethnographic assignment is a slow craft, one that cannot be rushed or pulled together in an all-nighter.”

A Proposed Ethnographic Assignment Template

Based on Tania’s Ethnography of the University course and my experience as the Ethnography Lab TA, here is one suggested way to incorporate an ethnographic experiment in your undergraduate courses. This template is preliminary and flexible, open for you to modify creatively depending on your course content, theme, class size, and the broader course expectations:

  1. Decide weight of the assignment: How much weight do you want this assignment to take? How much of the overall grade will be attributed to this assignment? Is it a major final assignment? A short fieldnote? A mid-semester essay? Create a rubric to guide students and TAs on your expectations and grading elements for ethnographic assignments. See this sample ethnographic assignment with a grading rubric and a general grade breakdown of the course.
  2. Provide a list of proposed themes/topics: Brainstorm and create a list of 10-12 broad topics or themes that students can pick from for their assignments. This list is not meant to limit student creativity, but to help ground their curiosities and provide some direction to students who are unsure of what they want to research. See this sample list of topics created for the course theme of Social Movements.
  3. Training your students: Do your students have any ethnographic background? Have they conducted fieldwork before this class? Design an introductory 1-hr workshop/class meeting in which you introduce students to basic ethnographic methods, such as participant observation, interviews, writing fieldnotes, and positionality. Include tips on what students can expect on their first day of fieldwork [i.e. it will be awkward, that’s fine]. For larger projects, you can incorporate more extended discussions on ethnographic methods with in-class exercises on some of these methods.
    1. Mentoring TAs (Optional/If Applicable): Are your TAs experienced in fieldwork and grading ethnographic assignments? Make sure to meet with TAs on multiple occasions separately to give time for feedback and to answer any questions they determine over the course of meeting with undergraduate students. See this helpful “tips for TAs” guide.
  4. Following up with your students: Make sure to touch base with your students frequently throughout the semester. Fieldwork can be (if not is always) confusing and overwhelming. Create “mini” submissions throughout the semester, graded or ungraded, such as bi-weekly fieldwork reports, proposals, sample field-notes, or reflections. This will help you and your students monitor how the project grows and matures throughout the semester, including giving opportunities for individual feedback. For ideas, see this list of suggested smaller ethnographic assignments.
  5. Sharing and celebrating your students’ work: If possible, plan a mini conference or create a shared blog for your students to share their final projects with a wider audience. This can be a low-stakes, optional component of the assignment, a way in which students can celebrate and reflect on their ethnographic experiments after the semester. They can invite their friends, family, and mentors!