Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Epistemology and Writing: Ethnographic Analysis of Social Knowledge

My first question, upon starting the Lillis article, was to wonder how ethnography could be considered "deep theorizing," or why it would be considered a "methodology" instead of simply a "method" of research.  For me, preparing for my teaching internship in the fall, ethnography has been one of those data-gathering approaches I've considered and nearly discarded.  It's complicated, it brings up additional ethical issues, and it can make it more difficult for an IRB to get approved.  With today's readings, though, I'm seeing that ethnography represents more than simply a means of gathering empirical data, but also an overall attitude regarding what constitutes data within the larger question regarding the importance of context in writing research.

To look at why ethnography is so important, I think it makes sense to consider a traditional academic field with which I'm pretty familiar: creative writing.  Within creative writing, it's well accepted that context plays a crucial role in writing.  Whether you're writing fiction or memoir, it's assumed that you're drawing on experiences from your own life for your writing (a situation that creates awkward moments at cocktail parties for the husbands of female romance writers...)  But within this view, the context of life experience is not necessarily seen as a directly pedagogical concern.  Yes, teachers will advise you differently as they help you "find your voice" in your writing depending upon your personal experiences, but these experiences themselves are not exactly part of the teaching process - at least, not in the teaching situations that I've seen in higher education.  Usually, creative writing teachers appear to fit somewhere on a scale between teaching a "traditional" discourse (e.g. "sentences should be short and direct") or working to have students "express themselves" (e.g. "write what you know.")  Yet Lillis states that the need to understand the contexts of writing derives from a deep pedagogical concern, that teachers are facing complex situations as they try to teach to groups of impoverished students of extremely varied backgrounds (354).  This, I think, would certainly allow a field like creative writing to largely ignore the benefits of ethnography as a tool of pedagogical research.  Typically, creative writers only enter the field because they are comfortable writing - they have already attained at least some mastery within the register of dominant literary discourses (the "social languages" identified by Gee) in that they must have read enough to enjoy reading and writing.
This luxury, however, does not apply as well today as it has in the past, and it certainly doesn't work for fields that involve teaching a foreign language to individuals who are not in a socioeconomic position of sufficient political power to allow them the choice of whether or not to study that language.  With English, for example, scholars and workers the world over are finding themselves in the position of having to choose English in order to financially support themselves and their families.  It wasn't mentioned in Canagarajah's article on peripheral participation, but it seems reasonable to assume that his own status as a serious scholar would be in jeopardy if he didn't write in English - not that he couldn't find a job teaching in Sri Lanka without the foreign language, but that he'd never attain the same level of respect and security if he limited himself to his native language.
This, I think, illustrates why ethnography is such an important and often overlooked component of understanding the uses and relevance of communication.  In the chapter's by Gee, we see the example of "Jane," who believes that she uses the exact same register regardless of audience or situation, but then proves herself wrong after recording conversations with her parents and her boyfriend.  When we rely upon limited data - for example, only examining  student writing in an attempt to understand cultural differences in the writing process - it's very easy to make broad declarations which might only apply to certain contexts.  In creative writing, for example, there are some instructors who adhere to the belief that a writer needs to be "toughened" or inured to harsh criticism - some of these instructors have talked about how they might reduce a student to tears, or that they are able to "dissuade" the "emotionally unprepared" students from pursuing a career in such a competitive field.  Looking at the texts alone, a researcher could conclude that these types of pedagogical approaches do lead to improvements in student writing - the instructors who follow these approaches do convey helpful information.  But an ethnographic approach would allow us to interpret the larger context of continuing writing practices among students.  Do they continue to write?  Or do they drop out of the field?  And what about those authors who have been very successful within the field who would have shed real tears in the face of harsh criticism when they were younger?
In this example, we can see that the choice of whether to embrace ethnography or to limit one's research to "stricter" approaches can have serious implications for student outcomes - and without ethnographic examinations, it would be impossible to even tell whether or not the possible implications have come to pass.

Before understanding this, Lillis's article led me to wonder whether there was a difference between method and methodology.  Although ethnography can be a "method" of gathering data, implicit within this usage is the assumption that texts cannot be researched without a consideration of context.  Or, as Lillis quotes from another scholar, ethnography as "deep theorizing" challenges the idea of text and context in writing research being separate entities (355).  It isn't that ethnography is "less scientific" because its data sets tend to offer more nebulous impressions of reality - instead, ethnography is concerned with empirical data drawn from real-world contexts (358), and the complications of these real-world contexts require a methodology which is more open to the types of data with might be impossible to predict and categorize beforehand.  Hence, the need to focus on observation, the need to place oneself within a natural setting rather than place one's subjects under the artificial microscope of preconceived question/answer/evaluate scenarios.

As Lillis points out, this need for context has driven some researchers away from analyzing only academic texts (358).  And this is good, but I think it still leaves open an issue for grad students like myself, who have not been formally trained in ethnographic methods and who must navigate the IRB and other components of meeting the standards of academe.


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