Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Ethnography, Power Dynamics, and Perception in Research

 In preparing for my teaching internship in the fall, I continually find myself trapped in search of the "right" study methodology. 
Part of the difficulty, I think, is that I'm not entirely sure what it is I expect to observe from my students.  I have plans for what they will learn as they begin to take advantage of more online technologies, but this is simply a continuation of the kind of "internet-driven" pedagogy I've been using for a couple years now.  And the longer I run this type of pedagogy, the more surprised I've been by how difficult it is to make it work and - worse still - how hard it is to tell whether my students actually have become more "literate" or "capable" members of a technologically interconnected world.

From the articles by Mills and by Althanases and Heath, it's clear to me that my own struggles as a teacher are definitely part of a natural human struggle when it comes to implementing and evaluating the effects of pedagogical practices.  As someone who has spent maybe hundreds of hours on Google teaching myself how to build a website and Facebook page, I'm always amazed by how little interest most of my students have for learning how to use what I see as "the future" of literate activity - the online tools which create vast networks of interconnection which can cut across social and geographic barriers.  But what I'm seeing from the articles is that there remain disconnects between individuals and their perceptions of the world.  For Athanases and Heath, they had to choose not to work with one teacher because that teacher may have been verbally in favor of open discussions in the classroom, but then this instructor's own practices and observations were very much at odds with what the researchers observed.  In the study by Mills, the economic differences between students and teachers were clearly vast - when you have students who must steal cheese to eat for lunch, it's difficult to understand how they'll respond to an opportunity for digital learning.  Or, as Mills writes, "gaining access to material needs was more important to the students than learning" (313).

For me, this indicates that all ethnography must be approached with not only an "open" mind, but a careful awareness of how power dynamics can affect one's own perceptions as a teacher and a researcher.
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