Midterm Response – Question 1 & 3



Faye Snowden

April 7, 2009

Dr. De Vries

Midterm Question 1 & 3


The Question

1. Drawing on the scholars we have studied so far, develop a definition of ethnography as the field relates to the composition classroom. What are the particular challenges and benefits of such studies? What techniques do these scholars suggest for overcoming these challenges? Which ones would you employ and why?

Why I selected this question.

During the readings, I was struck by how many authors first offered their own definition of ethnography as it relates to composition studies before continuing with their papers. I am interested in the similarities and differences of these definitions and how their ideas affected their work and the field. Finally, I wanted to understand how what these scholars had learned could be put into action.

Question 1:


The scholars we have encountered thus far offer several definitions of ethnography ranging from the staid and scientific to the creative and inspired. The most scientific rendering comes from Purcell-Gates. She extends Frank’s definition stated simply as the “study of culture” or a “written description of culture” (1) by describing the discipline as a “methodological tool” that allows researchers to track the development of literacy “…as it occurs naturally in a sociocultural context” or“in situ” (92). When we think of something as in situ, we picture it undisturbed, left in place. Therefore, we study composition at the site of the creation at the moment of its creation.  Ethnography, according to Frank and Purcell-Gates, permits those who teach or aspire to teach composition to view classroom culture in situ, to expose the invisible patterns that affect learning, and to understand what is happening in the classroom and answer the question as to why it is happening. While these definitions seem more than adequate, Sunstein appends both the performance and creative aspects to composition ethnography. She describes ethnography as the study of “verbal art as performance” (180) or more precisely as the examination and ultimate documentation of the processes involved in creating composition for an audience. At its heart, the discipline consists of layered dialogical relationships between the observer’s culture and the informant’s culture, the observations and the product (text) of the study, and finally between the text itself and its reader (179). From Sunstein’s perspective, the text acts as a “liminal space” in which the ethnographer must represent the different layers resulting from the complex interactions intrinsic in ethnography (185). As the researcher produces text for an audience, they must employ literary devices to make the text engaging and aesthetically pleasing. In this way, the text the research produces becomes a type of performance.

Combining these definitions yields an explanation that will allow us to examine both the benefits of ethnography in the composition classroom as well as the challenges. We can think of ethnography this way:


Borrowed from the social sciences, ethnography is a research tool complete with guidelines and principles for conducting disciplined studies of classroom culture as it exists at a particular point in time. The tool allows researchers to seek understanding and produce narratives that explain how composition or verbal performances occur in the classroom. However, ethnography as it relates to composition studies does not simply consist of documentation of the observed written by the observer; rather the discipline produces verifiable representations of the dialogical relationship between the researcher and the informant, the researcher and the text, and the text and its reader. Because of ethnography’s focus on multi-layered perspectives, composition ethnography requires recognition of researcher biases while simultaneously offering guiding principles for negotiating those biases.


One implicit benefit in the above definition is that ethnography allows the researcher to develop more effective teaching methods based on the results of a disciplined study.  For instance, Frank explains how students learning to be teachers benefited from ethnography because it allowed them to take “informed action[s]” (1). Before these students entered the classrooms as teachers, they were able to use ethnography to expose patterns in classroom dynamics that they may have otherwise missed. Doing so allowed them to learn what types of patterns affected classroom life. Second, the discipline helped the teacher-students understand that the perspective or subject position one may have affects the definition of truth. They learned that there is no one right answer. Ethnography cautioned them to reserve judgment until information was available. Understanding the perspective phenomena and the old adage that things are not always as they seem permitted these students to critically choose the best teaching methods and tools. This may not have been possible without the intervention of an ethnographic study.

            Ironically, one of the main benefits of ethnography urging the researcher to understand their own biases before entering the field leads to some of the most significant challenges in conducting this type of research. Primarily, how does the researcher’s subjectivity affect the results of the study? More importantly, how does the researcher “learn to see” (Frank)? Though many of the scholars involved in ethnography address the issue of learning to see, none in my opinion, does so as effectively as Percy. He posits that we enter every situation with a set of expectations of how that situation should unfold and preconceived notions of what the events in that situation should signify. He quotes Mounier, “…the person is not something one can study and provide for; he is something one struggles for” (12). An ethnographer is faced not only with struggling to make free from biases the scene but also the student in the composition classroom. As for the second challenge, how does one account for informants as performers in an ethnographic study? As Goffman surmises in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, individuals are also performers. They work to present versions of themselves befitting the social situation or the image that they are trying to project and maintain for the observer. Further, in social situations, they will invariably change behavior to maintain expectations. This can prove problematic for the ethnographer as they try to separate reality from performance, or more correctly, determine how performance may impact results. Another benefit of ethnography, however, is that it offers guiding principles and best practices for conducting the research study.

            A thorough examination of the research question is the first tool I would use to overcome some problems with ethnographic research. As Purcell-Gates suggests, I would make sure that the question is formed in such a way that it seeks to “…explain, describe, and provide insight into human behavior in context…” rather than test out some theory (93). To counteract inherent subjectivity issues, I would choose the appropriate epistemological approach to the study. For example, if I were concerned with how inequality and diversity issues affect classroom culture, I would select the Critical Approach as described by Purcell-Gates (97). My reader would know that the goal of the study was to bring about change. Further, before making judgment about the culture, I would pay particular attention to learning the customs and social structures before “entering the field” (99). Purcell-Gates maintains that entering the field thoughtfully can assist the research in shedding preconceived and possibly unhelpful expectations. Aside from the various approaches, once in the field, I would employ Frank’s version of note taking and note making which requires that the researcher delay interpretation of the scene until after observation. Finally, asking the informant to review the results as well as using various methods such as triangulating the data and searching for negative evidence may combat issues of subjectivity.

With all of these scholars formulating and focusing on different aspects of composition ethnography, it seems that in some ways, the field is still evolving. I will be interested in seeing how the results of ethnography are applied in high schools and colleges. Despite all the challenges, the benefits of being able to affect the composition classroom in a positive way outweigh the associated risks, especially when scholars like Frank and Purcell-Gates are willing to document their work and suggest ways to further the field.




The Question


3. The readings have focused on a variety of ways that ethnography is particularly suited to teacher research. So, after our reading and the discussions we have had this semester, define teacher research and how your ideas have changed about what teacher research is.


Why I chose this question

I chose this question by process of elimination. I felt that I had already addressed subjectivity in the definition essay. Also, I have to say, Ray’s article, because it sounded so much like a defense of the teacher being able to conduct research, surprised me. I was interested in looking at it more, especially comparing it to the other articles.




Ruth Ray, in Composition from a Teacher-Research Point of View, describes teacher-research as a deliberate and systematic investigation of composition classrooms “…where systematic implies methodological data gathering, analyzing, and reporting…” (173). She explains that teacher-research had its beginnings in the K-12 schools where it essentially remains. The field has a revolutionary aspect, according to Ray, in that change moves from the teacher to the classroom rather than from scholars who do not actively teach imposing solutions upon teachers from the outside. She maintains that the tendency to keep teaching and research separate surfaces from an educational institution invested in a power hierarchy where administrators and researchers or at the top and the teachers are at the bottom. Hers is an effort to transform the area of research and dismantle the hierarchy so teachers can create knowledge that affects the composition classroom along with the university researchers. She even goes so far as to state that “…teacher research is…an emancipation proclamation that results in new ownership- teachers’ own research and their own problems that result in modification of their own behavior and theories…” (174). In other words, research resides in the classroom with teachers collaboratively interacting with the student rather than within the ivied walls of the university. After all, who has the power to create the best results other than the teacher in the trenches? She takes it one step further by positing that the research done at the K-12 level has the potential of changing the way universities teach research and writing.

When I first read the Ray article, I was surprised that such a hierarchy existed and that researchers at the university level would be uncomfortable by research performed by teachers. However, as I read deeper, I began to understand that the discomfort may not originate so much from a sense of teachers performing research but perhaps a discomfort with ethnography itself. This discomfort seems to manifest in a tension between the articles on how researchers should negotiate the problems of subjectivity or perhaps the idea that ethnography may not be purely scientific and therefore not useful. For example, the Purcell-Gates article reads in my opinion almost like a sociology text. She spends most of the article focusing on a strict definition of ethnography with statements referring to the seven characteristics which works to “[conceptualize] this methodology and [differentiate] it from others” (93). She walks the reader through “research foci” and “epistemological paradigm[s]” (95) ending with scientific sounding ways of validating the data and ensuring “standards of quality” (111). While most of it is extremely useful, almost all appears as an attempt to apply scientific rigor to what some may see as a less than scientific endeavor.

On the other hand, both Brueggemann and Sunstein seem to recognize that ethnography cannot be strictly defined as science. Brueggemann specifically refers to ethnography as qualitative while Purcell-Gates tries to differentiate ethnography from the qualitative side by stating that “…ethnography is distinguishable within the category of qualitative research [because] it is rooted in the concept of culture” (93). Purcell-Gates then draws a fine line by pointing out that not all qualitative research focuses on culture. One can only imagine how scholars who insist on the science of ethnography would react to someone like Sunstein who proposes that the results of ethnographic study should be narrative based, a performance that reads like fiction.  A university researcher who insists upon a strict methodology and scientific rigor may believe that a K-12 teacher or someone not trained in this methodology may negatively impact the reputation of the field. Who would take them seriously if they just let anyone in?

My first reaction to Ray’s article, after surprise, was indignation that such a hard line existed between the teacher-researcher and the university researcher. I also thought that she had some valid points. After all, similar to the other scholars, she addresses specific challenges relating to subjectivity while positioning the teacher-researcher as a valuable resource for improving teaching and learning. Teachers are in unique position to relinquish control to the student when it comes to learning, and in turn, students have the ability to help teachers see the classroom from multiple perspectives. Unlike the university researcher, teachers have the ability to immediately apply the results of the study to the composition classroom. However, the issue may lie in the fact that they can only apply the results to their own (to borrow from Ray) classroom. Teachers, while uniquely situated, also have the challenge of determining how to apply the results not only to their classroom but beyond. Ray acknowledges this dilemma but solutions in that particular article seem lacking. I do agree, however, that teachers cannot be excluded from ethnographic research. More collaboration between the university researcher and the teacher-researcher should take place to evolve the definition of composition ethnography and make sure that both are trained in its methodologies and practices.


1 comment for “Midterm Response – Question 1 & 3

  1. May 5, 2009 at 8:31 am


    You have written an excellent explanation of ethnography and its challenges. In particular, you integrate the source material very effectively. I wonder, in the researcher’s considering her own subjectivity, where do you see the place of considering her own biases as researcher, but also her own role as a participant in the community being studied?

    Your second answer is a well-balanced conversation between the course texts and your own ideas about teacher research. Thanks!

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