Course Trajectory


Course Trajectory. Image courtesy Mark Moritz

I have been using collaborative course projects in my course Research Design and Ethnographic Methods for a number of years. These collaborative projects are a great way for students to learn how to design a study, collect and analyze data, and write up and present ethnographic research. The majority of the students are graduate students from disciplines other than anthropology—design, ecology, education, linguistics, nursing, public policy, systems engineering, and veterinary sciences—with a few anthropology undergraduates. We use the Ohio State University campus as our natural laboratory and have studied a range of different topics and presented our findings to the different stakeholders. In autumn 2010 we examined student behavior in the university library and presented the results in a poster to the director and staff of the OSU Libraries. In spring 2011 we examined what makes group work successful and presented the results to the director and staff of the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (UCAT). In spring 2012 we examined how mobile technology in the classroom affects learning and presented the results to the director and staff of the Digital Union in a PowerPoint presentation. In spring 2013 we examined students’ eating behaviors on campus and presented the results to staff and faculty from the Food Innovation Center (FIC) and Campus Dining Services. Here I explain how I organize these collaborative projects and outline the conceptual framework that guides this ethnographic research project, which integrates scientific and interpretive approaches in anthropology.

Course Organization

In ten weeks students learn about study design and ethnographic methods by participating in a collaborative research project in which we design a study, collect data, analyze data and write up the results in a poster or PowerPoint presentation. The primary focus of the course is on hands-on student research activities. We cover a selection of data collection and data analysis methods that are central in ethnographic research—observations, writing fieldnotes, semi-structured interviews, grounded theory, surveys, and statistical analyses.

There are two meetings per week. The first meeting of each week I lecture about the different methods using Bernard’s Research Methods in Anthropology (2011) and Emerson et al’s Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes (2011), which complement each other well, one being more scientific and the other more interpretive. The second meeting is organized as a workshop in which students apply what they have learned earlier that week by designing an instrument (eg, an observation protocol) and/or analyze data that was collected in the previous week.

I use Michael Agar’s Iterative, Recursive, Abductive (IRA) approach to organize the course project (2006, An Ethnography by any other name). This means that we start the project with a simple provocative question or hypothesis—for example, mobile technology interferes with students’ learning—and then have multiple rounds of data collection, analysis and interpretation in which we gradually narrow the focus of our research and refine our questions as in Agar’s funnel (see figure). We start very broad, with a round of informal observations of a particular activity setting, eg, the library or classroom. Then we discuss both the process and product of the observations and collaboratively develop in class a more systematic observation protocol. After class I edit and finalize the protocol and post it as next week’s homework to the course wiki. Students then individually conduct the observations and write up their fieldnotes. They post their fieldnotes to the wiki by the following meeting, when we collaboratively compare our notes in class, interpret our findings, and use them to design the next round of data collection. As we make new discoveries, we change and refine the research questions. Towards the end of the class, as we approach the narrow part of the funnel, we focus in on a few specific research questions and collect data with an online survey using Google Drive and use simple statistical analysis using free 30-day demo versions of programs like InStat and StatPlus to quantitatively measure some differences between groups or correlations between variables. The emphasis here is primarily on learning how to manage survey data in Microsoft Excel so that it can be used in statistical analysis.

The wiki is a critical component in the course project as it facilitates collaboration inside and outside the classroom. The wiki is hosted by and is private; only students and I are members and have access. Members can view, post, edit and discuss data and analyses on the wiki (eg, annotated bibliographies, fieldnotes, interview reports, transcripts, codes for grounded theory, statistical analyses). We also use the wiki in class to compare our data and discuss our analysis.

The collaborative research project is covered by an IRB protocol and students have to complete a web-based training in human subjects protection through the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) in the first week of class. However, because we study new topics each semester and design new instruments in each iteration of the class, we amend the existing protocol multiple times over the course of the semester. Unfortunately, the pace of the course is such that the IRB cannot review our amendments quick enough and so mid-course, we are technically no longer doing “research” but instead are doing an educational project. That means that we cannot publish the results and so when we present our course project to relevant audiences we focus on the process of the collaborative project, rather than the product.

Conceptual Frameworks and Research Design

Because methods are meaningless if they are not part of a well thought through research design, students also learn how to design a research project and write it up in a research proposal. I also use the collaborative research project to discuss the logic of research design in which theories, questions, sampling, data collection and analysis, and writing are integrated in a coherent argument. That also means that the collaborative course project requires an analytical framework to guide the research. I generally use a version of Tom Weisner’s ecocultural model (1997, The Ecocultural Project of Human Development), which makes a distinction between different analytical levels of (1) ecocultural context; 2) cultural models; and 3) everyday routines in activity-settings. The idea is that participants try to accomplish tasks in these everyday activity-settings and that the routines are shaped by both the ecocultural context and participants’ cultural models. The ecocultural model is generally used in cross-cultural studies of child development but it is versatile and can be used to study practically any topic. More importantly, it fits well with the organization of the collaborative project in which we start with observations of the activity-settings and then conduct interviews to get at participants’ cultural models, while throughout the semester we reflect on how the larger ecocultural context of the institution shapes what we study and how we as researchers study it.

Learning about Research and Teaching through Reflexivity

Reflexivity is a great tool in teaching research design and ethnographic methods because research design is all about making informed decisions to develop a logical and integrated argument for how to answer a research question or evaluate a hypothesis. Reflexivity is also critical for building a conceptual framework that guides the research project. I use Ravitch and Riggan’s Reason and Rigor (2012) to teach students how to build an argument for why our particular topic is important to study and why ethnographic methods are the best way to study it.

On a more personal level, I try to always be up-front about my own biases and how these shape the collaborative research project. I started last year’s project with my explicit assumption that students’ use of smart phones, texting, twitter and Facebook in class interferes with their learning. By making my biases explicit and showing where they are coming from—I am not an avid user of mobile technology, I have no smartphone and no Facebook account—I model for students how to reflect on their points of view (POV1) and how these shape their research and may impede their getting at the point of view of their informants (POV2)(again, I am drawing on Michael Agar’s concepts). In this project we found, to my surprise, that students’ use of mobile technology had no significant impact on their engagement in class (which we used as a proxy for learning). Instead, we found that the way instructors use PowerPoint is often more detrimental to students’ engagement in class. We also found that both students and instructors talk about the use of mobile phones in class in terms of rudeness and respect, suggesting that it’s more about conflicting sociocultural values than about students learning.

The big question, of course, is whether the collaborative research projects support students’ learning. The evidence from formal and informal evaluations suggests that they do. Students appreciate the integration of ethnographic theory and practice and find it a very useful course and many of them integrate ethnographic methods in their MA and PhD research projects. I too, find it useful. I have integrated into my own practice what I have learned through these collaborative research projects. For example, I am no longer concerned about students’ texting in my classes. Instead, I pay more attention to how I can use PowerPoint to engage students. Teaching at a university, it does help to have some understanding of students’ lives, as Rebekah Nathan made clear in My Freshman Year (2005). The collaborative course projects give me small, ethnographic window into the lives of my students at my university.

PowerPoint presentations and posters with findings from the collaborative research projects and the syllabus for the course can be found on my website:

Mark Moritz is an assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the Ohio State University. Some of his other teaching strategies have been published in the third, fourth, and sixth editions of Strategies in Teaching Anthropology edited by Patricia Rice and David McCurdy.

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