Designshop. Photo courtesy Roger Price and wkicommons

Collaborating with Undergraduates

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Holly Swyers


In contrast to other STEM fields, many in cultural anthropology have an ambivalent or even averse reaction to apprenticeship as a means of training. While pre-field methodological training is increasingly rigorous in many institutions at the graduate level, the available training often presumes the lone ethnographer. Meanwhile, many undergraduate programs leave students with at best a vague idea of how the ethnographies they read are collected. Students conclude bachelor’s degrees in anthropology strongly steeped in a multicultural ethos and capable of savvy critique, but they are frequently unable to articulate or demonstrate the career-worthiness of the skills they have acquired.

Designshop. Photo courtesy Roger Price and wkicommons

Designshop. Photo courtesy Roger Price and wkicommons

One remedy to this problem is to develop a more field-based approach to teaching undergraduate anthropology using a collaborative model. Collaborative anthropology in the sense of working with multiple data collectors and using class-collected data to learn interpretative and analytic techniques has proven, in my experience, to be effective in engaging undergraduates and deepening their understanding of what anthropologists do. This essay examines two models I have successfully deployed in the undergraduate classroom: (1) collaborations with local organizations, ranging from collecting oral histories for a historical society to conducting focus groups for an environmental group, and (2) my own research work in the United States on the cultural construction of adulthood.

Finding Collaborations

I teach in a joint sociology/anthropology department at Lake Forest College, a small, residential liberal arts college just north of Chicago. Spurred by a college-wide initiative to develop “geographically extended classrooms,” my department committed to incorporating field experience into as many courses as possible. This included revising our methods courses, which left us with the question of how to find and make use of field opportunities to train our students. We experimented with various expeditions into Chicago, but a real breakthrough came from a fortuitous meeting with the executive director of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society. The historical society was about to embark on an ambitious project about golf in the Lake Forest/Lake Bluff area, but the scope of the project was limited by the available staff and volunteer hours.

In the course of a conversation about the exhibit, I mentioned my efforts to teach students how to do interviews and how their research skills could be relevant within the community. An idea was born: my students would collect data and do research to the specifications of the historical society. The plan provided clear outcomes for my students to achieve that were relevant to people outside the college and raised the stakes on my usual assignments. As a consequence, students would be more able to recognize real world applications of what they were learning and to make meaningful connections to the Lake Forest community. Together, the historical society and I crafted an oral history project and a geographical survey project. In the interest of space, I focus on the oral history project, but many of the principles involved have worked for other collaborations.

Expectations and Boundaries

The first challenge for our collaboration was establishing boundaries and expectations. We needed to remember that the 60+ students involved were not professionals, but were rather learning their craft. We also needed to make sure that community participants knew to expect to talk to college students and understood the nature of the project the historical society was doing. We established a division of labor. The historical society contacted all potential participants, securing their consent to participate in the project. I created units specific to the projects for my classes and build them into my syllabi. We mutually established the dates when my students would do their fieldwork, negotiating the demands of my courses with the projected opening of the planned exhibit.

I decided to have the 34 students in my methods course collect oral histories. This fulfilled a need the historical society had and gave my students an opportunity to research and interview people they did not already know, skills that are hard to practice on a small campus. After my basic unit on interviewing, during which students practiced principles of interviewing among themselves, I informed them that we had been commissioned to collect oral histories for the historical society. Members of the historical society came to my class to present their project and to give my students a list of prescreened interviewees who were expecting to hear from my students within days. Each student was given an archive style sheet, assigned an interviewee, asked to call or email their interviewee that day to try to set a time for the interview, and directed toward potential research sources for learning more about their interviewees before the actual interviews.

Process and Outcomes

Students did their interviews on their own time as homework, some working over the phone with interviewees in other states, others meeting interviewees in person, either on campus or in homes or restaurants in the area around campus. Where students had difficulty making appointments, the historical society stepped in to help, offering spaces for meeting or extending deadlines. Once the interviews were collected and transcribed, students produced cover sheets including interview times, dates, summaries and keywords as requested by the historical society. The historical society then sent each interviewee a copy of his or her interview for review, a step the students were told about ahead of time.

As might be expected, some students were stronger interviewers than others and some interviewees were more forthcoming than others. However, both students and interviewees reported that they enjoyed the process. Students, initially intimidated by the idea of interviewing complete strangers, came back excited and energized by their experiences, reporting how pleasant their interviewees had been and how much they had learned. While the logistics of keeping track of 34 students and 34 interviewees was exhausting, both sides of this collaboration agreed the results were worth the work. In subsequent years, we have found ways to make the collaboration more manageable, scaling down operations by having students work in teams of two and video record interviews. Rebuilding my interview unit to add lessons on shooting video and video editing has enhanced my methods course.

Throughout the ongoing collaboration with the historical society, students have been highly motivated by the idea that their products would be part of the public record. They have demonstrated investment in the research process, seeing it not as an exercise, but rather as necessary work to ensure a good product for the historical society. By creating the idea of working for someone else, we shifted the conversation to what other organizations and companies would be able to use the techniques we were learning in class. We began expanding into new ideas, conducting focus groups to address questions on campus and presenting reports to relevant bodies. Over time, alumni who took courses with collaborative components have shared how they continue to use what they learned through field experience in their jobs, and those stories that have filtered into the current student population.

Team Research with Undergraduates

The success of the work for the historical society inspired me to think of ways I could engage undergraduates in my own research. I had been working on a project to study American adulthood, and students had already been asking me to talk more about it in class. I realized many of the methods I was using were well suited to training students and creating a mini-field school experience. I began teaching a short interview protocol, designed to elicit how Americans see themselves as becoming adult, and I led small summer teams out to conduct street interviews in Chicago. On field days, students conducted anywhere from 20–40 interviews, faithfully recording verbatim responses to the question, “What event or experience let you know you were an adult?” Two things quickly emerged: students were fascinated by the variety of responses they recorded, and they wanted tools to find patterns in the data. Questions about coding that had previously seemed remote and uninteresting to them were suddenly the most important things they could know.

My students liked working with “live” data. It was full of unexpected and baffling responses that were absent in practice data sets. They stopped looking for the “right” answer and began discussing different ways that responses could be coded, arguing among themselves (and with me) about the pros and cons of different ideas. I began bringing summer-collected data into my methods classes, inviting students to help develop and apply codes in our data analysis strategies. As we compared the data collected on the street to media representations of changing adulthood, students developed insightful questions about the increasingly visible to them disconnect between field data and media reports.

Whether working with outside organizations or being active participants in my research, undergraduates have demonstrated a willingness and ability to do professional quality work. Getting such a product requires patience and frequent pauses for students to self-assess and critique. During units, we discuss how the techniques students are learning are also job skills, using resources from our career advancement center and national employer surveys to identify how employers name said skills. More of my students have developed a language for describing exactly the range of jobs they can do and why. They read job descriptions for tasks that require collecting and synthesizing data, and report that they are able to describe exactly what they did in collaborative projects in terms that employers recognize. They talk to me about graduate school in different ways, describing the types of research they like to do. Class time is frequently messier than it would be without the collaborative component, but the end result seems worth it.

Holly Swyers is an associate professor of anthropology at Lake Forest College in Illinois. Her research focuses on US culture, ranging from the role of schools in socializing Americans to the mechanisms by which Americans produce and maintain community. Her current work looks at the contemporary American construction of adulthood.

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2 Comments

  1. Brianna O'Steen
    Posted October 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Dear Holly,

    I am thrilled to read that you are encouraging and incorporating field research in the undergraduate curriculum. Earlier this year, during my internship at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage I was asked to write a short article discussing my experiences as a young anthropologist. I have included a brief section below to share with you.

    “In decades past, it was common practice for anthropology to reside in academia. Today, public anthropology strives to bring what we have learned in the classroom into the community. This approach in combination with my experiences has led me to a new desire to serve other students. I plan to return to my university to enrich the undergraduate experience.

    I began noticing the gaps between the academy and the real world due the lack of resources available to me as an undergraduate. From the moment I chose to pursue anthropology, I knew it would be through an applied focus. Unfortunately, at my university the applied focus resides in graduate programs. As undergraduates we become familiar with ethnographies throughout our studies but we are not encouraged to get into the field. Every undergraduate student on the anthropology track is required to take a research methods course to obtain a Bachelor’s degree. We learn these methods in a classroom setting and conceptualize how they manifest in the field. In my experience, it was only Ph.D. candidate instructors that promote undergraduate ethnographic research by making it a part of their curriculum. The only other avenue for such research experience is through an independent study. I chose this path and conducted my research at a nonprofit organization in the Dominican Republic.

    Recently I presented at the American Ethnological Society’s Spring Meeting in Chicago as part of a workshop panel comprised of students and professors from Indiana and DePaul Universities. These students also took a research methods course where their professors required them to conduct research within their communities. Indiana students worked with first generation students at their own university. DePaul students have spent the last three years working with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. It was this realization that the opportunities varied among universities but the problem was not so simple.”

    Your article hit home for me and I extend my gratitude to you and other professors who are working to provide their undergraduates valuable opportunities and experiences to develop their skill sets.

    Best regards,
    Brianna O’Steen

    • Holly Swyers
      Posted October 23, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing part of your article, Brianna! I’m delighted to hear of similar efforts at institutions so close to me, and I hope with time and innovative curriculum design, more undergraduates will get real field experience as part of their bachelor degrees.
      Best, Holly

One Trackback

  • By Anthropology News on November 13, 2013 at 12:15 pm

    [...] collaboration in faculty research projects, a topic explored in an earlier essay in this series by Holly Swyers. From my vantage point partly in the world of engineering and science, which has a well-developed [...]

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