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The Instructor’s Perspective: A View from the Top

Marshall Kitchens


"We all led fictional lives in the very moments we faced one another, even when the presence of the others who remained out of sight was only imagined."

Dan Rose, 1987
Black American Street Life


The Questions

When Dan Rose says that we all lead fictional lives, he is alluding to both the primary difficulty in traditional ethnography and the primary strength of postmodern ethnography. If identity is this slippery thing, if it is always already a performance, as Judith Butler would say, then those multiple performances don't undermine the real. They are the real -- fragmented, slippery, constantly shifting.

I could hardly be labeled "queer" under traditional methods of categorization – where queer is viewed in opposition to normal, much as gay is viewed in opposition to straight. I am an Anglo heterosexual male from a Southern U.S., middle-class suburban background, fast approaching middle-age. I’ve assimilated to American Broadcast English, having erased, as best as I can, all traces of a Southern drawl during my 15 year transplantation to New England and then to the Midwest. I live with my wife and son in an economical condominium in a traditional, upper-middle-class neighborhood and commute in a mid-priced sedan to my job as a tenure-track college professor. While my material body may be marked by a few small signs of Otherness (a few piercings, a tattoo, Doc Martins), and my virtual body may be marked by expressions of subaltern politics and queer theory, I perform in the classroom with the inescapable authority of white male heterosexual middle-class privilege.

As a college professor of e-composition in suburban Detroit, I inevitably build my courses around issues of diversity and Otherness. Students are asked to read about issues involving relations of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other markers of difference and Otherness. They are asked to explore their own communities and share their own experiences  about encountering difference or representing Otherness.

This schism between privilege and pedagogy creates an inevitable contradiction in the classroom. How can I justify inviting students into open dialogue about difference from my own safe position of privilege? Then again, how "safe" is my position, in a context where I advocate that race, gender, and sexual orientation are social constructions?

This narrative describes my own participation in a larger project about the transgendered and transgressive student in the writing classroom -- as a mentor for Lindsey who embarked on her own reflexive examination of transgendered identity. As the instructor, what are my own concerns about ethics and auto-ethnography? About the risks of reflexive writing? About gender identity, sexual politics, and concern for the welfare of students who walk that thin line between hazardous visibility and silent safety. As Michael Bronski (1998) points out, "The line between perceived tolerance and incipient violence [is] often shifting, and the need to be mindful of the code [is] important. To overstep or misperceive the line could lead to harassment or physical attack" (p. 55). What are my own ethical obligations when students engage in and share self-reflexive research on sexual identity that transgresses community norms?

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For the Winter of 2002, as a relatively new tenure-track faculty member at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, I was asked to teach a newly developed, upper-level course in Rhetoric titled "Advanced Writing: Ethnography." This would be the first time the course had run, having recently been approved by the university’s Committee on Instruction. The university catalogue describes the course as "development of analytic and collaborative writing skills in the context of ethnographic study – analytical description and examination of a cultural setting, a subculture, or a cultural event." I would emphasize in this particular course the ethnographic notion of subverting what is normal by "making the strange familiar and the familiar strange" in an attempt to show students the relationship between perspective, knowledge, and judgment.

In my own background, ethnography had been a steadily growing interest since my experiences after my B.A. as a teacher in a psychiatric hospital and as a juvenile probation officer in Louisiana -- both being experiences that raised concerns for me over power dynamics among individuals within institutional settings and the influences of such differences as race and class, for example, on those dynamics. My training and background in ethnography came through the field of composition and literacy studies, which can be quite a bit less formal (and rely less on strict coding and quantitative analysis) than in sociology and anthropology and much less structured than ethno-methodology and conversational analysis.

I had recently completed my Ph.D. at Wayne State University in Detroit on Literacy, Technology, and Justice in Postindustrial Detroit -- a rather grand title for a project much narrower in scope than the title implies. My dissertation involved self-reflexive educational ethnography (participant-observation research in the computer classroom and at a local senior citizen community center); observations, interviews, and surveys concerning student experiences with and attitudes toward computers and the Internet; and pilot classroom projects that asked students to employ ethnographic research strategies to provide multi-vocal accounts of Detroit's local and historical cultures. These projects relied heavily on interviews and oral histories and involved building web sites to archive their work.

In my teaching, I focused on the ways in which principles of ethnographic research can provide students with sophisticated writing and reasoning strategies -- introducing students to basic principles of ethnographic fieldwork and leading them into research and writing projects in which they put some of those principles into practice by investigating specific sites for such issues as negotiations of power, symbolic meaning, social construction of group identity or member roles, or a combination of those issues.

Because of my own interests in technology, the ethnography course I was asked to teach at Oakland was designated as a computer intensive course, meeting in a computer classroom and utilizing WebCT, email, and the web. During the first half of the semester, we would discuss ethnographic inquiry as a research methodology, examine various contemporary ethnographies, and engage in online writing assignments, including a review of a published ethnographic study and their own mini-ethnographic projects. Students would post ideas and responses to the readings to the class discussion board and ideally read each others’ posts. During the second half of the project, each student would design his or her own ethnographic project and execute it in multiple stages -- a literature review, a proposal for IRB approval, a site study, field observations, interviews/case studies, an ethnographic essay, and a self-reflection, much of which would also be posted to the discussion board. Students were also offered the option of converting their final projects to web sites.

The role of technology in the course was to bring the different perspectives and experiences into contact with each other, allowing them to reflect on and respond to each others virtual bodies of evidence and reflection. We used WebCT to establish a mailing list and resource archive, but also created a discussion board for student reflections, and a Reading Notebook for each student in which they posted reading reflections and field notes.

I didn’t expect most students to come in to the course with much exposure to cultural diversity.  Oakland University is a suburban Detroit public university founded in 1956 that primarily serves students from Oakland County, a relatively affluent area in Metro-Detroit, recently deemed the most segregated metropolitan area in the country. Most students are commuters from their home communities, largely upper-middle class and predominantly white. Racial demographics for the student population are on par with national averages (over 80% white and around 12% African American) and have a slightly higher ratio of females to males (60% female to 40% male). The university mythology is that affluent Oakland County families sent their sons off to Ivy League and state universities, and kept their daughters close to home. The general expectation of faculty for students is that they are usually homogeneous and inexperienced with alternate viewpoints. However, I’ve discovered that if you scratch at the surface some, this isn’t quite the case: many students are 2nd or 3rd generation Americans, having grandparents who immigrated from Eastern Europe or the Middle East. Many have languages other than English spoken in their homes. Though there is a conservative slant among them, their immigrant and working class heritages offer them avenues to understand identity politics and social stratification.

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The Semester

In this particular course, there was very low enrollment for a number of reasons. Only 9 students signed up and 6 finished the course. But beyond the surface-level "whiteness" of the class, there was quite a bit of diversity. Two students identified as bi-ethnic (Latina and Arabic) and one other identified as Ukrainian American. One student was a young mother. Lindsey, early in the course articulated interest in and sympathy with queer culture – from discussions of Furries (a sexual fetish involving animal role play), to a review of Laud Humphries’ Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex in Pubic Places, to her own auto-ethnography on Drag King culture. However, Lindsey never expressly out-ed herself as queer or as transgendered or as a lesbian to the rest of the class, though she did frequently talk about queer culture and her own project on drag kings, and she did perform as Luke, her drag alter-ego, during her presentation of her project at the end of the semester. Clearly the students had different experiences and understandings in terms of identity and group affiliation that ruptured the illusion of homogeneity among them.

One of my goals in the course was to bring students to a complex understanding of ethnography, beyond a “study of culture.” In addition to traditional ethnographic methods, we would talk about feminist ethnographies vis-à-vis Margaret Wolf , postmodern ethnographies, the role of phenomenology in ethnography, the social construction of identity, poly-vocal texts, and Mary Louis Pratt’s notion of auto-ethnographic texts, an often misunderstood label for a particular form of ethnography. Pratt explains that an ethnographic text is one in which "European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others" – a detached scientist reporting observations about the exotic Other. The auto-ethnographic text, on the other hand, isn’t just autobiographical. It’s written from the inside in response to the colonial ethnography. As she explains, "such texts often constitute a marginalized group’s point of entry into the dominant circuits of print culture." This notion of auto-ethnography is similar to De Castell and Bryson’s call for the queering of ethnography. Indeed, much of the course revolved around what it means to know reality, around the tension between empiricism and anti-essentialism and the ways in which observation is filtered by experience, especially among groups with uneven dynamics of power. One student, looking stunned one rainy Tuesday morning after a discussion of phenomenology, remarked that he felt like he was in a philosophy class.

Power and knowledge played an important role in this course. I focused in many ways on this tension between insider and outsider knowledge, between etic and emic perspectives. In his 1957 essay, "A Stereoscopic View of the World," Anthropologist Kenneth Pike describes etic as outsider and emic as insider. The etic perspective is the perspective of scientific analysis -- the outsider coming in to observe and analyze with preset criteria. The etic perspective relies on cross-cultural awareness, the use of classifying grids, the application of a template to the culture in order to analyze, evaluate, and critique cultural practices. Its value lies in its comparative analysis. Its weakness is its distance from the object of analysis -- its failure to address insider knowledge. The emic perspective, according to Pike, is "insider knowledge." It's mono-cultural and structural rather than cross-cultural and typological. Its value is in its reflexivity, its attention to native understanding and shared knowledge. According to Pike, it's not a matter of striking a balance between these two positions, but of being able to simultaneously hold both positions in order to see stereoscopically. Once students begin to transcribe their data and produce a written description of the culture, they are forced to position themselves in relation to the object of study.

In this course, students mainly examined cultures in which they already participated or in which they had a vested interest: a young mother focusing on a Montessori classroom; a Latina student focusing on Fuerza, one of the university's Latin American social organizations, another student wrote an ethnography of Clutch Cargo's – a local nightclub. One wrote about the tensions between new Ukrainian immigrants and more assimilated immigrants at a local Ukrainian cultural center.

Lindsey early in the semester seemed interested in everything all at once and was having difficulty focusing on a topic. At one point, she had settled on an ethnography of "Furries," a fetish group whose sexual practices involve the incorporation of cartoon characters and stuffed animals. She said that she knew several members personally and that they met once a month. She would interview group members and observing group meetings. Lindsey presented this idea to the class during a fairly informal session in which we elected to meet over coffee in the student center. Noting slightly shocked expressions on the faces of a few of the students, this raised one of my first major ethical questions of the semester. As an instructor performing multiple positions of power, what are my ethical and academic and legal responsibilities in a student-centered classroom when one student proposes a project that transgresses the social and sexual mores of other students? What is my role and responsibility as facilitator in that classroom?

This question seems quite large and complicated, but it's not one that I really even fully articulated to myself. Of course I was keen on the project. This is what college research and the college experience is supposed to be about. As Karen Yescavage and Jonathan Alexander (1997) have pointed out, the issue of sexual identities is always already present in the classroom, we only "draw attention to them by commenting on the ways in which sexuality can be socially constructed" (p. 113). So to me, rather quickly, I saw myself ethically and academically obligated to support free inquiry into sexual identity, and in the interest of academic freedom regarded this to be within legal guidelines. Since this time, I have known of at least one instructor to be accused of sexual harassment by a straight student for allowing an online discussion of BDSM to go unchecked. A formal complaint was filed, but it was investigated and found unsubstantiated since the discussion occurred in the spirit of academic inquiry. So while it may be politically problematic to facilitate, the legal, ethical, and academic issues, in my opinion, are much more supportive of inquiry.

My decision to support Lindsey's choice of research was much more an innate position than a conscious deliberation.  So when later in the semester she decided to refocus on transgendered issues, and drag king culture in particular, I was equally supportive.  I did stress, how ever, the students' own ethical obligations as researchers. In class, we discussed the Belmont Report, the American Anthropological Association's "Code of Ethics," notions of informed consent, and the tension between risks and benefits in research, including social/psychological risks. My advice to Lindsey and the others was "be careful." I asked them to think about potential risks of exposure as carefully as possible, including self-exposure. Lindsey and I talked on a number of occasions about possible consequences of out-ing others or herself. And Lindsey expressed her own internal conflict and misgivings over the ethics of her research. So by the time students began the IRB process for Human Participants, they had all already deeply considered their own ethical implications for research.

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Ethnography and Authorial Voice

In constructing these ethnographies, we considered John Van Maanen's (1988) classification of ethnographic tales into three categories: Realist, Confessional, and Impressionist. The differences in these categories correspond to debates in social anthropology between positivism and phenomenology -- of whether or not there is an objective, observable truth out there in the social world, or if experience is always already mediated by perception. I proposed that students need not resolve this debate, but that by being aware of the debate, they can make more conscious and ethically informed decisions in their research and writing.

The Realist ethnography, according to Van Maanen, is the bread and butter of anthropology and sociology. In the realist tale, the narrator is both invisible and omnipotent. The subjective "I" is replaced by the eye of god, the eye of T.J. Eckleburg, if you recall the billboard in The Great Gatsby that looked down on Wilson's garage, the eye of dispassionate judgment. Van Maanen describes some of the primary conventions of the realist tale: the invisible author, thick descriptions of the mundane, and interpretive omnipotence. He adds,

Realist tales are not multi-vocal texts where an event is given meaning first one way, then another, and then still another. Rather a realist tale offers one reading and culls its facts carefully to support that reading. Little can be discovered in such texts that has not been put there by the fieldworker as a way of supporting a particular interpretation."(53)

The Impressionist tale, on the other hand, draws its conventions from phenomenology, post-structural theory, and feminist theory and attempts to present a multi-vocal view of the culture, one that is clearly responsible to the natives for ethical treatment. As Van Maanen explains, "The idea is to draw an audience into an unfamiliar story world and allow it, as far as possible, to see, hear, and feel as the fieldworker saw, heard, and felt." Knowledge, in this impressionist view, is often fragmented, contradictory, and many theoretical questions are left unresolved and un-resolvable.

The Result

While most students chose a “realist” rhetorical strategy, Lindsey instead chose to exploit the potential of the Impressionist ethnography -- a strategy that suited her purpose in destabilizing gender identity, evoking the social construction of knowledge, and transgressing norms.

Lindsey presented her project in a purple binder on which she created a collage using images of gender bending, fragments of her handwritten field notes, newspaper clippings, and a handwritten admonition: "Gender confusion is a small price to pay for social justice." In this project, Lindsey went native. Exploring her own issues of sexual identity, Lindsey experimented with cross-dressing, constructing a male alter-ego named Luke. Lindsey's ethnographic essay itself contained fragmented bits of narrative, self-reflection, interview and exposition. She transgressed traditional notions of research and understanding through this impressionistic method. She transcribed internal monologue, she exposed herself as vulnerable and unsure, she reflected on her own uncertainties about what she was doing and her motivation for doing so. She blended history and social analysis with personal performance and exploration. She drew heavy from feminist theory to construct an impressionist tale of gender bending in metro Detroit, attempting to provide evocative knowledge rather than imposing an interpretation.

By academic and scholarly standards, Lindsey's ethnography was adequate, given the time constraints of the semester. There were a number of areas in which she could have explored more fully, drawn more clear connections, developed her analysis and reflection more richly. But as a personal exploration if identity and the construction of knowledge, Lindsey's project was a superior product. As Jonathan Alexander (1997) proposes, we should "encourage all students -- both gay and straight -- to think of ways each identity is shaped by the stories and narratives that surround and permeate us through the social clusters of family, friends, colleagues, city, state, country, and culture" (p. 215). While Lindsey's final project may have fallen a bit short in terms of traditional academic rigor, the project certainly revealed her own insight and promises as a scholar of gender and identity, and the sophisticated ways in which she was arriving at her own understanding of cultural power. As she said later, she was more interested at the time in coming to her own terms than in persuading others. However, as Lindsey puts it, perhaps through interacting with her project, others' "perspectives on the dominant culture will have been queered, as they look for themselves in the other, and find the other in themselves."

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Alexander, Jonathan. (1997). "Out of the closet and into the network: Sexual orientation and the computerized classroom."  Computers and Composition, 14 (2), 207-216. Retrieved 30 May 2004 from

Bronski, Michael (1998). The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

De Castell, Suzanne and Mary Bryson (1998). "Queer Ethnography: Identity, authority, narrativity, and a geopolitics of text." In J. Ristock & C. Taylor (Eds.), Inside the Academy and Out:  Lesbian/Gay/Queer Studies and Social Action (pp. 97-110). Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.

Rose, Dan (1987). Black American Street Life: South Philadelphia, 1969­-1971. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Van Maanen, John (1988). Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Yescavage, Karen and Alexander, Jonathan. (1997). "The Pedagogy of Marking: Addressing Sexual Orientation in the Classroom."  Feminist Teacher, 11 (2), 113-122.