As an admission officer, you have to be quick on your feet. More often than not, you’re on your own in front of an audience who is scrutinizing your every move. What you say, how you say it, what you don’t say—these are all things that are examined for hidden meanings. Grace, poise, enthusiasm (not unlike a beauty pageant contestant?) are attributes that the job demands, especially when you are trying to put out fires without breaking a sweat.
One of the most challenging experiences I ever had took place at USC’s satellite campus in Orange County. Current USC undergraduates were on hand to give local college counselors a taste of life at USC and were performing admirably until I heard those words float across the room:
“It was great to come to USC because you really got to see how the other half lives.”
I will fully admit that I hadn’t been entirely focused on the conversation, but, with that, my attention snapped back into focus. How do you fix something like that without drawing overt attention to it? Do you just hope that people didn’t notice? Is it worse that they didn’t? How do you come back from that?
Eventually everything worked out all right and, in the long run, that moment was much more instructive for me than it was damaging: it’s something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career and something that I think about when we come to the topic of ethnography.
It’s easy, I think, to claim that you are interested in understanding the mindset of others but it is another thing entirely to be open to such a practice. Even if we momentarily ignore issues of assimilation and the fear of losing oneself in or to a project (as if self identity was ever something that was static), it is still incredibly difficult to work against a process that automatically filters perceptions through layers of developed experiences. Despite our stated intent, it may take us longer than we expected to truly begin to understand those we wish to study.
I’m looking at you, Tyra Banks.
Needless to say, Tyra Banks going “undercover” as a homeless person for a day is not a form of ethnography (although I do not think that Tyra herself would ever employ such a word). Being made up to look homeless for a day undoubtedly fails to convey the sense of hopelessness that some homeless feel or, for that matter, even a very real sense of the pervasiveness of the issue. In fact, at its worst, Tyra’s undercover episodes are a form of stunt journalism that seeks to profit off of the very groups that she is purporting to help; entering with all of the trappings of privilege, it is her duty and her prerogative to expose injustice, wrongdoing, and prejudice. This is, of course, not to suggest that the objects of her inquiry (e.g., strippers, homelessness, sexism) do not deserve inquiry but the danger lies in individuals like Tyra believing that their investigative experiences are more meaningful than they actually are. Spanning across instances as varied as Tyra’s episodes, colonialist literature, and It Gets Better, we see a common theme: the story of the investigators is elevated above the tale(s) of the community.
Here we understand an opportunity for ethnography to redress the situation as it reasserts the relationship of the observer to those that he or she would study. Rather than striving to remove all traces of the observer (which is probably impossible anyway), I think that good ethnography acknowledges the impact of the observer and clearly outlines ways in which the observer’s presence might alter outcomes and how the observer’s perception of events is framed by personal history.
So as I sat in an after-school tutoring session, I found myself racing to take four sets of notes: observations, possible meanings of what I saw, implications of those actions, and a running account that attempted to explain why I perceived things in the way that I did. In essence, I made a series of passes, adding additional layers of information each time I revisited my notes. Although this process would have ideally been aided by audio/visual recording, I think my mini-ethnography was quite instructive as I began to think about what things were worth recording (and which I had to let go because I just couldn’t keep up) and also how to rapidly shift between different layers of analysis. After three hours I found myself exhausted but with an interesting record of how the students in this center interacted with one another and their tutors; in my hands I held a formal record of what educators learn to do instinctively as they evaluate and assess each of their students (and themselves). Some students were easily distracted but amazing when focused, some were great motivators but not great leaders, some were bored when working with tutors but animated when teaching their peers, and some just seemed to feel uncomfortable in larger groups. To their credit, tutors seemed to have picked up on many of these traits (and undoubtedly more that I couldn’t even begin to see) and adjusted their mannerisms as they moved back and forth between students: to some they were kind, others stern, still others saw a stern exterior interrupted with sly smiles. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interview the tutors after I observed them, I wondered how much of this process was automatic for them. Did they consciously consider how to best handle a student or did they just seem to “know” what to do? Had they, as teachers, done an exercise like this before? Did this sort of self-reflexivity make them better teachers? How had these volunteers grown into their jobs as educators? Did the skills exhibited in the tutoring center translate to a classroom?
I suppose there’s always next time…