Teaching Autoethnography

8. Choosing Topics for the Autoethnography

Overview

Throughout the assignments up to this point, students have been investigating different ideas about and definitions of identity through character creation, observation, and treatment of space and event. After defining identity for themselves and discussing the identity of others in smaller qualitative and personal pieces, students will now take a look at how identity is created in chosen subcultures in their final autoethnography assignment.

Through readings and experiences over the semester, students will have considered a broad range of subjects that include childhood memories, relationships with family, questions of race and religion and the importance of experience. In each of these pieces, culture has played a pivotal role, defining the circumstances in which they and the authors have created individual notions of the self.

Culture in these cases does not have one singular definition. It can be a multitude of things that influence lives. As they progress through research, students will consider how each person defines culture for herself and what the implications of this kind of definition are. I encourage students always to think about the larger societal consequences of the things our participants experience.

Their goal in the autoethnography assignment should be both to read individual experiences and to decide for themselves which aspects of culture are affecting identity formation. To do this, they will make connections between their gathered research and their own experiences to better understand identity and culture through multiple perspectives. This work should happen in weeks ten and eleven.

Choosing a Topic Assignment

A subculture is a smaller cultural group—a group that can be distinguished from a larger societal group based on a host of factors. Subcultures can be almost anything that we are currently involved in; there are subcultures we choose to be a part of and subcultures we are part of without any consent. They can be based on hobbies, religion, location, friends, family, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference—just about anything that creates identity.

For our final project for the class, you will be asked to select a subculture that you have currently chosen to be a part of or one that you will choose to connect yourself to and to investigate this subculture in a larger research paper called an autoethnography.

For this immediate assignment, I would like you to identify two subcultures that you are currently a part of and that you would find interesting to research. For each of the subcultures you identify, I would like you to give a brief description (three to four lines or more if necessary) that gives an overview of what the subculture is and your position in the subculture (how long you’ve been a part of it and how you feel about it).

From these two options, you will be choosing a topic for your final research paper. We will be sharing these ideas with the entire class. Please be as specific as possible. Your topics must fulfill the following criteria:

  • You must be able to do background and preliminary research on your topics. In other words, written and visual material must be readily available for analysis.
  • Topics must be local and accessible.
  • There must be a place, field site, or event space for the topic that you will be able to visit at least twice during the semester.
  • There must be at least two people you can interview who have different roles relevant to the topic.
  • Topics must be new and cannot overlap with research topics in any other course work.

 

Results

This initial stage of the assignment is very important in that it will give students the one-on-one attention and grounding necessary to start successful extended projects. You may find that students have a hard time identifying subcultures that they are interested in or intentionally part of. That difficulty can be addressed by having students share their ideas in a class discussion. In this setting they can help others define their ideas more specifically, inspire one another by explaining their own choices, and provide tips to one another about resources. As the teacher, you also have a chance to intervene immediately and offer helpful suggestions, indicate ways students might make projects more specific or manageable, and dissuade students from projects that might be overly complicated or inappropriate due to topic or time constraints. These are concerns I will discuss more specifically in later chapters.

Objects for Storytelling

Once students have identified a subculture they are interested in investigating, I begin to introduce new ideas they can use to identify the significant aspects of the subculture. Objects can inspire students to tell great stories. When they look at a photograph, pick up a memento or keepsake, flip through a playbill, or look at a trinket in a junk drawer, they can be transported back to another place, another time and can re-create a memory that is sparked by their understanding of that object. Objects will be used as devices in the final autoethnography to tell stories and share important ideas. This initial assignment will help students understand the value of objects in their narratives.

Show-and-Tell Assignment

For this assignment, identify an object that you believe is representative of your subculture. For class, prepare a story behind the object that you will present orally. Make sure to choose something that will allow you to explore a specific idea tied to your subculture. If possible, please bring a physical object to class and try to avoid photographs or images on a mobile device or computer.

 

Results

This assignment should be familiar to the students from childhood. In this case, they are using a well-worn activity to learn how objects can be great jumping-off points to tell stories or explain insider knowledge of a subculture to an outsider. For instance, a pair of dance shoes might represent a ballerina’s connection to her family, her passion for dance, successes and failures, exhilaration on the stage, specific performances, or nostalgia for youth, while for an outsider they may seem merely utilitarian, common, or worn.

Rituals and Routines

In our lives, we all participate in daily routines, whether brushing our teeth, making our beds, or following a complicated set of steps before preparing meals or going to sleep at night.

We also participate in larger rituals. Rituals have a history beyond the self and can be understood by a bigger group. They are based on a larger cultural meaning or understanding. Often we participate in rituals and aspects of rituals without fully understanding the meaning behind certain aspects. This can be true of religious rituals, cultural rituals, rites of passage such as parties, graduations, weddings, and even holidays, just to name a few.

In the following exercise, students can analyze how rituals and routines play an important role in their lives and how meaning is created through repetition.

Rituals and Routines: Freewrite

For ten minutes, freewrite on the following questions: What are rituals and routines? What is the difference between them, and what can we learn by examining them?

 

Rituals and Routines Assignment

Make a list of all of the rituals in which you have participated over the past year. From the list, choose two rituals to examine in detail. When you are breaking down the aspects of the two chosen rituals, consider the following: the reasons for participation, who else was involved in the ritual, your understanding of the different aspects of the ritual. Are there parts of the ritual you had a problem with? Thought were silly? Thought were really satisfying and important? Was there anything beautiful? Particularly complicated?

 

Results

Both assignments, the freewrite and the detailed examination of two rituals, are great ways to help students understand how rituals and routines are important parts of culture. By looking at those they engage in personally, they will come to understand how individual perspective as well as larger cultural perspective are important. They will familiarize themselves with identifying routines and rituals in their subculture and analyzing the importance of them.

Insider-Outsider Knowledge

At this point, you might want to introduce the concept of insider and outsider knowledge. Students should be prepared to use all exercises to identify information that would be readily understood by participants in the subculture but potentially misunderstood by those outside it. Rituals, routines, language, and the importance of space and objects can all be subjects on which insider and outsider knowledge vary. Reminding students about earlier work on perspective can help emphasize the difference.

Autoethnography Project Guidelines and Assignment

The autoethnography is an extended research project that allows you to investigate a subculture you have chosen to be part of or will choose to be part of and critically assess this subculture from both outsider and insider perspectives. To do this, you will be relying on your own experiences as well as assessing the experiences of other members of the subculture.

Based on our discussions and class projects related to culture and identity, you will be focusing now on a larger investigation of one subculture.

Your project will include information you collect in observations, interviews and interactions with your subculture. I expect you to draw on personal experiences, history, friendships, emotions and responses to both your participation in the subculture and your research into it. This is not different from your previous assignments; it is an extension of the work you have been doing all semester.

In your final project, I would like to see evidence of critical thinking about what makes your subculture a subculture and what you think your place is in it. The final format of the project is largely up to you. The only requirements are listed below.

  • Your final autoethnography essay should be a minimum of six pages but can be as long as you need it to be, although more than ten is not advisable.
  • You must conduct at least two formal interviews and include a written copy of each with your final essay. Additional informal interviews are recommended. Also, you must do at least one observation, and two or more in the space are recommended. Within the text, I would like to see you use artifact description as we worked on it in class.
  • I encourage you to approach this final project as creatively or traditionally as you would like, but always critically. In addition to the written project, you will be required to do a presentation of your project for your classmates on the last day of class. Your reading should last three to five minutes.
  • Consider these questions as you write: What have you learned about your subculture from this process? If you could share anything about your subculture to explain it to an outsider, what would it be? How would you like your final project to look and read? Based on your research, have you changed your mind about any aspects of your subculture? If so, which and why? What do you think the value of a project like this is or can be?

 

Conclusion

This initial groundwork will be essential to ensuring that your students pick appropriate topics that can be researched in the time available. Each step will allow them to think through the elements of their chosen subculture so that their formal interviews and assignments that I discuss in the following chapters will be productive.

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