Ethnographing a Classroom

I usually post negative commentary about my grad school experience. I feel it is only fair to post something positive, for a change.

Our class last night was quite good. One of my contentions about life as it is lived is that any organization, not matter how solid and monolithic it appears from the outside, is riddled with differences on the inside. My mother, who works at the LDS Temple in Boston, has often remarked on how individualistic her co-workers are and this in a situation where conventional wisdom would insist that a similar degree of orthodoxy would equal sameness of personality and outlook.

I mention this because last night's discussion revealed a variety of responses in what otherwise often appears a seamless and unindividuated group of grad students: homo sapiens gradiosos. Apropos, the subject was pop culture, in particular the pop culture of dime novels and rodeos, i.e. the Americana of the West. And it brought up the interesting problem of how to talk about pop culture (in academe) without, as my professor put it, being condescending or insisting that it's all a big joke, i.e. that all pop culture is really an exercise in resistance. I was pleased by this show of big-mindedness.

The class proceeded more or less on these lines, in part due to the size of the class (about six people were missing) and in part due to the presenters who both took a commonsense, grounded approach which approach affected the turn of the conversation. One student even began her presentation by stating, "When I see the words 'commodification' and 'modification' and 'socialization' within the same sentence, it puts my hackles up," and there was a murmur of agreement, from the professor as well.

All in all, the conversation was far superior to the articles themselves, which—like many pop culture articles--left one with the impression that the authors didn't much care for their subject. The writer of rodeos left me with the impression that the author rather despised rodeos in general and the people who attend them and didn't know much about them anyway. (Since one of the presenters had ridden in rodeos as a child and disagreed with many of the statements made by the author, I was confirmed in my reaction.) The theory put forward by the author--that rodeos are a masculine pursuit that speak to the American male's need for stability in a feminist world—sounds like something out of "Oooh I'm So Smart" Theories of the Universe 101.

As I say, the class exchange was better. I was even able to say my little spiel about old style ethnography versus new style ethnography. Old-style, the ethnographer went to the culture-to-be-studied and said, "I will now tell YOU about your culture using all my cool humanist Enlightenment era scholarly tools."

New-style ethnographer comes and says, "What do you think? What you think about me? What do you think about my theories?" This used to be called, disparagingly, "going native." But, as my professor once again pointed out, there's a big problem when the culture being described is unrecognizable to the people who live in it so better to "go native" than not.

This is good stuff. This is where I personally think higher education should be heading. The almost accidental combination of good presenters, small class and relaxed style (not to mention the subject) produced an atmosphere last night that to my mind should be deliberately fostered. It isn't so much the chummy-everyone-getting-along quality that makes the difference (although that helps), it is the ability for the class to dialog. Similar results could be produced in larger classes with better texts.

One more factor is necessary, and it involves a completely different assumption about history than the one most common to the academic world: although most of the students last night willingly allowed for the proposition (by me, and others) that working class people read dime novels for many different reasons (reader-response theory), there was a continual return to theory-based group labeling. Such labeling is still perceived as the natural end of academics: to come up with some kind of overarching argument that pigeonholes people and events.

My academic revolution rejects that; in my academic revolution, the individual would gain precedence, not in some token "and then there was this guy" kind of way, but in a real, valid "understanding people" kind of way. Historical analysis would no longer depend on the, erroneous, assumption that historical events can and should be endlessly compared to each other and that doing so enables us to "not make the mistakes of history." I contend, instead, that failing to recognize different events as different is what results in the mistakes; it is our inability to toss out theorists like Marx that keeps us rutted in thinking we are acting out the same old same old. Failure to recognize the uniqueness of events, resulting from the uniqueness of individual choices, has mired academics in the quagmire of theorizing. There's nothing else left but to replay Marx. Everything is an "-ist" or an "-ism." The academic world will bore itself to death if it isn't careful.

Because what makes learning fun is the increasingly complex view it gives one of the world: the pageantry, the spice, the exhilaration of learning about events you've never experienced. There seems to be a general feeling that one should not get excited, that to get excited means you've "bought into" the Walt Disney World/Wild West show/Hollywood rose-tinted version of history. Don't you know history is dreary and boring and horrible, carried out by horrible people who weren't nearly as enlightened as us? Don't you know that all those stories you heard growing up were just lies, lies, lies? And so a bunch of history/humanities students sit in a classroom pondering why people engage in re-enactments. Sometimes, the irony floors me.

Under the aegis of contemporary academics, the historical world is small and dim, like reading by a wretched 40 watt lightbulb. Sometimes the light crackles a bit and the room in which we sit is flooded, but the light-sucking, deadening insistence on absolute labels inevitably returns.

Yet in the corners of the room, the dead still speak.

Let the revolution begin.


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