How to Teach ‘Deep Hanging Out’ in a Pandemic

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series by the author exploring how teaching changed in the last year due to the pandemic. The first installment is available here.

I was losing sleep. With only a week to go before the start of spring semester I still hadn’t figured out how to re-imagine Cultural Anthropology 302 for pandemic times. Fieldwork Methods is one of my favorite courses to teach. Required of all cultural anthropology majors and popular among students from other departments as well, the course is a rigorous introduction to the core methodology anthropologists utilize in ethnographic research: participant observation, or more colloquially, “deep hanging out.” Through participating, observing and talking to people in what is often an unfamiliar (to the anthropologist) “field site,” ethnographers explore what people do in particular social contexts and what meaning they give their behavior. In presenting their findings in ethnography — ethno (people) + graphy (writing) — ethnographers translate what they have learned to others.

In pre-pandemic semesters students in my class have conducted participant observation in field sites as diverse as Durham barber shops, cafes, tattoo parlors, churches, the court house, a thrift shop, political rallies in downtown Raleigh, and the supernatural Devil’s Tramping Ground in Bear Creek, NC. Given the constraints of social distancing and safety concerns during Covid, I knew I had to change our work this semester. But how?

I found my answer in a native, collaborative, digital ethnography.

Native: Long gone are the days when anthropologists like Margaret Mead could believe they were “flies on the wall,” unobtrusively and objectively observing others and recording empirical “truths.” Increasingly, ethnographic fieldwork is conducted by “native anthropologists,” or those who belong to the group under study. Why not tap into my student’s identities as native ethnographers to investigate Duke University life during a pandemic?

Digital: Along with destabilizing the power dynamics of an “objective” and “authoritative” anthropologist “speaking for the other,” ethnographers are increasingly concerned with finding ways for subjects to speak for themselves. How then to hear the voices of Duke students and see through their eyes the everyday routines, disruptions and innovations of their lives during Covid? A digital platform would provide the perfect format to present these sensorial experiences as captured through photography, interviews, video and sound recordings. A digital format would also allow us to make our ethnography public and accessible to our participants and a larger audience.

Collaborative: Research and academic work can be isolating and lonely in the best of times, and even more so during social distancing, Zoom classes and asynchronous learning. I made it a priority in all my classes to find new ways to be present in each other’s learning experiences. Teamwork, large and small, was the right approach for this class. From the beginning, all 15 of us worked together to decide on what areas of Duke life to investigate, on website design, and to brainstorm methods that would generate insightful content. Then in smaller teams, students conducted fieldwork, designed their web pages, and loaded content.

A blank website and open road map for the semester was at first anxiety-producing for my students and me.

But I reminded my students that good ethnographers are prepared for turbulence, and unexpected obstacles and diversions can generate the most interesting data. And I used an ungrading evaluation system as I had in my fall classes to assuage performance anxiety. I emphasized process over final product. On my end, I had to learn to trust my students. I gave them basic tools and guidelines along with my enthusiasm, investment and confidence in their success and they exceeded my expectations. Students taught themselves (and me) how to spruce up Wordpress pages; created subject-generated content like “day-in-the-life” vlogs; recorded Zoom Jeopardy games with Duke athletes, photo essays on empty labs, and a student online art gallery — that accumulated in a rich, textured, digital ethnography of Duke in the Time of Covid.

As a scholar and educator, I tend to shy away from collaborative work. I like too much to be in control. This past year has taught me the pleasures and rewards of collaborative work. While I don’t recommend piloting from home (unless forced to by a pandemic) and I do look forward to all of us being back on campus, I will continue to explore ways to relinquish the reins, and trust in my students, in whatever ways I can in the classroom.

Katya Wesolowski is a lecturing fellow in Duke’s cultural anthropology department.

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