Exploring Student Learning in Anthropological Ethnographic Methods

Adrienne Burk and Dara Culhane

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipients: Adrienne Burk and Dara Culhane, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Timeframe: May 2011 to April 2012

Funding: $3,050

Final report: View the final project report (PDF).

From the final report: Read how Dara and Adrienne applied project findings to their teaching practice in different ways and how "most students partook [in] less conventional assignments, with some spectacular results."  Read more >>

Description: This project will focus on the self-reported learning experiences of students in four anthropology courses in terms of motivation, critical analysis, and confidence beyond the classroom (see “Questions addressed” below). The investigation is important for both pedagogical and discipline-specific reasons. First, pedagogically, there is discussion and debate about the possibility that “millennial” students think and learn in ways that go far beyond the opportunities offered by conventional essay-writing and seminar experiences. Second, anthropology graduates increasingly work in culturally and socially diverse environments including multi-disciplinary teams in national and international NGOs; in conflict, post-conflict, and disaster-relief projects; in urban neighbourhoods; and in collaborative and community-based partnerships. These challenging situations require the teaching of new methods that incorporate not only conventional observation-, interview-, and text-based practices, but also the cultivation of an “anthropological sensibility” that involves learning about one’s own theoretical, physical, cerebral, affective, imagined, and informal responses in contexts of ambiguity, spontaneity, and contested and partial understandings. Integral to this methods training is the necessity to address new and challenging debates about conducting research that is ethically responsible in both community-appropriate ways and in ways that accommodate institutionally approved informed-consent protocols for human research subjects. The researchers have been addressing these concerns in courses, discussions, and publications for several years. This project will undertake a rigorous and systematic investigation of students’ learning in relation to these efforts in order to improve both the students’ experiences and the instructors’ teaching.

During the project, the researchers will maintain weekly teaching journals to record their pedagogical intentions, reflexive observations, and evidence of student participation in, and responses to, the courses. They will also meet each week for discussion. One ethnographically trained graduate RA will work directly with consenting students, conducting observations and qualitative interviews at various points during and after the course, summarizing field notes, completing preliminary data analysis, and so on. She will join the researchers to complete the data analysis.

Questions addressed:

  • How do students self-report their experience of learning in the project courses?
  • Which (of a selection of) pedagogical activities appear to be related to (a) students’ self-reported motivation to participate in the courses? (b) evidence of critical analysis of course themes in course assignments? (c) evidence of students’ self-reported confidence in engagement with worlds beyond SFU (this may include both students’ words and actions, such as in taking up assignment options that deal with non-academic audiences and projects, etc.)?

Knowledge sharing: The researchers will present a report to, and lead a discussion for, the community organized around SFU’s Institute for the Study of Teaching and Learning in the Disciplines.

Burk, A., (2011, November). Are We in This Together? Exploring Student Learning in Anthropological Ethnographic Methods. Paper presented at the Centennial Symposium on Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, November 10-12, 2011, Mount Royal University, Banff, AB.

Burk, A. (2012, May). You can make a place for it: Student projects in public space. Paper presented at the Canadian Anthropology Society Conference: The Unexpected | L’Inattendu, Edmonton, AB.