Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

The Things You Don’t Expect

One of the things that keeps teaching interesting – and, occasionally, makes it a little too interesting – is watching the often truly bizarre and unpredictable things that happen to the best-made plans, once they are let loose into the wilds of the classroom…

This term, I am teaching two standard introductory social science methods courses, each one obligatory for students in particular programs. One is titled “Designing Research” and, as I anticipated, the students enrolled in that course – whatever else they may know or not know about the topics to be covered – were aware that they were taking a course that had something to do with research design. So the first lecture and tutorial sessions for that course went, more or less, as I might have anticipated when I blocked them out before the term began.

The second course is titled “Ethnography and Young People: the Secret Life of Us” (note that I inherited both courses, and so neither title originates with me). In my head, this second course is also a course on research design – just oriented more specifically to students with an interest in youth work and ethnographic methods. What was in my head corresponds well with the origin of the second course, which was created a couple years back as a specialist alternative to the standard method sequence, and is therefore intended to cover some of the same ground. What was in my head, however, is not particularly relevant to what goes on in the classroom, where what’s in other people’s heads is far more important…

So what happened is this. I expected students to be aware that they were taking a method course, to have certain preconceptions – right, wrong or indifferent – about what a method course might entail, but likely to be fuzzy on what, exactly, “ethnographic” methods might be. And so my first session was planned around those expectations.

For a while, on the first day, it seemed to be working okay – a bit quieter than the students in the other course, but cohorts have different personalities. During a break in the three-hour session, I received a number of questions indicating some confusion about the methods we would cover. I processed these as being concerns that students would have to master a wide range of methods, and so I tried to answer by reassuring that we would quickly zero in on the main course content. I could tell from students’ faces that something wasn’t working, but I couldn’t work out what the problem was… Then finally someone asked a question that got it to click: many of the students, not knowing what “ethnography” was, also had no way of knowing that this was a method course. The subtitle – “The Secret Life of Us” – no doubt suggested all sorts of topics the course might cover – all much more interesting than research methods… ;-P The proper title – both mundane and alien – wasn’t necessarily parsed. And so I had basically been standing there for an hour, muttering about strange topics, while a good portion of the class kept trying to work out what all this stuff on research had to do with secret lives, etc. I wasn’t answering the question that needed to be answered, because I hadn’t anticipated that question – the course was so clearly a “methods course” in my head, that it hadn’t occurred to me that this needed to be explained… I was talking too far downstream – and, once I realised what was going on, then needed to spend some time rowing the other way for a while…

All fine. But then, today, new wrinkle. While specific methods courses are obligatory for students in particular programs, they are also available as electives for students from other programs. The number of students who would take, as an elective, a course titled “Designing Research” is, as it turns out, passingly small. The number of students who would take, as an elective, something to do with youth and secret lives is… somewhat larger. And so I’ve just realised that I have students taking the Designing Research class as a mandatory course – who have also registered in the other method course… as an elective… So they are taking a method course… and its alternative… which both, coincidentally, are being taught by the same person, and which therefore bear a certain incestuous relationship to one another… And I assume this wasn’t the original intention – the issue is presumably not that students were so keen on methods that they decided to take two sequences simultaneously to ensure themselves an immersive learning experience… The issue is that – just as it didn’t occur to me that the ethnography course wouldn’t “self-evidently” strike students as a methods course, it didn’t occur to anyone else that any student would register for both the standard methods subject, and its specialist alternative subject – because these were “clearly” two different variants of the same basic subject. Except that things don’t need to be clear to the people who design them – they need to be clear to everyone else…

I’m working with the students who have signed themselves up for a double serve of methods – there are positives, as well as negatives… Just not what they would have expected coming into this term…

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2 responses to “The Things You Don’t Expect

  1. LF Velez May 9, 2009 at 6:20 am

    Given what you’ve described so far, I’m going to guess that a substantial portion of those ‘elective’ students came to the course to learn the _results_ of other people’s ethnographic studies — i.e., they are expecting to learn those “secrets”, or get to study more about “us”. They might even be expecting some explanations of why secrets occur in the first place, or find some new taboos to explore. The idea that they might have to learn something about the craft of _documenting_ those lives in a social scientific way probably didn’t occur to them.

    I teach a course called “Rhetoric and Science”. It fills rapidly with students eager to avoid taking a second science course with a lab, since they think a course offered through my department will be “easier”. When they arrive, they are informed we are going to be focusing on the rhetoric of scientific methods, and some of them are nonplussed to discover they will actually have to do some observational research of their own as part of the course.

    [sigh]

  2. N Pepperell May 11, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Apologies for taking so long to reply – hectic period here.

    It’s always an issue with introductory research courses, isn’t it? Getting students to make the transition from being primarily consumers of research, to being producers of it?

    In many ways, this course is about getting students to understand the research design process so that they can also be more informed readers, etc. – but that can’t be done passively, without getting into the trenches and doing some research yourself, however small the scale…

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