read all those ethnographies?

Tue, 10 May 1994 09:45:14 CDT

I keep geeting questioned about how I get my students to read all those
ethnographies in an Intro course--8 of them. People writing both privately
and posting publically say that the students rebel at more than two. The
simple answer is that I demand it, that I'm up front about the demand from
the getgo, that I tell them why I'm demanding it, and that anyone who doesn't
want to do the work is free to drop the course. I also use take home exams
to test them on the readings (and to direct their reading)--they get the
exam questions a month before the due date, and I use section meetings to
work on the exam questions. I encourage students to work on the exam questions
in groups, and plagiarism consists only of copying someone else's paper.

I realize that at state schools, departments are in a numbers game to keep
those FTEs up. I also realize, through teaching both American and Micronesian
students, that most of the problems in writing that students have begin with
an underlying roblem in reading comprehension. I'm tired of listening to
colleagues throwing their hands up and bitching about inadequate high school
preparation. If they can't read well when they get to college, then we have
the responsibility to teach them to read with comprehension. I use my Intro
course as a reading comprehension course--that's made very plain in the
syllabus, along with an outline of how I intend to use ethnographies to build
up their reading skills.

I select ethnographies carefully, beginning with _The Forest People_ because of
its readability and the personal account format. I try to use shorter works,
making the transition from story-like to analytically oriented work as they
get ethnography and the ways that one can USE ethnographic description under
their belts. I go from HG to swidden to horticultrual to pastoral or mixed
farming to agricultural and industrial in the sequence of readings. I head
them toward Lansing's _Priests and Programmers_, the centerpiece of the course,
using that work as a pivot to "modernization" (using Kottak's _Assault on
Paradise_ as a contrast) and to ethnocentrism (taking the Dutch colonialist's
and later the World Bank's ignorance of the eco-regulation of irrigation and
planting schedules by "water temples," which they ignored because they were
"only" religion as relevant texts to compare with Raymonde Carroll's
_Cultural Misunderstanding_). As the last thing they read is Carroll, they
begin with exotic and end with the familiar. It is easier to make
ethnocentrism and cultural relativism (as a strategy) understandable when they
have some experience in understanding patterning in exotic practices. The
exams are about patterning at different levels of analysis.

I don't worry about critical reading--they get plenty of that in other courses.
I focus on creative uses of ethnographic description to solve problems, to
compare contexts (patterns), e.g., sister exchange among the Yanamamo vs.
sister exchange among the Pygmy. I try to get them to build whole system
descriptions themselves, e.g., test question--what would be the effect on
Yanamamo ecology, economy, and political relations resulting from ceasing the
practice of female infanticide? (Here I get them to map the ramifications with
a flow diagram--training them in step-by-step inference procedures that are
constrained by Yanamamo belief and practice. Then they write an essay to
explain the diagram). We take pieces of the project and work them over in
section meetings until they understand the inference procedure and can complete
it on their own (or in groups). They get this question on their second (of 4)
exam. They all get through it just fine, although at different degrees of
sophistication. This exam is another pivot point. I explain to them after
handing back the exams that they're not supposed to be sophisticated or
experienced enough to handle a graduate-level question like that, but since
they are naive and didn't know that they couldn't do it, they just went ahead
and did it. It is important for them to know the sort of intellectual
achievement they have earned and the level of sophistcation it represents.
With that confidence builder, we move on to questions of system maintenance
and change. I can then use ethnocentrism in three ways, as an instance of
normal constraints on perception, as a constraint on group integrity, and as
a constraint on development planning.

The attrition rate in this enterprise is high. I start with 90 and end up with
60-70 students. The pattern of grades moves from low on the first exam to a
relatively normal distribution with more Bs than C's by the final exam. Very
few students fail the course, almost always the ones who never complete the
work and the ones who dropped the course but got fouled up in registrar's
paperwork. Most of them read better by the end of the semester and understand
(because they had to) that the same ethnography can be used for a number of
different purposes--yes, later exams include questions about earlier readings
incomparison to current readings.

This is what I do and why I do it. There is one more thing to be said. The
college/university is not a democratic institution. I get paid to teach
students what they don't already know, and that means that I am obligated to
make decisions, based on my experience and reading, about what students need
from me. To do my job, I am given the authority to make decisions about the
students read, what they are required to know about their reading, and how I
need to evaluate their performance. I make no bones about having and using
that authority. That's what I get paid to do. Learning intellectual skills
is no different than learning to play baseball or learning to play piano--
introduction of a graded series of knowledge/skills and repetition through
practice and performance. The more you demand, the better the performance,
the higher the skill level a student achieves. I've come to this way of
thinking after 26 years of experience. It's take it or leave it with me.
Stick with me and you'll learn useful skills and interesting stuff. If you
can't handle it, then go elsewhere and learn less.

Mike Lieber