Project 5: A Story of Service (Service/Activism Ethnography)

Note: This is a major writing assignment and portfolio piece for Professor McGuire’s Composition II course. It is designed to develop both academic and practical research abilities, civic skills, and social responsibility and engagement. It is a college-level project.


Think Process First
Before you begin focusing exclusively on the product of the work here—the paper as described largely below—know that the primary focus first of all should be one of process. Working on the paper—the “desk work,” as it’s called—is a focus for a little later in the process. You should have a sense of what’s to come, certainly, but don’t become hyper-focused on the paper at the expense of immersing yourself in this collaborative fieldwork process. You cannot write the paper well nor learn very much without truly engaging in the process first. We’ll be talking a good deal of this fieldwork process in class.

The first step of the process, comes with your group completing this: Group Service-Learning Project Proposal


Finding somewhere to stand in a text that is supposed to be at one and the same time
an intimate view and a cool assessment is almost as much of a challenge as gaining
the view and making the assessment in the first place.     — Clifford Gertz

Overview of a Method

The service/activism project described here is one in which you will not only be working on important issues to help people, but you will also be engaged in field research. You will collect piles and piles of data from your field/service site—stacks of field writing, including field notes and journal entries, short observations and descriptions, transcribed interviews, artifacts and documents, responses to readings, evaluation or archival sources, and reflections. Anthropologists describe this kind of work as ethnographic research (the studying of place and culture). We will borrow these methods for our purposes, and learn more about them along the way. The desk work involved in fieldwork writing—that period of time when you begin to sort through your data (all the stuff you collected along the way) to figure out what you have and what you might still need—is sometimes described as a period of confusion which can only be solved by writing, by shaping your data into text. The good news is, though, that by the time you really sit down to do this desk work, you will have been writing all along. Your task for this project is to do as the title of the assignment suggests—tell the story of your service (but maybe not in the way you typically think of stories). This is a kind of field report which you will be using ethnographic research methods to complete. In doing this, you will really be telling two stories—one from your perspective as you went about doing your service/activism work, and one through the eyes of the people you studied along the way, the people deeply enmeshed in the issue you were working on. Read on to understand better this idea of the two stories.

Tell the Story: Balancing Twin Tales

Every field study has two stories, twin tales, to tell. One story is about the culture itself and what it means through the perspective of informants (the insiders to the group/issue/culture you studied). The other is the story about you as the researcher and how you did the research. While the story about the culture you investigated is the critical one, the subplot of how you negotiated your entry, conducted your interviews, and collected data is also part of your study. Documentaries about the “making of a movie” offer an insider’s look at how a finished film came about, and your story of your fieldwork offers your readers the same perspective. There is no formula for the balance between these twin tales, the power of narrative carries your essay to your reader. An important but difficult job of field writing is to allow informants to tell a tale about their lives—and find a way to include yourself as the fieldworker telling the tale.

Using Analytical Headings

One of the best things about writing field studies is that they can and should be completed in sections. As you organize your data and your story,certain parts of the study will stand out as potential sections: topics such as “Entering the Field,” “Interviewing Informants,” “Understanding Culture,” and “Looking at Artifacts” can become your way of organizing information. But once you start writing, you’ll see that you can refine your text into sections with even more specific and interesting headings. These headings can do more than just describe what is in each section; they can provide the reader with a thematic analysis as well. There is an art to organizing field studies, that of engaging your mind with the features and themes that stand out most, and this is what you want to convey to your audience when writing your section headings. These headings might be key words of the culture, the actual words of your informants, themes from the field site, or descriptive words about the artifacts you find there.

Questioning Your Draft

Once you’ve written a first draft, you have something to work with that’s not just a pile of papers and sticky notes. You can fold further data into your draft, deciding what you’ll put in the foreground of your study and what you’ll use for the background. This phase is a little like interviewing your draft using guiding questions about your fieldwork material and your relationship to it. Just as interviewing requires both preparation and openness, questioning your draft also requires that you give it both structure and room for discovery. As you work on subsequent revisions of your draft, it will help to return to three important questions. Ask these questions again of yourself and of your draft as you read over and recall your experience, working toward revision:

  • What surprised me? (This helps track your assumptions.)
  • What intrigued me? (This helps track your positions.)
  • What disturbed me? (This helps track your tensions.)

These questions are important to ask; as you remember, any study of an other is really a study of your self. These questions will help you write yourself more deeply into your story of service narrative.

Thickening Your Draft

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz uses the term “thick description” to explain the process of compiling layers of data to reveal evidence of your having “been there” in the field as you re-create and re-present your experience for a reader. Thickening your draft helps you write with a fieldworker’s lens. The process of creating thick description reflects the process of triangulation. Triangulating data is the heart of the fieldworking process, distinguishing it from library research and observational reportage. You must consider all the data in this process, even data that do not fit neatly into your plan. And this triangulation process is intimately connected to writing your text. In turning your draft into a thick, multilayered text, you may want to use another triad of questions:

  • What’s going on here?
    Ask descriptive questions of your data, about informant’s rituals and routines, about how people and places interact.
  • Where’s the culture?
    Refers to descriptions of language practices, place observations, background research, and artifacts you’ve gathered in the field to understand the group and its history.
  • What’s the story?
    Includes a description of the twin tales—your informants’ perspectives and also your own perspectives on the research.

Reflective Commentary

Reflective commentary is an essential part of this “story of service” ethnographic essay. You might choose to weave this commentary into the other sections of your essay, or pull it out as its own section. This kind of analysis offers you an opportunity to explore your ideas about the overall themes in your research: connections between items, between sites and informants, between past and present, between yourself and the people you’ve met, between your current materials and the writing or organizational goals you hoped to meet. This first part of commentary could possibly serve as an introduction to your ethnographic essay/field report.

How this Assignment Will Be Assessed

First of all remember that this assignment will not be fully assessed until you include it as a part of your final portfolio project; however, as an initial draft that will be reviewed by members of the class, completing it on time is essential to stay on track toward at least a B in this course. Refer to the grading contract on the syllabus for more information about the importance of meeting all deadlines, and for general information on what makes
for exemplary writing in this course.

The basic expectations that I have for average and acceptable work for this project are as follows. The work should:

  • be well-developed, well-crafted, revised, and edited research writing logically organized under section headings
  • include visual elements including photos (if possible) and then maps, drawings, sketches, artifacts, etc. as you choose
  • use narrative (storytelling) as a method of organization
  • have a strong beginning and a resonating close
  • properly cite all sources using both in-text notes and an accurate MLA works cited page/area
  • have an effective title for the work
  • be well edited and free from careless mechanical errors
  • be a minimum of 1250 to 1500 words in length (about 3 to 5 pages in print) but will probably be longer given the nature of this particular piece; most tend to be closer to the 2500 to 3500 words (about 8 to 12 printed pages)
  • be enjoyable to write and read

Due Dates

This work must be posted to the course “Commonplace” and categorized properly as “essay draft” by the scheduled due date. If you are having technical challenges with this, it is your responsibility to seek assistance from the instructor as soon as possible—before the due date and with enough time to resolve the issue. (Tech issues are not an excuse for not doing your work.) Be sure also to keep your own electronic copy of your draft, so that you can easily return to it for revision at a later time. Note that while you’ve been working in teams for this fieldwork project, each individual must write his or her own paper. Consult the course schedule for a complete list of due dates.