When I started teaching almost 14 years ago at CSU Los Angeles, a very diverse, very urban campus in the heart of LA, my friend Kristin Koptiuch suggested that I use my newly assigned undergraduate methods class to learn about my new home, Los Angeles. Put your students to work doing ethnographic field research and you will learn as they learn, she advised. So, I built my first class (and many thereafter) around ethnographic field research on the topic of water and social justice in the Los Angeles Basin; one class was devoted to exploring what kinds of NGOs work on water in our city, another to exploring the ways city services and NGO support (and lack thereof) are distributed along topographies demarcated by very pronounced racialized and class relations. We met exciting community activists, talked with water engineers, visited the secondary sewer plant and the workshops of the people who maintain all of the LA county beaches, learned to use the GIS mapping and data hubs that have recently emerged, attended public meetings as observers, and discovered that we too could stand up and speak as informed citizens. Through intense drought and rainy storms, we have learned about developing our own capacities as active citizens responsible for the currents of our urban waterscapes.
Meanwhile, over in the parched Sonoran Desert, Kristin pursued much the same pedagogical strategies with her undergrads at ASU-West to engage them in understanding Phoenix. Her students learned from the culturally rich communities and businesses in the otherwise historically disparaged and disinvested barrio/ghetto neighborhoods of South Phoenix at the cusp of urban reinvestment and imperiled displacement. They tracked the transnational embedded in metro Phoenix at a highpoint of anti-immigrant sentiment and policymaking, exploring local outposts of global religions, advocates and regulators of immigrant communities, the Foreign Trade Zone whose largely unknown borders benefitting TNCs cut right across the city, and locavore agriculture as a response to globalized food systems and the food deserts left in their wake. They conductedvirtual fieldwork in global megacities, charting urban inequalities by virtually walking between slums and skyscrapers. They crossed the Valley of the Sun to interview hundreds of immigrants and refugees, and adopted a tactic of Visualizing Immigrant Phoenix to make visible migrants’ culturally vibrant and economically productive contributions to Phoenix urbanism as insurgent planners-from-below.Rather writing papers that died on submission, students created dynamic websites that turned the narratives of their ethnographic observations and insights out into the larger community.
We continue to brainstorm together to improve our ever-growing bank of strategies for integrating ethnographic field research into our classes, including projects that tackle climate change, urban water resources, contemporary consumption practices, urban change, and the important contributions of immigrant communities to our cities. Our goal has been to get our students out into their neighborhoods as citizen-social scientists in our vibrant local-global metropolises using their anthropological training as a resource. Now Kristin and I would love to share our strategies and yours for engaging students in applied ethnographic field research, research that directly engages students in their own communities, and that equips them to be actively engaged, critical thinking, empowered, and informed citizens. All topical specialties are welcome.
Please join Workshop #1 Integrating Local Fieldwork into Teaching Anthropology in Portland on Wednesday, March 20th, 8-9:30 am. Register for SfAA Workshops at: https://www.sfaa.net/annual-meeting/workshops/registration/