Thoughts on ethnography in the social media age and some pictures

It is hard to believe that it is already November. First, that would mean that I am already over six weeks into my Fulbright and data collection has not really commenced. Second, it is nice and warm here, which I associate with summer, not fall, especially after living in the Boston area for the last six years. But, I am not complaining. I remind myself when I get hot of the wonderful opportunity and the beach sunsets and rooftop water views.

View from Rooftop restaurant at Jefferji House

View from Rooftop restaurant at Jafferji House

 

View from Rooftop restaurant at Jefferji House

View from Rooftop restaurant at Jafferji House

Next year I can be cold again, although I have seen that it is currently unseasonably warm in the Midwest and Northeast.
In the week or so since I last wrote a blog entry, I have visited schools to set up contact with principals and get permission to be in schools and classrooms to start my research. I have organized with one school to do a training this weekend as part as of the cooperative relationship that I want to create with schools. I have also started teaching in the last week at the university.
Keith also started teaching and I encourage you to read his blog entries from the last week (www.kamacdonaldphoto.com) to learn whether I am being replaced or not and about his teaching experiences.
My class size is similar to the classes I teach in the US at 30 students, which I am thankful for, because I know that some classes in the university are 100 or 300. My students are also similar to my students at UMass Boston in that they are mostly working in the field of education and teaching in schools in some capacity, some as early childhood teachers. Some also work with early childhood students as well as other levels because even at the younger grades, students specialize in teaching subjects so my students may teach Arabic or Science to children from preschool to grade 2.
As I started to think about how to blog about my research and my time here, the personal stuff was easy, but I realized that the research aspects were different. When I did my dissertation research and was conducting an ethnography, I did not have a blog in 2008-2009. More recently, I have been volunteering with a project in Moshi that I blog about a lot when I am there, but this project is partially service to the field and the project specifically and partially research. I rarely discuss the specific aspects of the research, but frequently discuss the environment and the service aspect. But, that is not an ethnographic project. That is a mixed methods research study with a heavy focus on the quantitative assessment data. The blog entries represented a very different lens than both the qualitative and quantitative data.
An ethnography is different. I am realizing that while I want to share aspects of my experience in preschools, I need to be very careful, both for ethical reasons and research credibility reasons, what I put up on the blog. I am developing a trust with my collaborators and participants and I am following a process. The making meaning of data does not happen instantaneously, like numbers being entered into a spreadsheet and an analysis run, the meaning grows and develops as I record data, discuss with participants, rewrite ideas, discuss again, attempt to triangulate with other sources and member checks, and then draw shared conclusions about the lived experiences of teachers and children in these classrooms. While I could write my notes each day and code them and write memos with conclusions or ideas about the meaning, it is not a complex, descriptive understanding of the given events or lessons without feedback and input from the teachers and other community members. As the title of my research states, I am studying “teacher decision-making.” I can’t evaluate teacher decision making about any aspect of the lesson or environment or their actions, without asking them questions and listening to their perspectives.
So, as part of telling the story of teachers and children in Zanzibari preschools, I will be limiting what I share here about research and it may be somewhat superficial, until I have had time to process and make meaning with my participants and can offer a shared understanding of what I am learning and not just my initial observations. I want to be open to the research process and to developing ideas organically and not assuming that because I wrote it down in a blog it is the correct explanation.
I can offer a simple example by just telling you what I saw in one class, where I am not doing research. The children were learning about the colors of the Tanzanian flag. During this lesson, the children talked about the colors of the flag, how to write and spell the names of the colors, and the meaning of the different colors. For example, green represents the plants and vegetation and yellow represents the gold and minerals present in the country. In addition to discussing the colors, the children also sang a patriotic song that I had heard before and the National Anthem. For this lesson, I can ask the teacher about the goals of the lesson and the decisions on how to present the colors and the meanings, but I also want to know more about the songs and why they are important. The children knew all the words to the songs and sang loudly, even though they were young. Where do they learn them and when? Why is it important to teach this information? I have many questions beyond these that help me to understand the social context of this lesson and the meaning making that is happening for the children and teachers. If I were including this classroom, I would want to know more about these ideas and more. But, I also would not want to present an incomplete picture, either just my classroom observation or my own impressions. Of course, my impressions and thoughts are part of the ethnographic process and will be incorporated into memos in my research file, but again, each piece is only part of the story. For a metaphor, I like to think of each piece as a sentence in the story. I may have five or six sentences that are part of the story but do not connect. I have some idea of the story, but it doesn’t yet make sense. As I ask more questions, gather more data, and incorporate the perspectives of participants and collaborators, they each give me a sentence in the story and tell me where it fits, so that in the end I have a beautiful story that makes sense and shares something significant and meaningful to all of us.

Mchuzi , makande, na wali (a meat stew with some beans and rice. My lunch at SUZA on Friday. It was tasty.

Mchuzi, makande, na wali (a meat stew) with some beans and rice. My lunch at SUZA on Friday. It was tasty.

If you are still with me, I offer you a selection of pictures from my personal adventures in the last week.

The sunrise I saw from my balcony when I got up for work last week.

The sunrise I saw from my balcony when I got up for work last week.

 

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