Project #3

For your third and final project, you will design, research, and write an ethnographic project about a local musical context. Your ultimate goal will be to produce a comprehensive paper about whatever context you choose. This set of assignment and critique prompts will guide you through the research and writing process.

First, though, a few thoughts about the process of carrying out ethnographic research. As you have seen in our ethnographic readings, ethnography is a research method that uses “participant observation.” Participant observation is a term used to describe the ethnographer’s critical perspective towards her observations of people and their social/cultural practices, but it also recognizes that the ethnographer is not neutral or objective. Rather, as you will find, your presence in the context you observe is one constitutive part of that context. Some ethnographic research is more participant-oriented than others. There are times when the ethnographer really does mostly observe; but there are at least as many times as the ethnographer will actively participate in the research context. In fact, there are almost no cases where the ethnographer’s presence does not influence or change things in at least some minimal way.

As you are thinking about the context you wish to research, you should take into account factors such as: your existing knowledge of or interest in the context; whether you are already a part of that context; the feasibility of carrying out your research (i.e., you must have at least 3 separate observations). You are permitted to research a musical context that you are already a part of (i.e., a musical ensemble that you belong to); however, you should keep in mind that doing so will present some challenges on top of those that everyone will face. In particular, you will have to work hard to establish your critical observer role, which can be challenging in a context where you are not accustomed to thinking about how social interactions work, what are the shared values of people, etc.

Further, you will each need to think about the ethics of your research and writing. Are there potential negative consequences for anyone you observe, as a result of your writing about them? How can you faithfully represent the people and events you observe without betraying confidences and privacies of your research subjects? How will you make sure that your interlocutors understand what you are doing, and that they can choose to participate (or not) in your research in an informed way? (In addition to the 3+ observations, you will also need to talk to and interview at least two people.)

We will work through many of these issues together as you carry out your research, but it is important that you start thinking about them sooner than later, in order to design an effective research plan

Here are the critique groups for Project #3 (each in alphabetical order):

  • Group 1: Isaiah, Kevin, Jaylen, Luis, Bella
  • Group 2: Eldina, Sara, Mads, Carly, Roy
  • Group C: Louis, Claire, Ellie, Lauren
Your first draft assignment for this project will be a research proposal. There are two primary goals for the project proposal: First, research proposals are standard writing tasks in a vast array of academic and non-academic fields. You may have to write proposals for funding from a school, government or other funding organization; you may have to write proposals to receive official sanction for your project. Thus, the project proposal should be thought of as a standard part of the discourse of a given field or profession. The second goal of the proposal is for you to take substantive steps towards your research, and to think through some of the issues that you are likely to face in the course of this project. We will work through some of these together in a peer critique.

Your project proposal should do a number of things:

  • It should identify and describe the musical context that you wish to study. I deliberately use the very broad word “context” here so as not to limit the scope of your ideas. A “context” might be a venue where musical performances take place; it might be a musical ensemble on campus (either a student-led group or an official Music Department group); it might be a space where there isn’t any formal or official music-making, but where there are nonetheless musical activities that you can observe. The only qualification is that you need to be able to observe your context at least three times—so attending a single concert would not qualify for this project, but it would work if you observed a couple rehearsals and a concert of the same group.
  • It should describe some possible findings, or a reason why your study will be valuable and insightful. **This is very much a task of problem construction, as you worked on in the previous unit!** Think about a scholarly reader (perhaps, that same educated non-specialist that you wrote for in Project #2). What would help that reader to see the value in the research you want to undertake? What will you—and therefore, your readers—expect to learn/understand/do as a result of your research? What might be the broader (musical, campus, academic) implications of your study?
  • It should identify some existing scholarship that might help you to carry out your study and to interpret your observations. This, in a way, is also part of the problem construction of your proposal: you are identifying some existing scholarly thought that you want to add to, refute, reinterpret, etc. You may draw from anything we have read as a class, and try to think a bit outside the box. Make thematic and theoretical connections, as you did in the previous project. For instance, you may be studying a student rock band on campus; even though this is very far from the communal music-making of the bira, you might still use Berliner’s text to interpret the band’s leadership structure. (You are not required to do any outside research for this part of the project, and you should try to avoid doing so.) Make sure to include proper citations in your proposal, and a bibliography of any texts you reference.
  • Finally, think about the practical aspects of your research. Have you contacted anyone associated with the context you wish to study, in order to discuss the possibility of observing? (This is important: for most contexts, you cannot simply show up! You must be in touch with people who participate in that context and receive permission to observe from the person or people who are able to grant permission.) Are there any impediments that you anticipate? How will you work around these? (These might be something as simple as schedule conflicts or as complicated as issues of interpersonal communication or the ethics of writing about certain sorts of social contexts.)

Please keep in mind that even though this is “only” a first step in the project, it is very important that you work through these several points thoughtfully. Doing so will help you to anticipate problems you might encounter, to develop a concrete plan for carrying out your project, and to think about the sorts of motivations for your research (which will be necessary when you start writing about it). You can and should expect that the particulars of your project will change; it is inevitable that things shift once you see what people do in the context you are observing, what issues seem to be most important, etc. However, this is not license to put in less effort on this first draft.

Your proposal should be about 2–3 (typed, double-spaced) pages. It is due on Moodle no later than noon (12pm) on Sunday, April 2.

The first peer critique for this project will take place in class on Monday, April 3. To prepare for the critique, you should download the papers belonging to your group from Moodle and read all of them. You should also prepare a more detailed critique of the paper belonging to the person after you in the alphabetic list of your group.

In your critique, you should assess the different components of the proposal, as described in the proposal prompt. Does the author have a clear topic? Are the goals of the proposed project clearly stated, and are they valuable (to an ethnomusicologically-inclined reader)? Is the project feasible? Has the author identified relevant scholarship, and is it clear why that scholarship will be useful?

As you consider these questions, you should try to formulate questions and suggestions for discussion. Your goal in this peer critique is to help each other think through some of the potential obstacles and contingencies that might impact your ability to carry out the proposed project. Use the opportunity in class to strategize about your research plans.

This draft assignment asks you to begin to think about how you will use your ethnographic evidence (your observations and interviews) as part of a written argument. For this assignment, you should take one event that you have observed and describe it thickly. Your description does not need to be very long—2-3 typed, double-spaced pages—but it must be thick (in Geertz’s sense). Therefore, your challenge is to 1) recall and understand what thick description is, and 2) employ that concept in selecting details from your observation and describing them in an analytically rigorous way.

You are encouraged review Geertz’s chapter before you write this assignment. If you do not demonstrate an understanding of “thick description” in your writing, you will not receive credit for this assignment. One thing I will note is that an assignment of this sort requires you to be selective in your treatment of evidence. In describing an event, you do not need to recount every single thing that happened, and those that you do describe do not need to be in chronological order. Think of yourself as a kind of editor (such as the filmmakers of The Poet’s Salary): you are creating a story and an argument based on what you have seen, trying to reveal a shared assumption or meaning of the event you describe. Try to think about what is your “sheep theft” and how you can reveal to a reader that it was fake.

Please note: because you are only describing a single event or observation, you do not need to have a thesis or formal introduction for this assignment. In fact, I would discourage you from trying to write a thesis, because you do not want to lock yourself into an argument that may not be supported by the additional evidence you are going to gather. However, your thick description must be organized into coherent paragraphs, each of which is thematically focused and has an identifiable point. If you fail to demonstrate an effort to organize your description, it will be returned to you for revision before you are given credit for this draft.

This draft is due on Moodle by noon (12pm) on Sunday, April 9.

For the peer critique on Monday, April 10, you will assess your first thick descriptions. As always, you should read the drafts of everyone in your group. You should also prepare a detailed critique of the paper belonging to the person before you in the alphabetic list of your group.

In your critique, you should do the following:

  • Assess the “thickness” of the paper. Does the paper demonstrate analytical thinking by the author? (I.e., do you see evidence that the author has considered how to group and present details from the observation in order to draw out meaning?)
  • Does the draft raise questions for you as a reader? In other words, are there things you want to know that would help you to understand the event being described? This is important, because your questions can point the writer in new and productive directions for research, or can highlight gaps that can be filled with existing research. Give this part of the critique special attention!
  • Assess the coherence of at least two paragraphs in the draft: Identify the paragraph “point.” Then prove (via thematic analysis, for instance) that the paragraph is (or is not) coherent and governed by the point you identify. Suggest ways that the author can improve paragraph coherence.
Your second thick description assignment is essentially the same as the first, but with a couple of differences:

  • You must write about a different event from your first thick description. This means that you must have completed at least two separate periods of observation.
  • You also must integrate evidence from a text or an interview in your thick description. You should use the text or interview to help you to explain the meanings of the event you describe, but the focus of the draft should still be on the event itself. (In other words, do not spend the bulk of the draft interpreting the text or explaining the interview; you need to use those elements in service of explaining your observations!)

This draft is due on Moodle by noon (12pm) on Tuesday, April 18. (Note the different day, to accommodate the long weekend.)

For the peer critique on Wednesday, April 19, you will do essentially the same analysis as in the previous peer critique. There are two differences, though:

  • First, you should prepare a detailed critique of the paper belonging to the person two  after you in the alphabetic group list.
  • Second, in addition to the three items enumerated in the second peer critique prompt, you should also assess the effectiveness of the textual or interview evidence used by the author. Does the text or interview seem relevant to the description? Is it well integrated into (i.e., thematically coherent with) the description? How might the author improve the use of textual/interview evidence in further drafts?
The final draft (before the graded version) of your third project is due on Moodle by noon (12pm) on Sunday, April 30. These drafts will be discussed in critique meetings during Week 15.

For your final draft, you should synthesize the materials you have been working with separately. You’ll want to use your two existing thick descriptions, of course, but you’ll need to revise them and adjust them in such a way that they can be effectively combined into a larger paper. You’ll also need to start thinking about what claim or argument you wish to make in your paper.

This draft does not need to be a complete version of the final paper, but it must meet the following criteria:

  • You must write an introduction in which you construct a problem and propose a solution. Here you will return to the questions of value and motivation: Why will a reader (an educated non-specialist) care about your ethnography? What questions will  you answer in the paper? You might have some useful language in your project proposal, so you are encouraged to return to that document and see how it fits with what you have found in the course of your research.
  • You must integrate a piece of textual evidence somewhere in the draft. Think about what you can do with a text—what will it help you to explain and interpret? What are its limitations? Make sure that you are clear on what is the value of the text, and that you convey that value to your reader?
  • Do not simply paste your thick descriptions together! Your draft must demonstrate your efforts to arrange your thick descriptions in a way that serves a larger purpose (supports your claim) and that demonstrates an awareness of how they relate to each other.
  • Relatedly, you must at least begin to integrate a third event into your paper—one that you have not yet written about.
  • Make sure you cite all sources used in your paper.

One thing that might help you to organize your descriptions into a coherent, focused argument is to consider how to generalize from your observations. What sorts of general statements can you make about the person, group, or ensemble that you observed? Consider some of the following templates (which you are welcome to use in your draft, modified to suit your own data, of course):

  • “Typically, ____ gathers on ____ to rehearse, which they do for ____ at a time.”
  • “Although the group normally ____, I observed one event where they actually ____.”
  • “When one student does ____, the others respond by ____.”
  • “The leader of the group maintains order by ___. For instance, one evening she ____.”

These are only a handful of examples of the kind of analytical moves that you’ll need to be able to make in your paper. The general principle is that you need to use your observational data to make claims about how the musical context functions as a social or cultural system—what meanings can be drawn from your observations—and to present these in a way that persuades the reader that your generalizations are accurate.

Drafts that do not meet these criteria will not be given credit, which will result in a penalty to your final grade on the project.

Peer critiques of the final draft will take place May 2–5, with the following schedule:

Group 1: Wednesday, May 3, 11:30–12:20 (regular class time)
Group 2: Friday, May 5, 11:30–12:20 (regular class time)
Group 3: Thursday, May 4, 11:05–11:55 (common hour; location TBA)

As always, you should come to your critique meeting having read all of the papers in your group and prepared to discuss them. You should also prepare a detailed critique of the paper belonging to the person after you in your group’s alphabetic list. In your critique you should do the following:

  • Assess the introduction. Is there a problem constructed, and will this problem be valuable to a (educated, interested, non-expert) reader? Identify the thesis/claim and circle the themes or key terms that you expect will control the rest of the paper.
  • Select at least three paragraphs and identify the point of those paragraphs. Circle the themes or key terms in the point. Be able to explain why the sentence you selected is the point of the paragraph, and assess whether the points are clearly connected to the claim you identified in the introduction.
  • Evaluate the thickness of the descriptions. Are the details relevant to the focus/argument of the paper? Are there details that seem extraneous? Do there seem to be details missing that you (as a reader) want to know about?
  • Finally, assess the effectiveness of the text that the author has used. Does it seem clearly connected to the observational data that is presented? Does the author convey a clear sense of the text’s usefulness and its limitations?

This peer critique is somewhat more involved than previous ones we have done, but please make sure to spend time with the paper you are critiquing and be thorough. You have three or four days to do your critique from the deadline for drafts on Sunday night. Remember, you expect to get a detailed and helpful critique from your peers, so you should provide the same for them!