Guest post by Jonathan Dueck, Thompson Writing Program Lecturing Fellow. Dueck is the 2011 winner of the Writing 20 Award for Excellence in Teaching Writing.
Ethnomusicologists produce a lot of what James Clifford slyly called “pre-texts”–fieldnotes, recordings, photographs, and a broader hodgepodge of notes that will someday constitute analysis, theory, et cetera. I spend a lot of time teaching students how to make and work with these pre-texts.
In my dissertation research, I eschewed the standard-issue small notepad and took my fieldnotes by jotting bits of text down on pieces of paper at hand in a given site (bulletins at a church service, napkins at the cafe, et cetera). Then, as soon as I could following the event, I sat down with my beloved bike-friendly Apple Newton and copied my jottings into its Notepad–writing them up into much more detailed descriptive text, and “tagging” them with codes, as I went. The Newton synced with my Mac, which presented me with a big, searchable database of text. This made it easy for me to find fieldnotes about particular people, places, or ideas, and to pull them together to construct narratives. I’ve offered this workflow–jottings on whatever’s at hand; write-up ASAP on a mobile device or laptop; code, search, and thread your narrative together at the computer–as one strategy for fieldnote writing for students for several years.
Last spring, I began thinking of the ways that contemporary mobile technology could be a part of teaching about ethnographic “pre-texts.” Contemporary mobile devices differ from those of the Palm (and, geeks unite, the Newton era) in that they are designed to be online all the time–so users could collaborate on (in-the-cloud) field texts in real time. And, second, contemporary devices are designed to capture and annotate audiovisual media–video, photos, sound recordings–so users can produce media-rich field texts. I applied for and received a grant for 12 iPads to be loaned to one section of Writing 20 this past fall, and designed a pair of “pre-text” assignments to be pursued with the iPad. I wrote “paper” versions of the assignments to be used in the section of my course that didn’t receive iPads.
In the first of the assignments, I had students use an iPhone / iPad application called Mental Note to take jottings on a football game. The application allowed students to freely mix audio recordings, photo / video clips, sketches, and text. I asked students to pay attention to the relationship between sound sources and the spatial arrangement of fans in the stadium, hoping they would notice groupings of fans and the characteristic sounds and actities they engaged in. I had the students who produced their jottings on the iPad post a PDF of them to WordPress, and I asked students who took paper notes to scan and post them to WordPress. We selected several students’ jottings (as posted on WordPress) for viewing and discussion. The iPad made it easier to post and share these pre-texts, but the jottings students produced with iPads were not better than those made on paper, and actually had less in the way of free-form annotations of jotted text and drawings of space–which were, it turned out, key to our group discussion of sound and fan groups. In sum, I saw few important benefits in this activity that I’d attribute to the use of the iPad.
In the second assignment, I asked students in both sections to use any mobile device they had–regular cell phones, smartphones, or iPads–to Tweet their jottings of another football game. I asked students to focus their jottings on the sounds that were produced and / or audible on the field of play, and on shifts in “momentum,” here defined narrowly as our perceptions of the ways players co-ordinated their activities in time and space. Before the game, I asked students to send me their Twitter usernames, and I subsequently “followed” each of their Twitter feeds. For the next class period, I printed out my Twitter feed’s contents for the time period of the game. My resulting feed presented the jottings each student had made, interspersed in real time (right down to the microsecond) with one another. In class, we read the resulting collected jottings and highlighted moments where our perceptions aligned with one another, and moments where they diverged. We then discussed our highlighted notes together. Not only did our excercise result in a rich discussion of perspective in ethnographic representation, we also produced a remarkable, realtime record of sound and (social senses of) momentum during a game–which would be near-impossible to produce without mobile technology. In the future, I’d like to tie this second pre-text assignment to a group writing assignment, in which students would collaboratively write up a field narrative using their collected jottings. We could then extend our in-class discussion to authorship and its relationship to collaboration in ethnographic writing.
I am sure the iPad (and similar devices) will become more and more paper-like and that they will see further use in ethnographic research and writing. But for my work in teaching ethnographic writing, the collaborative, social dimensions of these devices were more useful than their (admittedly lovely) media capabilities.