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Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Accidental Ethnographer Letter Assignment (Spring 2015)

On this date on Round and Square's History 

[a] Text and illustration RF
The Accidental Ethnographer
HIST 293/ANTH 375
Spring 2015

Preliminary Writing Assignment 
The Accidental Ethnographer: The Letter
By choosing the letter format for your first writing assignment, I am asking you to build upon the skills you have already begun to develop in analyzing (and providing examples for) the life and travels of William Edgar Geil. You have already reached a point where you have some experience with his travels, his writings, and their larger context. Your job will now be to explain it "all" to intelligent non-specialists.

Teach them, really.
Letters from “the field” (imagine yourself following Geil on his travels and in his study) are a good way to refine your thoughts about ethnographic and historical study. They are also a useful medium for beginning the intellectual “framing process” that will accelerate as we move through the next two-thirds of the course. 

The letter writing exercise is especially useful while studying primary source materials, as we are doing right now. The nonfiction writer John McPhee explains to his students that a letter is often precisely the solution to problems of interpretation or clarity—when in doubt, write to mother, he says. In this case, it is not a plea of “send money” that the letter contains, but a reworking, rethinking, and contextualization of your work. You need not limit yourself to kinfolk, but you need to think about who the recipient will be (ideally someone who will welcome a letter about “studying sources”).

You owe it to yourself to listen to this long interview with McPhee. At the very least, listen to the first two minutes. It is the very purpose behind this assignment.

Now start writing. Toward that end, you should pay attention to the following issues.

[c] I said, "start writing" RF
1. The letter needs to be “long enough” to get you deeply into several issues regarding Geil's life, particular approaches to studying it, and a few examples.  There is no absolute upper limit, but I am going to make a lower limit of 3,000 words (about ten pages). Even if you are a very efficient writer, you will need this much “space” to give your reader a good picture of your work. 3,000 words is just about right. Include a word count at the end of your letter (e.g. “3,245 words” or Word Count: 3,245).

2. I am asking you to connect with a very specific reader, and to explain "Geil" in a level of detail that she will find satisfying. You are the expert, and your “audience” is the person who will be reading your letter (I will, of course, be reading over her shoulder). I have found that this kind of assignment helps students to explain even abstruse matters, because the personal relationship they have with their readers demands an attention to patient explanation that is often lacking in more “academic” forms of writing, in which they assume that a professor already knows what they are writing about.

3. Your readings last week and this week (Weeks IV and V), are meant to stimulate your thinking with regard to writing this assignment. Pay attention to both.

4. You may approach your materials from any angle that you like, but you will need to “cover” at least the following items, no matter what order you choose.

          a. You must discuss the "who was Geil?" and "why should I care?" questions. 
              Provide your reader with at least a few ways of thinking about his life and

          b. Give your reader a sense of what you have learned up to this point about 
              how to interpret and analyze a life through source materials.

          c. You must discuss give at least one specific example from Geil's writings.
              This should not be difficult. Feel free to use more.

          d. You must include at least one illustration in your letter. Think of the 
               rhetorical role of illustrations in the New York Review of Books.
          e. Finally, give your reader some sense of what it is like to learn about a
              a person who lived in very different era a century ago. How do we learn
              about human experience through documents? This is a question that
              is as relevant to anthropology as it is to history.
5. The best way to approach the writing process is in three parts (this is a friendly suggestion). First, jot down some notes for each of the “sections” of your letter. Second, using those notes as a guide, write a rough draft of the whole letter. Third, revise, polish, and refine. 

Voilà you will have something not unlike what Alexis de Tocqueville might have written about understanding a complex, foreign culture that baffled and enticed him 180 years ago. While your letter won’t be as long as Democracy in America, it is likely—if it is done well—to be much like Tocqueville’s rich and evocative letters back to his family about encountering people, texts, and institutions in a strange land called the United States. 

You get the idea. If you don't, just raise your hand and ask me (or send me an e-mail message). I'll be happy to help.

Letters are due (in hard copy form) outside my door 
by 10:00 p.m. on Friday, February 20.

Add the word count and your box number to all papers!
[e] And then you may rest RF

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