Sample Course Sequence: Autoethnography

Autoethnography is a blending of autobiography and ethnography. Autoethnographers describe and analyze personal experience in order to understand cultural experience. This genre acknowledges subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on research — rather than ignoring these matters or claiming to be objective.

The genre demonstrates that cultural research does not have to come from an outsider looking in. These authors probe into their own cultures and languages not with the intention to tell another empathetic story about the “Have Nots,’ but rather to research the origin of self.

I.  Observation
Reading:  Mike Rose,  Lives on the Boundary  (Preface, Ch. 2, Ch. 3)

Rose, Mike.  Lives on the Boundary: A Moving Account of the Struggles and
Achievements of America’s Educationally Underprepared. New York: Penguin,
1989. Print.
(Lives on the Boundary  is Mike Rose’s critique of the American educational system and how it marginalizes underprivileged students. Rose, who was labeled as remedial in his south L.A. elementary school, draws on his experiences to offer insights on how to counter academic marginalization. Now a nationally-acclaimed educator, Rose shares personal stories that have shaped his pedagogical strategies. This text focuses on a range of issues that are pertinent to the composition classroom: the discussion of error, plagiarism, the limitations of standardized tests, the accessibility of classic literature, and the challenges of navigating the freshman year of college.)

Sherman Alexie, “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.’
Fifty Essays: A Portable Anthology.

Movie:  Smoke Signals. Screenplay written by Sherman Alexie.

In-class Activities and Homework:
1. Class Intro and “Pocket’ Activity
2. Literacy Narrative (When, where, and how did you learn to read and write)
Literacy narratives (text/audio/video) can be uploaded to the Digital
Archive of Literacy Narratives (
3. Pick a place to sit and observe humans. Make a list or free write about your
observations. Try to include all 5 senses in your descriptions.
4. Weekly in-class response writing for 15 minutes throughout the course —
students can write on teacher’s prompt or on topic of their choice. Handed
in to instructor each week.

Topics for In-class Discussions:
What is autoethnography?
How does autoethnography differ from autobiography, narratives, ethnography?
From  Lives on the Boundary  text:
What does it mean to be remedial/basic/average?
How does Rose draw on his own experiences to inform his cultural experience?
How would the book read differently if written as an autobiography or
Discussions on error/plagiarism/limitations of standardized tests/challenges of
negotiating freshman year of college.

Observation Essay:
Personal Narrative, 2-3 pages. Write about a place where you feel comfortable. Try to just make observations in your writing; don’t include analysis or judgments.

II.  Analysis
Reading:  Patricia Williams,  Alchemy of Race and Rights  (Ch. 2: “Death of the Profane’)

Williams, Patricia J.  The Alchemy of Race and Rights.  Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 1991. Print.
(Patricia Williams examines and critiques the intersections of law, race, and power dynamics in the United States. She provides personal anecdotes from her experiences and situates them in law to expose culturally ingrained racisms and abuses of power. Her personal stories help her and her readers understand themselves as part of a wider sociopolitical discourse to gain access to the problems of race and rights.)

Dave Barry, “Turkeys in the Kitchen’ and David Sedaris, “A Plague of Tics.’  Fifty Essays: A Portable Anthology.

In-class Activities and Homework:
1. Go back to the place that you observed for the first unit and read your
original writing. Free write about one of the following:
1) Was your original writing objective? How or how not?  or
2) Why exactly did you choose that particular place? How does this place reflect (or not reflect) your personal philosophies and beliefs?
2. Teacher brings in two pieces of writing about a topic — one is written as autoethnography, and one is written as a more traditional persuasion essay. Discuss which text the students find more interesting and/or more persuasive.
Who do they think is the intended audience for each text? Why?
3. Sentence workshops on sentences that students provide from their writing.
4. Peer review workshop on analysis essay.

Topics for In-class Discussions:
What does it mean to be objective?
Can we be objective? Is traditional ethnography ever objective?
From  Alchemy of Race and Rights  text:
Discussion of Benetton incident described in the text.
How does Williams use personal narrative/experience to inform her conclusions?
Why do students think that Williams was told to leave the discussion of race out
of her writing?

Analysis Essay:
2-3 pages, about a place where you do not feel comfortable  and do feel misplaced (in the past or present). Reflect back on your original freewrite. Did you pick a place you felt accepted/comfortable? Why and how?

III.  Synthesis
Reading:  Richard Rodriguez,  A View from the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard
Rodriguez  and “Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood.’

London, Scott.  A View From the Melting Pot: An Interview with Richard Rodriguez. N.p. n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2012.

(In this interview with Scott London, Richard Rodriguez, a man who separated himself from his first language, Spanish, to fully assimilate into an English speaking country, questions word beliefs and word choices. He evaluates words like “assimilation,’ “family values,’ “Hispanic,’ and “affirmative action,’ words that Americans have been taught to embrace and believe in. Because he challenges American political stereotypes, he has become the quintessential reject. In this interview he delves into where and why he has been rejected for his evaluation of word beliefs.)

Rodriguez, Richard. “Aria: Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood.‘ Fifty Essays: A
Portable Anthology.  Ed. Cohen, Samuel. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.
307-329. Print.

(Richard Rodriguez, son to Mexican immigrants living in Sacramento, California, evaluates bilingual schooling. He firmly believes there are private and public languages and they should not be intertwined in the school system. Rodriguez claims teaching students’ family languages, publicly, encourages bilingual speakers to separate themselves from speakers of English only or other languages, which contributes to assimilation resistance.)

In-class Activities and Homework:
1. Field trip to the library to learn about the resources and databases that are available. Come prepared with a topic that you are interested in researching.
2. Peer Review workshop on synthesis paper.

Topics for In-class Discussions:
What is a synthesis paper?
What does it mean to synthesize knowledge?
From Rodriguez texts:
How do you like the Interview article as compared to the essay? What do you
find compelling/not compelling about each of these genres?
Can an interview be considered an autoethnography?
Talk about Rodriguez’s discussion of word choice in terms of the following:
affirmative action, family values, hyphenated Americans, melancholy
homosexual, private and public languages, bilingualism, melting pot

Synthesis Paper:
5 pages. Relate your research, free-writing assignments, analysis essay, and observation narrative to your own upbringing. Draw on these resources to write your own autoethnography.

IV.  Teacher’s Choice/Reflection Unit
Reading:  Bringhurst,  The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology.

Bringhurst, Robert.  The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind, and Ecology. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008. Print.
(The Tree of Meaning  is a collection of essays that fuse and meditate upon a combination of disciplines–from art, to literature, to linguistics, to ethnology, to ecology, to poetry. Bringhurst draws on artists and poets from around the world, especially focusing on Haida literature and art. Bringhurst uses personal narrative to further the possibilities for languages and cultures to coexist. For the purpose of this roundtable, I have chosen to focus on two essays: “The Polyhistorical Mind’ and “Finding Home: The Legacy of Bill Reid.’ Through the story of his friend and mentor, Bill Reid, Bringhurst asserts his philosophy that cultural identities are chosen and formed through nurture and experience, not passed down through blood, and that embracing multiple cultural identities does not have to be conflicting. Within these essays, when Bringhurst translates and quotes in other languages he also includes the original language, thus this book exists like his philosophy: this unified book coexists with language in both an adapted and original state.)

In-class activities and Homework:
1. Present selections of your autoethnography to class
2. Discussion: Can autoethnography be written as poetry? If so, what other forms of media could be used to present an autoethnographic story?

Topics for In-class Discussions:
Revisit: what is autoethnography?
Can poetry (like the Bringhurst text) be a form of autoethnography?
What other media could be used as autoethnography?
From  The Tree of Meaning
What do you think of Bringhurst’s philosophy that cultural identities are chosen
and formed through nurture and experience? How does this relate to
Does embracing multiple cultural identities need to be conflicting? What do you
think? What do you think Bringhurst would say? How do you think
Rodriguez would answer this question?

Reflection Paper:
2 pages or equivalent. Reflections/autoethnography on the culture of this class. Feel free to experiment with the media of this assignment: prose, poetry, video, song, etc.

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