Interview with Jane Jackson

We interviewed Jane Jackson about her experience teaching ethnography to students in the Chinese University of Hong Kong for short term sojourns to the UK. More information can be found in her article: Jackson, J. ‘Ethnographic preparation for short-term study and residence in the target culture’, in International Journal of Intercultural Relations. 30 (2006) pp77-98.

What has your experience been teaching ethnography to students in Hong Kong?

The ‘Special English Stream’ for our advanced English majors started in 2001 and included a short-term study abroad experience in England as well as credit-bearing courses in Hong Kong. I was asked by our Department Head to develop components for the program. Since students who study abroad often don’t engage in meaningful intercultural interactions, I wanted this program to be different.  All of the participants in our program would be placed with a host family while abroad. Of course, homestays don’t magically transform into intercultural interactions so I built in a required small-scale ‘home ethnography’ which aimed to help them to become more observant and engaged in the cultural situations that they would experience in the UK. Usually these kinds of projects are reserved for semester-long or Year-abroad students so I knew it would be a challenge. In Hong Kong, before the sojourn, the students were introduced to ethnography in a credit-bearing course that spanned 13-14 weeks. In the course, they were introduced to processes such as ‘making the familiar strange’ within their own environment. An interesting element of the home ethnography was the chance it gave students to become closer to different groups of people within their own culture, for example, some students interacted with older people when they did project work in a retirement home.

I emphasised that ethnography was no longer limited to studies of exotic tribes in far flung places, rather it more often involved observations about our own daily lives. During the first set of preparatory classes there were small tasks each week for students to perform, covering ethnographic techniques such as the elements of note-taking, observation, interviewing and ethnographic conversations – all of which are needed for an ethnographic project. Students were given examples of these techniques and each week they were required to put them into practice and share their findings in small groups in class the following week. The journal Hong Kong Anthropologist was a very useful resource for the course, as each issue included a small-scale ethnographic project which had been conducted by a postgraduate student in Hong Kong or another part of Asia. These reports were both accessible and relevant to the undergraduates. They were easy to read and many included visuals, which meant that the students could relate to the content and methodologies. Each week we would read and critique the texts, and I would draw their attention to particular elements. I think the students learned a lot from our reviews of these studies.

After the foundation had been laid, they began to work on their home ethnographies and small research groups were formed so that students who were exploring a similar theme were grouped together. Instead of full-group meetings, the common practice for undergraduates, we had scheduled research meetings for the remainder of the course. Each student was responsible to come to meetings prepared to discuss his or her own progress.  Near the end of the course we also talked about what topics and situations they might explore in the UK using an ethnographic approach. While they had some ideas in mind, it was also emphasized that they would not really know what they would study until they arrived in the UK and got to know their host families. For example, their hosts might have hobbies or take part in activities in the community that could be interesting topics to research. We talked about the ways in which their projects could also help them to build connections with their host family. While in the U.K. I would supervise their projects in a credit-bearing fieldwork course.

After I started offering the ethnography course, I learned about the LARA project materials and was able to get the materials sent to me. They were useful in terms of ideas for how to apply the ethnographic approach with language learners, but I wasn’t able to use them directly as they assumed cultural knowledge of the UK that made the material less accessible to my students in Hong Kong. The reports in the Hong Kong Anthropologist, which were a bit similar to some of the LARA publications, were better suited to the backgrounds of my students.

In the first 3-4 years of the program, only the top English majors were able to join. The course was fully funded and prestigious. As funding was reduced, the course was opened up to students who could contribute to the cost of the trip to England. This meant that there was a broader range of abilities in the course participants and some found this mode of learning very challenging. I had to adapt the course according to their ability to complete a small-scale project, with more guidance and support provided. As each cohort of students was producing a home ethnography project, with their permission, I built up a database of past projects which were useful for new students to look over during their preparation. By the second year of the course, I had built in reviews of past projects as well as reviews of the reports in the Hong Kong Anthropologist.

Prior to going to the UK, the students were also taking a course in intercultural communication with me, in parallel, which helped them to understand key concepts. The course aimed to help them build intercultural relationships, especially in their homestays, and it also aided their ethnographic research by focussing on ways to carry out informal conversations.

In the home ethnography course, the final sessions before leaving for the UK took place in the form of a conference, whereby students reported on their projects and the research experience. The emphasis was more on their development as researchers than the actual content of their projects, which ranged from bilingual swearing in youth groups to the study of a weekly Mah-jong club.

Every year, the students and I would take part in a five-week sojourn in the UK in the summer. Most years, this took place at Warwick University. The ethnographic fieldwork was credit-bearing and every Monday morning we would undertake a cultural debriefing at the host university with a specialist in cultural studies who encouraged the students to talk about anything in the environment that had caught their attention. These sessions were very useful as they focussed on the experiences they were having in their daily life, as opposed to general knowledge about the UK which they could have acquired on the Internet. After the cultural studies specialists left, we spent the rest of the morning focussed on their ethnographic projects.

Most, but not all, of their projects were connected to their homestay. Gardens and pets were popular topics, as these were uncommon in Hong Kong, and provided a good opportunity for them to talk with their hosts. One student noticed the number of charity shops in the area and decided to volunteer in one. In her project, she got to know the customers and workers there.

Throughout the sojourn, I conducted advising sessions whenever and wherever I could, e.g., in the local park under a tree which was a very novel experience for the students, or on the bus on the way to the theatre. In this way, our chats or advising sessions were more informal. It was possible to see them several times a week as I would accompany them on all of their activities (e.g., cultural excursions, trips to the theatre).

The students would present a summary of their projects at the end of their stay in the UK, and also submit a report that would be evaluated. Once they were back in Hong Kong, the following semester they were required to do an undergraduate dissertation. For this, they could choose to work with me to develop a report based on the ethnographic data that they had collected in the UK or they could explore a topic in literature with a literary studies professor. The students who chose to work on an ethnographic project met with me in small research groups and gave presentations at the end of the semester that were open to students in the next cohort who would go to the UK.

Some of the ethnographic project reports were reviewed by Professor Rod Ellis, the external examiner for our Department. He was very impressed with what the students had learned and produced. For example, they had been taught how to keep field notes, transcribe conversations with their informants, and many had created diagrams of cultural scenes, engaging with different data to draw a picture of what they had observed.

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What are the challenges of ethnographic research during short stays abroad?

One of the main challenges was a lack of student engagement and rapport-building when conducting interviews or informal conversations with informants. In the home ethnography course, we spent a lot of time talking about ways to make connections with people and demonstrate interest. Another challenge was the ability of the students to develop research skills and carry out a study in a short period of time. When the program was first offered, the participants were the top students. Most were very bright and highly motivated. When the program was opened up, the ability of the students became more diverse, and it was a challenge as some were less motivated and less able. Early in the program, many of the participants were very keen on learning about ethnographic research as they wished to do postgraduate studies and that served as a powerful motivating force. Later, more students joined who were more interested in travelling in the UK.

A major challenge of the approach in this program is the amount of time available to do an ethnographic project. In Hong Kong, in the home ethnography course, I made it clear that what we would not be able to do a full ‘ethnography’, rather we would use an ethnographic approach to learn more about a cultural scene in Hong Kong and then later in the UK.  I explained that the skills of observing and recording would also be helpful for them as language and cultural learners. I also explained that their fieldwork would also help them to initiate interactions and build intercultural relationships in the host environment. For example, many of the students find it difficult to approach people they do not know well and it is even more challenging if they have to use English, their second language. I pointed out that when they are conducting research they have a reason to talk to people, discuss with them, and hold a conversation in English. Informal situations like this were new for many of the participants as they primarily use Cantonese outside of class and English is largely limited to formal classroom situations. Most of the students had never been abroad before, and they found it difficult to build social relationships in English. It was important to pay close attention to the psychological aspect of the fieldwork. The regular debriefing sessions in the U.K. were invaluable.

Also, as is often the case when you develop a course, I was overly ambitious and through experience I learned to reduce the amount of material to cover.

While the students were abroad we had a language policy, which meant that they were encouraged to speak English all the time. Most used English when they were preparing for their research and during their research.

What are the rewards?

Many students who go abroad do not interact with host nationals so I was happy that ethnography really pushed my students to use their second language and take a more active role in their new environment. As each student was required to carry out an ethnographic project, intercultural interactions were unavoidable! There are limitations within an intact group as students may only interact with each other and spend little time with host nationals. With these limitations in mind, the students in our program were placed in homestays with only one Cantonese speaker allowed in each residence to encourage the use of English. Their ethnography projects gave them a reason to engage in more in-depth conversations with their hosts. The students could focus on everyday things which caught their attention. When they are well prepared, ethnography has the potential to help them become much more engaged in the host environment. It can also help them be more systematic language and (inter) cultural learners in a foreign country.

The greatest reward was that students formed connections with people through their homestays and research. As they developed relationships with the people they were researching, many enhanced their sociopragmatic awareness in English and became more interculturally aware. Instead of positioning themselves as tourists, many were more fully engaged in their homestay and community. For example, a tourist would not volunteer at a charity shop or take part in a youth group. Ethnography can inspire students go deeper into the host environment and this process can help them become more self-aware as both researchers and newcomers. They gradually develop strategies for interacting with informants, such as how to put them at ease and facilitate more natural conversations. Residing in a homestay is no guarantee that there will be successful intercultural interactions but ethnographic projects can help foster more dialogue and meaningful connections. Some of the students are quite introverted, but I emphasised that they will develop the skills and confidence though this project work and it would not be helpful to them if their classmates asked questions on their behalf.

Some of the students in this program became more interested in a longer stay abroad after completing the ethnographic project in the UK. Several joined semester or year-long exchange programs as they had grown in self-confidence while carrying out their research. Some declared that they had built a deeper connection with both the language and the host environment through their research and social relationship-building.

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How do you think ethnography encourages intercultural awareness?

It’s important to note that intercultural awareness is not automatic, and my students had both ethnography and intercultural awareness classes prior to going abroad. The act of ‘making the familiar strange’ in their home environment helped to raise their self-awareness and also encouraged them to be more observant, systematic learners in the host environment. During their stay, we met each week in a debriefing session and I gave them some questions that were designed to stimulate reflection about the research process and their daily life abroad. The questions prompted more self-awareness and in a group discussion they shared what they had noticed in the host environments. This guided critical reflection was an essential element in the program. It helped them to prepare for and make sense of their observations and ethnographic interviews. All of these tasks drew attention to the importance of intercultural awareness.

What is the impact of intercultural awareness on language learning?

There was a big improvement in some of my students’ language awareness and socio-pragmatic competence. In particular, those who spent a lot of time with their hosts and prioritized the relationship with them, developed more knowledge of idioms, local norms of politeness and colloquialisms, and became familiar with local jokes and humour. There were differences in the quality of the relationships that the students developed. Some cultivated strong relationships while others did not invest as much time and energy, as they felt that the stay abroad was too brief.

One example of intercultural learning in an everyday context related to the keeping of pets in the UK, which is less common in Hong Kong. One student gradually realized that she was offending her host family when she referred to the family dog as ‘it’ instead of ‘she’. She learned that the dog was a member of family and began to notice various terms of endearment used for pets. Her realization demonstrated growing intercultural awareness.

How can we continue to promote intercultural learning for language students?

Students learn a great deal from conducting their projects, even in summer programs. Some of the participants used this a springboard to postgraduate studies and went on to carry out much longer, more in-depth projects. Students’ intercultural learning can also be enhanced in their home environment through well-designed home ethnography projects and/or intercultural communication courses. Self-awareness and identity awareness are crucial elements in intercultural learning, as language, culture and identity are closely intertwined. Auto-ethnographies and home ethnographies can help students to become more aware of themselves as cultural beings. In the home environment, we could direct students to go to particular places such as senior citizens’ homes to interact with people that they normally do not spend much time with. Even bridging the generational gap could help to enhance intercultural understanding and serve as good preparation for intercultural experience in a study abroad context.

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