Published: July 23, 2012

What does it mean to live in Boulder? Using video cameras and audio recorders, a group of graduate students in Dr. Jennifer Shannon’s “Research Methods in Cultural Anthropology” class interviewed farmers’ market vendors, business leaders, residents at senior homes, and other long-time Boulder residents. They asked these diverse groups to describe their impressions of Boulder, seeking to understand what makes the city unique. “It allowed them to understand the place in which they live,” said Dr. Shannon.

Dr. Jennifer Shannon. Photo by Jason Ordaz.

With the help of an ASSETT development award, Dr. Shannon is hoping to improve data collection by augmenting traditional classroom techniques with updated equipment. Video cameras and audio recorders are “commonly used by practicing anthropologists in the field,” says Shannon, yet “they are rarely incorporated into undergraduate or graduate courses for anthropology majors.” So she decided to introduce those tools into the classroom.

Dr. Shannon taught “Research Methods in Cultural Anthropology” during the spring semester of 2012. Historically, “Research Methods” was a theory-based class, but Shannon wanted fieldwork to be the focus. Together with the chair of the Anthropology Department, Bert Covert, Shannon applied for a grant and was awarded funding for the equipment she needed. “I wanted this ethnographic methods course to be hands-on, to get students out in the field interviewing people, participating in events, and experimenting with the kinds of recording devices anthropologists take with them into the field,” says Shannon.  Previously limited by lack of equipment, students in the Spring 2012 course ventured confidently into the community, prepared to collect data.

One graduate student group chose to study protestors at Occupy Denver. They conducted field research, documenting conversations with the participants and seeking to understand the issues that motivated them to join the movement.  The team was able to use recording equipment to capture and share data. MA/PhD student Levi Jacobs took the findings outside of the classroom to share with the community. He published some of his observations on the blog Savage Minds. “As one of the greatest social experiments of our time,” he said, describing the Occupy movement. “anthropologists need to be writing more on it.”[1]

According to Dr. Shannon, most anthropology classes are text-based.  Professors “assign ethnographies and the students do the reading.” In her research methods class, students were able to design their own projects, conduct field research, and write about their findings. “The roles were reversed,” she says. “It was such a pleasure to be reading my students' ethnographies, seeing the results of their research and analysis, and watching them craft reflexive and coherent narratives about their experiences.”

Using video and audio equipment in Shannon’s graduate class proved to be a great success. “What I learned teaching the ethnographic methods class…” says Dr. Shannon, “was just how much the hands-on experience helped them feel more confident before they embarked on their own graduate project fieldwork.  This relatively low-risk situation for trying new equipment and practicing different methods allowed students to experiment and to learn for themselves what are the best tools and techniques for particular research questions and specific situations.”

When asked about her future goals, Shannon says that the department is looking forward to making the recording equipment available for graduate and undergraduate students to borrow for independent research projects. Video cameras and audio recorders are not new technologies, but their recent affordability makes it possible for students to enter the field with the same equipment used by established scholars. Most importantly, encouraging field research at the beginner’s level may well be the spark that transforms a curious student into an anthropologist.

Article written by Ashley E. Williams, ASSETT Research Assistant