The end of a class (otherness & vulnerability)

Friday was the last day of my ethnography class, so I mainly wanted to tell some stories. Good ethnography isn’t much more than good storytelling, in the end.

A dozen women students showed up, no men. The class has 60 enrolled students, about 90% women overall. I was warned by my colleagues that only the truly committed students were likely to show up at the last lecture. The warning was sound.

I often come to the last day of a class with a written lecture, but this time it seemed to me that what I wanted to do was exemplify ethnographic analysis. So I started by telling two enigmatic stories from when I was an undergraduate student.

Here was the first:

Back in 2003, I was riding my bike through a desolate tiny town in the foothills of the Catskill mountains, looking for a place to stay the night. A group of kids was on the sidewalk, and they started talking to me as I rode past.
“What’s your name?”
“Eli!” I may have said; I’m not sure.
“Can I ride your bike?”
“Maybe later,” I said.
Then they asked a more surprising question:
“Are you gay?”
I just kept going.

The second story was even stranger.

I left work early on a hot summer day and went for a walk in a little river valley. After walking for a while, I sat down in a secluded spot, and covered my shoulders with a blanket to keep off the sunburn, because I was very pale.
Out of the woods, several kids appeared suddenly, shouting, trailed by a young dad who seemed to have little authority over them.
Frustrated by the lost solitude, I pulled the blanket up higher to cover my head and waited, hoping the kids would go away.
But instead they were intrigued.
“Who are you?” they asked. I didn’t answer.
“Maybe it’s an alien!” they shouted. “Maybe the aliens left it there!”
I laughed quietly at these remarks.
“Let’s throw a rock at it!” they shouted.
I said to myself: No one in their right mind would throw a rock at a total stranger under a blanket.
A rock hit me in the shoulder. Then I came out from under the blanket and stared angrily at the children. They stopped bothering me and eventually wandered off.

These stories seem to me mainly to testify to the weirdness and aggression that can emerge when people try to make sense of strangers, of the Other, of things they don’t understand. So we talked some about that in my class.

Afterwards, I asked my student to respond to a writing prompt: “What’s a question you wish someone would ask you?”

A lot of them seemed to interpret this as a Big Question, and pondered for a few minutes before writing anything. Afterwards, I read their responses out loud, letting people stay anonymous, which they preferred.

There was an odd feeling of shared vulnerability that I hadn’t really experienced before in a classroom. “If you’re an ethnographer and you can get people to share things like this with you, you’re doing something right,” I told them by way of a conclusion.