The Process

Charrettes are used in many different design-oriented disciplines in both education and practice, and as such they don’t take a universal form, though they all require some sort of balance between structure and flexibility. The particular methods we used for the first ethnocharrette were borrowed from those developed by Chris McCray and Shoham Arad at Syracuse University’s COLAB initiative, with some augmentation to fit our needs and objectives. The students were assigned to three groups of 3 or 4 participants each, and the day’s work was divided into three main stages (plus introductions and breaks), each lasting between two and three hours.  They were asked to come to the event having closely read Shelter Blues as if preparing for a seminar, or as if reading for relevance to their own research projects.

Stage 1: Deconstruction

For the first stage students were required to decompose Shelter Blues into whatever elements they individually and collectively felt were worthy of drawing out by writing them down in the form of small chunks that easily fit on Post-It Notes, which were then affixed to a whiteboard

The goal of this exercise was to reveal one possible interpretation, arrived at collaboratively, of the ethnography’s otherwise obscured underlying composition. This could be done in any way the group wanted (and they were encouraged to expunge any and all ideas that came to mind). The students could focus on ethnographic specifics (e.g. “homelessness,” “Sea of Tranquility,” “rules”) or on theoretical frameworks (e.g. “Peircian semiotics,” “phenomenology,” “feminist theory”), or writing style, or how arguments are constructed, or whatever. The point was to facilitate an active deconstruction that students rarely have a chance to do in traditional seminars. They were actively discouraged from thinking too much during this stage (that came later), but instead were told to force themselves to toss any and all ideas up on the wall, rendering both small and large details co-equal, tangible things that could be called upon for closer scrutiny later on.

Stage 2: Projection

If Stage 1 was about extracting and compiling raw “facts” presented in the ethnography, the second stage required the students to begin engaging a bit more seriously in speculative, comparative, and synthetic thinking. At the end of the first stage, each group was left with a whiteboard or wall space absolutely covered in Post-It Notes.

These collages represented each group’s collective understanding of the ethnography, though in a new, atomized form.  Having not thought too deeply about these individual ideas during Stage 1, the student confronted the wall of Post-Its they created (by literally standing in front of it, together) and started to identify clusters of concepts that could form new and potentially unexpected categories. Key to the grouping activity was that the categories were supposed to emerge though group discussion, and may not (and ideally, should not) have matched how the book’s author would have connected the various ideas.

This format allowed the students to see connections that might not have been visible when reading the ethnography the first time around. After winding down this sorting activity, students were then asked to select a few of the clusters that they felt (individually and collectively) were useful for generating possible new avenues for speculation – and again, what this meant was left wide open.

Stage 3: Reconstruction

The final stage was dedicated to innovation. The groups were asked to develop a “rapid prototype” for a new ethnographic form, method, or mode, using the clusters of concepts they had identified as interesting and useful for speculation. They were instructed to stick relatively close to the source material from Shelter Blues, but were allowed to let their discussions take them in whatever directions they wished. Their prototypes did not have to be “concrete” in any way, nor were they required to be pretty or earth-shattering. But they did have to demonstrate some relatively deep thinking about possibilities for how ethnographic material can be analyzed, argued, collected, or presented, and needed to be something other than a verbal description.

The students were asked to present their prototypes in a slideshow format, using the pecha-kucha presentation style (20 slides, 20 seconds each), a constraint intended to keep the students on their toes and to prevent dwelling on any single point for too long. The emphasis was on collaboration and process, and the intent was that the presentation could tell us as much about how the group worked as much as what they specifically worked on.

Next  >> The Results