Final Submission Length: 2000 words minimum
Draft Due: 10/8
Final Version Due: 10/14

We’ve read part of the introduction to an ethnography, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s book. Ethnography, broadly, is what anthropologist Clifford Geertz calls the “thick description” of a particular culture.1 This refers to the detailed description of cultural practices (what is said and done, and by whom) and the interpretation/analysis of those practices (What do those practices mean and to whom? What values in the culture do they reflect and enact? What identities do they enable and facilitate?). Ethnographers empirically observe and take notes on a culture’s activities; they then categorize these qualitative data using some kind of organizing coding scheme, which allows them to discuss patterns across these fragments of notes. This analysis has the goal of theorizing something about the culture’s behaviors — or perhaps, as we’ve started to problematize, more “universal” behaviors across cultures.


For this assignment, you will be writing an autoethnography that focuses, specifically, on your disciplinary writing activities. This assignment makes two moves away from the ethnography genre:

  1. First, it’s an autoethnography. Rather than immersing yourself in a particular cultural context to observe it as an outsider, you will be writing about your own activities in order to advance your knowledge about your place in a context you already find yourself in. And while in an ethnography, the researcher might immerse themselves in a culture specifically for the purpose of observing and analyzing practices, here you will be analyzing your past practices, in hindsight, from memory. Your goal will be to identify and discuss patterns among these practices that might give you new, reflexive purchase on disciplines values there that you might have taken for granted. There are many types of autoethnography, ranging from ones that read like a more traditional academic paper (“analytic”) and ones that take a bit more creative liberty (“evocative”). For this assignment, I’ll be asking you to write something on the more evocative side.

  2. Second, this “cultural” context will specifically be an academic discipline in which you are involved. This is one major metaphor for how academic disciplines, and individual scholars’ roles in them, have been conceptualized, and it’s a metaphor that we will continue to interrogate throughout the semester.


Qualitative Coding

To prepare to write your autoethnography, I will ask you to select two genres that you’ve produced in your time at Northeastern that exemplify your work in your academic discipline:

  • One should be a minted assignment that you’ve handed in, like a literary analysis paper, a memo, a letter, a packaged computer program, or a lab report.
  • The other should be a more incremental genre, like meeting minutes, a lab notebook entry, a code notebook, class notes, or derivations.

This choice will look very different for each of you, since each discipline makes use of different genres.

You will be qualitatively coding these textual artifacts for disciplinary values. We will go over what coding looks like in class, as well as how to do it.

The Autoethnographic Prose

So, what will you be doing with your coded examples? You will be considering these materials as artifacts of your writing activities in order to write about what your discipline tends to value. Rather than an analyzing the values of your discipline in a more “traditional” academic paper, however, you will instead give a narrative account of the circumstances of writing for your discipline. You might refer to when you were tasked with writing one, or both, of your coded artifacts — or, you could describe another writing project entirely. This will be for the purpose of furthering your understanding of disciplinary values along with your reader.

How might you start translating from coding these values in pieces of writing you’ve already written to write this essay? Often, autoethnographers find a particular moment of epiphany to illustrate with vivid language that anticipates the concepts.2 A second possibility is that you might start with something of note in the text of one of your artifacts. Or, for a third, you might situate your reader in the space where you wrote the genre, or usually write this type of genre. What holds your attention? Maybe that will hold your reader’s.

We will be looking at some examples in class of narrative essays about writing, to put names to some of their features and how they work. In terms of style, you might use the first person (“I”) or second person (“you”). But this relative informality doesn’t mean that the process of writing this autoethnography won’t involve serious, systematic, and reflective attention to our course readings and concepts. What do you want your reader to take away from what you’ve come to learn about your field, or about disciplinarity more broadly, by locating your field’s values in your own writing? Your attribution of texts or ideas, from in class or beyond, may be in passing or use more “signal phrases” than formal academic citations.


In your final disciplinary autoethnography, I will be looking for:

  • an understanding of writing as a process of learning and the negotiation of disciplinary boundaries, in addition to conveying ideas;
  • descriptions for your reader, where appropriate, of what you mean by certain terms, which they may be unfamiliar with if they are not part of your field;
  • the creative use of some of the narrative techniques we discussed in class, or others we haven’t, where appropriate;
  • drawing from texts and ideas especially that we’ve discussed so far in this course, attributed in a way appropriate for this genre;
  • if it makes sense for what you want to do, marked play with or situated commentary on any of the above writing expectations.

1: Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (London: Harper Collins, 1973), 6.
2: Tony Adams, et al., Autoethnography (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015), 49; 70