Local Cultures of Queens


Over the past decade, Professor Jan Ramjerdi and I have developed an alternative mode of teaching Freshman Composition, one that takes seriously and builds upon our students’ existing knowledge, interests, and experiences. Ethnography is the written study of human culture from the insider or participant viewpoint; although based in the discipline of anthropology, ethnographies are used widely in the health professions, social sciences, and in many other fields. This cross-disciplinary writing curriculum is focused on the study of the local cultures of Queens and uses ethnographic research and writing methodologies in a series of coordinated project-based assignments. Throughout the semester, students build the skills needed for the culminating project, a 10-page study of a student-chosen subculture of Queens. Course texts are Conformity and Conflict: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, an introductory anthropology textbook, and Fieldworking: Reading and Writing Research, which is an ethnography-based composition textbook. I also give students a booklet of sample student papers which provides models for the different ethnographic paper assignments. Original research generated by the students forms the basis of all their writing in the class. Students quickly become interested in and adept at ethnographic methods, including observation, interviews, and taking fieldnotes, informal handwritten notes generated at the cultural sites of their choice. As students practice rigorous academic research and writing that relates to their own experiential knowledge of the diverse cultures of Queens, they are engaged in the subjects, their writing confidence increases, and they build the abilities to generate and organize ideas.


As outlined in the assignment sequence below, the course consists of a series of four ethnographic writing assignments, each focused on some aspect of culture: place, language, and ritual. The final paper is a research study of a subculture that uses ethnographic techniques learned in the three smaller papers. The audience for the papers is both other students and the professor, and one wonderful aspect of this method is that the subjects are both constantly new and generally interesting to other readers. Students write about the places and people in our shared environment of Queens, and past topics include the Hispanic “Quinceneara” celebration, the working lives of New York City policemen and taxi drivers, and the sub-culture of Mexican day laborers at a local Home Depot. Preparation for the ethnographic work includes the introduction of key terms—ethnography, culture, subculture, ethnocentrism, informant, and objectivity—practicing interview techniques, and learning how to do effective library database research. Students write about their own membership in subcultures and they read both published ethnographies and their peers’ papers. Most importantly, the students write: 60 pages of handwritten fieldnotes and a minimum of 23 typed pages (not including first drafts) are required during the semester, not counting homework and in-class writing tasks. By the end of the semester, students have gained a great deal of facility in both formal and informal writing, skills that will serve them well both at college and in their chosen careers.


Dr. Jean Murley

Big Ethnography Assignment

Big Ethnography Proposal

Body Language Paper

Family Story / Oral History

People and Ritual

People and Place

Review Sheets:

Big Ethnography Review Sheet

Body Language Review Sheet

Family Story Review Sheet

Place Review Sheet


Sample Assignment

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