English 121:  Effective Writing II

On Compiling a Research Portfolio

Once you've decided on the kinds of field research you are going to conduct (observations, interviews, surveys, oral histories, and/or questionnaires), you should begin to keep a research journal and to collect other items to include in your research portfolio that will demonstrate how your project developed.

According to one textbook on the subject, a research portfolio should

show the thinking process that led to this project.  You'll want to represent selections from the reading, writing, and materials you've relied on along the way: writing exercises, fieldnotes, interview questions, charts, methods of analysis, and whatever helped you think your way through the final written report.  You may include maps, transcripts, sketches, or photographs, summaries of related reading materials (poems, songs, newsletters, advertisements), and any items unique to your study of a particular subculture.  (Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein, Fieldworking [Prentice-Hall, 1997], 37)
In your case, since you will investigate and write about some aspect of cyberculture, your materials may also include webpages, transcripts of chats, bulletin-board discussions, or visits to a MOO/MUD, email, or other electronic documents.

Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein liken the portfolio to a scrapbook (with the pieces not pasted to pages, however!) and suggest that, if you are always actively "collecting, selecting, reflecting, and projecting" (38), the portfolio will enable you to write a better report in the end.  One way to use the portfolio to advantage will be to share it with others, especially those in your research group, during the fieldwork process.  Such colleagues (informed, as they will be, about your research because their own projects are on the same topic) can help you reflect on your progress, give you feedback about strengths and weaknesses, and help you project what you need to do to bring the fieldwork to a successful completion.

Ask your research group members to

  • respond to your descriptions
  • examine your interview questions
  • suggest ways to complete a study with holes in it
  • offer other resources for your research
  • look for patterns or themes in the data
  • or verify your hunches  (Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein 39).
 Your portfolio will, most likely, also include lots of memoranda to yourself--such short, reflective pieces of writing will be another way to assess and modify the project as you proceed.  Ultimately, your research portfolio should document your own learning process and demonstrate the critical thinking that went into your fieldwork.

Five elements your research portfolio must include:

  • An analysis of your own position as you begin the research (the assumptions you bring with you into your fieldwork)
  • A discussion and justification of your methodology (observations, interviews, surveys, oral histories, or whatever else)
  • Your data:  verbal snapshots, lists of key words and other "insider language", descriptions of artifacts or events, transcripts, tape recordings, or other forms of data
  • your fieldnotes (taken during the researching process) and written reflections on them--a useful technique to accomplish this is the double-entry notebook
  • A final, summary reflection on the portfolio as a whole



NOTES

1.  "Anthropologists, sociologists, and folklorists have always been interested in the language of occupations.  They have studied and written about, for example, flight attendants, police, cab drivers, bartenders, nurses, farmers, fishermen, factory workers, and waitresses.  To research insider occupational language, you cannot be merely an observer, but you must become a participant-observer, asking questions. . . . Insider language--a word, a term, or a phrase--can trigger whole stories that illustrate the perspective inside a subculture."  (Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein, Fieldwork 178).

2.  Observations:  If you choose to observe a site, you must deal with the ethics of entry.  See Observational Field Research.  Explain your project clearly to the people you will be studying and obtain the requisite permissions from those in charge.  Let your informants understand how you will use the data you are collecting.

3.  Interviews.  Here are some questions (from Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein's Fieldworking, 258) to ask yourself about the interviews you conduct to check your interviewing skills.  After analyzing your first interview, try to improve any subsequent interviews you do for the project:

  • Has the interviewer established a rapport with the informant?
  • Who talks the most, the informant or the interviewer?  Does that seem to work?
  • What was the best question the interviewer asked? Why?
  • What question might have extended to another questions?  Why?
  • How did the interviewer encourage the informant to be specific?
  • Were any of the questions closed?
4.  Oral histories:  "An oral history is a life's story shared collaboratively with a fieldworker, emphasizing the individual's life against the cultural significance of that life. . . In an oral history, the fieldworker gathers real-life stories about the past experiences of a particular person, family, region, occupation, craft, skill, or topic.  The fieldworker records spoken recollections and personal reflections from living people about their past lives, creating a history.  One of the most successful contemporary oral history projects in this country comes from the fieldwork of high school students in rural Georgia.  In the 1970s, teenagers in Rabun Gap, Georgia, began to document the stories, folk arts, and crafts of elderly people in their Appalachian community.  They wrote about making moonshine, building log cabins, faith healing, dressing hogs, and farming practices in their mountain culture and published their fieldwork in the many Foxfire anthologies."  (Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein 259-60)

5.  Your Own Position:  "We urge you to uncover the assumptions, preconceptions, personal experiences, and feelings that influence you as a fieldworker by writing about them throughout your research process.  When you enter a site prepared to "read" a culture, you learn to be conscious of your positioning as a researcher.  Consider a site you might choose to research: . . .  [a computer lab, an online chat room, computerized dorm rooms, a bulletin board].  What are your reasons for choosing it?  Which of your own fixed positions [i.e. your age, gender, class, nationality, race, sexuality] may affect what you see in that site?  What subjective positions [life history and personal experiences] do you carry into your site?  Write a short commentary describing how your positions might affect what you'll see in your field site."  (Chiseri-Strater and Sunstein 59)

6.  Double-Entry Notebook: When recording your observation of an object or event, it can help to divide your pages into two columns and devote the left side to specific details of what your observing and the right side to your reflections on the meanings of what you're observing.


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