Lessons from GVSU’s Ethnographic Field School

Guest blog by Deana Weibel, associate professor and department chair, Anthropology

The Anthropology department at GVSU has a long history of providing Anthropology majors and others interested in ethnographic research with the opportunity to do real research in the local community. The field school has rich benefits to our department, our students, and the surrounding community.

Anthropology is the study of humans and their cultures. We can learn about humans in a variety of ways, from studying ancient structures to examining mummies, from conducting interviews to immersing ourselves in a familiar or unfamiliar culture. Applied anthropology involves doing the research, but not leaving things at the academic level. Instead, it is focused on problem solving. Applied anthropologists study humans and their cultures in order to help make the world a better place.

I volunteered to run the ethnographic field school as a new assistant professor in 2005, choosing to work with the local Grand Rapids Habitat for Humanity chapter. Seven students, two field assistants, and I set out on a six-week project of doing academic research on the role of Habitat and its history, interviewing Habitat employees and volunteers, and helping construct new homes ourselves in the Baxter neighborhood of Grand Rapids. My students learned the techniques of “ethnography,” a key skill in the discipline of anthropology, specifically how to conduct secure yet informative interviews and how to do “participant-observation,” which involves learning through doing.

And my team sure did! We lifted and carried and hammered and sawed and observed. We asked questions and took notes. By the end of the six-week semester we had crafted (in addition to a few houses) a 120-page report that we shared with the department, the Habitat for Humanity office, and the Baxter Neighborhood Association. This detailed report provided information about the motivations and viewpoints of office employees, worksite employees and volunteers, perceptions and misperceptions about Habitat, and the impressions Baxter residents had from their experiences with Habitat. We pointed out issues that perhaps hadn’t been uncovered yet and made suggestions for the future. It was a great accomplishment that offered my students a chance to experience something new, collect and analyze data, and produce an incredibly useful report.

Since my first experience with Anthropology’s ethnographic field school I’ve observed many different ethnographic field experiences for our students. Some students have worked with local farmers’ markets, analyzing everything from the physical setup of the market to how farmers can improve customer relations. Other ethnographic field schools have focused more on issues of community health, where students have looked into the presence of radon in local homes (and residents’ awareness of it), the health experiences of veterans in the Grand Rapids area, and the goals and achievements of West Michigan Therapy Dogs.

This coming spring, Dr. Tara Hefferan is leading another health-focused ethnographic field school and will be working with a large group of students to learn about the health needs, motivations, and meanings of the residents and health workers in the Westside neighborhood of Grand Rapids.

Our students will:

  • Learn participant-observation and interviewing techniques
  • Become familiar with the ethics and methodology of this type of research
  • Work in tandem with local groups, organizations, and healthcare providers

The community will:

  • Contribute hands and minds to help better understand and improve health in the Westside neighborhood
  • Be given a detailed report, including analysis and findings based on the students’ research
  • Establish a stronger relationship with Anthropology and with GVSU

The community-based participatory research GVSU Anthropology offers in its ethnographic field schools is great for both our students and our community. We are proud of this program and happy to see it going strong.

When Border Crossings Become Border Inspections

Guest blog by Brittany Dernberger, Assistant Director, GVSU Women’s Center

Watching light bulbs go off for students as they begin to understand another person’s worldview, make connections between systemic issues, and reflect on their own lived experiences is a big part of why I love my job. Facilitating opportunities for students to engage in meaningful service learning, both locally and in South Africa, in order for them to bring classroom material to life is a truly enriching experience.

However, is this experience fulfilling for all parties involved? Are community partners equally benefiting from this exchange? Folks from academia often have the best of intentions; we often have done our homework, may be able to cite best practices, and recognize the histories of a community. However, great intentions do not automatically eliminate the potential of exhibiting harm. By requiring students to engage in service learning as part of their well-rounded liberal education, are we teaching students to tackle systemic issues or to simply fulfill hours for a class? How do we help students understand social justice and long-term partnerships while engaging in (short-term) community-based learning? 

Justice-learning, a concept written about by Dan Butin[i], provides a framework for engaging in community-based learning from a social justice perspective. His article delineates the concept in detail, but four key points that most resonate with me include:

Justice Learning…

  • Constantly problematizes. Recognizing that service learning committed to social justice may perpetuate oppressive conditions and assumptions, justice learning requires a continuous critical questioning and examining of your own motives and assumptions. What resources do I provide? Why am I here?
  • Requires “unlearning” oppressive assumptions before any other justice-centered work can be done. Recognizing privilege and oppression, and that we all have been socialized with certain perceptions and categorizations, is a crucial part of engaging in this work. What biases and stereotypes must I recognize and address? How does the top-down nature of knowledge production impact our community partnerships?
  • Avoids easy, specific, and pre-determined end-goals. The goal should be to create tensions and dilemmas that must be reflected upon and resolved. This dissonance serves as a reminder that process is as important as the final result. What does success look like? How does each partner define success?
  • Inquires about who controls the narrative. Students and those of us with institutional authority in the ivory tower are often the ones writing about these experiences and thus control the dialogue in which “privilege, identity, and power are defined or obscured.” Are community partners included in the writing and reporting process? Are multiple voices heard? How do we prevent border crossings from becoming border inspections?

These tensions are real, and often the disparate impacts fall on our community partners. Not all service learning or community engagement is good community-based learning that leads toward social change. Out of respect and reciprocity for our community partners, it is essential that projects be developed, monitored, and evaluated in collaboration. We must wrestle with these tough issues along with our students and community partners in order to avoid perpetuating harm. This may include asking tough questions about whether we are engaging in border crossings or border inspections in which the academic side of the fence is controlling the narrative.

As we seek to become a community-engaged university and continue to build community-based learning into our scholarship, teaching, and research, it’s essential that we are doing this from a justice-oriented perspective.

[i] Butin, D. (2007). Justice-learning: Service-learning as justice-oriented education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 40:177-183.

Real-World Ready

Students know the drill in a traditional classroom: listen, take notes, contribute to discussion, write imaginative papers, and master the material for exams. In contrast, community-based learning often requires competencies—knowledge, understanding, and abilities—for which many students are initially unprepared.

Expectations and experiences. Jacob Schacht, a junior majoring in political science and minoring in public administration, had originally thought that his classroom learning would equip him with the knowledge he needed to work on fair housing issues in a low-income neighborhood. However, according to Schacht, “most of the project was spent on research, and the process of finding the information was more in-depth than I had expected.”

Abigail DeHart, a senior studying philosophy and classics, left for India to study educational systems feeling fully prepared to undertake her research project. After starting the project, she realized that her community-based research was of a different caliber than she had previously experienced. “I expected to come out with more answers and more of a finished product,” said DeHart. “The project was complicated, and I expected it to be more cut-and-dried.”

Community-based learning often requires that students organize and narrow their focus in the context of a messy real-world challenge. “One complication was the immensity of the project I took on,” said DeHart. “That’s the part that ended up feeling overwhelming. I had many pieces of information, but how would I put them into words?”

Schacht’s class struggled both to develop working teams and narrow the research project enough to produce results and recommendations for the community partner within the designated time period. Students were overwhelmed by the challenge of providing a useful report for a community partner in 12-15 weeks with a team that may or may not be working well together. “The course teaches you how to organize a group,” said Schacht. “Without a good one, you won’t be able to produce as much of a quality project. In that case, what will the community partner get from it?”

Benefits. In spite of or perhaps because of the challenges, community work develops students personally and professionally.

For DeHart, the experience taught her that research projects evolve. “Be prepared, but hold your plans with an open hand, because the minute you get out into the community you’re going to start asking different questions than you originally thought,” said DeHart. “It’s going to be different than planned, but that’s the beauty of it, and that’s what made my research, questions, and pursuits more genuine. The research will be more useful coming organically from the community, not a textbook.”

Traveling internationally for a community-based research project also allowed her to see a different side of herself that will help her in the professional world. “I feel now that there are few things that can surprise me,” said DeHart. “I adapt a lot more quickly than I originally was able to. I think it will have a large role to play in the future.”

Schacht’s experience sparked an interest in a future profession in local government. “I think it was a really interesting opportunity,” said Schacht. “You’re dealing with real organizations, and it came across as more relevant. The experience directed some of what I want to do for my career. It’s helped me define what I specifically want to gear my efforts towards.”

GVSU engages West Side students in information literacy

Guest blog by Gayle Schaub, GVSU Librarian

This fall two academic librarians, a public librarian, and a college professor and her students embarked on a brand-new initiative in Grand Rapids to improve a community by building academic success in a neighborhood. My name is Gayle, and I am one of the librarians. My idea was to teach 6th graders the information literacy skills they’ll need to be ready for college, and I knew I couldn’t do this alone. This is the first part of our story.

The background: Students in the public schools on the West Side of Grand Rapids face a number of challenges to their educational success. Only three percent of high school juniors are college-ready, according to standardized test scores. Ninety-two percent of the students come from economically disadvantaged households, but even with a way to finance higher education, without a college-going culture or the readiness to perform, a college education is out of reach for most.

Challenge Scholars is a program developed and funded through the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. It promises scholarships for students attending the city’s West Side public schools and will provide the support needed to insure academic success through the coordinated efforts and partnerships of local school systems, businesses, non-profits, and institutions of higher ed. By investing now in Grand Rapids’ children, everyone involved in Challenge Scholars is helping to build a better-educated and stronger workforce for the future.

I live on the West Side. My sons graduated from Grand Rapids Public Schools. As a librarian at GVSU, I want every student to have the chance to be a part of an institution like the one I’m proud to work for. I knew that I had to get involved in getting more than 22% (the current percentage) of my community’s students to obtain more than a high school education.

In December of 2013, I attended the Foundation’s first “Strategic Doing” session at Westwood Middle School. People from all over the neighborhood were there—the community’s “human capital.” We were encouraged to offer up whatever assets we had. Mine? I could work with students to build their information literacy and strengthen critical thinking skills essential to college readiness. I decided to propose a service-learning/research collaboration to two GVSU colleagues, a librarian and a professor from the College of Education, to create information literacy workshops with Westwood Middle School students.

My partners: Lindy Scripps-Hoekstra, liaison librarian, is a former high school teacher. I thought she’d be a great partner, and sure enough, to our first meeting she brought an article detailing the collaboration of an Eastern University librarian, professor, and middle school teacher to create research workshops for gifted and talented 6th graders. That article turned out to be the inspiration for our project.

Dr. Susan Carson, a Fulbright scholar and faculty member in GVSU’s College of Education teaches, teaches courses in foundations of education, special education, and diversity in education. She has a great deal of place-based educational experience, having worked with students in Grand Rapids elementary schools. Her interest in interculturalism,  socioeconomics in education, and service learning were a perfect fit for what we were considering, and Lindy and I were thrilled she agreed to sign on.

Jessica Liddell, youth services librarian at Grand Rapids Public Library, is a teacher-turned-librarian and a super enthusiastic advocate of early information literacy education. She’ll be joining our workshops to teach the students how to make the most of the databases and information resources available to them for free from their public libraries.

Our plan: This September, we began a series of weekly research workshops with the 6th graders at Westwood Middle School. This group of Challenge Scholars will be the second cohort, graduating in 2021. Our 50-minute session takes them through the research process, from topic selection to finished product (paper, presentation, illustrations, etc.). They are paired with students from Dr. Carson’s GVSU class, Diverse Perspectives in Education. The college students assist Lindy and me as we work through the various concepts and tasks, from identifying a research question to using a database to citing a source. The GV students are there to ask and answer questions, assist Westwood teachers, and gain valuable classroom experiences of their own. The semester will culminate with a student work exhibition/reception in the Mary Idema Pew Library in December. The exhibition will feature the student scholarship and offer parents, teachers, GVSU student mentors and faculty the chance to discuss the experience and celebrate the achievements of the Challenge Scholars as researchers.

I hope, and we fully intend, for this to be a long-term, sustainable, scalable program that benefits everyone involved. GVSU college students get a semester-long chance to be in a classroom and build a relationship with a middle school student. GVSU professor and librarians get to do meaningful work that makes connections, puts theory into practice, and we believe, makes a difference. Westwood Middle School students get help building the critical skills they need to become the college students everyone knows they can be.

I’ll let you know how it goes!

Bio: Gayle Schaub is the Liaison to the Art & Design, Modern Languages, and Psychology departments at Grand Valley State University Libraries. A former ESL teacher who is fortunate to have traveled and lived abroad, she facilitates international student library orientations and research workshops, and is currently a Spanish student herself. Gayle’s other research interests include threshold concepts in information literacy, and she is finishing a book on lesson plans for teaching threshold concepts with two colleagues to be published by ACRL in fall, 2014.



Students to advise mayor on retaining talent

“Every major city in America is trying to figure out how to retain bright young people,” Mayor George Heartwell told a class of public administration students on August 28, making good on one of three themes in his 2014 State of the City speech, in which he described a partnership with GVSU through a course focused on retaining talent. The students will function as a “team of consultants” for the mayor, according to President Haas. Really, no pressure.

The students, dressed in their professional best, were honored with a visit from Mayor Heartwell and President Haas on the second day of this high-profile community-based learning course taught by Professor Mark Hoffman from the School of Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration. The course, entitled “Attracting College Graduates to Grand Rapids: A Student-Driven Model,” has drawn thirteen students with diverse majors ranging from business management to environmental studies, philosophy, and more.

The mayor asked the students to dive deep into what makes people stay in Grand Rapids or leave, including looking at the role of race and race relations. “Don’t come back with a feel-good report,” he urged the students. Emphasizing GVSU’s learning outcomes, President Haas encouraged students to employ past experiences, to test assumptions and myths, and to think about climate and culture. “Are we a global community,” he asked? “Let’s find that out.”

As a first step, the class will review a series of reports provided by the Transformation Research Analysis Team (TRAT), an ongoing partnership between the City of Grand Rapids and Grand Valley State University. The reports were gathered over the summer by TRAT intern Alex Melton, who provides background research for projects as requested by city departments.

In one of seven reports, survey information about talent retention was gathered from college graduates regarding where they end up after graduation and why, along with their perceptions of West Michigan and Grand Rapids in particular. Other reports include demographics about who is moving in and out of Michigan, West Michigan programs focused on retaining college graduates, and what big cities are doing to retain student talent.

“What I found is that Grand Rapids, like many cities, has had to deal with the effects of brain drain, the phenomenon in which highly mobile college graduates are moving to bigger cities or metropolitan areas looking for an urban experience,” said Melton. “Grand Rapids is trying to counter that phenomenon by employing initiatives—such as this class—in order to attract and retain students. The city is looking at different areas that need bolstering, and this course is designed to look at what college graduates want from Grand Rapids and what keeps them here, all from the student perspective.”

After reviewing the reports, the class will host a series of speakers on topics such as downtown development, neighborhoods, sustainability, diversity, the arts, and first-hand accountings of what cities like Detroit and Austin are doing to retain talent. The students’ task is to digest this information, sift through the data and ideas, and develop a set of action recommendations to present to the Grand Rapids City Commissioners on December 2.

This partnership provides an opportunity for the City of Grand Rapids to work with student consultants to gain information about talent retention straight from the source. This partnership is just one of many between Grand Valley State University and the City of Grand Rapids.

Collaborative Research: Barriers and Strategies

Reflections from the Collaborative Research Faculty Learning Community, including the following participants: Christine Beaudoin, Mark Gleason, Deborah Lown, Azizur Molla, Shaily Menon, Rick Rediske, Linda Shuster, and Peter Wampler


“Silo” mentality between disciplines and colleges. Philosophical and discipline-specific barriers make it difficult for colleagues from different departments to collaborate. These barriers are often rooted in misconceptions about what is “traditional” for a discipline. For example, collaborations between the physical and social sciences are often challenging due to differences in language and research styles.  

 Lack of knowledge about what colleagues are doing. Faculty members often are not aware of the activities and expertise of colleagues at their own institution and at other institutions, which makes it difficult for them to identify individuals with specific expertise and interests that would be helpful in exploring and establishing potential collaboration.

Lack of awareness of collaboration benefits. Collaborative projects take a lot of time and effort but also offer benefits, which make them a good investment and option for some projects. Complex problems have many interconnected components and tackling these effectively requires collaboration between people with diverse experience and skills. Faculty members do not always have examples, opportunities, or role models for successful collaboration, and are unable to evaluate the benefits of collaboration.

Fear of collaboration. Why would anyone fear collaboration? Several reasons were discussed in our Faculty Learning Community, including 1) a personality that favors independence over collaboration; 2) previous bad experiences from attempting to collaborate; and 3) tenure pressures which value independent work over collaborative work.

Complexity of scheduling collaborative teaching and collaborative activities between classes. There was agreement among the FLC members that collaboration between students and collaborative teaching is valuable. However, since course scheduling and teaching loads are determined by each department, it is often difficult to accommodate collaborative teaching and student experiences.


Change in the CSCE interdisciplinary grant funding cycle. There was general consensus among the FLC members that most interdisciplinary projects require more time than individual projects due to the logistics of collaborative research. The one-year time limit for current CSCE grants is often too short to complete complex interdisciplinary projects. A process for granting “no cost extensions” may be an effective interim step in some cases.

Seed money or release time for developing collaborative groups. The FLC members suggested developing a smaller grant ($2000 to $5000) program that provides seed money or release time for groups to do the groundwork to establish collaborations or to do pilot research to demonstrate the potential for the project to be successful. Assigned time would be allocated for a facilitator or coordinator to develop and maintain collaborations.

External grant opportunities. Several grant mechanisms, such as the National Science Foundation INSPIRE grants or the Human Frontier Science Program, provide funding for collaborative efforts to address complex problems, which are better addressed through an interdisciplinary approach.

Student/faculty awards and competitions. We recommend a new award for GVSU faculty and/or students to recognize exemplary collaboration efforts. These efforts may include collaborative projects between students, faculty and students, among faculty, and with community partners. We also recommend promoting existing student competitions (such as the Wegeprize) and establishing our own student competitions which would encourage students to think outside traditional discipline boundaries to solve complex problems.

Collective fund for collaborative research. Each college would contribute to a collective fund designated to facilitate university-wide collaborative efforts through a competitive grant process. This would be a modified version of the current CLAS research clusters and would allow many additional cluster ideas to be included. There may also be an opportunity to redirect unspent faculty development funds allocated to each department/unit for this purpose.

Community Engagement colloquia. The Office for Community Engagement is organizing a monthly colloquia series which highlights issues and topics related to collaborative projects at GVSU and beyond.

Collaboration conferences. We are recommending conferences at GVSU similar to the Big Data Conference that bring together people interested in interdisciplinary projects. Other ways to share and bring people together should be explored, such as webinars, video clips, and online conferencing.

Digital Measures and online visibility. Faculty research and projects need to be more discoverable by colleagues at GVSU and beyond. Digital Measures is a good database for storing data related to faculty activity and research. Increased portability is needed to make these data accessible and searchable.

Collaboration coordinator. Faculty often find it difficult to allocate the time needed to initiate and maintain collaborative projects. There may be opportunities to capitalize on the experience and connections of emeritus faculty to help coordinate collaborative or community engagement projects.

Joint appointments. One approach used at other institutions to facilitate and encourage collaborative activities is joint appointments. Joint appointments for new and existing faculty should be considered as a means for encouraging more effective collaboration.

Recognition within the tenure process. Interdisciplinary work is often complex and may not yield traditional tangible products such as peer-reviewed publications or meeting presentations. We recommend more explicit recognition of the collaborative process, including recognition within the tenure and promotion process of documented progress of collaborative research activities and interim products that result from those activities.

Opportunities through FTLC. Use FTLC workshops, the Fall Teaching and Learning Conference, and the Faculty Teaching Circles to promote sharing of information and best practices related to collaborative projects.

Highlighting collaborative research. Raise awareness about ongoing collaborative activity at GVSU through newsletter articles, GVSU publication articles, the popular press, and web sites. Prepare visual learning tools using teaching and research findings in a variety of formats and venues.

Sharing best practices and lessons learned. Use various online media and presentations to share with colleagues on campus and beyond, the best practices of effective and successful collaborative projects and lessons learned.











Food for Thought

Guest blog by Dr. Sarah King, Liberal Studies Department

“The most successful parts of community work in class overall were connecting with other people, gaining new perspectives, and being brought out of my comfort zone. The least successful part was only the time constraints. I really loved how much I was able to connect with the West Michigan community through this course. I just wish that I would have had more time to get involved even more.” (HON280 student)

Food For Thought is a three-course freshman sequence in the Honors College. The course is about food writ large—food as social, cultural and ecological system. In it, we challenge students to see food as more than something that comes from a box at the grocery store, and instead as something that connects to and is produced by our larger relationships.

Everybody eats. And teaching about food is a wonderful opportunity to connect students with a variety of communities, both on and off campus. As co-instructors, Anne Marie Fauvel and I found many variety of ways to engage students in our local food communities, including:

  • Weekly volunteer hours at the campus Sustainable Agriculture Project in the fall harvest season, which taught students about the ecological complexity—and back-breaking labor—of growing food.
  • Guest lectures from food activists here in West Michigan, including Jeff Smith (WellHouse), Jenny Jordan (Kids Food Basket) and Brett Colley (ChangeU).
  • A class field trip to Grove Restaurant, which opened for lunch just for us and invited the farmer who’d grown the food they served to join us.
  • A behind-the-scenes tour of Campus Dining.
  • Connecting with local foodways from a variety of cultures, including a trip to hear Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke and a visit to the West Michigan Hindu Temple.
  • Student-led research projects that initiated relationships with local vets, farmers, scientists, educators, children and the GVSU campus community.

What did this breadth of engagement mean for us as a learning community? Were the students overwhelmed, or confused? We carefully designed each element of community engagement to connect back to course material and made sure to explore these connections in classroom discussions. We often tasked the students with analyzing their experiences outside of the classroom using the course material—as in the final exam where we asked them to eat at three local restaurants and then analyse their experiences using the course material. And to assess outcomes, we worked with Ruth Stegeman and the Office for Community Engagement to pilot a new tool to assess student learning through community engagement.

We found that the students clearly saw the connections between their community-based work and the course material. We also found that community-based work strengthened student relationships to us as faculty, which is one of the key indicators of student retention and success. This isn’t too surprising—working with your professor to haul compost and plant fruit trees can really work to break down boundaries—and we clearly saw the results of this in increased classroom discussion and engagement as the semester wore on. Community-engaged learning also challenged our students to move beyond their biases and assumptions about, for example, the difficulty of farm work, the experience of childhood hunger, and about cultures and foodways different from their own, as the opening comment illustrates. Still our students wished that they’d had more time, and this was a year-long, nine-credit course. Community engagement opens new possibilities and connections for students—when it’s going well, they can never get enough, and neither can we.

For more information contact Sarah King at kingsar1@gvsu.edu.

HON280 Food For Thought co-instructors for 2013-14 were Sarah King and Anne Marie Fauvel, both of the Liberal Studies Department. Starting this fall, Anne Marie will be offering a new food-focused course, LIB342 Food Matters, which will use community-engaged pedagogy—employing action, reflection, and real-world experience.