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How We Can Rethink Experiential Learning in the Workplace

At Guttman Community College (GCC), we often say that “New York City is our laboratory.” Located in Midtown Manhattan as part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system, GCC has embedded community-based experiential learning within our curriculum since we welcomed our first incoming class in 2012.

A centerpiece of GCC’s first-year experience learning model is the Ethnographies of Work (EOW) course, a required yearlong social science investigation of workplaces that helps students better understand and exercise agency around their future career paths. Research has demonstrated the importance of career education, such as fieldwork internships, in order to better prepare students with career information, a strong understanding of work and the labor market, and the skills necessary to succeed in an ever-changing workplace environment. AAC&U’s recent survey found that large majorities of business executives and hiring managers report that completion of applied and project-based learning experiences would give a recent graduate an advantage in the hiring process.

In EOW, students enter workplaces as ethnographic researchers, drawing on theories about workplace dynamics as they learn about leadership structures, the ways that race, gender, culture and other norms are embedded in workplaces, the changing nature of work in the gig economy, or the emotional management demands of work. In a normal semester, our students would be found observing work throughout the city, ethnographically mapping workflow and power structures, talking to New Yorkers about their work experiences, and exploring possible careers.

When COVID-19 ravaged through New York in March, faculty had to not only transition classes online, but also rethink ways to conduct ethnographic field work. Our assignments could no longer be designed for the physical exploration of workplaces—our students’ health was at risk.

As so many of my colleagues know, faculty can’t just take traditional fieldwork pedagogies and put them online. Instead, we needed to redesign our fieldwork experiences so that students could meet the learning outcomes in the virtual world in ways that are equitable, inclusive, and student-centered. This summer, as I worked on my first virtual EOW course, I collaborated with GCC students to consider the transition online from the students’ perspective. Here is what we’ve learned thus far.

Students can use this opportunity to understand how the world of work has changed. COVID-19 has changed workplaces of all types, from corner grocery stores to corporate offices. Finding ways for students to unpack pandemic responses by various employers offers opportunities to use ethnography in creative ways. For example, I encourage students to watch commercials for products that are “reteaching” us how to do safe curbside pick-up. How do these commercials portray and frame the workers? What are the changing demographics of customers?

The pandemic has also changed the work experiences for many people in our students’ lives (including their professors). Designing fieldwork so students talk with those already in their networks can help them highlight evolving work structures.

Students’ existing workplaces are potential research sites.

Many students are working during the pandemic—in retail, restaurants, health care facilities, and other essential locations. Students can use these workplaces as ethnographic sites by observing how workplace patterns have changed, the impact of masking (or not masking), and the integration of other safety protocols. This can also provide the opportunity for students to open these conversations with their managers, coworkers, and customers, contributing to the changing landscape of their own workplaces.

Social media can serve as potential field sites.

Social media and other websites provide a treasure trove of ethnographic field sites. For example, after my students read theoretical critiques of industrialization, they search websites where individuals are creating and selling homemade goods (such as Etsy). Using ethnographic analysis techniques, they determine how artists use concepts of “craftwork” to challenge the assembly-line production processes that create products found in big box stores.

In addition, students can engage with media—especially podcasts—where workers share stories about their work, such as Slate’s Working and NPR’s Jazzed About Work. These are great ethnographic sources.

Students can examine television and movies centered in workplaces.

While the pandemic may make it hard for students to physically visit workplaces to observe work, students can examine television shows and movies based in workplaces that they are interested in for their careers. Coupled with ethnographic literature and labor market research, these portrayals can act as ethnographic field sites. One of my students examined episodes of Grey’s Anatomy to reflect not only on the stress levels surgeon face, but also on the impacts of gender on leadership opportunities in the medical field.

Students can still observe workplaces virtually.

Many first-year students who are taking their first college classes remotely will have little sense of the buildings on their college’s campus. My colleague, Professor Alia Tyner, developed a unique assignment in which students view a video of our classroom building and conduct an ethnographic mapping exercise to understand the college as a workplace. In addition to introducing students to ethnographic theories and methodologies, the assignment has the added benefit of connecting students (albeit virtually) to the classroom itself. Faculty can also draw on their own network of colleagues and friends outside of academia to create a repository of workplace videos that can serve as virtual observation field sites.

Faculty can use video interviewing to connect students with workers.

The pandemic has forced many ethnographers to conduct interviews online through Zoom. Teaching students how to do ethnographic interviews via video is not just an important ethnographic skill; it also provides practice for students who may find themselves participating in virtual job interviews in the future.

The internet can open new field sites for students around the country and world.

One benefit of the Zoom expansion is that we can attend events virtually anywhere on the planet. Videos of press conferences, neighborhood webcams, academic conference sessions, informational interviews with professionals, and observations of public meetings (such as those within city governments) across the globe can be rich ethnographic sites. Students can observe these events live or through recordings, providing observation opportunities that are not constrained by geography or time zones. This can also help to open up new networks, contacts, and research topics for students.

As this academic year continues to pose new challenges for experiential learning and the well-being of our own and students’ lives, it is also providing educators with innovative ways to safely integrate ethnography remotely, opening up new opportunities and skill sets for our students. In addition to learning substantive knowledge, students are also gaining skills in remote work, observation, interviews, collaboration, and applied research that they can bring to both remote and physical workplaces that are increasingly demanding those skills.

Mary Gatta is associate professor of sociology and codirector of the Center on Ethnographies of Work at the City University of New York’s Stella and Charles Guttman Community College.

Have an idea for a blog post? Write to dedman@aacu.org.

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