Developing an ethnographic sensibility

In order to explain this shift in my approach to embrace an ethnographic sensibility, I return now to examining peer feedback. As described above, most peer feedback lacked critical edge and hovered between praise and hedged negative evaluation. However, there was one sequence of peer evaluation that was 'atypical' (Erickson, 1992: 206); that is, it was unlike any other peer-evaluation talk in the data set (indeed, it was unlike any other peer-evaluation talk I had ever encountered). Its atypicality ensured that it attracted my analytic attention. In this peer-evaluation episode, trainee (S) is invited by the trainer to provide peer feedback, but flatly refuses (he said 'no'), flouting the generic conventions (i.e. a description of what happened in the lesson, positive comments, hedged negative evaluation linked to a weakness in his/her own performance). This refusal caused a degree of confusion amongst the trainer and trainees and was eventually resolved when trainee S agreed that he had some feedback to give. In my fieldnotes, I noted trainee S's refusal and its contrariness:

Extract 2

The following interaction was very odd. He said 'No' but it wasn't clear what he meant by this. ... is he challenging the trainer, the event or something else? Is he doing it deliberately or not?

Writing the fieldnotes began the analytical process: what did trainee S mean by saying 'no'? I began to pay particular attention to trainee S in the observations. I became aware of his attitude, posture and levels of interaction when with this trainer. For example, I noted that S 'did not seem to get involved in the feedback', that he 'rarely if ever takes the floor independently' and that he 'just seems stubborn'. However, when the trainers swapped groups and trainee S had a new trainer, his behaviour changed. I noted that trainee S 'really took part' in the feedback, that he 'smiled fully' and that he 'seemed readily to accept the critique'. After one observation I wrote the following in my fieldnotes:

Extract 3:

At the end of the card discussion, trainer 2 gave trainee S her own feedback about his lesson, which was mostly positive. ... Trainee S then asked if trainer 2 thought he had been polite or not. I guessed this was in reaction to feedback trainer 1 had given him in the last tutorial about rapport building. Trainer 2 responded, 'I thought you were very polite, in fact', which again put a smile on Trainee S's face.

Following trainee S's journey through the course, I had begun to formulate responses to the questions, what's going on and how do we know based on observations distilled in my fieldnotes, in other words, based on the ethnographic data. I then decided to conduct a linguistic analysis of the atypical interaction (extract 2) using tools of conversation analysis. Conversation analysis requires that each utterance is considered in its relationship with previous and next utterances and it suggests a set of tools for examining features such as turn-taking, organisation and repair (Richards, 2003). The extract and analysis are presented below: a trainer and four trainees, S, C, J and P (who doesn't contribute in this section) are present in the feedback conference:

Talk in Post-observation Feedback Conferences 121

Extract 4

  • 1. Trainer: Um, (.) trainee S, you you've gone () a bit quiet
  • 2. Trainee S: Sorry about that ((quietly))
  • 3. Trainer: Do you want to eh start off on with trainee C


  • 4. Trainee C: on trainee C ((laughs))
  • 5. Trainer: On trainee C
  • 6. Trainee S: Umm (...) No ((falling tone)) no
  • 7. Trainer: No? ((rising tone))
  • 8. Trainee S: I've I've got some thoughts sorry but I I was wasn't making
  • 9. notes terribly well today and I've got no real structure to them so
  • 10 I'll I I have to generalise from them
  • 11. Trainer: That's alright if they've got no real structure to them that's
  • 12. fine
  • 13. Trainee S: Um
  • 14. Trainee C: ((laughing)) You've got all the right notes but not necessarily in
  • 15. the right order ((laughs))
  • 16. Trainee J: ((laughs))
  • 17. Trainee C: ((inaudible comment))
  • 18. Trainee 1: The exercise at the end was really interesting fun and could
  • 19. have been longer and

The trainer begins the extract by suggesting that trainee S has not been contributing to the discussion ('you've gone a bit quiet'), a reasonable move given that the trainer manages who speaks in feedback (the softener 'a bit', reduces the strength of the comment) and that trainees are expected to contribute (the data going up to this section show that trainee S has not spoken for some time). Trainee S apologises, but does not provide a reason for his silence. At line 3, the trainer then invites trainee S to start his evaluation of trainee C. The trainer makes a mistake with the preposition, causing trainee C to repeat the mistake and to laugh about it (to start on rather than to start with seems to suggest that criticism will be harsher). Trainee S hesitates ('Ummm') and then pauses before uttering his refusal, 'no', in a falling tone. His turn initial filler and pause mark this as a dispreferred second pair part (Pomerantz, 1984) to the trainer's invitation in line 3 (the preferred second pair part - in this case would be to answer to the trainer's question, 'do you want to start on with trainee C?' in the usual way), while the falling tone on 'no' has a final quality - this is not a 'holding' no or a 'hesitant' no.

That the refusal is unexpected is recoverable from the trainer's questioning 'no?' at line 7. What is more, dispreferred responses require an explanation and so the questioning 'no' invites trainee S to give an account. At line 8, trainee S does so through providing a reason for his inability to provide feedback ('I wasn't making notes ... I've got no real structure to them') which mitigates his 'no', perhaps as he realises he has over-stepped the generic boundaries. The trainer replies encouragingly that structure is not important, accepting the trainee's attempt to re-establish himself in the talk. Trainee C then makes a joke about S's note taking ('all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order', a joke almost universally recognised in the UK , having first been made in a classic 1970's comedy sketch in which the comedian defended his appalling performance on the piano with this remark). This 'laughable' ('a humorous utterance' which is followed by laughter, Thonus, 2008: 334) elicits the desired response from the other trainees in the room. Then, at line 18, trainee S starts to give detailed feedback on C's lesson.

In terms of answering the questions, 'What's going on here?' and 'How do we know?', the analysis is helpful. It shows that trainee S's refusal is unexpected. It also shows that the trainees at least are made uncomfortable by the refusal and that the trainer works hard to ensure that the trainee finally gives some feedback. Importantly, it shows that trainee S has a reason for not giving feedback but that this reason does not, in the end, stop him from engaging with the activity.

This ethnographically grounded analysis suggests that trainee S had a difficult relationship with the trainer and perhaps too with the trainees in the group. In the post-course focus group with the trainees, I broached this topic by asking, 'How did your experience of feedback change when you changed groups and trainers?' He responded:

Extract 5

Through no fault of [the trainer], I really, really enjoyed the things he had to say, I was delighted to change [trainers] as we hadn't had any exchange of ideas for at least the last week of his fortnight and I thought, you know, a change of scenery would help.

This discussion later led to the following exchange:

Extract 6

Trainee S: I felt that () we generally exchanged like compliments and stuff after the lesson after the first few () and that repeating those was in front of the trainer wasn't really worthwhile and I didn't feel that I could make any criticisms

FC: Right you didn't have any to make or you didn't want to make any


Trainee S: No I had them to make

but I didn't feel I could make any

FC: Right wh why didn't you feel you could make them?

Trainee S: Just cos I didn't think they'd be received () um (..) I didn't think they'd be recei::ved () ((rising tone)) positively ()

When considered with the fieldnotes and interview talk, the linguistic analysis of the extract provides insights for responding to the question 'what's going on?'. When trainee S answers 'no' to the trainer's invitation to provide feedback to his peers, he unleashes his frustration with both the trainer and the other trainees. With one small word he resists the role of peer evaluator placed on him by the trainer and registers his dissatisfaction with his peers. We can make a case for 'knowing' this is so through the process of 'opening up' the linguistic analysis to ethnographic interrogation (through fieldnotes and interview data) and 'tying down' the insights gained through observing and talking to the trainees through a linguistic analysis of the unfolding talk (see Rampton et al., 2004).

However, my ethnographic sensibility was most seriously affected by what happened next. Having worked carefully with the different data sets, cross-referencing and ensuring I focused on my guiding questions, I felt fairly confident that trainee S had been deliberately provocative, and, as I have argued elsewhere (Copland, 2011), had wanted to threaten the trainer's face with his decision to say no. Given the trainer's response in the feedback conference, I was also fairly sure that he had understood the 'no' to be face threatening as I knew from corridor chats (recorded in fieldnotes) that he found trainee S 'difficult' and because I knew that refusing to take part in peer evaluation was exceptional.

Keen to explore this issue, I played extract 2 to the trainer in the interview immediately after the course. The first thing that surprised me was that the trainer said that he could not 'actually remember it', which suggests that for him the refusal was not salient as it was for me. After listening a second time, the trainer began a long reflective monologue on the extract (perhaps in answer to my original request, many turns before, to 'just comment on it'), suggesting reasons why trainee S refused to give feedback. These ranged from the refusal being intended as a joke, to suggesting and then rejecting the idea that trainee S did not know what he was being asked to do, to surmising that trainee S did not deliver feedback as he did not think that trainee C would listen to it, to suggesting that trainee S considered C's lesson so 'crap' it was not worth giving feedback on. It was a prompt from me that obliged him to consider my interpretation of the event.

Extract 7

FC: Yeah, I I mean what I think's really interesting ... is the way he dares to say no (.) that you are the teacher in that situation (.) and what's expected is that you ask a question and people will answer the question. And he won't play ball really. He says no. You know, I'm not going to do what you're asking me to do. And, you know, your 'no' there is quite (.) I think it sounds quite surprised. Don't you do you think it does or not?

T: Sure sure. That's interesting. Yeah yeah. Yep, yep. But it's inter

esting you're saying that cos I don't, I didn't perceive it as sort of defiant no I didn't perceive it like that when when I heard it now. I mean I can't really remember how I perceived it at that moment but I mean I didn't perceive it as that. I perceived it as oh, more of a quite, quite a low status sort of no really. Kind of well, no, I I don't know. I I can't do this. Or (...) I don't know.

The trainer's rejection of my finding was telling. If trainee S had deliberately set out to threaten the trainer's face and to cause disruption, then his efforts had been wasted on the trainer, or at least the trainer convinced me in the interview that his efforts were wasted. In terms of developing my ethnographic sensibility, however, his efforts had great impact.

As I explain above, I was convinced of the value of ethnography for ensuring context is brought into play. Indeed, in my analytical framework, ethnography became the grounding feature. However, when I realised that there was more than one reading of trainee S's 'no' I began to understand the epistemology underpinning the ethnographic endeavour and to develop my ethnographic sensibility.

As extract 7 shows, the trainer provided a different interpretation of trainee S's 'no'. In support of his interpretation is the fact that he had the epistemological high ground, being an interlocutor in the interaction under scrutiny. Furthermore, he was the one to whom the 'no' was at least interactionally aimed. In support of my original and different interpretation, that the 'no' was deliberate, I could argue that it was also partially directed at me, the observer, the lurker in the room, the person who was there to notice deviance in the interaction. (And, of course, it was aimed too at the other trainees, a daring act which they would recognise and question.) Moreover, I was party to other 'truths'.

I observed the 'no' being delivered, and even at that point, recognised it as salient. In addition, I had spoken at some length to trainee S about the intentions behind his 'no' and these intentions seemed plausible. However, threatening this interpretation is the reality that as the interviewer, I had raised the issue of the 'no' in the first place, signalling to trainee S that it was of interest to me and thereby providing him with a discoursal affordance, that is, the opportunity to speak about saying no, in terms of putting his own spin on why he said it. How does the researcher reconcile these different interpretations?

One way to achieve this is to respond to the questions, 'What's going on here?' and 'How do we know?' as they ground the analytic process, forcing the analyst to justify their interpretations. Another is to bring the analysis to the attention of participants, to tease out synergies and contradictions. Giving 'voice to the members' perspectives' (Adler and Adler, 2012: 30) through this process has the potential to reveal not only complexity but also to support the central tenet of ethnography which is to 'investigate the viewpoint of the studied' (Becker, 1996: 59). The act of sharing interpretation is what Hymes calls 'democratic: a mutual relation of interaction and adaptation' (1980: 89, cited in Blommaert and Jie, 2010: 12). In the end, the interpretation of the data will be affected by this sharing as both the researcher and the researched will undoubtedly shift their original perceptions and develop their understandings of interactions.

In terms of extract 7, the interpretation must take into account the views of the participants in the talk. If not, there is no ethnography. However, it must also reconcile the different views and findings from the data to which only the researcher has access. Blommaert and Jie (2010) argue, 'Ethnography tries to ... describe the apparently messy and complex activities that make up social action, not to reduce their complexity but to describe and explain it' (p. 12). The analysis of extract 7 reveals this complexity. I would argue that working with an ethnographic sensibility means that we take messiness for granted, seeking it out if it is not immediately apparent and being open to challenging our analyses and interpretations at all stages of the research.

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