Biography 28.2 (2005) 316-319
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Carolyn Ellis's The Ethnographic I, subtitled A Methodological Novel About Autoethnography, captures the changing nature of this cross-disciplinary genre. Once the domain of social scientists who dismissed reflection and personal narrative in favor of a more scientific approach to the study of cultural groups, what counts as ethnographic research has changed. With the publication of such principal collections as James Clifford and George Marcus's Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (U of California P, 1986), the line between social science and literature has become increasingly mobile. As Clifford explains in "Partial Truths," anthropologists and ethnographers employing literary approaches to their science have "blurred the boundary separating art from science" (3). Incorporating the same "expressive tropes, figures, and allegories" and "rhetorical conventions" frequently associated with literary studies has become, Clifford notes, integral to ethnographic studies (4). Ellis capitalized on this trend in such earlier works as Final Negotiations: A Story of Love, Loss, and Chronic Illness (Temple UP, 1995) and "Maternal Connection," and The Ethnographic I reflects both the strengths and weaknesses of what may be called "genre bending."
Ellis sets her "Methodological Novel" in a fictional graduate classroom composed of a deliberately diverse collection of students engaged in autoethnography. She explains in her Preface, "I showcase the process of doing and writing autoethnography as I teach students about it, thus making pedagogy a part of this book" (xix). Rather than titles, the chapters are thus designated "Class One," "Class Two," and so on, and in each "class" the reader attends (so to speak) a seminar session with Ellis and her students. Ellis's pedagogical purpose is apparent not simply in the content of the classes (which include discussions of the history of autoethnography and how to publish one's research); it is also iterated in the inclusion of appendices that offer "Suggested Assignments for an Autoethnography Class." Ellis suggests her rationale for this approach more fully during Class Five, when she and her students locate their ethnographic projects along the continuum of art and science. Ellis explains to the class, [End Page 316]
If you viewed your project as closer to art than science, then your goal would not be so much to portray the facts . . . but instead to convey the meanings you attached to the experience. You'd want to tell a story that readers could enter and feel a part of. You'd write in a way to evoke readers to feel and think about your life and their lives in relation to yours. You'd want them to experience your experience as if it were happening to them.
And this is indeed our experience in The Ethnographic I as we are swept along in thought and feeling.
As a genre, Ellis's combination of "literary" and "ethnographic" techniques is designed to engage the reader in the methodology of ethnography in the same way that fiction engages the reader in a story's plot. As identified in the prefatory materials, the novel's "Cast of Characters" includes a "composite character," a character using a pseudonym, and actual students, faculty, and guest speakers (xiii). During each chapter/class, we follow the students as they discuss their research, learn about the process of autoethnography, and complete their individual autoethnographic projects. So far, so good. But the inclusion in this cast of Ellis's many pets (she calls them her "Dog Children") reflects the line she straddles between creative pedagogy and self-indulgence (xiv). At times, she slips to the latter, as when her reflective conversations with her partner Art (identified in the text as "Interludes") are dulled by superfluous details about the couple's dinner menu and home life. At such moments we feel disoriented, neither learning much about ethnography nor caring much about the characters.
For teachers seeking concrete, practical insight, a bit unsettling will be Ellis's admission that her "fictional and ethnographic...