Student Center Observations: Hair and Reflections (Post 3)

As I’m sure my readers are all well aware of by now, I have been posting research practice to be transparent about my process for my current project. On March 3, my Research Methods for Writers class met in our campus student center to practice recording ethnographic field notes. Post 1 focused on translating jottings into complete sentences, and post 2 focused on creating narrative scenes from my field notes. The final task for this practice assignment was to compose a short, descriptive piece about a student’s hair and a reflection about my experiences as an observer.


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Not many 20-something women can boast a flawless hairstyle in the midst of a two-day rain and sleet storm. Most have sloppy top knots and twisted messy buns that droop with dampness to this side or that. Not this girl, though. Sleet, rain, and impending snow be damned. Her hair had style, and she was pulling. it. off.

Her fashionable “do” was a thick collection of box braids, a unique mixture of jet black plaits and a dark, caramel colored brown twists. Think of the square-shaped caramel candies a grandmother might carry in the pocket of her housecoat and then deepen it by two shades. They didn’t hang long, but were gathered just above the nape of her neck. Brown braids fell over black. Black braids snaked through brown. The colors intertwined artistically within the confines of a single, black elastic. To my surprise (as a person with extremely thick hair), the elastic wasn’t looped more than once; the thick mass of braids rested within–more than they were held by–the rubber. The twisty, knot-like ponytail didn’t sag with heaviness. Instead, the long tresses hung to her shoulder blades and draped over the top of her backpack. So thick were her locks that they puffed up a bit at the crown of her head, reminiscent of pageant participant bouffant. Beyonce’s “Flawless” comes to mind in the sense that she looked neat and polished but also effortless, almost as if she “woke up like this.”

The braids pulled all of her locks back from her hairline tightly, framing her face elegantly. Not one hair was out of place. Not one hair curled. Not one hair frizzed. Not one hair fell in front of her eyes. Her hair knew who was boss: she was. Her style reflected complete control.

Her style also reflected fearlessness.Her jacket’s hood was tucked beneath her backpack, suggesting she hadn’t worn it during her trek the student center and probably wouldn’t put it up before leaving. Absent from her hands was an umbrella. She, and her braids, remained un-phased by the weather, much to envy of those of us with damp, frizzing, and waving tresses.


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At the start of the assignment, I found myself hesitant and confused, unsure if I had a thorough understanding of the expected tasks. Though I had spent 20 minutes discussing with my group what aspects of observations could be deemed “field note worthy,” I continued to ask myself, What’s worth it? What will be interesting enough to put down on paper? What’s interesting enough that someone would want to read about it?  How long should I sit in one place?

I realized, after completing about 40 minutes worth of observations, that I was fortunate to have selected a central location that saw many people. I was able to take in a great deal, including setting, clothing, actions, and conversation. My notes spanned many topics and many “characters,” which helped me write a few interesting posts and scenes. I was impressed with the quality of these products.

I also conducted a brief interview during my observation, something I was terrified to do at the start of class. It was weird at first, but after a minute or two, especially when I stopped focusing on taking notes while speaking, the “interview” felt more like a normal conversation I might have with a classmate or friend.

I learned that when I conduct interviews in the future, I should be careful to give my interviewee enough time to think of answers to questions I ask. My interview subject that night seemed a bit caught off guard and nervous when I asked him questions, and therefore, took a lot of long pauses in between answering. I filled the silence with jabber. I might have gotten even more interesting information than I did if I stopped being terrified of an awkward silence and let him think a little bit more.

I also might try to listen to people more when I conduct observations again. I focused a lot on things I could see and ignored most of the other senses, but there were many students around. I might have picked up on some more interesting conversational tidbits if I paid more attention to the conversations happening in the space.

Finally, I spent more than two thirds of the observational time with my back to some of the space. To avoid losing sight of half a space, I might try to slightly alter my physical positions in the space throughout my observational period to ensure I’m getting a complete snapshot.

Overall, I enjoyed my research practice a great deal. Hopefully, I can use these techniques when I visit some new churches and church services later in the semester!

Student Center Observations: Two Scenes (Post 2)

As I stated previously, I will periodically post about my research methodology and practice to make my research transparent for all interested in my developing project. In class on Tuesday, March 3, we ventured to the student center to practice taking ethnographic field notes.

My class’s second task for making use of our field notes was to take our jottings/translations and develop two scenes. I wasn’t sure what the difference between translated notes and scenes were, but thankfully, Dr. Wolff reminded me of the following:

I selected two excerpts from my field notes that I did not write about in my original translations post because I focused more on surroundings. These two “characters” stood out to me, though, so I decided to use the observations about them to craft details, “lushly” described scenes.

Scene 1

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He entered the ground floor of the student center through the middle doors, swinging them with such vigor that they swung back, stopped for a moment, and then began to close quickly once he had crossed the threshold. He was tall–taller than an average man–perhaps about six foot four. He had his shoulders rolled back, and, consequently, the upper part of his chest puffed out about. For this reason, he seemed to be enveloped in importance and dignity. His stature was perfectly matched with his attire. He wore pressed black pants with a nice crease down the center, a starched black button down shirt tucked tightly into those pants, and a belt to hold the pieces together. The buttons of the pulled a little over his round belly but not so much so that one might say his shirt was too small. He wore a long black pea coat over these layers which extended below his knees to just above mid-thigh. His bald head shined enough to reflect the glow of one of the fluorescent lights overhead.

I thought for sure he must be someone of significance, a boss perhaps. I thought this particularly because he walked slowly with long strides over to the glass case of the quick service stand across from the alcove of tables and chairs. He leaned in, bending from the hips not the shoulders, to peer into the bulbous glass case.

“Do you got sushi?” he asked. His improper grammar suggested maybe he wasn’t a boss but a student who had just come from some kind of important business.

The service worker behind the glass,only visible from the top half of her torso up but also in all black attire, replied without blinking. “No.” She did not make alternative suggestions or share when there might be sushi for purchase, if it ever was a delicacy available in such a casual location.

The man sighed deeply enough that his chest puffed out further and his shoulders rose before he turned on his left heel and strode back toward the door. His arms swung a little more limply than they did during his grand entrance. Perhaps his confidence had plummeted in the absence of his desired sushi.

Scene 2

Chris snuck through the right door behind a pair of riding-boot-wearing, black-coat-clad, messy-bun-having women in their late teens or early twenties. He was shorter than both of them, no taller than five foot five when standing straight. The flat brim of his red baseball cap was pulled low, and, because he tilted his head down to look at the glow of the small, bright screen in his left hand, his eyes were impossible to see.

He approached the alcove of tables and vending machines at which I was seated, but he continued to look back over his shoulder to the doors. He developed a pattern: take three steps, stop, and turn. Go back to walking. He repeated this pattern until he reached the muddied gold wall and rested his back against the two white spots revealed by peeling paint. He sunk his head again, turning his gaze back to the phone screen. In his right hand, he squeezed and released, squeezed and released a worn copy of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. No bookmark stuck out from the pages. Had he been the one to wear in the small paperback? Did he inherit from someone else? For me to know, he’d have to look up from his phone, and it didn’t seem as though that would be happening any time soon.

After about a minute of text message or maybe playing a cell phone game, as there was rapid thumb movement, he looked up and stepped away from the wall enough to reach the chair at the table to my right. He dropped the book on the round top and reached to pull out a chair, but he did not follow through.He picked up the book again and paced back and forth between the wall and the chair, shooting glances to the door.

This continued for a minute or so.

Then, this time, he followed through. He pulled out the chair and took a seat. He changed up his routine even more when he put the phone down and picked up Of Mice and Men. He turned to the first page and began reading. If he had been the one who broke in the spine of the book, it must have been a favorite for him to be reading it again. He eyes didn’t glance up from the page for a few minutes.


He looked up, to his left, and then to his right. His head tilted slightly when his eyes focused on tall young man wearing blue sweats and a backpack.

“It’s Chris, right?” the backpacked boy asked slowly with the sounds of confusion raising his pitch.

Chris nodded, adjusting his hat just enough to show small furrow lines in his brow.

“You just looked at me like I was…” but Chris interrupts him, the first words he’s uttered using his mouth not his thumbs since he entered the building.

“Nah, man, I was just looking up…”

The greeter nods and waves goodbye with a hand gripping a white bag of food from Prof’s Place.

Chris looks from side to side again, about three times. He checks his phone, puts it down, picks it up, and checks it again. Finally, he returns to page 3 of Of Mice and Men.

Student Center Observations: Translating Jottings (Post 1)

On Tuesday, March 4, my Research Methods for Writers class took place in our university student center. In an effort to make my role as a researcher apparent, I will periodically post about my research practices and methodology.

Before going out in the field to do some observational research, my classmates and I spent some time reviewing how to take ethnographic field notes by discussing in small groups the first three chapters of Writing Ethnographic Field Notes by Emerson, Fretz, and Shaw. My group decided that the following information was significant to composing field notes while observing action in the student center:

  • Bits of talk/action
  • Sensory Details
  • Avoiding generalizing characterization
  • Interactions/quotations
  • Expressions of people in setting
  • Own feelings/impressions
  • Sketches
  • Lists

We then divided the building into the following different areas of research:

  • Pit/Starbucks coffee stand
  • Prof’s Place
  • Market Basket Convenience Store
  • Laundry Room
  • Marketplace
  • Entrance
  • Food court
  • Student Info Desk
  • Ball Room

I was tasked with the space by the downstairs entrance and the food court. I took 11 pages of jottings in my small Field Notes notebook. To practice writing field notes, I have been tasked with turning 2 to 3 pages of these jottings into full, legible, descriptive field notes.

Field Notes

There are three sets of glass doors to enter the student center from the ground floor. If I were entering through the doors, a wet floor sign and then the stairs to the pit area would be directly in front of me. However, I am sitting in alcove that is both to the left of and underneath the stairs.So the wet floor sign and the stairs are a bit behind me and to my right. The small alcove, composed of two walls and a single support beam, is crowded with furniture. There are nine round tables with faux-wood tops, and four chairs encircle each table. The chairs have rounded metal backs and different patterns on their thin cushions. Two of the chairs at each table have brown cushions, and two have striped cushions. In addition to the furniture, there are three, rectangular trash cans/recycle bins and four large, lit vending machines. In the corner of the space hangs on old, rounded screen TV (it’s rare to see these, especially on a campus like this which works to stay up-to-date technologically).

The floor is made up of bumpy bricks of brown faux-stone. The walls are a muddied gold color (it seems as though the designer was working to capture some school spirit through the color choices). There are six, rectangular fluorescent lights embedded into the ceiling of this small space.

Across from this alcove is what seems to be a quick service snack stand with a bulbous glass case containing a few pre-made sandwiches wrapped in plastic. Behind the case are two African-American workers wearing all black uniforms and black baseball caps. They lean on a counter, a counter that is also home to a soda fountain. Next to the snack stand are the open glass doors to the cafeteria-style food court. These glass doors, unlike the main entrance doors which are framed by black metal, are framed in a bright silver metal.  There is a sign with information in front of the doors.

Four tables in the alcove are currently occupied, one of which is occupied by me. Two young men (later teens to early 20’s), both dressed in plaid button down shirts (though one is red plaid and the other is black plaid) sit at table that is two to left of me if I were to draw a diagonal line. An open silver Macbook is positioned on the table between them. Sitting down, they are close to the same height, though the blonde in the black plaid shirt is leaning toward the computer a little more (he must be taller if he were standing). Four tables away, by the back wall, sit another two young men (these two are early to mid 20’s). Both of these men are on the heavier side and wear gray t-shirts. Each of these men hs a laptop open in front of him and is clicking on a mouse and typing on keys with fervor. The one closest to me looks up to the one sitting with his back to the far wall and says, “I got the drag for us.” They high five and talk rapidly.

I turn slightly in my seat so that I can see the doors to the entrance behind me and watch the students that are entering and exit. Every entrance or exit made is by a pair of two people or a group of three. All people who entered and exited while I was watching, with the exception of one group, were wearing black coats. All of the females who entered, in addition to black coats, wore either a hood or carried an umbrella. All young women also had on boots, though some were combat-style, some were rain boots, and some were Ugg style. Many of the jackets had the “North Face Fleece” emblem on the left chest of the coat. The biggest group that exited while I was observing was a group of six young men all around 18 or so. None of the group member were wearing coats. All were close to the same height. They emerged from Prof’s Place, and each  was carrying a white bag. Five were walking fairly closely, with a step or less between them. The last was about three steps behind and was texting on a cell phone.

These field notes came from four pages of jottings [Images 1, 2, and 5] from the gallery at the top of the post. When looking at the images in the galleryt, count clockwise to determine the image number.