Does My Sassiness Upset You?: Ethics? Meet Pride in Twerking!

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“If the structure does not permit dialogue the structure must be changed”  ― Paulo Freire
“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption (Freire, 1970, p. 54).”
Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Werkin‘ the Mind and the Body

My anthro vlogging undergraduates done done it again! We approach twerking with new eyes!  All three sections of my Intro to Cultural Anthropology courses, each with about 25 students, did a final project analyzing black girls’ twerking videos that was worth 50% of their grade the last 4 weeks of our semester.

We should treat human behavior as symbolic action; action, which, like phonation in speech, pigment in painting, line in writing, or sonance in music, signifies; the question as to whether culture is patterned conduct or a frame of mind, or even the two somehow mixed together, loses sense. The thing to ask is what their import is (Geertz 1973, 9-10). …

Culture is public because meaning is, and systems of meanings are what produce culture, they are the collective property of a particular people. When we, either as researchers or simply as human beings, do not understand the beliefs or actions of persons from a foreign culture, we are acknowledging our lack of familiarity with the imaginative universe within which their acts are signs (Geertz 1973, 12-13) We cannot discover the culture’s import or understand its systems of meaning when, as Wittgenstein noted, “We cannot find our feet with them.”

The main outcome of studying twerking videos in an intro course was to learn how to do qualitative data analysis along with participant-observation of YouTube vlogging, both of which are key methods used to conduct ethnography in digital/visual anthropology.

As you may recall from my TEDxUofM talk “Broadcasting Black Girls’ Net Worth”, I had a dataset of over 800 videos collected with former undergrad classes. About 80% of these videos feature adolescent girls 16 and younger. Several feature children aged 8 to 12.

The project included:

  1. Basic certification in the ethics of respect, beneficence, and justice in human subject research.
  2. Using college library journal databases to search and find a good scholarly article that exemplified or explained how to do qualitative coding of videos.
  3. Doing a review of two more scholarly articles;  one article had to be about black girls and the other article could focus on one of the following intersecting domains of our study: YouTube, bedroom culture or twerking/black dance.
    1. At least one of the article had to be written by a black female author.
    2. Articles included work by Treva Lindsey, danah boyd, Alice Marwick, and Rana Emerson as well as my own writing about twerking.
  4. Next, students applied open coding or other methods of analysis they discovered to a batch of 12-16 videos. Each small group was assigned a batch from a larger set of 800 videos. They were required to use an interpretive method of ethnographic analysis known asthick description(c.f., Clifford Geertz)

An insight that one student voiced after completing his ethics certification was that we must remember to include the girls in the audience when reporting our findings. As a result, I came up with an idea. I asked each student to make a final vlog and directly address the girls they study in a kind of “Dear Black Girls” structure or something similar. The video embedded above was one that almost made me cry.

On Ethics: Student’s Reflections

If you teach anthro or sociology or to let my students’ words teach and guide your students in ethnical research, take a look at the following video. Here’s a basic overview of students’ insights from learning how to conduct ethical human subject research and reading about the history of exploitation as a result of scrupulous ethics.

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