Ethnography as a Way In

Writing Meets Research in First-Year Composition


  • Jennifer Susan Cook Rhode Island College
  • Meg Carroll Rhode Island College
  • Karen Pfeil Rhode Island College



First-year composition, Ethnographic research, Teaching writing, Undergraduate research, Fieldworking


In this article, we describe an approach to teaching first-year composition that is built on a qualitative design for undergraduate research and writing. As writing instructors at a state teaching college, we see the need to move our students beyond the boundaries of expressivism, personal narrative, and argument and into the murkier, messier, and more critical territory of considering subjectivities, interpreting cultural texts and contexts, and, ultimately, coming to see the dynamic and dialogic nature of rhetorical situations and knowledge production. We have discovered that asking undergraduates to do field work as a way to enter the academic conversation allows them to shift from high school writing to college-level writing. Inviting them to delve into a primary research project of their own design grants them permission to construct their ownership, authority, and intellectual engagement of ideas. Case studies of the experiences of five student research writers illustrate the process through which, as ethnographers, students become actors in their own learning process.

Author Biographies

Jennifer Susan Cook, Rhode Island College

Assistant Professor of English and Secondary Education Co-Director, Rhode Island Writing Project

Meg Carroll, Rhode Island College

Professor Emerita and Former Director of the College's Writing Center

Karen Pfeil, Rhode Island College

Instructor of First-Year Writing


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How to Cite

Cook, J. S., Carroll, M., & Pfeil, K. (2011). Ethnography as a Way In: Writing Meets Research in First-Year Composition. Writing and Pedagogy, 3(1), 17–38.



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