Ask-Me-Almost-Anything (AMAA): Centering Student Engagement with Ethnographic Monographs

This article is part of the following series:

“Why is this a book?” The student who volunteered this question during a class discussion could not have known how meaningful – and unsettling – I found the earnest query. Their curiosity, I think, stemmed from the observation that each of the chapters could have existed independently as articles. They were also interested in whether anthropologists typically embraced other formats for communicating research, as I had paired the assigned chapters with a graphic novel. I’d like to think I offered a satisfying response. But given that a version of this question has been haunting me for some time, I likely got too caught up in my own head to respond.

Anthropologists are increasingly open to experimenting with form when it comes to distributing research findings. Nevertheless, the ethnographic monograph remains a mainstay of our discipline, with cultural, epistemological, and structural forces prioritizing “The Book.” We have written a great deal about the process, product, and politics of ethnography, primarily for other anthropologists. Journals and platforms increasingly feature dialogic encounters between authors and readers in various forms, including interviews, book forums, and review essays. These thought-provoking and enjoyable modes of outreach, however, tend to privilege disciplinary “insiders” who are already somewhat comfortable with the field and its conventions.[1]

This series, featuring Elana Buch, Cal Biruk, and Dwai Banerjee, [2] is the result of an assignment I developed for my Spring 2021 Medical Anthropology course that takes inspiration from Reddit’s Ask Me Anything (AMA) forum. I wanted to create ways for students to connect with the authors of the texts they were reading. I also wanted to be mindful of Zoom fatigue and the difficult circumstances that have impacted our capacity to engage with texts and with each other, remotely or otherwise. I also wondered how the authors might experience the assignment’s asynchronous flow, which allowed them to correspond in written form rather than through the conventional guest lecture mode. But most importantly, I wanted to create an assignment that centered the voices of my students, some of whom would be encountering ethnographies for the first time. What questions do they have? Will their perspectives on ethnography change over time? How does the process of reading change them? What opportunities does ethnography, in monograph form, provide? What barriers might it create?

Instructors teaching medical anthropology often find themselves organizing intermediate and upper-level electives that welcome students with little to no background in the broader discipline. The introduction of prerequisites would negatively impact the ability of pre-health and natural sciences majors to take a social science elective before graduating. And frankly, these courses often acquire value in our neoliberal universities by boosting department enrollment metrics. Thus, many of us find ourselves facing classroom dynamics that confound our expectations, in the best and sometimes most challenging ways. In my own university, this means that anthropology undergraduate majors and M.A. students share space with students pursuing undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral level training in public health, biology, chemistry, nursing, and similar fields, as well as working professionals in non-degree granting programs. Before embarking on the course, some of these students have little or no exposure to the social sciences, let alone to anthropology’s uniquely humanistic inclinations and outputs. Medical anthropology offers us the chance to impact a diverse range of students through its critical and ethnographically grounded approaches to health and healing. But at least in my own teaching career, I have grown concerned watching students struggle to adapt to the monograph’s demands and the linguistic conventions that shape our own dialect of academese. And I worry about the different forms of alienation and disengagement that reading ethnography can engender.

How did it work? After three introductory weeks of framing and background to the field, we spent the next twelve weeks focused on reading four ethnographies, slowly, with minimal supplementary materials. Before the third and final class in each book’s rotation, students uploaded their AMAA question (usually a set of questions) and 500 to 1000-word contextualization to demonstrate their engagement with the text, which counted as the individual assignment. I then anonymized the questions and collated them into a shared Word doc, and students voted on the top five to seven questions that they wanted to send to the author. As we adapted to the rhythms and flows of another pandemic semester, I converted the voting process to a synchronous activity for maximum efficiency, but additional lag time crept into the process regardless. Observing students’ voting preferences synchronously, however, as well as trends in their inquiries, gave me greater insight into their reading processes and my own strengths and weaknesses in framing course content. The assignment also fostered collective and individual conversations on the art of developing discussion questions (ever the challenge for instructors and students alike!).

Why is this a book? In truth, I built the syllabus around my own continuous grappling with this question. My students’ feedback – explicit and otherwise – suggests that monographs can viscerally manifest the denseness and complexity of ethnographic projects, interlocutors’ lives, and social processes. They have the potential to enrich and unsettle readers’ understandings of themselves and of their worlds through a journey they share with and through the ethnographer. I was struck by my students’ persistent desire for the ethnographer to be more present in the text, something noted and productively complicated by all three authors in their AMAAs. As the political and material conditions of higher education continue to shift, I expect that students (and others) will continue to ask this fundamental question of ethnographic monographs, and our answers will continue to change over time.

What was the outcome? Elana, Cal, and Dwai were enormously generous and thoughtful with their responses. I see these asynchronous dialogues as beneficial for instructors preparing syllabi, as supplementary reading assignments for students, and/or as supplementary lecture prep for teaching. Straightforward and flexible, this assignment can be adapted to any course topic, allowing archives of this kind to continue to grow.

Many thanks go to the students of ANTH4600/5600, who helped me pilot this assignment and humored the hiccups and adjustments we made throughout the semester (in this and all the things).

Kaylynn Aiona, Delilah Chavarria, Darcy Copeland, Keaton Green, Ari Jones, Caitlin Konchan, Chris Kuelling, Kuba Kwiecinski, Rosa Lawrence, Destinee Murray, Alexa Powell, Benin Rahma, George Sanchez, Emma Vittetoe, Renee Watson, and Abby Welch

Christine Sargent is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Colorado Denver. Her research explores the ways that kinship mediates practices of care and constructions of personhood across the life course. She is currently working on her first book manuscript, which traces how Down syndrome emerges through relationships between individuals, families, experts, and disability communities in Amman, Jordan. More broadly, the book situates Down syndrome as a lens for thinking through temporalities of kinship and embodied change over time.


[1] There are of course exceptions to this obvious generalization. Sapiens, as well as a growing number of podcasts, are self-consciously public-facing in content and form (the AAA’s podcast library is a great resource). Most audio-based programs also provide transcripts, although some do not meet access standards.

[2] We were also lucky to host Dana Ain-Davis for a vibrant Zoom conversation on her latest monograph, Reproductive Injustice: Racism, Pregnancy, and Premature Birth (NYU Press 2019).