Posts Tagged ‘Ethnography’

Interview Releases

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Growing up in a religious environment, there was always this persistent and nasty notion that if you went to a secular university, then you would inevitably fall away from whatever your prior system of beliefs into a form of agnosticism at best, and atheism at the absolute worst. This was not something that only a few old folks with some sort of sketchy and unfortunate prior entanglement with a secular university held, but a real concern in both students and parents. College was seen as the ultimate spiritual wasteland; a single species spiritual biome where all who dared to enter would be forced to assimilate or abdicate. So when presented with the assignment to draft an ethnographic study of a group on campus that somehow contributed to diversity, I could think of no better way to go about this than to investigate the claims of spiritual homogeny, at least insofar as East Carolina University is concerned.

The first step, rather obviously, was to research the notion of the Spiritual Wasteland, and to investigate any prior research done in the field. I found a fair amount of research on the subject of spiritual diversity in a secular collegiate environment, though it appeared as though most of the research done had been based almost entirely upon speculation and philosophy, rather than any sort of hard facts or practical data. While the methods used in these prior studies may have been irrelevant, their results were significantly helpful in guiding my research. The consensus of the data was unequivocally that spiritual diversity did exist on college campuses, that it was an important part of campus life not only for students, but also for professors, and even alleging that spiritual diversity on college campuses was “at an all-time high” (Mayrl). Now that I had general support for my initial hypothesis that there was no great Spiritual Wasteland on campus, it was time to begin my unique research by investigating the spiritual diversity of East Carolina University

Almost immediately I began seeing results, in that there were several religious student organizations on campus available to be studied, which lead to the strategy by which this notion could, in theory, be proven wrong, without actually having to independently interview or survey every student on campus.  Assuming only five religious group on campus, with a low estimate of only thirty members per group, each of which only know ten other students with any sort of non-atheist, non-agnostic religious belief, and the number of students defying the religious wasteland theory total up to approximately five percent of the total student body, and this number fails to take into account those students who are private about their religious beliefs or who may not be involved with the student religious organizations (WNCT). Therefore if evidence can be gathered that supports more than thirty active members of one of these groups, and if interviews with a few members can confirm that the members know other students who are either not involved with that particular group, or who hold any religious belief system other than one of atheism or agnosticism, if a speck of diversity can be found within the alleged homogeny, then perhaps it can be built upon to completely and exhaustively disprove the paradigm of a College Campus as a Spiritual Wasteland.

This, perhaps inevitably, lead me to conduct an ethnographic study of the Baptist Campus Ministry (shorthand BCM), a student organization dedicated to networking and ministering to Christian students on campus. (BCM) As the name would suggest, the BCM is supported by local Baptist churches, though it is their goal to include any student who wishes to be involved with the organization. () The building that houses the ministry is located on 10th street, in Greenville, North Carolina, on a small bubble of property adjacent to the East Carolina University campus. The building is well lived in, without conveying a sense of disrepair. It lacks the sort of rigorous organization that one might expect from a classroom, but isn’t quite disorganized enough to be chaotic. Overall, it has a very homey appearance and, by logical extension, feel about it.

Walking in to the meetings I can always feel my position as an outsider, though the severity lessens as time goes on.  Unfamiliar with the customs of the group, I find myself incapable of locating the proper entrance the first time, much less passing as someone who belongs. Of course, the members of the group were friendly and accommodating, helping me through the awkwardness of the initial meetings and trying their best to bring me into the fold and by the end I really did feel as though I had become a part of the group: perhaps I had not reached a point where I might have been considered an insider, but I certainly was not looking from the outside in anymore.

To completely understand the group, it helps to begin with a fundamental understanding of the object that serves as the nucleus of society for which the BCM is a microcosm:  The Bible. One of the bestselling and most hotly debated books in publication, the Bible has almost as much speculation as to its origins as it has content. The book is broken down into two large sections called “Testaments,” which can be divided again into “Books,” and further subdivided into “Chapters” and “Verses.”   These books are generally rather hefty tomes, especially considering that the raw content is often supplemented with some form of study aid, including cross references to other relevant portions of the text, as well as common interpretations of the words within.  The real value in analyzing this artifact, however, does not come from its structure, but from its content.

One of the fundamental questions that may be answered, or at the least speculated about, is the origin of the Spiritual Wasteland notion. What about the teachings in this book make them, allegedly, so incompatible with the life of a college student, and how, then, have the members of the Baptist Campus Ministry reconciled their spirituality with this alleged incongruity? Judging by the opinions gathered by interviewing the Campus Minister, John Ridley, and the Student President, Casey Harris, one of the biggest problems with maintaining a Christian lifestyle on a college campus is that of self-control. Both interviewees mentioned the reputation of ECU as a party school as contributory to the difficulty of maintaining this particular type of spirituality on campus. The sort of wild debauchery that many individuals have come to associate with the undergraduate experience stands at a stark contrast with the principles of moderation and abstinence espoused in Christianity, though interestingly enough, both interviewees posit that maintaining a Christian lifestyle instead of  falling into the “party scene,” helps students maintain a proper focus on academics. In essence, maintaining one’s spirituality can help garner a net increase in performance in the academic world.

Another point that both interviewees raised regarding the difficulty of maintaining a Christian belief system was that of academic content, especially in regards to sciences such as biology. It is common knowledge that understanding the Theory of Evolution is a critical part of the course curriculum. It is also fairly common knowledge that the schism between the Christian faith and the principles of Evolution date back to the inception of the theory. Casey admitted that the idea of evolution was rather heavily forced in her experience with science classes, and that she could definitely see where it could have been problematic. She personally had no difficulty in learning the material as “Something to know for a test,” without taking it to heart (interview 1*). John relayed to me the story of his niece (who attended another university), who actually had been struggling with the intellectual implications raised by a persistently anti-faith professor, though he held to the notion that the primary distraction facing college students was not an intellectual one, but an extracurricular one.

Beyond its use as a spiritual center for the individual members, this book serves as a mortar for the group. It is unlikely that this particular configuration of individuals would have assembled in a completely random environment. This book, this single thread of commonality helped to gather a diverse pool of individuals and create a bond of friendship among them. Within this group are men and women of all years, majors, and extracurricular interests, though they all have one thing in common, and are all able to come to this place twice a week to share with and support each other. This support system setup seems to be consistent with the idea John presented that having a strong faith is beneficial to a student socially and, by extension, academically.
The group dynamic of the BCM is an energetic one; while there are a few overtly noticeable cliques, none of them seem to be inherently opposite the others, and therefore not obstructions to a “healthy” functionality, or to future growth. Returning to the point which this essay endeavored to prove, if any significant percentage of the religious organizations on campus have the same mass and energy as the Baptist Campus ministry, mathematically there must be a sizeable portion of the ECU student body involved in some sort of religious activity, and this estimating completely fails to take into account the potential for students not directly involved with a group or member of a group.

So here I sit on the tail end of the study sifting through the information that has been collected, the opinions that I’ve gathered form the members of the BCM, and what have I found? There exists this notion that secular universities are Spiritual Wastelands: Places devoid of religious diversity, and populated only by disillusioned atheists and agnostics. However there also exists on the East Carolina university campus at least one vibrant, vivid religious organization filled with students who are committed to a system of belief that is difficult, though not impossible, to maintain. This group, these students,are the fundamental basis for an assertion that perhaps the Spiritual Wasteland doesn’t actually exist. And while this is only one group, and it is entirely possible that it is not indicative of a larger trend, that the ECU BCM is an outlier, a deviation, and not something that can be relied upon to occur on a regular basis, the opposite could just as easily be true, and after all, even if other groups do not have the same qualities as the BCM, the existence of just this one helps in and of itself to prove that the wasteland is perhaps not as barren as most believe.

Sorry it took so long to get around to the peer review man, but after reading it I think it’ll be alright because you have written an excellent paper. I couldn’t even begin to tell you all of the strengths your paper has. You have everything from extraordinary word choice to maybe the best planned out paper I’ve read. One thing that I noticed in your paper is you referred to the term “spiritual  wasteland” I think its a great term and the way you defined it really  brought things together well. As well as actually writing your paper well, the overall set up and construction of your paper flows very well especially with the personal experiences and the detail. Since you do have such detail I know that getting the 2,500 words will be no problem for you. One thing that I think will be very interesting in your paper is finding out what makes the BCM any different from the other religious organizations and why are they the way they are now? Or from their start to today what have they done to make themselves stick out or just make them the subculture that they are today. The only thing that I am unsure about as far as what you have already written is what exactly is your thesis? I could have very easily missed it but I just wanted to make sure it was there and solid. One thing I would like to add is, as it is extremely obvious, you are a highly intelligent person and you express that in your writing. With this in mind, it may not apply to this project because it is only for the peer review and for teacher evaluation; but just try to keep in mind for other projects like the Black School project that you are far more intelligent than most and the majority of society wont be able to understand some of your vocabulary, even if it seems simple to you. In general, this is an awesome paper and without a doubt you will do very well on it if you keep up the effort you have thus far.

MP 2 Final Draft

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Context:

Growing up in a religious environment, there was always this persistent and nasty notion that if you went to a secular university, then you would inevitably fall away from whatever your prior system of beliefs into a form of agnosticism at best, and atheism at the absolute worst. This was not something that only a few old folks with some sort of sketchy and unfortunate prior entanglement with a secular university held, but a real concern in both students and parents. College was seen as the ultimate spiritual wasteland; a single species spiritual biome where all who dared to enter would be forced to assimilate or abdicate. So when presented with the assignment to draft an ethnographic study of a group on campus that somehow contributed to diversity, I could think of no better way to go about this than to investigate the claims of spiritual homogeny, at least insofar as East Carolina University is concerned.

The first step, rather obviously, was to research the notion of the Spiritual Wasteland, and to investigate any prior research done in the field. I found a fair amount of research on the subject of spiritual diversity in a secular collegiate environment, though it appeared as though most of the research done had been based almost entirely upon speculation and philosophy, rather than any sort of hard facts or practical data. While the methods used in these prior studies may have been irrelevant, their results were significantly helpful in guiding my research. The consensus of the data was unequivocally that spiritual diversity did exist on college campuses, that it was an important part of campus life not only for students, but also for professors, and even alleging that spiritual diversity on college campuses was “at an all-time high” (Mayrl). Combined with this assertion was one that the diversity on campuses was actually beneficial to the spiritual healthy of students (Hill). Now that I had general support for my initial hypothesis that there was no great Spiritual Wasteland on campus, it was time to begin my unique research by investigating the spiritual diversity of East Carolina University

Almost immediately I began seeing results, in that there were several religious student organizations on campus available to be studied, which lead to the strategy by which this notion could, in theory, be proven wrong, without actually having to independently interview or survey every student on campus.  Assuming only five religious group on campus, with a low estimate of only thirty members per group, each of which only know ten other students with any sort of non-atheist, non-agnostic religious belief, and the number of students defying the religious wasteland theory total up to approximately five percent of the total student body, and this number fails to take into account those students who are private about their religious beliefs or who may not be involved with the student religious organizations (WNCT). Therefore if evidence can be gathered that supports more than thirty active members of one of these groups, and if interviews with a few members can confirm that the members know other students who are either not involved with that particular group, or who hold any religious belief system other than one of atheism or agnosticism, if a speck of diversity can be found within the alleged homogeny, then perhaps it can be built upon to completely and exhaustively disprove the paradigm of a College Campus as a Spiritual Wasteland.

This, perhaps inevitably, lead me to conduct an ethnographic study of the Baptist Campus Ministry (shorthand BCM), a student organization dedicated to networking and ministering to Christian students on campus (BCM). As the name would suggest, the BCM is supported by local Baptist churches, though it is their goal to include any student who wishes to be involved with the organization. (About BCM).

Regarding the Building:

The building that houses the ministry is located on 10th street, in Greenville, North Carolina, on a small bubble of property adjacent to the East Carolina University campus. The building is well lived in, without conveying a sense of disrepair. It lacks the sort of rigorous organization that one might expect from a classroom, but isn’t quite disorganized enough to be chaotic. Overall, it has a very homey appearance and, by logical extension, feel about it, which is only enhanced by the friendliness of the people within.

Walking in to the meetings I could always feel my position as an outsider, though the severity lessened as time went on.  Unfamiliar with the customs of the group, I found myself incapable of locating the proper entrance the first time, much less passing as someone who belongs. But in a way, that was beneficial. Without a great deal of foreknowledge I was forced to socialize a bit more than I might have otherwise, an unexpected benefit of the unique architecture of the BCM building. While it may, at first, have been a bit intimidating to attempt to navigate the building, it was a necessary step to experiencing what the BCM had to offer.

On group dynamics:

To completely understand the group, it helps to begin with a fundamental understanding of the object that serves as the nucleus of society for which the BCM is a microcosm:  The Bible. One of the bestselling and most hotly debated books in publication, the Bible has almost as much speculation as to its origins as it has content. The book is broken down into two large sections called “Testaments,” which can be divided again into “Books,” and further subdivided into “Chapters” and “Verses.”   These books are generally rather hefty tomes, especially considering that the raw content is often supplemented with some form of study aid, including cross references to other relevant portions of the text, as well as common interpretations of the words within.  The real value in analyzing this artifact, however, does not come from its structure, but from its content.

One of the fundamental questions that may be answered, or at the least speculated about, is the origin of the Spiritual Wasteland notion. What about the teachings in this book make them, allegedly, so incompatible with the life of a college student, and how, then, have the members of the Baptist Campus Ministry reconciled their spirituality with this alleged incongruity? Judging by the opinions gathered by interviewing the Campus Minister, John Ridley, and the Student President, Casey Harris, one of the biggest problems with maintaining a Christian lifestyle on a college campus is that of self-control. Both interviewees mentioned the reputation of ECU as a party school as contributory to the difficulty of maintaining this particular type of spirituality on campus. The sort of wild debauchery that many individuals have come to associate with the undergraduate experience stands at a stark contrast with the principles of moderation and abstinence espoused in Christianity, though interestingly enough, both interviewees posit that maintaining a Christian lifestyle instead of  falling into the “party scene,” helps students maintain a proper focus on academics. In essence, maintaining one’s spirituality can help garner a net increase in performance in the academic world.

Another point that both interviewees raised regarding the difficulty of maintaining a Christian belief system was that of academic content, especially in regards to sciences such as biology. It is common knowledge that understanding the Theory of Evolution is a critical part of the course curriculum. It is also fairly common knowledge that the schism between the Christian faith and the principles of Evolution date back to the inception of the theory. Casey admitted that the idea of evolution was rather heavily forced in her experience with science classes, and that she could definitely see where it could have been problematic. She personally had no difficulty in learning the material as “Something to know for a test,” without taking it to heart (interview 1*). John relayed to me the story of his niece (who attended another university), who actually had been struggling with the intellectual implications raised by a persistently anti-faith professor, though he held to the notion that the primary distraction facing college students was not an intellectual one, but an extracurricular one.

Beyond its use as a spiritual center for the individual members, this book serves as a mortar for the group. It is unlikely that this particular configuration of individuals would have assembled in a completely random environment. This book, this single thread of commonality helped to gather a diverse pool of individuals and create a bond of friendship among them. Within this group are men and women of all years, majors, and extracurricular interests, though they all have one thing in common, and are all able to come to this place twice a week to share with and support each other. This support system setup seems to be consistent with the idea John presented that having a strong faith is beneficial to a student socially and, by extension, academically.

The group dynamic of the BCM is an energetic one; while there are a few overtly noticeable cliques, none of them seem to be inherently opposite the others, and therefore not obstructions to a “healthy” functionality, or to future growth. Returning to the point which this essay endeavored to prove, if any significant percentage of the religious organizations on campus have the same mass and energy as the Baptist Campus ministry, mathematically there must be a sizeable portion of the ECU student body involved in some sort of religious activity, and this estimating completely fails to take into account the potential for students not directly involved with a group or member of a group.

The presence of a few distinct subgroupings within the overall BCM creates an interesting parallel to the religion for which the BCM is a microcosm. Christianity is not a completely united religion, far from it, there exist a multitude of Denominations within the religion as a whole, and this is reflected not only by the presence of multiple Christian ministries on campus, but also within the population of the BCM itself via the presence of these non-obstructive, benign cliques.

General Positionality:

As I stated before, I definitely began this experience as an outsider to this culture. It took me no fewer than three tries to locate the entrance to the building, I completely missed that I was supposed to get a nametag, and generally found myself ready to sit in the back and wait until the entire meeting was over. But lo, the members of the BCM were entirely too friendly to allow something as ridiculous and wasteful as that to happen. I found myself welcomed by several people, all of whom were more than willing to talk about anything that might come up. It was this warm, open environment that ultimately let me feel as though I was not simply an observer to the events occurring, but a participant. In fact, every time I returned to the BCM I felt more and more like the gap between my position as an outsider and the rest of the group beginning to close.

Conclusion:

So here I sit on the tail end of the study sifting through the information that has been collected, the opinions that I’ve gathered form the members of the BCM, and what have I found? There exists this notion that secular universities are Spiritual Wastelands: Places devoid of religious diversity, and populated only by disillusioned atheists and agnostics. However there also exists on the East Carolina university campus at least one vibrant, vivid religious organization filled with students who are committed to a system of belief that is difficult, though not impossible, to maintain. This group, these students,are the fundamental basis for an assertion that perhaps the Spiritual Wasteland doesn’t actually exist. And while this is only one group, and it is entirely possible that it is not indicative of a larger trend, that the ECU BCM is an outlier, a deviation, and not something that can be relied upon to occur on a regular basis, the opposite could just as easily be true, and after all, even if other groups do not have the same qualities as the BCM, the existence of just this one helps in and of itself to prove that the wasteland is perhaps not as barren as most believe.

Fieldnotes 5

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Observations:

Regarding the Building:

The building is located on 10th street, Greenville North Carolina. The exterior is unimposing, if a bit confusing. There are at least four doors, and neither of the ones that face actual streets will get you into the building. INstead, one has to go into the side door. One of the entrances puts you directly next to the Campus MInister (John Ridley)’s office, while the other will dump you directly into the main meeting room. The larger main room is usually open, though thursdays the floorspace is occupied by Chairs set up for the Evolve worship service, and Mondays it’s taken up by several tables for the weekly meal. There are two flags on the wall, an American and Brazilian flag. When asked, one of the BCM members told me that they apparently support missions/missionaries/a Church in Brazil, and that’s their way of showing constant support.

There’s a small stage area at the front of the room, and a sound booth in the rear corner.

Reactions:

The building is…odd. Not necessarily a bad thing; it has a very homey feel to it, and in general I feel like this may be contributory to the friendliness of the BCM members. The stage and sound booth are really difficult to notice unless the room is set up for the Worship service, which says something, I’m just not entirely sure what yet (it’s quite possible that this is a holdover from the homey feel mentioned earlier). IN general, I feel like the eclectic but welcoming vibe that the building gives off is definitely a major aspect of the BCM, and I’m going to try to incorporate it into my final draft.

Fieldnotes 4

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Observations:

Here on site for one of the Monday night meals.

Several of the groups seen and noted in fieldnotes 3 are still present, though I’m seeing a significant amount of overlap between the cliques.

Spoke to a few new people this time, and confirmed the overall friendliness trend. Still haven’t found someone who has been unwilling to talk.

The same room for the Worship service is used for the meal, which is interesting. The tables are set up “Lunch room style”, with four long tables running parallel  across the room.

Topics of conversation with the people I spoke to varied from daily lives at ECU to our past experiences with school, Religion, and other people in general.

Reactions:

Generally, this meeting helped confirm a lot of my initial suspicions about the group, in that the cliques present are not hard and fast, though they do exist, possibly making for an interesting parallel between the BCM and Christianity as a whole.

AS stated before, the Overall Friendliness Trend was at least partially confirmed here, seeing several new individuals exhibit the same ridiculous level of openness as seen in my initial encounters.

The conversations I had helped frame a lot of what I’m expecting to write about, including a few of the reasons why it’s perceived that Christianity simply isn’t compatible with College. Further independent research will need to be done, but in general I think I may have a working theory in development.

Fieldnotes 3

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Observation:

First proper Evolve (Thursday Night) service I’ve attended.

Still couldn’t for the life of me find the correct door.

The speaker is a middle aged woman, discussing the concept of forgiveness. References taken primarily from the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).

Several members of the BCM, including Casey (one of my interviewees) come up to say hi.

Introduced to Scott, a fellow engineering major, who says he’s willing to be interviewed if I decide I want another interview.

The crowd gathered is a rather diverse one, and it’s pretty obvious that there are more than a few subgroups within the BCM.  The size of the crowd is more in keeping with hat I had originally expected, and matches up with the assurances I was given at my last visit that what I’d seen before was a slow night. The room is fairly packed. I’d hazard a guess of around 30-40, though I have been known to have absolutely horrible guestimation skills.

After the official meeting I’m invited to go over to Arby’s with a few people.

Reaction:

The primary thing I took away from this meeting was the overwhelming friendliness of the members of the BCM. I don’t think there was a single person in that room who wouldn’t have been willing to talk to me if I’d approached them. The size of the group is also a bit shocking. Perhaps it’s just a bit of good old American cynicism, but I’m unaccustomed to seeing a dramatic difference between ” a slow night” and a normal one.

The message presented was interesting and gratifying, if unhelpful insofar as this project is concerned. It does raise interesting questions about the nature of Christianity in a college environment that I hope to further investigate on my own.

Interview Q’s

Posted: May 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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Experiences with religious diversity:
Are you familiar with the notion that college will inevitably convert you to either atheism or agnoscticism?

Have you seen this notion in action/Is there any practical truth to it, in your opinion?

Do you believe that an individual’s commitment to a system of religious belief enhances the college experience?

Have you seen a major difference between your academic experience and those of your non-religious friends?

Have your religious beliefs interfered with your ability to succeed in classes?