Michelle LaFrance on her book, Institutional Ethnography

Institutional Ethnography

Interview by Sarah Fischer


Sarah Fischer: You are an English professor, and your book deals with various subfields of the discipline of English, like literature coursework, writing centers, and first-year writing programs. Your methodology, rooted in institutional ethnography, however, seems to cut across several different disciplines. For instance, with respect to your methodology, you write that it “collapses distinctions” (12). How do you see your methodology speaking to fields beyond English? To what extent were your research methods informed by anthropology, for example?

Michelle LaFrance: Good question. I imported institutional ethnography (IE) to Writing Studies from the field of Sociology, where Dorothy Smith, a Sociologist, had developed it as her career work. Writing Studies has a long history of borrowing and adapting methodologies, such as ethnography, attuning those methods to the particular concerns of our studies. We deal primarily with writing, writers, and institutional contexts like classrooms and professional settings that so often also focus on the actualities of writing instruction. IE is especially concerned with the role of texts in the coordination of work and other social practices, so it seemed a natural fit in some ways.

But, I’d also say that most methodologies (and their related methods) are in fact, transdisciplinary, because they are in effect epistemological-orientations that reveal our representational strategies as we construct knowledge. This means that most methodologies can move across what we perceive as disciplinary boundaries (which are more situational and arbitrary than we often presume within local settings).  Ethnographers have worked at length in several fields to think through what it means to adapt methodologies to the unique(ish) contexts of particular fields, sites, and practices. My work with institutional ethnography as a writing studies practice is just one example of how we might take on those processes of adaptation.

I’d additionally say that my work has been most informed by Feminist Critical Theory and Community Literacy Studies, which are also transdisciplinary areas of study and I’m guessing overlap substantially with concerns/conversations active in anthropology. I’m always asking how my projects might help us to make a more inclusive classroom, workplace, or professional experience—most of us have an awful lot to learn in that regard. But I’m largely unfamiliar with the specific conversations unfolding in anthropology, so it is difficult for me to say more than that.

Sarah Fischer: One of my favorite parts of your work is its practical takeaways. For instance, you write that one of your book’s purposes is to “model how to carry out a project with IE” (51). I think after reading this book, scholars, teachers, administrators, or really anyone involved with writing or media in institutional settings, can realize strategies they might implement to uncover, or at least interrogate, the multiple realities of people’s lived lives. What information or advice do you hope people can practically take away from your book? Or perhaps specifically from your discussions of processes of negotiation?

Michelle LaFrance: I’m always glad to hear my work is useful to others. Very gratifying. My primary goal with this book was to offer a practical demonstration of how institutional ethnography as methodology could be put into practice and to offer a couple of models (that uncovered a different type of story). That is because I find the literature of IE to be fascinating, but it does often lean toward the theoretical and can lack practical details about how a study might unfold. And many of us need that road map, especially people carrying out their first study. I find it very helpful to have a researcher lay out for me how they have made key decisions as they assembled a research narrative; that allows me to think explicitly about how I read their work and how I situate their work in relation to the findings of other researchers. A secondary goal here was to demonstrate how important our material actualities are within everyday contexts, especially as these different types of stories can help us to think more holistically and carefully about those we work alongside (our colleagues and our students).

Sarah Fischer: In reading your second chapter in particular, I was very intrigued by your interviews with graduate students; it seems to me that retrieving this type of data required asking students in a less privileged position to openly discuss their frustrations with the systems that employed them. For instance, you mention that one student “did not feel comfortable talking about the linked courses [because] ‘it was too much like biting the hand that feeds [them]’” (62). You use this sentiment to acknowledge the influence these students’ precariousness had on their work in general and to open up a conversation about ruling relations. Can you talk a bit more about your interview process with these graduate students in particular? How did you navigate these obstacles in order to obtain enough data? How did you ensure the students’ comfort and safety?

Michelle LaFrance: I’m hesitant to hold myself or my work up as any sort of model of virtue, here because I have so much to learn about working within power structures and encountering and/or understanding my own privileged enfranchisement within institutional settings. I am a tenured professor who works for an R1, after all—we are an increasingly rare breed and I’ve been nothing if not incredibly lucky in that regard.

But I think one of the important things I wanted to recognize in this project was the way in which our shared contexts seemed to suggest that some people involved with the gateway course and the department had a clear platform (and/or right) to speak about the course, while others truly did not feel that they had that same ability, security, or right. This dynamic—a set of perceptions that TAs with me, but others I interviewed did not, definitely ordered my perceptions and work within the course and analysis of the assignments. . . The hard part about that is that no one—no administrator, no tenured faculty running the course, no one involved on a departmental level—would have said they wanted TAs to feel disenfranchised or as if they did not have the right to speak. Yet, clearly, a good sample of the TAs did not feel they could or should speak up.  It’s hard not to think that this is just the way of employment in today’s educational contexts. Some people are empowered—because of their positions, their certifications, the culture, or their social standing—to speak, to feel some degree of freedom, while others are simply not. I can’t quite say TAs weren’t empowered, that doesn’t seem the right way to think about it. But there was definitely something about power coordinating that site—and I wanted to acknowledge that reality.

I think that this sort of. . . strangely unfocused soft power dynamic. . . is often a missing piece of the way we speak about teaching, our choices as teachers, and so about pedagogy in general in higher ed contexts today—work within a course, with an assignment, and with students can feel quite different based on the ways the institution structures a teaching appointment. Contingency creates these spaces that feel very tenuous for teachers as workers.

As much as I am able, I do try to work from a critical awareness of the politics and social-justice implications of knowledge construction in the sites where I’m working, drawing from the work of feminist theorists, rhetoricians, and researchers (many of whom are also working toward important critical awareness of the lived experiences of people of color and multilingual, LGBTQ and non-binary, and differently abled peoples). I’m hoping that my work makes clear how our projects benefit from attention to the materially coordinated nature of our experiences. That is, how we are all tapped into often unrecognized structures of power (such as tenure and white, heterosexist, or able-ist privilege) . . .  as this move allows researchers to uncover the stories of individuals who may otherwise be erased or displaced.

Sarah Fischer: One major theme of your book, which became especially apparent to me in your discussion about the assessment of labor within writing centers, is the desire for justice. Your work seems especially dedicated to rectifying—or at least making strides to one day rectify—academic labor that has been rendered invisible. You pose a profoundly simple yet powerful solution in your conclusion: “I am moved to acknowledge the simple need for better listening and more understanding within our own institutional communities” (135). I am wondering if this desire for justice motivated your research, or if the inherent problematics were revealed only after analyzing your data. To what extent did you conceptualize your research as advocacy work before conducting it?   

Michelle LaFrance: I absolutely see my work as informed by and so informing a next stage of intersectional feminist action and advocacy. When we uncover how institutional spaces erase the disjunctions and actualities experienced by real people, we are shedding light on how we might also then pursue more inclusive and equitable material conditions. As an ethnographer, I firmly believe that action/advocacy grounded in evidence-based storytelling is powerful stuff. I encourage all ethnographers to be brave, bold and visionary about the stories waiting for voice.

Sarah Fischer: And lastly, do you have plans to carry out institutional ethnography on any other sites? Were there any possible archives you were initially considering that had to be set aside due to the material limitations of writing a book?   ​

Michelle LaFrance: I’m currently working in two different community sites in DC and have begun to think through what it means to carry out an IE study of writing and writers in sites that are less formally organized. Historic Congressional Cemetery is the first site. It’s pretty cool—the cemetery has been a fixture of the DC landscape for nearly 200 years, and while it’s still an active burial ground and on the historical registers for national landmarks, it’s also a common tourist destination. (Edgar J. Hoover, John Philip Sousa, Marion Barry, and Adelaide Johnson are interred upon the grounds). In recent years, the cemetery has also become a neighborhood center, hosting a number of community-focused functions each year, such as Dogs Days (an annual fair celebrating rescue and adoption), goat yoga, family movie nights, and seasonal theatrical events. Neighborhood environmental activists have also installed a chain of bee hives on the grounds and encouraged groups of volunteers to plant native species to feed the bees and educate guests about the importance of sustainable practices. But, most famously, Congressional Cemetery is home to the K9 Corp, a membership only dog walkers club, who use the enclosed grounds as an off-leash dog park. It is the overlap of these very active and quite different communities—the Board of Directors, facilities technicians, docents, historical preservationists, dog walkers, beekeepers, gardeners, parishioners, family of the interred, and the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood—that make this site a unique urban environment in which to study writing, writers, and the traffic of texts within and around the concept of community. These groups may share the same site, but rarely share the same values, visions for fair use, or sense of fair play. I’m asking: How then do they use writing to negotiate their ideals of co-belonging and processes of socialization and membership?

I’m also doing some volunteer work in a new neighborhood center that is taking face through a series of community-engaged projects.

I have institutional ethnography baked into my DNA at this point, so while these projects are still pretty amorphous (and the global pandemic has slowed me quite a bit in my ability to join others in their work), the ways institutional ethnography has encouraged me to think as an ethnographer is definitely shaping how I conceptualize my work in these locations.

All of my institutional ethnography projects, to date, were included in the book. I look forward to expanding my sense of how IE may help us to uncover and bring to visibility the ways embodiment (race, gender, class, [dis]ability) coordinate the sites I work in.