Linta Varghese: Scaffold Community Ethnography: Asian Neighborhoods in New York City

Linta Varghese: Scaffold Community Ethnography: Asian Neighborhoods in New York City

Scaffold Community Ethnography: Asian Neighborhoods in New York City

Linta Varghese, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY

Keywords: Ethnography, community, enclave (complicating), polycultural

Class: Asian American History – Borough of Manhattan Community College

Course: This class is a survey Asian American History class and is currently awaiting Common Core approval in the US Experience in its Diversity. The course is housed in The Center for Ethnic Studies and is one of three Asian/American content courses.

I have taught versions of this course at different institutions and as both a face-to-face and on-line course. Students come to the course with a range of knowledge about Asian American history or experience, and Ethnic Studies in general. But this assignment allows them to document and understand one aspect of Asian American presence in NYC that they may or may not already be interested in.

The initial 2/3 of the course covers Asian migration to the United States, important events and critical concepts. I devised my syllabus this semester so that the materials for the last four weeks were all New York based. When possible, I pulled out potential themes (e.g. community organizations, food, education) in the readings that could be guides for the student projects.

One of my goals in general for this class has been to show students the multiple long histories Asians have had in the United States. With Asian descent students this (hopefully) gives them a different frame for understanding their place in the US, and thus impacting any sense of “culture clash” or being “not really American” due to racialization.

At Hunter, which is where I taught a version of the class most often, the racial make-up of students was mixed, but the majority of students were of Asian descent. Teaching this course at BMCC, I had anticipated a larger percentage of Black and Latin@ students in the classroom. However, this course is unusually small for the college (11 students) and about half of the students are of Asian descent.

Given the racial make-up of students at BMCC, I am considering the different ways the materials and assignments may impact students’ sense of themselves, and not assuming that students will have a personal connection or interest in the topic.

Assignment: The assignment contains five-steps/scaffolds which build up to the final product, a multi-media project (using Projeqt) on an Asian American neighborhood in New York City.

I provide students with a list of neighborhoods and let them choose. It may come as no surprise that the most popular choice is Manhattan Chinatown. This is followed by Flushing or Sunset Park, and finally Jackson Heights/Woodside/Elmhurst. In the past a few students have also chosen Richmond Hill and Parkchester. This semester one student also chose Bensonhurst.

The goals for the assignment are for students to:

  • Gather and interpret data
  • Document patterns of migration and settlement in New York City
  • Produce a final project based on primary and secondary research data

This semester I also wanted to move away from a frame of a bounded space and community to a polycultural frame ideally, or at the least a mutli-ethnic frame.

Students do an initial guided observation of the neighborhood which they write up as field notes. Following I help them identify one or two themes that they can explore further. Once themes have been chosen, students generate two to three keywords and produce an annotated bibliography. The final step is an in-class thesis workshop. After the students chose their themes, they may return to the neighborhood for further observation. Students are giving detailed instructions for each step and save the observation, I create a hypothetical project I am doing along with them so they can see all steps carried through one sample.

The students are still in the process of completing their project scaffolds so I can’t comment on the final projects. However, I do plan on changing the process next semester. One major change would be to start the project much earlier and have the students visit their sites during week three or four. The other main change would be to find ways to model the assignment throughout the semester. This could be done both through breaking down readings into component parts (data, argument, descriptions, etc) and also assigning readings that mirror popular topics (food, commercial spaces, community organizations, etc). Though I can not predict what themes or topics students will come up with, from past experiences there are a few topics that are common every semester.

I am toying with the idea of requiring themes and topics that address the mutli-ethnic or multi-racial nature of these spaces. I would have to think more about this and what the themes could be. For this to be done well, I would also have to redo my readings somewhat so that a portion reflects this approach.

Step write ups coming!

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