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What it is
“You can observe a lot by watching.”
This quotation by the great philosopher Yogi Berra highlights one of the important skills creators use. Whether they’re writers, business managers, teachers, janitors, stay-at-home parents, engineers, or anything else, creators make great use of observation to generate, plan, and implement ideas and innovations.
For creators, observation requires more than just looking at a thing and collecting visual data, though. Observation requires a certain mindset. One way to think about this mindset is to consider yourself an alien anthropologist—a curious scholar in a foreign world where everything is new, unfamiliar, and interesting, gathering information in order to make meaning of this strange new world. The curious scholar observes everything around him with a mind and all five senses completely open, absorbing, engaging, and reflecting on the things he sees. Another way to think about observation is to think of it as active reading of your world—reading your world using the same critical reading skills you would use to engage in a work of literature. Making meaning of literature is less about asking “What’s the point of this work?” and more about exploring the possible questions and meanings of a work, and how it connects to other areas of your life and the world.
Effective observation also requires good note-taking. Creators often use a journal to take “field notes” on their observations. Specifically, field notes record the immediate, raw sensory data about the thing being observed, and quick, on-the-fly reflections on the thing being observed.
The alien anthropology assignment will invite you to practice the all-important skill of observation by observing your own worlds with this mindset, and recording field notes on things that grab your attention. Later in this course, you’ll sift through these field notes and other pieces of writing to locate the subject that you’ll develop into a story or short collection of poems.
What to do
Observe your everyday world with a receptive, curious eye. Focus on finding something familiar in what at first appears foreign to you, or finding something unfamiliar in what at first appears ordinary. (Once you adopt the proper mindset, you’ll experience this phenomenon everywhere you go.) When you find one of these “somethings” that really grabs your attention, write down a description of it that captures your immediate impressions. These descriptions are your field notes. The something that you write about can be just about anything, so long as it’s a tangible, physical thing: a person or people, an object, a place, an event you witnessed firsthand.
Your field notes should not be formal pieces of prose—you don’t need to outline, draft, revise, etc. You’re trying to capture your immediate impressions on the familiar in the foreign, or the unfamiliar in the ordinary, so all you need to write are detailed, copious notes. Absorb and jot down all the physical details you possibly can that illustrate what’s familiar about the foreign “something,” or what’s unfamiliar about the ordinary “something.” You might focus on the way a thing looks, moves, sits, talks, feels, smells, sounds, etc., and details of the surroundings, too, if that’s important. In any case, be as specific and vivid in your notes as you can, using as many of your five senses as possible.
Your field notes SHOULD NOT BE WRITTEN IN LIST FORM. Why? Because when we write in “list-mode,” we automatically limit our thinking to very short list items instead of letting our creative brains do their thing with descriptions, etc.
After you’ve recorded the sensory details of your something, jot down a few more notes that reflect on its abstract meaning. Why did this thing grab your attention? What broad questions, ideas, problems, or issues does it raise for you? What might this thing say about a person, or a community, or a shared behavior? These questions are only suggestions; you don’t have to respond to each of them in your notes, and you’re welcome to formulate your own questions/responses. The point of this part of your field notes is simply to record some quick, abstract reflection on the significance of the something you just observed.
How it should look
- Your completed assignment should have at least five entries.
- Title each entry with the date of the observation, the name of the observed something, and the location. (For example: “9/1/2016, french fries swimming in mayonnaise, Hawk Haven.”)
- This assignment should be typed. You can single-space this assignment. All other formatting guidelines apply (see the syllabus).
- Leave enough space between each entry so that it’s easy to tell where one ends and another begins.
- There is no length requirement for your entries—being exhaustively detailed is the most important thing, and illuminating the familiar in the foreign or the unfamiliar in the ordinary. As a loose guideline, though, shoot for at least one half page of notes for each something you write about.
What to turn in
- Submit your assignment to the Alien Anthropology discussion thread on our Canvas site.
How it’s graded
I’m primarily looking for entries that use exhaustive detail of the something you’re describing and its surroundings that uses all five senses, and that illustrate the familiar in the foreign or the unfamiliar in the ordinary. Of course, I’ll also check to see that you’ve adhered to the other requirements spelled out in this handout, including formatting requirements.