Class Notes: Surveying Student Stereotypes through Ethnography
On the ground floor of the Engineering Science and Mechanics Building, six students engage in a lively discussion about campus culture.
“What do they even think of each other?” one says, referring to Tech students.
This group of six comprises the roster for “An Ethnographic Study of Georgia Tech,” an Honors Program seminar taught by Cara Appel-Silbaugh that asks students to examine elements of Tech culture.
After several weeks of exploration, the group settled on this research question to pursue for the remainder of the semester: How do engineering majors understand and perceive the culture of non-engineering majors?
“We wanted to see whether the stereotypes some of us have heard exist in larger populations on campus,” said Justin Bunch, an economics major. Of the six students in the class, one is majoring in engineering (aerospace, to be exact), while the others represent architecture, biology, and computer science.
The group has distributed surveys and conducted in-person interviews to probe engineering majors about how they view their fellow students in both engineering and non-engineering disciplines. They’ll use document analysis to complement their discussions and come to a conclusion by the end of the semester.
The group has already been recording observations related to the question, including how students frame their answer to, “What’s your major?”
“Sometimes people seem to feel the need to qualify it — like, ‘I’m a business major, but concentrating in information technology,’” said Barry Weaver, a biology major. They’ve also taken note of the reactions or facial expressions students give based on the answer. On this day in class, there’s a lengthy debate of whether non-engineering students can be lumped together and characterized as one group — can you truly have an opinion of “non-engineering” students, or is there too much variance in that label?
The class arrived at the question through basic curiosity and interest. Each student wrote a one-page paper on an idea, and the class refined and chose from those options.
“We were the most excited to see the results from this study,” said Barry Weaver, a biology major.
Honors Program seminar offerings vary by semester, with some repeats, but this is the first offering of this class. Appel-Silbaugh, who serves as associate dean of students and whose doctoral dissertation was an ethnographic study, conceived the idea last year. When registering for classes, Bunch said, the ethnographic study option stood out to him because "it looked like it would teach something meaningful." Other offerings this semester include titles such as The Art and Science of Baseball; Environment Ecocritic: Walking; and Urban Studies: Seeking Social Justice and Sustainability in the City.