“Field trip from home” – Opportunities, challenges and outcomes of digital ethnography

How can students develop advanced knowledge of East Asia and how could practical skills usually developed ‘in the field’ be fostered when travel is restricted?

Silent City by Flora Lee

These were questions of significant concern to us in SEAS as the pandemic evolved. This post talks through how one module addressed these questions alongside the challenges of learning and teaching online for both students and staff through the development of a ‘Field Trip from Home’.In East Asian Studies, access to field sites and overseas study locations for research, cultural and language learning forms a core component of students’ programmes and modes of learning. Covid-19 restrictions therefore created a significant challenge for our degree programmes and teaching delivery. One of the most obvious impacts on SEAS students has been the postponement or curtailment of the study year abroad for some students on our language intensive degree programmes in Korean, Japanese and Chinese Studies.For students on our BA (East Asian Studies) programme – which develops wide-ranging knowledge of East Asia but without a specific language specialisation – a new Fieldwork module had been under development for several years with the aim of providing these students with the experience of visiting and learning in an East Asian country. This had not been a compulsory part of their programme before. The first group of students were set to head out to Tokyo in the spring of 2020, a trip that was cancelled by the onset of the pandemic. Alternative content for those students was quickly developed that year, but as the pandemic dragged on, it became increasingly apparent that going to Tokyo was not going to be possible in 2021 either, which led to a significant rethinking. Mark Pendleton and Anna Vainio developed a ‘fieldtrip from home’ module that combined virtual content, digital methods, and a range of weekly tasks that students would be doing both at their computers and in their environments, wherever they were situated.

Crossing Borders by Catarina De Sa Gomes
The key priorities for us in developing the module was for the content to be as interactive as possible and as engaged with Tokyo as could be managed at distance. We wanted to engage students’ senses and bodies, and enable them to integrate individual interests and passions with scholarly materials into the production of final assessment. The module consisted of ten weeks of delivered content, during which students listened to pre-recorded lectures online, explored core academic readings and other resources (e.g. virtual museum tours, TV programmes, films, books etc) and carried out a weekly task before the synchronous seminar session towards the end of the week. The weekly tasks were uploaded onto a discussion board on the module site which all participants could access. These included a cooking challenge, where students prepared Japanese dishes and reflected on taste and smell, and on food histories and contemporary culinary cultures; field recording and sound mapping exercises; comparing the visual landscapes of their hometowns with the Tokyo presented in cultural products; and discussing mobility and management of public space in Japan and their home communities. Given the disappointment of not being able to go to Tokyo, our aim was to make the module as fun as possible and enable the students to explore new ways of both learning and presenting knowledge.With this in mind, we decided that the final assessment should reflect the ethos of the module, so we asked the students to produce an artefact that would be showcased in a virtual exhibition, along with a short written exegesis that connected their artefact to scholarly writing on their chosen topic. We were inspired by the work of Dr Meredith Warren, a colleague in Sheffield’s School of English, whose creative pedagogical practice – particularly around the use of ‘unessays’ in assessment – has been recognised by a Senate Award for Excellence in Learning and Teaching.


Harajuku History by Bethany Whitaker
 Despite not being able to go to Tokyo in person, the students created critical pieces of work, exploring a range of the field-based methodologies covered in class. These included visual methods, field recordings, and archival work, with themes covering things like urban fashion, vegan cooking, urban wildlife and literary representations. The outputs were impressive. Some students produced physical artefacts, such as a replica of a neon sign exploring Tokyo’s nightlife; and a DIY ramen set made of felt pieces that participants could combine in different ways to explore the history and contemporary adaptability of culinary cultures. Others produced digital outputs, such as a policy brief on disability access during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, a colour analysis of photographs of Tokyo street scenes critiquing the typical assumption of Tokyo as a ‘grey’ city and drawing in both colour theory and contemporary Tokyo Studies scholarship, and playlists exploring the relationship between music and the city. Others bridged the gap between material and digital objects, such as one student who explored the history of Tokyo street fashion by recreating various looks and staging a series of photo shoots that were then presented in the form of a digital magazine. We have sought permission from some of the students to showcase their work below.

In terms of delivery, some weeks worked better than others, with our cooking challenge probably being the most popular week among students. As part of the module, students were provided with a small budget for specialist ingredients and a copy of the cookbook “Tokyo Stories” by chef Tim Anderson, whose long term study of Japanese cuisine informs his practice, his restaurants and his writing. Students were asked to choose a recipe, prepare it and reflect on the process of cooking through a sensory approach, ranging from thinking about the feel of the ingredients, what they look like, and of course the taste and smell of the final product. Tim also joined a session with the students to explore the themes of the week, providing students with a chance to learn about both how Japanese food cultures have evolved historically, been discussed in academic literature and interpreted in the real world by writers, chefs and consumers.

A video game story by Shannon Greaves

Anderson was one of several guest speakers who joined the module, including the translator Morgan Giles who discussed her work on the book ‘Tokyo Ueno Station’ by Yu Miri (which we also provided to students), and the processes of translation from Japanese to English, as well as one of our PhD students Chris Schimkowsky who talked to the students about his research on manner posters in Japanese public spaces. Online delivery did certainly make it easier for speakers further afield to join the discussions, and this aspect is something we may well retain after the pandemic.

The student feedback we have received has been overwhelmingly positive, with students reporting having enjoyed new ways of engaging with knowledge and the chance to be more creative. Some noted that the module helped them return back to their studies after a leave of absence, while others noted that the module’s delivery was more suitable to their learning style, and that the flexibility in module design and delivery was more responsive to the needs of those with particular disabilities. However, more creative and diverse modes of delivery, engagement and production of knowledge also sometimes came into conflict with rigid restrictions around assessment and feedback set by central administrators. While the focus on standardisation in teaching administration can be helpful in ensuring consistency, we would question whether this benefit is outweighed by the difficulties this rigidity can cause for teachers who want to deliver modules that are responsive to both student need and to changing scholarship, including in innovative pedagogy. The specific context of the pandemic allowed us to experiment with form and delivery in ways that would have been much more difficult in ‘normal’ times.

Overall, the module has attracted interest both at the departmental and faculty levels, where it has also been written up into a short case study on enhancing fieldwork experiences with digital learning, available for staff across the university. We also currently have plans to write up some of the experiences of delivering the module into a research paper, focusing on what we can learn from the pandemic experience and its impact on the pedagogy of teaching fieldwork and Area Studies. More to come then, but for now please enjoy the excellent work of some of our students!

Explore the students work