Digital Ethnography students spend semester at Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community


When most students get done with classes for the day, they return to their residence hall, apartment or house. But for a small group of K-State students this semester, “home” was a single apartment in Meadowlark Hills Retirement Community. As part of Michael Wesch’s digital ethnography class, 10 students took turns living at the retirement community to learn more about another culture close to home and to gather video for a documentary film.

“We needed some kind of place that would be like a foreign culture to students, but could be right here in the community — a place where they could really understand what it’s like to do ethnography,” said Wesch, associate professor of sociology, anthropology and social work.

As a community composed only of staff and elderly residents, Meadowlark offered Wesch’s students the perfect opportunity. Wesch approached Meadowlark about the project, and the retirement community agreed to provide a room for the members of the class to share while studying the culture and compiling their documentary.

Two of the class’s 10 students stayed in a room at Meadowlark at a time, alternating each week. During that week, the students spent their free time, including nights, at the retirement community.

“We move in and we try to learn everything that we can about the people that live there and the culture that surrounds Meadowlark,” said Jeni McDonald, senior in anthropology.

The project involved a lot of dedication, time and effort, said Emily Gerling, junior in anthropology.

“It’s a full cultural immersion project, so you try to be there as much as you can,” Gerling said.

For the students, trying to fit such a large and detailed project into an already busy schedule was ambitious and sometimes rather difficult, McDonald said.

“It’s been stressful at times, trying to juggle a personal life, this project and school and work, but it’s been great,” McDonald said.

Despite the hard work, there were fun moments, too, McDonald said.

“There was one night we had dinner with one of the admin’s grandmas and she was sitting next to one of the other students of the project, and she started petting his arm and singing him ‘Soft Kitty,’ [a poem from the television show “The Big Bang Theory”] and that probably was my favorite night, other than we did karaoke one night,” McDonald said.

McDonald said that while there were a few Meadowlark residents who were resistant to the project, most were very welcoming and excited to help out and get to know the students. Overall, she said, the project gave her a lot of insight into the field of anthropology and it was a very valuable experience.

“It was very important for me in anthropology to do something like this, to know what my options are,” McDonald said. “This is more of a research project that grad students would do. It’s a very ambitious undertaking for an undergraduate, and especially during a full semester.”

Gerling also said the experience was influential for her. She explained that spending the semester at Meadowlark taught her about how, despite vast cultural differences, people still relate on many levels.

“Our society has this typical view of elderly people, you know, that once you stop working you’re done and you don’t do anything anymore, but these people … still have lives and they’re still living,” Gerling said. “I think for me in the end, finding out we’re exactly the same and not as different as people make it out to be — that was really eye-opening.”

The documentary chronicling their experiences is expected to be finished during finals week.

This is the seventh year the class has been offered, Wesch said, and each year, the class spends the semester on a research project like the one his students are currently finishing up at Meadowlark, although at different locations.

“Probably the most famous project we did before this would be our work with the YouTube community,” Wesch said.

A two-year study of the YouTube community revealed information about the way people interact through the website. His students used the information they gleaned to create a video called “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube,” a production that was very successful, Wesch said.

According to Wesch, the students who participate in these projects have the talent to see the unique aspects of everyday life.

“They have dedication to understanding some cultural phenomenon and then conveying it in some new and interesting way,” Wesch said. “The No. 1 thing we try to do is we try to achieve what we call profound authenticity, which is giving the viewer and the subject a sense of wonder about those things that otherwise seem mundane or trivial.”

Capturing the culture of another group is very important, and something that is often looked over, Wesch said.

“It’s like life just flows right past us and for the most part, we don’t really take notice, and what you can do through digital video or any number of other artistic means is to actually draw attention to this blooming, bubbling complexity of life that is always always all around us,” Wesch said. “I think in many ways, we seek ways to convey insight and to bring those insights to a larger audience.”

The documentary will be shown next Tuesday, May 15 at 7 p.m. at Meadowlark, and all are welcome to attend the film and the following reception.