An answer to the first of (at least) 50 questions about teaching design ethnography.

Most practitioners of design anthropology, or design ethnography, or professional ethnography (or affiliated professions) who have generously visited with us over the last several years, have been too polite to say it to us directly. But there has been an unspoken question, always hovering around the edges of our conversations. Let’s keep it that way for the moment. Let’s pass over the question for now, and start instead by sketching an answer (if you are in a hurry, skip directly to the boldface sentences for the detachable key points, and finish this read in 15 seconds).

In the spring of 2014, when the notion that Donald Trump would become President of the United States was beyond imagining, John Ziker had a vision that, in comparison, was not outlandish. The vision struck John, evidently, at 3 am one morning. It was perhaps in April, or perhaps May. Like most visions that come in the night, it was vivid, but inchoate . It had no name - but in the light of day, many months later, it would reveal itself to be a vision about design ethnography.

John had his vision in Boise, Idaho. Here is why that is interesting. Boise is seven hundred miles northeast, but in some ways an entire galaxy removed, from the buzzing start-ups of San Francisco. We are fully five hundred miles southeast of the Seattle of Microsoft and Amazon. And we are a solid four hundred miles from Intel’s Portland. Then again, we have a Hewlett Packard campus, we gave birth to Micron, and we have our own coterie of venture capitalists, as well as our own start-ups. So I may be exaggerating a little. That allowed, it is safe to say that most of us in Boise were living in a universe, back in the spring of 2014, that did not involve design jams, or list servs, or customer journey maps.

If you are skipping to the boldface, here is the upshot so far: Boise, Idaho in 2014 was not the most obvious place to innovate a sequence of university courses in design ethnography.

Geography is only part of the story.

In April or May of 2014, when he had his 3 am vision of design ethnography, John Ziker was Chair of the small (but dynamic) Department of Anthropology at Boise State University. And he still is in that post today. John’s Department then and now prides itself on research. Serious, scientific research. John and his faculty take a rigorous, quantitative approach to their work, emphasizing field studies within the paradigm of human behavioral ecology. Indeed, Boise State this year is honored to host the largest professional society of behavioral ecologists in existence — the Human Behavioral Ecology Society or HBES. And the fact that Boise State is hosting that conference reflects the scientific energy of John and his faculty and students.

John himself is a researcher’s researcher, routinely undertaking expeditions to the farthest reaches of Siberia — one of those areas of the world that still requires some weeks of travel to get to. He has authored a list of funded grants and publications in prominent journals, from Current Anthropology to Science, and his research rapidly propelled him to Full Professor and Chair (since this glowing praise — and probably much else about this post — will embarrass John, please note that I published this without getting either his input or approval. This is the unofficial, unauthorized tale. While I am at it, I may as well admit that I might have invented certain details at some points, when necessary, to get the story going, but for the most part all of the important details that follow are true).

Back to John’s vision. John’s vision that night was not about research, or publishing, or Siberia, or human behavioral ecology. It was about developing an undergraduate course, or courses, perhaps fully online - that could help open a new door for anthropology majors. A sequence of qualitative research courses, focused on ethnography. Courses that turned out three years later to be courses in design ethnography.

If you are skipping to the boldface summaries, here is the latest: The Department of Anthropology at Boise State University, in 2014, was not the most obvious place to launch a sequence of undergraduate courses in design ethnography.

Here is the question we see in your retinas

At this point, the cat is out of the bag, so we might as well state one of those unasked questions that hovers around the perimeter of our conversations with practicing ethnographers. How did you folks, academic anthropologists, who are way out west, or way up north, in Boise, Idaho, and mostly scientists to boot, ever come up with the idea of developing a sequence of ten, practitioner informed, applied, vocational, undergraduate courses in design ethnography?

Good question!

Well, we can say, for certain, that it owed nothing to the influence of San Francisco. Not to Google or IDEO or SalesForce. Not to Intel. Not to Microsoft…. Simply put, John Ziker had an idea one night. It stuck. He decided that it was a good idea. And John is hard to stop when he has a good idea. But that is another story, for another post (perhaps). Let’s just finish up with how that idea formed.

It is, in truth, very difficult to reconstruct how ideas coalesce.

One can only guess. And fabricate. Usually there are some fragmentary ideas, mere scraps of concepts, and some potential connections, and some of those connections somehow are realized. And there is always serendipity.

In this case, the initial pieces were at least three in number.

First, there was an obvious, pressing need to create new pathways to employment for undergraduate students in anthropology - especially those “on the cultural side” who make up the bulk of majors in the field (if you are not an anthropologist, here is skinny on that: anthropology unites students of human biology, archaeology, and cultural or social anthropology [and sometimes linguistics]; upon graduating biological students sometimes snare jobs in forensics [often at a coroner’s office], and archaeology students can seek homes in cultural resource management; but … the cultural end, usually the largest, has long been akin to a liberal art, with a link to work after graduation that is as tenuous as philosophy or literature, indeed the only pathway forward often seems to be graduate school, but as we know, most graduate schools in anthropology still tend to prepare graduate students for academic jobs, and academic jobs are mostly non-existent or, increasingly, underpaid, temporary, and uninsured).

In short, all across our university (and well beyond Boise State, no doubt), Department Chairs whose majors had no clear, well-defined employment outlets for their students, were feeling pressure. The pressure was coming from all directions: from administrators, from parents, from students. That is one piece (as it happens, anthropology majors were only a fraction of the students who were interested in the courses).

The second piece was the creation of an entirely new college at Boise State —which would become in short order the College of Innovation and Design . The C.I.D. first emerged from the mists in the Spring semester of 2014, announcing itself with an R.F.P. The R.F.P. of the new C.I.D. put particular stress on their desire to support and develop innovative programs that could create a bridge from academic studies to careers — especially in the disconnected liberal arts. So there was a challenge, and an opportunity: Can you folks in the liberal arts put together some concrete plans to help our graduating students pay off their student loans? John Ziker made a conscious, wide awake decision not to sleep on that opportunity.

The third piece of the puzzle was Norman Stolzoff. Norman had transitioned successfully into professional ethnography, after completing a doctoral degree in cultural anthropology at the University of California, Davis (based on some great research on sound halls in Jamaica) around the turn of the millenium. Norman got started back when 9–11 was unimaginable. After that dot com bubble burst, Norman founded a successful firm — Ethnographic Insight — up in Bellingham, Washington, and proceeded to distinguish himself as a professional ethnographer. I have known Norman for close to three decades, and on this fact there is no doubt: I had mentioned what Norman did for a living to John on at least several occasions.

Here is the boldface: First piece — Undergraduate anthropology majors need help getting employment after they graduate, at Boise State as elsewhere. Second piece — A new institutional engine is created that supports curricular innovation in preparation for employment. Third piece — Norman Stolzoff, who is successfully practicing as a professional ethnographer doing qualitative research.

How the pieces all came together

As I recall things, John said to me, one April (or May), morning (or afternoon) back in 2014: “Why don’t we visit with your colleague Norman about what it might take to develop some classes, to teach some of our students, how to do part of what he does? Maybe he might help us create some curriculum? We can propose that in response to the R.F.P., and see what happens.” That is not an exact quote. But it is fairly close.

So, that is the story of how some academic anthropologists, of a mostly scientific bent, way out west, and up north, in Boise, Idaho, got the idea - back in the spring of 2014 - to develop some undergraduate courses in professional ethnography, with a curriculum informed by the wisdom of working practitioners.

This story does have a moral. Here it is: It is not true that academic anthropologists - even if they have a scientific, quantitative, research driven bent - are unwilling to work, very hard, for several years, to develop and support applied, qualitative programs that will benefit their students. And not just their graduate students. This is true, at least, in Boise, Idaho.