By Amber Janzen and Jen Erickson
Immersive Learning at Ball State University
Immersive Learning at Ball State brings together interdisciplinary, student-driven teams guided by faculty mentors to create high-impact learning experiences. Immersive learning means engaging wholly, or deeply, in a subject. This Ball State educational platform allows students to earn credits for working collaboratively with businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies – or, in our case, neighborhoods – to address community challenges. Ideally, both students and partners benefit from the learning experience. During the fall semester of 2016, our anthropology class immersed ourselves within the Riverside/Normal City Neighborhood of Muncie, Indiana, and gathered ethnographic fieldwork to understand the changes the neighborhood has experienced overtime.
Cultural Anthropology and Urban Anthropology
It seems that understanding the history of a neighborhood is better suited for a historian or understanding the makeup of a neighborhood overall is the job of an urban planner. But what is unique about the work that anthropologists do is that we seek to understand the complexity of culture embedded within a community, past and present. We draw upon the knowledge we collect through participant observation in our environment and interviews with community members to arrive at trends, patterns and phenomena that are unique to that area but enlighten us on a broader question we have about the group of people overall.
From anthropology comes the subfield of urban anthropology, which is what our class used as our framework of study. “Theoretically, urban anthropology involves the study of the cultural systems of cities as well as the linkages of cities to larger and smaller places and populations as part of the world-wide urban system.” Going beyond traditional methods of anthropology, such as participant observation and interviews, urban anthropology relies upon a wide variety of sources to grasp the realities our area of study.
Urban anthropologists are therefore required to extend their scope, develop new skills, and to take written materials, surveys, historical studies, novels and other sources into account. The challenge for urban anthropologists is to process this wide array of different sources and to grasp the realities of larger groups without losing sight of the vivid description that characterizes ethnography. This includes incidents and encounters, which at first sight may seem to lack scientific value and relevance, but which give life to statistics and censuses and reflect the realities of daily social life.
Through this holistic approach of urban anthropology, we were able to dig deeper into the identity of the neighborhood, past and present. Through our digging, we found that this neighborhood is unique in many ways, but also representative of the phenomena of the small, postindustrial American city. In this way, we build on the seminal work of early social scientists, Robert Lynd and Helen Lynd, who used Muncie for their classic urban studies: Middletown (1929) and Middletown in Transition (1937). We also drew inspiration from a previous Ball State Immersive Course led by anthropologist Eric Luke Lassister, his students, Hurley Goodall, and Elizabeth Campbell, on the African-American population of Muncie, published in their award-winning edited volume The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie’s African-American Community (2004). Finally, we used a model from an ethnography class at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, led by anthropologist Susan Brin Hyatt: Eastside Story: Portrait of a Neighborhood on the Suburban Frontier.
All neighborhoods in Muncie are worthy of study, and can tell us something, for example, about people who live in small, postindustrial cities, but Riverside/Normal City stands apart from other neighborhoods due to its relationship with Ball State University. From its inception in 1899 until the 1970s, the neighborhood consisted primarily of home owners, who were middle- and upper-middle class white families. At present, 87 percent of RNC residents are renters and primarily Ball State students. Through ethnographic fieldwork, our study investigates some of the causes and consequences of these demographic, economic, and cultural changes.