Monday, November 19, 2007

tale of four surveys

Every time I have a NewsTalk class, I ask it to choose its own subject, read a bit about it, devise questions, and then go out and start with people, asking them their opinions about any given topic. Students, being eager to double up in a busy-workload term, often pick something at least tangentally related to what they are doing in their other classes; this explains why two of these have to do with business plans. But I also think they recognized the news value of both Wal-Mart and Starbucks, and wanted to know more about them. I freely encouraged them to go after whatever they wanted, as opposed to, say, going after what Imight have wanted, like blogs, or, say, YouTube.

In any case, we got the topics, we went out and asked people questions that were at the same time straightforward, and edgy, and then we saw what happened. In one case people actually started a fight. You have no idea how controversial a topic like Wal-Mart can be. Here is a review of the surveys:

1. WalMart & Unions Survey, Survey results, total group experience.

This group found a surprising diversity of opinions about WalMart; some were not aware at all of the union situation, or the underlying current of pro-union, anti-union sentiment swirling around the opening of WalMarts. This survey happened also at a time when a Kroger which had been a west-side staple for 20 or 30 years was closing, basically due to WalMart.

2. WalMart business plan: Survey, Survey results, total impressions.

As I reread this group's work, I'm struck by its member's willingness to post without checking grammar or spelling. Many of its posts, also, ended up on the main class weblog, which was the wrong one. Nevertheless the posts show authentic feelings about the situation, authentic findings, direct experience, and of course, unaltered grammar and spelling.

3. Starbucks business plan: Survey, Survey result, total impressions.

This group's main finding was that midwesterners are largely ignorant of any west-coast brouhaha over Starbucks' faux environmentalism. To the midwest, Starbucks is a breath of fresh coffee, and it struck us as pricey maybe but was still a welcome addition to an otherwise drab set of choices. On top of which, the local campus outlet has really nice people, who treat internationals really well, by the way. This was the group that was really after the question, what if you're young, into business, and want to make a quick 20 mil? What's the secret?

4. Guns & Crime: Survey, Survey results, total impressions.

This group was kind of floored by crime in general in the US; after about a half a term reading news headlines, they just couldn't get over how much guns were a part of our everyday news experience. Coming from countries like Japan and Saudi Arabia, they couldn't even see why we'd want to leave them legal for another minute. But they found an interview with John Lott, Jr., or rather, maybe I found it for them, and this gave them a little of the convoluted reasoning that allows guns to remain in our blood-soaked modern world. Fortunately, for the most part, they saw right through it, and so did the people they talked to. But, to their surprise, people were not more likely to want a gun when they moved to a city; on the contrary, guns are overall more useful, if you're in a place like this, and have wild animals chomping on your chickens every time you turn around. The fact is, American familiarity with guns, love & respect of guns, comes directly from the country and its overwhelmingly rural heritage. They're like peach pie and whipped cream- easy to see why you shouldn't have them anymore, but a little harder to give up.

One thing I like about the groups, that I didn't mention, is that they have a way of taking over both the website and the survey results; in two cases, they were presented very well, in such a way that I couldn't have done myself. It brings up a point about teaching: that sometimes the best results come from the most successful backing out, on the part of the teacher, leaving the remaining folks to do the work, learn, produce, and present the results. I wish every group could turn out like that!

By the way the upcoming CESL Today may have some of the work of this interesting NewsTalk crowd, but if it doesn't, the online version will certainly be connected to their weblogs, thus ensuring that their work will not fade away entirely. To me, perhaps the most interesting aspect of these surveys is that they provide a literal snapshot of American culture, as seen by impartial observers, at a point in time, split over any given set of issues; the students truly have very few preconceived notions, nothing to copy from in writing their impressions, and thus give bold, straightforward though cautious accounts of the process of collecting opinions.

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