On Tuesday, October 25, I sat down with to interview Louise Phelps about displays on doors in CCR. When I arrived, she was talking with her son who had just brought two things to her office: on a jump drive, he brought a font developed from Louise's own handwriting, and he also carried a framed replica of the U.S. Constitution. We talked informally while Louise's son worked at the computer, installing the font and eventually printing, cutting and fitting the small slit on the outside of the door with a name tag (in the font of Louise's own handwriting): Louise Wetherbee Phelps, Professor of Writing and Rhetoric. Louise unwrapped the frame and explained to me that her mother got two copies of the Constitution, one for herself and one for Louise.

L: She wanted to put it up in my office because she wanted everyone to see how small it was for what it does.
[Crinkle of bubble wrap.]
L: Put all the rustling noises away here.

D: Really my question begins in our study of ethnography, this course on research methodologies is broken into four units: history, discourse analysis, ethnography and theory.

The question that is still on the table for me about ethnography is how present and featured must human subjects be for this to take on an activity view of these things otherwise regarded as artifacts. Can we read a cultural pattern through these doors, in this case the culture of CCR?

L: I don't know if it would be helpful to you, but Allison Mountz came to my class and she gave a PPT presentation, and she was specifically addressing at a fairly simplified level a summary of what she did in her dissertation and how it might to my students going into the workplace and observing the space there. And she has a little list there of things they could observe, and certainly the space and the artifacts in it are what she was talking about studying and of course there are spaces where activity takes place. I would think she saw the objects and the space as equivalent objects to study.

D: That's what I'm trying to get at. How featured must the human beings be? Does the presence of human subjects officialize research as ethnography?

L: The built environment as I would call it, that's a common phrase with architects, but I got it out of the work of Christopher Alexander, which is about what makes built environments human. And it's the built environment itself that is the object of study about how it's human not looking at a human being specifically doing something in it but how it affords activity or activity inheres in it in some way. I would think that it is perfectly, purely ethnographic to look at the built environment.

D: Well, I had that same sense, and in part, I'm trying to think about the boundary between ethnography and discourse analysis. If discourse analysis can likewise take an interest in activity and system in the built environment, how do our research questions, by framing the object (either as activity systems or linguistic artifacts) align with a particular methodology?

L: One way I might think of it is two perspectives on the same thing. One is looking at the built environment to see how you can trace in it the human activity that produced it and then that operates within it. That looks at the environment, and not only the built environment but also the natural environment, as it affords human activity. And that's kind of like that ecological psychology. It looks at everything, the eye, the horizon, everything from the perspective of how does it afford the living of living organisms within it, not even just human beings. Then, the other way around, then, is to look like from inside the human being looking out at it and saying from the other perspective in what way is the environment an extension of the mind and body of the human being. Both of them are asking the same questions, they're just looking at it from different sides of the equation. In either case, it seems like it could be read from a systems perspective because the ecological one is certainly a systems perspective.

D: Maybe most ethnography should or does take a systems perspective.

L: I would think so, because they do microcosmic observations of activity from moment to moment, that's the sort of the everyday life aspect of it, but they also place that in various contexts that have to be understood as systems.

Do you know Bronfenbrenner's book on ecology? Because it's very famous for having laid out this kind of systems perspective that is circles within circles.

D: Well, when we read Barbara Rogoff's stuff, she referred to it and she actually includes his model of the concentric circles and the nested ecological systems.

L: That has its problems, I guess, but that influenced me a lot early on to think in those terms.

(discourse analysis...of doors would regard them as symbols)

D: Maybe I could ask you a couple of questions about the doors specifically?

L: Sure.

D: Do you tend to notice your colleagues' doors?

L: I notice that they are covered with things, but I don't read them.

D: Have you ever? Early on in your career did you take an interest in the postings and decorations?

L: I'm thinking back to when I first had my first office. At USC, it was like seven floors up or something, and it was one of those things where you go down these long corridors and it's absolutely blank space no decorations, nothing. You turn into corridors that go off the space and there will be little offices, internal with no windows. I was in one of those. And there was never anything, anywhere, that I can remember, ever put on any of those walls. Maybe there was and I just didn't notice it. Not even names, I don't remember.
Other than that, here, I noticed it particularly, and this is kind of sensitive, but when Alex was killed, and there were at that time and there still are a lot of very in your face kinds of propaganda statements, ideological positions being laid out on these doors. And there were some really ugly cartoons that people put up showing soldiers looking like guerillas and stuff like that. That, I noticed. Then I tried not to notice, so that's probably one of the reasons I don't look at them that closely.

D: Has the program always used the door spaces to post upcoming classes?

L: I don't remember anyone ever putting something on my door before. They probably did, but I just didn't notice it. I think they have more to advertise now because of the minor and they have more courses. In the earlier years we just had the same courses all of the time so there was nothing to advertise and when we did, we just put it up on the bulletin board. Now there's a much bigger publicity effort with the minor brochures to hand out. So I can understand that idea.

The interview continues from here. We talked from almost 35 minutes; what you see here is the transcript from the first 15 minutes of our conversation.