What it is
“You can observe a lot by watching.”
This quotation by the great philosopher Yogi Berra highlights one of the important skills creators use. Whether they’re writers, business managers, teachers, janitors, stay-at-home parents, engineers, or anything else, creators make great use of observation to generate, plan, and implement ideas and innovations.
For creators, observation requires more than just looking at a thing and collecting visual data, though. Observation requires a certain mindset. One way to think about this mindset is to consider yourself an alien anthropologist—a curious scholar in a foreign world where everything is new, unfamiliar, and interesting, gathering information in order to make meaning of this strange new world. The curious scholar observes everything around him with a mind and all five senses completely open, absorbing, engaging, and reflecting on the things he sees. Another way to think about observation is to think of it as active reading of your world—reading your world using the same critical reading skills you would use to engage in a work of literature. Making meaning of literature is less about asking “What’s the point of this work?” and more about exploring the possible questions and meanings of a work, and how it connects to other areas of your life and the world.
Effective observation also requires good note-taking. Creators often use a journal to take “field notes” on their observations. Specifically, field notes record the immediate, raw sensory data about the thing being observed, and quick, on-the-fly reflections on the thing being observed.
The alien anthropology assignment will invite you to practice the all-important skill of observation by observing your own worlds with this mindset, and recording field notes on things that grab your attention. Later in this course, you’ll sift through these field notes and other pieces of writing to locate the subject that you’ll develop into a story or short collection of poems.
What to do
Observe your everyday world with a receptive, curious eye. Focus on finding something familiar in what at first appears foreign to you, or finding something unfamiliar in what at first appears ordinary. (Once you adopt the proper mindset, you’ll experience this phenomenon everywhere you go.) When you find one of these “somethings” that really grabs your attention, write down a description of it that captures your immediate impressions. These descriptions are your field notes. The something that you write about can be just about anything, so long as it’s a tangible, physical thing: a person or people, an object, a place, an event you witnessed firsthand.
Your field notes should not be formal pieces of prose—you don’t need to outline, draft, revise, etc. You’re trying to capture your immediate impressions on the familiar in the foreign, or the unfamiliar in the ordinary, so all you need to write are detailed, copious notes. Absorb and jot down all the physical details you possibly can that illustrate what’s familiar about the foreign “something,” or what’s unfamiliar about the ordinary “something.” You might focus on the way a thing looks, moves, sits, talks, feels, smells, sounds, etc., and details of the surroundings, too, if that’s important. In any case, be as specific and vivid in your notes as you can, using as many of your five senses as possible.
Your field notes SHOULD NOT BE WRITTEN IN LIST FORM. Why? Because when we write in “list-mode,” we automatically limit our thinking to very short list items instead of letting our creative brains do their thing with descriptions, etc.
After you’ve recorded the sensory details of your something, jot down a few more notes that reflect on its abstract meaning. Why did this thing grab your attention? What broad questions, ideas, problems, or issues does it raise for you? What might this thing say about a person, or a community, or a shared behavior? These questions are only suggestions; you don’t have to respond to each of them in your notes, and you’re welcome to formulate your own questions/responses. The point of this part of your field notes is simply to record some quick, abstract reflection on the significance of the something you just observed.Below are several examples of how previous students in this class have completed the Alien
Anthropology assignment. These are not necessarily perfect examples to model, but they do highlight
most of the important assignment requirements that many students do not follow through on. In
particular, note how the following examples:

Are not written in well-crafted, polished sentences. They’re true “field notes,” or they are
quickly-written, unrevised, “raw” sentences. You should be focusing on the “something” you’re
describing, not on how pretty you can make your sentences.
Incorporate lots of sensory details—as many of the five senses in each entry as the authors are
able to include.
Offer some sort of reflection on the deeper or larger significance of the “something” being
observed. Sometimes the reflections are questions, sometimes they’re observations, but they
always try to look deeper into the “something” being observed to come away with curious
thoughts, ideas, or questions to ponder.
Aren’t written from the point of view of an actual alien. “Alien Anthropology” doesn’t mean you
should write as a literal alien. It means you should be in the world but not of it. It means you
should view your familiar world with the eyes of a thoughtful, curious visitor to your world. Step
outside your own skin and see your familiar world in an unfamiliar way. See it again for the first
9/8/17 6:09 am – A Cup of Coffee
The container is red and taller than it is wide. It has a square-shaped base and a projection from the left
side that is not heated by the contents as the rest of the container is. The black liquid reaches almost to
the dimple on the inside of the container where the top of the projection inserts. The container is heavy
for its size. The liquid has a woody sweet smell. Tastes bitter. When the mug is moved the liquid laps at
the top of the container, but does not spill over. A small plume of steam leaves the top of the liquid and
quickly dissipates. The light above reflects off of the black surface, creating some pockets of black that
are lighter than others. The liquid looks and feels heavier than water, but appears to have the same
This square mug filled with coffee represents calm. It does not make noise, does not cause pain or worry
or excitement. It just is. The way the surface of the coffee jumps each time there is a movement
elsewhere on the table, as well as its warmth and soothing smell, make it calming for an observer to
7/14/2018 Giant trash disposal behind my job
It sits on the hot concrete that is covered in spilled food from the food court. Covered in a moldy, body
odor, cardboard smell. The base color of the trash disposal is beige-yellow. There are red and black paint
scrapes after being loaded and unloaded onto trucks. It feels like it was sanded by a giant piece of rust.
As I run my hand near the doors latch I am reminded that I am grateful to be up-to-date with my tetanus
vaccine. I hear the mall cops driving through the parking lot. So loud going over the potholes that
probably made them wince. When you turn the key to start the compaction process, it sounds like a
loud clothes dryer. This object grabs my attention because of its ability to carry so much weight without
breaking. Half of the stores in the mall use this dumpster and each time you use it you cannot tell how
many loads of trash have been thrown in it. This trash disposal could be symbolic of a depressed person.
This disposal gets loads of trash thrown in it daily but compacts it all so the next person to approach
can’t actually tell how much it has dealt with. Like how a depressed person suppresses the loads they
deal with so nobody can see the pain.
4 September 2017. House with bike in front. Outside of my childhood home.
I found myself parked outside of my old childhood home. It still looks the same with its red bricks and
green shutters, door, and mailbox. The friendly black metal rooster weathervane still perched on top of
the garage. The wind is blowing northeast. I roll down my car window and a breeze that smells like
home meets my face. Like the first breeze of spring, or oxygen straight from a tree. The familiar
Japanese Cherry Blossom tree waves at me through the wind, like it wants me to climb it again. The song
of cicadas and crickets everywhere. Remembering their unconventional pattern of chirps as I drifted off
to sleep each night. My eyes shift out of focus as I see myself, 15 years ago, running carelessly from the
front door into the open fields of green. I see myself laying on the rocky driveway as I gazed up at the
stars. Now, there is a small bike laying on its side in a sea of grass that is the front yard. The bike had a
vibrantly pink shade along the handles and body of the bike. It was littered with glitter that made it hard
to look at in the sun. It had a white basket with purple flowers blooming from the side. The basket was
so small that you couldn’t even fit a small book inside. Must be for decoration. Everything about the
house fit my memories perfectly besides this bike. This bike belongs to the family who now resides in my
childhood home. They are making new memories on top of our old memories. Do the halls still
remember echoing my laughter off its walls? Does the kitchen still smell of warm apple pie in the
summer? Does the living room still have a crater in the wall from when my brother and I played baseball
inside? Why is our childhood home the capital of our memories?
07.12.18, headaches, at home
My head is throbbing. I hear my dad scraping up the floor below. My stress relieving candle from Bath
and Body works seem to be doing no good. At least it smells nice. I cannot find words to describe how it
smells. I will get back to you on that though. I have the sweet taste of a homemade buckeye in my
mouth that won’t leave despite the gallons of water I drink to wash it away. I just finished a book. It was
pretty epic and kind of life changing. With each letter I type my head pulsates a little bit harder it feels
like. The flowers on my dresser look more sad than normal. I wonder what kind of life journey they had.
Where did they come from? Who hand picked them? And how in the world did they end up in my
room? They remind me of my Nanny. Oh Lord, whenever I think of my Nanny I can smell moth balls. I
associate moth balls with old people now if you were wondering. Flowers and moth balls. I can almost
taste the moth balls now. Yep, there goes another gallon of water to wash down that mothball and
buckeye taste. I feel myself slipping under my covers, the candle flickering, the smell of it filling the
room, and my body is demanding me to rest. I think I will reread that book. That life changing book.
What is it about reading that makes you want to up and change everything. The smell of the crisp new
pages gliding through my fingers makes me feel at home. So, I think I will read again until I fall deep into
a trance. Goodnight.
9-6-17, leather with five dollars and my license, the chair in the corner
I don’t know why, but I just took my wallet out to check how much money I have in it. I’m not
even at a restaurant or store, and I’m not planning to go to one either. So I don’t know why I got this
thing out. Anyways, it caught my attention. Opening it up brings familiarity. I expand the separate
“pocket” for cash—not impressed. Five bucks. Not even a five dollar bill. Just five lonely ones that all
came from separate owners. All crumpled up and folded in every direction. None of them look the same,
but they all have the same value—just like us, I guess. I closed up the “pocket” in disappointment. I’m
broke—waiting on my paycheck from my new job: Skyline Chili. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s enough to
keep me going and I’m able to save some for my travels. I have a tri-fold wallet. Black. Leather. I’ve had
this wallet for three years now and it has held up quite nicely in my opinion. Taking a sniff, I can still
smell the aroma of leather. Well, aged leather with a small hint of mystery. The inside—two pockets on
the left fold and two on the right. They are empty. At one time, they were filled with gift cards and
business cards to various restaurants and stores. Now they’re gone. Used up. Disappeared. The inside
has changed over the years. The middle section holds my license. I hate my license. The picture is so
disgusting. I’m not even smiling and my hair, electric blue at the time, was styled over to one side. I hate
this thing, but it’s important; so I have to keep it. It’s a normal I.D., I guess—all of my info displayed
clearly to see. Apparently, by looking at this thing, you can get a general synopsis of who this person
(me) is. Well, I don’t think it does a very good job. All it shows is my outward appearance and I’m more
worried about what’s on the inside: the true me. I guess the BMV thinks no one is interested in that. I
closed my wallet back up. What was once long and spread out is now small. Compact. Closed up. The
outside is a little tore up, I guess. A couple of scratches here and there and few loose threads in the
small stitching. One might look at it from the outside and think it is useless. Too beat-up. But they don’t
see the inside. The inside is what’s important. It opens up; revealing all the important things. We are so
quick to judge based on outward appearance, aren’t we? Why do we focus on the things we can see
from a distance when all it takes is a little unfolding to reveal much more. What do I think? Opening this
old pal of mine gives me a unique aroma. It reminds me of all my travels: Canada, New York City, France,
England, Oklahoma. It was there; providing everything I needed. It has my license. It has my five dollars.
That’s it. Not a lot. But still five dollars and a license. Important things. It’s enough for now. And that is
enough for me.

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