Autoethnography and Me

As my final paper for a course on textual approaches to research, I wrote an autoethnographic* analysis of my own tattoos. The paper is my first real foray into this genre of research; arguably, the Fitness & the Academy poster involves some autoethnography, but given that (disappointingly) the topic was rejected as a paper for the conference, I feel I didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and that while it represents my thoughts on the topic, it doesn’t really delve into the topic as much as it would have as a paper.13204669_s

I am, generally, very happy with the tattoo paper, but I have to admit there is a small voice inside asking if it “counts.” Of course, it does, and in fact I’m hoping that my prof encourages me to submit the paper for publication** (gotta publish!!). I read a lot for this paper, and I’ve sprinkled ideas from those articles throughout, as springboards for my own reflections on my tattoo choices. I consulted other working women with tattoos. I interviewed my favourite tattooist – and underwent three hours of delicious agony getting a new tattoo in the process.

So, objectively, this paper “counts.” I guess it’s the word “objectively” that fuels that small voice, which, I think, sounds a little like my dad. A few weeks ago, my dad triumphantly thrust a copy of The Globe and Mail under my nose, and proclaimed that everything I thought was true wasn’t. He was referring to a column by Margaret Wente, in which she crows about the “doubts and scandals that have plagued the field” of psychology, because recent research calls into question the reliability of research from previous decades. Wente’s column is, unsurprisingly, flawed on several counts; in regard to my dad’s remark, though, the most relevant failing is the author’s lack of understanding of how research – not just knowledge in the disciplines – has changed in the interim; it is not that the research is now unreliable, it is that times and methods and even subjects have changed such that the results cannot be reliably reproduced. My dad is a retired metallurgical engineer whose 1966 BSc thesis was on non-destructive testing methods. My mum is a physicist who spent her career in research and development for Pratt & Whitney. I grew up in a home, and an era, that cherished the Scientific Method, and it’s clear that Wente feels at home there, too.

So again, objectively, I know that times and methods have changed, and I am convinced that the Scientific Method is often completely inappropriate as an approach to a given topic. If one were to write a paper on tattoos, using the Scientific Method, what results would be produced? Statistical data about how many of a given population has how many tattoos? Can we draw anything meaningful from this approach? I say ‘no.’ At the same time, writing about tattoos from a more holistic and humanistic perspective can be fraught with tension, if one were to write about why other people make decisions about tattoos. The safest, and arguably, most honest approach may well be autoethnography – as my own research subject, I can rely on my interpretation of the data and avoid any risk of appropriation of voice or culture.

But – and here we come to the crux of the problem, moving forward – of what value is my paper to anyone else? Although part of me is excited about the idea of publishing the paper, that small voice is asking why any journal would want to publish one person’s account of her own tattoos. And if I can’t quell that voice, it’s only going to get more insistent as I work on my dissertation papers – how can one person’s discussion of her teacher identity and how it affects her approach to assessment be of value to anyone else?

I know that there is value in the method, and I remain convinced that it’s a valid approach for my research. The voice will be still, eventually.

* Further reading: Butz & Besio state that “at its most basic, autoethnography may be understood as the practice of doing this identity work self-consciously, or deliberately, in order to understand or represent some worldly phenomenon that exceeds the self; it is ‘a form of self-narrative that places the self within a social context’ (Reed-Danahay 1997b, 9). It is becoming an increasingly common research and representational orientation in the social sciences and humanities” (1660).

Butz, David, and Kathryn Besio. “Autoethnography.” Geography Compass 3, no. 5 (2009): 1660-674.

Similarly, and perhaps even more pertinent in my research context, Hoppes writes that “by placing the writer in dual roles of researcher and research participant, autoethnography is a meaning-making tool that facilitates the exploration of identity” (64).

Hoppes, Steve. “Autoethnography: Inquiry Into Identity.” New Directions for Higher Education 2014, no. 166 (2014): 63-71.

**which is why I haven’t uploaded the paper here.


So this evening, my fellow first-year doctoral students and I will meet for the last time as members of the doctoral seminar, and we will share with each other, and with our friends, family, and faculty, our progress thus far. This is the poster I plan to presentation

The Notebooks, three weeks in

For the past three weeks, I’ve been continuing the journal experiment, and yesterday, I took some time to get feedback from the class on their experience. I gave them ten questions to discuss inFeedbackWDCLD small groups, then asked the groups to share their responses. I figured that small groups would mean more responses, rather than relying on the more extroverted students, and would open the door to more critical feedback, as no one student had to claim responsibility for a perceived negative comment. I made no notes in class, as I’m trying to avoid using their words directly in my account of the project, but these are my reflections on the general discussion:

  1. How do you feel about the journaling so far? How did you feel about it at the beginning?

Not a lot of response; people seemed positive, and no one reported that their group complained or discussed doing away with the activity. Lest the lack of response be taken as indicating a lack of participation, let me say that it seemed to me that most groups did genuinely engage in the discussion. I only had ten minutes to give them for the discussion, so it’s certainly possible that they didn’t have enough time to articulate more affective responses, and focussed on more concrete questions.

  1. What have been your favourite writing prompts so far? Are they better if they’re directly related to our course, or more general?

One group said that the general prompts are good because they can write about anything and even vent a little. They seem to be using the journals as an outlet. On the other hand, another group said they really liked the prompt to think about a passage in the book or to relate themselves to a specific character. My take-away from this is that providing a few prompts is a good idea, since they then can choose specific or general, so I’ll continue to provide three or four writing ideas each session. I will, however, be more conscious of choosing prompts that provide both opportunities. Continue reading “The Notebooks, three weeks in”

Finding a path

I feel inspired this week; I have found the first member of my committee, had a good exchange with my supervisor, and added a few good articles to my reading journal. I’ve also had a few motivational moments not quite directly related to my writing, but definitely uplifting  – I had a couple of great meetings with colleagues about sponsoring a refugee family, I created with Inspirationset up an online poll to arrange our doctoral seminar end-of-semester potluck, I participated in an informal discussion with our Women’s Studies group on “Because it’s 2015” and the new Trudeaumania, and I rearranged my home office so my back is not to the door. Little things, perhaps, and not directly related, but it’s a lot easier to think about where I am in this process when I’m in a good, productive mood.

So this morning I took some time to research mind-mapping tools, and settled on Inspiration, for a couple of reasons: first, this is the tool I used for a couple of my M.Ed. courses, so I’m already familiar with its features and UI; secondly, compared to some of the other tools, I found it more intuitive and I prefer the layout options – many of the others were too linear, which doesn’t appeal to me or make sense to me (why make a flowchart when I can just do a linear outline, after all?); and finally, thanks to the American obsession with retail sales at this time of year, the software was 70% off.

Then I got started, and was surprised when it took not much time at all to create an outline for my dissertation. Granted, there’s a lot to add, and a lot of reading, writing, reflecting, and discussion to fill in the blanks behind the bubbles, but it feels really great to have this visual representation of where I’m going over the next few years. Also, purple, so, pretty.

[working toward] Definition, Direction, and Discourse

wordcloud1In our doctoral seminar, we’ve been talking a lot about genre and writing strategies. Last night, we experimented with free-writing, or discovery writing, or any other label you’re familiar with. The idea is to write non-stop for a certain period, without backtracking, correcting, planning or pausing.

My original intention was to rework my writing from that session, and create a new post (it has been AGES, after all), but then I thought it might be interesting to get feedback (see what I did there) on the brain spurt itself. So, sans editing, this is what I wrote last night:

Continue reading “[working toward] Definition, Direction, and Discourse”

Once more unto the breach

As a teacher, I cherish that special bundle of emotions that comes with the start of a new semester: a mix of nervousness and excitement, tempered by the calm that descends when I step onto campus, because I’m home.

As a student, I’m also excited, also nervous, also at home, but add to the bundle a certain sense of distress that comes from knowing I have very little control. I have to rely on, and trust, other people – professors, classmates, administrators – and that trust is sometimes tested. One advantage to being a player on either side is that I’ve come to understand that very few people are actively working against you, no matter how frustrating things may sometimes feel. I try to remind myself of this fact when I encounter those bureaucratic roadblocks that are inevitable, but ultimately surmountable.

My newest adventure as a student is about to begin, or rather is in its initial stages. After just over a year of the aforementioned roadblocks, this morning I registered for my first PhD courses at McGill.

This blog is part of this adventure. I want to spend the next few years looking into the communication between teachers and students, and how both sides of that dialogue can get more out of the discussion. This focus comes from work I did for my M.Ed., in which I looked at teacher feedback on student work, and discovered that no two teachers give the same feedback – some write lots of comments, some write nothing; some use codes and graphics to express themselves, some use only words; some question, some correct; and no two use the same complete package. These results led me to wonder just how much students can get from this feedback , since they cannot rely on consistency. Even if they manage to figure out one teacher’s comments, they have to start at square one the following semester. Both sides end up frustrated – teachers spend hours on student work, only to witness students glance at their mark and ignore the comments; student don’t understand the comments or how to use them to improve their work.

I’ve been teaching in the CEGEP system for over a decade, and I love my job, my colleagues, and my students. I’ve also been a student for pretty much my entire life. In recent years, as well as completing my M.Ed., I studied as a fitness instructor, and am now a certified yoga instructor. One of the interesting aspects of my training in the fitness field is that what makes me a good teacher in the classroom makes me a good teacher in the gym or yoga studio – and vice versa. As a yoga teacher, I can see much more tangibly the idea that different students respond to different kinds of feedback and instruction. Some need to see me move, so they can mirror my physical placement. Some need to hear my instructions, because they want me to tell them what to do. Some need me to adjust their bodies, because they need my correction to get the right alignment. Some need me to leave them alone, so they can figure it out on their own!

The purpose of this blog, at least for now, is to document my adventure. I want to use this space to explore some of the ideas that emerge, to engage in discussions of practice and of theory, and to do what one does with any adventure: record my progress, share some souvenirs, and have something to reflect on when it’s all over.

Your feedback is welcome.