Turn to the self: How autoethnography could help teaching practice and student participation

Caitlin Kitchener, Department of Archaeology, University of York


Autoethnography is an exciting methodology that seeks to reconcile the tension between the researcher and researched by recognising how the self can be an important and valid site of study. Through being a highly reflexive and personal method, it can translate to the self analysis of teaching practice, helping to generate insight and analysis into your own teaching experience.

This workshop will provide a quick overview of autoethnography and the accompanying technique of thematic analysis whilst crucially giving attendees the opportunity to undertake or perform their own self analysis. Following this, there will be the chance for questions but importantly, the time and space to share experiences, revelations, and reflections drawn from attendees’ autoethnographies.

Ultimately, it is hoped that this personal workshop will help to initiate conversation and practice that seeks to collapse pedagogic walls that construct boundaries between research/teaching and appreciates how research and the self can create and design vibrant, research led degree programmes. It may also feature discussion on how autoethnography could feature in a student’s own practice, drawing upon their experiences to shift them from being receivers to participants.

Chair’s Report

Workshop Panopto video recording (University of York login required)

A key intention of workshops hosted at the York Learning & Teaching Forum annual conference is to engage delegates, creating spaces for sharing, dialogue and reflection. Caitlin’s workshop did exactly that, and as an eager and interested collective of staff drawn from a variety of disciplines, our energy and curiosity were captured and sustained throughout the session.

Savin-Baden and Howell Major (2013 p 201) summarise autoethnography as an approach to research and writing which intends to, ‘…describe and systematically analyse (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno).’ Caitlin introduced the methodology of autoethnography, noting it’s highly reflexive and personal nature. The accompanying technique of thematic analysis was also presented. We were then set up for an opportunity to practise of the techniques, aimed at generating insight and analysis into our teaching experience.

Firstly we engaged in 15 minutes of freewriting on our worst teaching experience and how it made us feel! We were required to keep pen to paper at all times, not stopping or self censoring. Engaging in freewriting proved to be an illuminating experience in its own right, even before analysing the content. Insights included surprise about how much could be produced in the time and empathy for students undertaking written exams! Experiences were shared on its value as an unblocking exercise used to support student writing, particularly in areas perceived to be more challenging such as supporting reflective writing. Caitlin‘s suggestion of setting questions as a technique for ‘self interview’ generated ripples of interest and agreement.

The analysis of our writing was revelatory too, despite being understandably limited within a one hour workshop. We were guided to re-read our work twice and used coloured pens to identify the two themes which we felt stood out to us as individuals. Before wider sharing amongst the group we discussed our learning in pairs, and this too generated fresh perspectives into what we had written and our personal analysis.

In final group discussions the consensus was that due to the focus of our free writing on our worst experiences of teaching, whilst the insights may have been uncomfortable to unearth, they were very worthwhile to individually analyse and explore. Learning and action were key foci, enabling delegates to reflect on the positive steps that had often stemmed from experiences of teaching challenge. Delegates recognised the potential of autoethnographic techniques to support and expand student learning, particularly to promote meaningful reflection and support action for learning.

As a final observation, Caitlin’s workshop provided inspirational insights into the valuable contributions made by Graduate Teaching Assistance (GTAs) at the University of York, providing fresh and innovative contributions to challenge and promote learning.

References and bibliography

Adams, T.E. & Jones, S.H., 2011. Telling Stories: Reflexivity, Queer Theory, and Autoethnography. Cultural Studies Critical Methodologies, 11(2), pp.108–116.

Boud, D., 2002. Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. New directions for adult and continuing education. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ace.16/full.

Boyatzis, R.E., 1998. Transforming qualitative information : thematic analysis and code development. Thousand Oaks, CA ; London: Sage Publications.

Braun, V. & Clarke, V., 2006. Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative research in psychology, 3(2), pp.77–101.

Brigg, M. & Bleiker, R., 2010. Autoethnographic International Relations: exploring the self as a source of knowledge. Kokusaigaku revyu = Obirin review of international studies, 36(3), pp.779–798.

Cook, P.S., 2012. “To actually be sociological”: Autoethnography as an assessment and learning tool. Journal of Sociology, 50(3), pp.269–282.

Reed-Danahay, D., 2017. Bourdieu and Critical Autoethnography: Implications for Research, Writing, and Teaching. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 19(1), pp.144–154

Savin- Baden, M and Howell Major, C. 2013. Qualitative research: the essential guide to theory and practice. London: Routledge

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