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Messy Minds: The Autoethnography of Learning

Written by
Reviewed by Maha Bali / مها بالي and Sean Hackney
satiety” by ♒ ♒ ♒ ♒; CC BY-NC 2.0

I’ve had my arse handed to me a few times online. Enough times to realise that writing provocatively (whether intentional or not) is often worth the activity.

The most memorable and behaviour changing occasion was when I wrote about how important it is for history teachers to teach their students to look for multiple perspectives. After blogging my idea, I learnt valuable lessons about how looking for multiple perspectives does not allow room for deep understanding of the issues minority groups face on a daily basis. In fact, immersion in one perspective is highly valuable and more likely to help bring about change. I learnt this after being brutally reminded of my whiteness and the ill-formed nature of my ideas on perspectives informed by centuries of Western logic. Don’t go looking for that blog post. I expunged every sign of it, blocked my haters, then left Twitter for close to 12 months before I was game to engage again.

Nearly every time I write, I learn something new. Something new about myself or something new about my thoughts. Either I am challenged or I work something out by myself through the crystallizing process of placing thoughts on a page. If I knew back then what I know now, I never would have deleted that blog post. I regret deleting it now. I was mercilessly trolled by the followers of the people that objected. I took it down because I was too young and naive in academia to handle the attacks. I felt like the racist that I tried so hard not to be. I couldn’t handle at that moment in my life being identified as such.

Messy Teaching

This is a particular pitfall for Critical Pedagogy which aims to look for opportunities to speak on behalf of groups without fully understanding the group and works to teach generations of students to do the same. A critical pedagogue risks enacting the same paternalism they are criticising. In order to teach about multiple points of view and the gendered and racialized structures that make up the world, I appropriated the experiences of minority and marginalised groups for a teaching moment. Furthermore, as Maha Bali explained while helping me develop this piece, to delete openly critiqued examples of paternalistic writing actually serves to assist the privileged by pretending they have made no error.

Teachers and researchers should understand exactly where they cut their stories away from the world and be accountable for those decisions.

What I now know is that it’s ok to display my learning process (and that things blow over on the internet).

In effect, that blog post was the beginning of a journey, and this article is a reflective pit stop.  It was this early blogging experience that (after a long processing time) led me to autoethnography as a method because through it, I can only speak for myself and my experience. I don’t delete any more. It is occasionally painful, but that is the nature of autoethnography. If I can’t be seen to change and be open to further change, I am perpetuating the falsehood of academic authority and like the critical pedagogue I was (probably still am, but conscious of keeping an eye out for it now), appropriating other people’s stories to make status statements about my own criticalness.

Can the digital be used to make transparent the work of academia? Show people that ideas come through hard work, mistakes and debates? I believe it can. Social media and digital methods have the potential to allow academics to play a very different game. Digital pedagogies could, with hard work and dedication, even change the game.

Messy Scholarship

CAUTION: Strong backbone required

Different ways of doing scholarship are becoming more and more prevalent, such as autoethnography, symbolic interactionism and narrative inquiry. These approaches are considered fringe dwellers because they begin to question the prerogative of the academic. Scholars don’t simply write about research, they inquire into how research is a continuous messy interaction of ideas that changes the researched, the researcher and the objects that are used to inquire and report. The journals that publish these accounts are usually part of Spivak’s inside/outside. In other words, they still play the publication game because that is a requirement of academia but the publications are unorthodox.

The scientific report paper is the product of research that uses the scientific method and genre developed by Enlightenment scholars, most famously though not exclusively, the dead white guys (DWGs) Descartes and Newton. The Cartesian (developed by Descarte) genre is intent on persuasive authority and discourages mistakes from being aired. However, behind the façade of authority lies failed experimentation and rethinking of methodology. Descartes, for example, spent years formulating a way of communication that would stump the skeptics and drive progress in scientific thinking, but instead enraged the church. Scientists of the Enlightenment, especially Newton, learnt to write their findings in a way that would rescue the connection between science and the divine because without it, science had no hope of support. In effect, the scientific genre evolved through the centuries by developing DWG techniques that brooked no argument. This scientific thinking is not just limited to the hard sciences. The humanities and social sciences have been trying for decades to compete and become accepted alongside the natural authority awarded the hard sciences by mimicking their genre through reductionism and claims of objectivity.

What we now call the logical organisation of an idea was developed through centuries of struggle between researchers and major funding institutions. Academics have been trying for centuries to convey their research in a way that guarantees the continuation of the industry. What better motivation than the illusion of authority? The “neo-liberalisation” of academia is older than capitalism. Furthermore, in a massively connected world where people question the science behind vaccinations and climate change, where Newton’s Laws are no longer necessarily lawful, when qualitative researchers are questioning the very nature of “giving voice”, there cracks in this aura of authority. Just as questions are being asked in academic research today about the effects of commercialised research, I ask again now in a more pointed way: What is the formulaic, well-honed-over-the-centuries organisation of ideas actually doing to the idea?

The organisation and selection of words usually means that there is only the author’s intent visible but the author has a back-catalogue and biography of influences that have led to the written piece that includes more than just the theorists and empiricists cited in the work. The genre they choose to write in creates and co-creates that authority usually with a silence on the cultural workings that placed the author in the position to make such claims. This authority can be misplaced, especially in qualitative research where researchers assume the authority to speak for someone else; and even in the sciences when the authority of the outcomes may disregard the ethics of experimentation, such as animal cruelty or weaponising, the arrangement of the apparatus, and the methodology used outside of scientific observation (eg, How many times did a scientist have to fiddle with an apparatus before the experiment worked in way that could be observed?).

But we continue to teach students to write using the same old genre. Essays and scientific reports that can be scaffolded; even fiction writing has a formula. But these scaffolded genres can be so stifling of creative thinking and problem solving. They are the end product. What can be done to ensure they are not accepted as the end? Should students be writing in a way that invites further questions and challenges to their mindset? As Jesse Stommel writes, highly scaffolded and formulaic genres are designed to make assessing them easier. They are teacher- rather than learner-oriented. They are developed within a white, colonial, paternalistic mindset. They are exclusive in their very bones. In my opinion, it’s not necessarily a problem in assignment policy, nor overly enthusiastic teachers who want their students to succeed, but maybe that the scientific report genre demands too much perfectionism.

Messy Genres

Jesse Stommel writes about a hybridity that occurs between the personal and the digital. I metacognitively enact that idea in my own scholarship by taking extrapolations and formalisations of the technique of freewriting online. When I am trying to understand a new concept, Twitter and blogging are integral to this self-discovery. I post random tweets as I read a new idea and when I have an inkling of an idea I write a blog post. Tweets need to fit into 140 characters, so there is a need to think creatively and clearly about what I am writing. Blogging for me means writing in a conversational manner. I like to include jokes and images that I believe better explain my idea. Not every blog is a fully formed thought, but every blog invites engagement with the thought that is there. While tweeting and blogging are not strictly freewriting, they align in two important ways: they resist the Cartesian genre and they put in writing the mistakes of scholarship. I call it an autoethnography of learning.

I wouldn’t like to force my students to make their scholarship public. As I said initially, it takes a strong backbone; however, if you do, like I do, blog and tweet messily, you are probably an activist. You are an activist because you are revealing your flaws in an industry that pretends it has none. You are showing that you are not an authority, more just someone that sticks with a problem for a long time. Being an activist takes strength of character because using alternative genre techniques online (whether through a personal blog, a news service like The Conversation, or a journal like Hybrid Pedagogy) is not only provocative but questions the power of the academic institution enacted through its preferred genre. By publicly displaying your learning, you are inviting readers to challenge or extend you. You are radicalising the democratisation of education by making transparent the process of academia.

Have you ever had a go at autoethnography of learning? I highly recommended having your thoughts sitting there in front of you. You begin to understand why you think in certain ways and make judgements about your thoughts and whether they are interesting, valid or just are.
Maybe you would like to have a go at it publically like me? Here’s one I’m working with now. Check out the comments. Not all flattering, but all of them informing my next move. Invite an audience in to help you move to the next level. I would love to hear about what you come up with.

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4 Responses

  1. Excellent post, Naomi – really thoughtful. Think it is important to write for a variety of audiences in education – access to peer review is limited to few people ‘in the great scheme’ – multiple platforms of social media has meant a more distributed landscape – broken that traditional linear process of airing content to a audience/s. Discomfort and transperancy is good.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Deb, and for the link. I agree. Online writing is a process of becoming. I think there are people out there, like you, that are flipping the idea of narcissism on its head. When people post, blog, discuss, they are engaging in a process of self-discovery/identity work, not necessarily just identity construction.

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