The significance of auto/biographies of learning in creating a new discipline of educational enquiry



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The significance of auto/biographies of learning in creating a new discipline of educational enquiry

Zoe Parker, Kingston University, UK


What I mean by the phrase `auto/biography of learning' is the story I can tell, from the inside, little and particular, of my life as a learner. I am learning to be a professional educator; to be a researcher and learner; to be a better person. The construction of an educative form of auto/biography embodies my enquiry as I turn my thoughts and feelings into text. My research is into how I can best tell the story of myself as a learner. As I construct the narrative of my enquiry, I discover myself more fully. The most hidden and secret values which drive, inspire and inform me begin to reveal themselves as the text grows and changes. As I construct the text, I shape my identity and sense of self and I call back into consciousness memories of my history of being in the world. These memories all seem to be about relation to others. I am interested in the idea that we come to know ourselves as distinct persons only through the exchange of thoughts and feelings with other distinct persons. One significance of the slash between the `auto' and the `biography' is that it reminds me that I exist in relation to others. There is always a gap between us as two different selves, both `other' to each other. However, we also exist together inside the same word, idea and world.

The slash between the two elements of the word also reminds me of Lomax's notion of two kinds of dialectic: the intra-subjective and the inter-subjective (Lomax and Parker, 1995:303). the slash signals this double dialectic in operation within the meanings of the word. As I write the auto/biography of my learning, my intra-subjective understanding develops. As I show it to others and they respond, our inter-subjective understanding develops. I wish to show what I mean by reference to a response by Lomax (1999) to a fragment from the auto/biography of my learning (Parker, 1998a).

I presented an extract from a tape-recorded seminar (which took place in 1992) as a fragmentary text with a commentary upon my remembered thoughts and feelings at the time:

Hurts and Wounds

The extract below represents my first encounter with an already established action research group which I joined when I became a research assistant at the university where it met. I arrived eleven minutes late for the seminar which meant that I felt defensive about my first meeting with new colleagues being characterised by unpunctuality. It also meant that I did not have the benefit of any preamble to the session which might have put things into context for me. A third consequence of my late arrival was that A, the only person who had met me before, could not introduce me to the group as this would have interrupted the flow of B's exposition and the discussion. I remember struggling to make sense of what seemed an utterly surreal situation as the group discussed a story entitled `Harry's Wound'. Harry was a character who represented a teacher who was having great difficulties. His wound symbolised his difficulties. I had never encountered this kind of qualitative work.

`Hurts and wounds' refers to the title of B's story; but it also comes from my own discomfiture at placing myself in the wrong through my late arrival. There are uncomfortable points in the conversation where I apologise for my shortcomings and the difficulty I am having in making sense of what is happening. Below are extracts from the tape. My thoughts and feelings as a `remembered' response to the experience of the seminar are presented in parenthesis. the group are discussing changes that B made to a story that they have discussed previously.

A `...so she's taken that out.'

Z `...and now we're asking her to put it back in? And look at her philosophy?'

(so wasn't it a definitive version that B wrote? Why are they mucking about with it like this? In this kind of work do you revise and redraft in the light of the comments that other people make? This is uncomfortable and difficult - like having your efforts pulled apart publicly.)

A `No she's written her story and she's done it, you just haven't had our original version.'

Z `Oh I'm sorry, I'm very sorry. I'm very confused by all this.'

(I've got it wrong again! Can I make sense of this without asking questions? When I try I seem to get it completely wrong.)

B `You mean you haven't seen it?'

A `No you didn't have the paper' (addressed to Z)

B `Oh dear'

Z `I got quite lost, when you talked about...'

A `...by the way this is Z our new research assistant.'

(She's introducing me. Should I apologise for being late?'

Z `...a totally surreal situation'

B `So to be a research assistant you've got to work out what's been said without reading it?'

A `No it's because she was only appointed and I din't have time to send her the thing and I didn't know she could come tonight, so it's great...'

(Do they understand just how confusing all this is to a newcomer? Do they think I'm dense? B sounds sympathetic. I'm glad A is putting things in a positive light.)

Pam's Response

Zoe, my immediate response to your account is to its form rather than its content. I understand your mode of representation (i.e. a text constructed from a `historical' conversation (taped) and set against remembered feelings) is an articulation of what it means for you to learn. The form itself is not a tidy one and suggests to me your struggle, but the significance of the event described escapes me becuase I do not know the whole story. Was this your intention? Certainly the decontextualised, `edited version' of your life, presented as a `fragment of auto/biography', highlights the broader issue of the fragmentation of learning in a post modern world."

As I respond to Pam's response, the dialectic between my own understanding of my learning which I had moved from the intra-subjective to the inter-subjective by presenting it as text, moves back towards my intra-subjective understanding of my learning. I feel a response at an inner level first, then I begin to be able to shape it into words. My first response on re-reading the text is frustration, even anger and dismay that Pam has not understood the significance of the event. She says that this is because I have not provided the whole story. But I do not know the whole story and probably never will. I had hoped that by writing about my struggle to understand from the inside, showing my feelings as plainly as I was able, it might resonate with Pam's and other reader's own feelings of what it is like to learn. I had hoped that the little fragment might explain and illuminate the big `whole' of my learning, but delicately so as to allow room for others' understandings to inform mine in our inter-subjective dialectic. I had hoped that feelings of apology, concern and tension over being a new member of an established group might remind readers of similar moments in their own learning.

The auto/biography of my learning is constructed within a formal educational context. It constitutes part of my doctoral study into the experience of studying for a research degree. It describes and explains what it is like to learn as a professional educator and as a doctoral student. Because I am doing this work within a community of action researchers, the text is explicitly concerned to elucidate my educational values. In the construction of my account, I draw upon learning which takes place within formal educational settings and within my personal life, where learning is informal and of crucial value. My aim is to constitute myself as a learner in a variety of settings.

I now wish to offer an auto/biography of my learning which draws upon the concepts of a new discipline of educational enquiry as: "...the ways of thinking, theorising, practising or enquiring which constitute the thing itself." (Lomax, 1999:4). The ways of thinking which I do inside the work particularly stress that one's personal history is important. It is educative to consider the lives we have lived and the moments of particular significance within our lives which play a part in shaping our ways of being in the world (Parker, 1998b,116-129). This is the contribution I want to make to the creation of a new discipline of educational enquiry.

The way in which I can theorise in this work stresses the uniquely personal. One can argue that autobiography is a living and dynamic process in which personal meanings change. I feel that signals the importance of personal history for living educational theories as put forward which is:"...an explanation by an individual of his/her own educational practice in terms of an evaluation of past practice and an intention to create an improvement which is not yet in existence." (Whitehead, 1993). I would argue that the creation of auto/biographies of learning is essential to offering my living theories for public accountability. This public accountability sets my work in inter-subjective relation to other work in the field and thus helps me to contribute to a new discipline of educational enquiry. Without a record of what it has meant to learn thus far, how could we look back on past practice, evaluate it, and decide how to improve it?

I want to show the significance of auto/biographies of learning from the inside. From my particular standpoint and from my place in education. I agree strongly with Arthur Frank (1991) when he declares that there is no more time to talk about stories we must tell the stories from within. As an eminent and experienced academic who was faced with and survived a life-threatening illness, Frank returned to the academy with a new realisation that he needed to redefine what he thought was important to invest his limited finite time in doing. He no longer wished to deal in clever abstraction but wanted to work on what really mattered to him at the fundamental level of his being in the world. This is in direct contrast to the familiar academic practice of turning the everyday, lived and real into a problematised abstraction. To work in education now in the United Kingdom (UK) is to struggle with one's commitment to the wellbeing of students against the constraints of over-inspection: we are living in the panopticon. My response to being monitored is to say come and get me, here I am, this is what it is to be me, here is the auto/biography of my learning.

In this paper I wish to demonstrate why the little and particular events of the everyday are of vital importance in relation to bigger and grander pictures. It is an honour to be involved in the education of teachers because our work is so important. The central thing which I would like to learn from and teach myself and the people I work with is how to nurture the individuals within their care. I believe that one way of calling attention to individual children's needs and desires is to tell the story of oneself as desirous and needy; little and particular. One point of this is so that the audience may call to mind their own stories which resonate with one's story and we can bear in mind our common vulnerabilities and strengths as persons, learners and educators. The central thing I would like to learn from and teach to those around me is how to nurture myself and others in the difficult situations we have to live through.

By nurture, I mean the exercise of our duty of care towards each other, the ethic of caring in Noddings' (1984) terms. This also relates strongly to the idea of respect for persons (Lomax, 1999a:3). Confidence is at the heart of creativity and we need to nurture each other's confidence in what is good and interesting about our work. I believe that the communal articulation of values helps to show the strength of conviction and purpose which underpins our practice. What I would like to nurture in myself is the ability to operate as an integrated person who works as a professional educator from the standpoint of my own individuality within community. I do not want to develop an especial professional persona; rather I wish to develop myself all round and be in different arenas in a way which confirms my deepest sense of self.

As I write my PhD in conversation with others, they help me to construct myself as a learner, educator and researcher. There are obvious formal key relations with my supervisors which operate as a central strand informing, enriching and challenging my thinking. There are less obvious shifting and changing friendships and conversations which come in and out of my thoughts and memories and which help me to shape myself in the text. I am interested in the ways in which joining a particular institution as a student is analogous to being a member of a family. It is rare to choose to join a family, it is rare for the new student to see what she is joining until she has been there a while. She becomes a particular individual inside a complex network of relationships and history just as she does within her own family. As I have grown up within my family, I have understood more about the connections between people and the histories we share. I have also begun to see links between the ideas people hold and their personal histories. I begin to see how and why they think in the ways in which they do. Since I have entered the academy as a neophyte and learnt more about colleagues' relationships and differences, I feel that I have been in a parallel situation to family life. Within the family, we learn who we are, how we seem to others and what we might become and achieve. Within the academy, similar things are gradually revealed to us as we begin to see the webs of connection and the points of rupture between schools of ideas. Each little and particular person in the academic web is also connected to the wider and grander web of ideas and persons.

I am arguing that the significance of auto/biography of learning from a practical standpoint is that it can inform provision through showing what it is like to be a student. As educators, learners and researchers I believe we should write ourselves into the texts we produce in order to show our selves and each other what it is like to learn.

I am hardly alone in this belief and have been greatly encouraged by the texts concerning the narrativity of research and the significance of creating oneself through textual practices:



"the journey inward becomes an ongoing process that leads outward to a more complete understanding of the human condition. Self-understanding is not merely a reflection on what we are but what we are in relation to the world. Self-understanding comes to us via our unique perceptions of the world which are inherent upon our individual abilities as well as on our sociocultural histories." (Krall, 1988:467-479)

"By reflecting on their own past learning and the sources of their questions, these women have become participant observers of their own lives, exploring the meeting place of personal and social creativity." (Bateson, 1997, vii-viii)

"the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community...do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other...What this means is that you must learn from your life experience in your intellectual work." (Mills,1959: 195, 196)

When our students teach us what it is like to learn we must learn from them and adapt our teaching in dialogic flow. I listen to myself giving advice to students which they find helpful and which sometimes leads to a real and shared joy in rediscovering what it is like to learn and teach. I wonder why I am not able to advise myself in the same way and discover how to help myself move forward in my journey to greater understanding and fulfilment? What has emerged plainly as I construct my auto/biography of learning is that I have found it hard to believe in the value of what I have to say. I live in a contradictory way because I believe in the value of the auto/biographical approach to enquiry but I do not tend to believe I have a right to ask others to listen to my story. I discover some of the reasons why I find it hard to feel what I have to say is of worth when I tell myself the stories from my past experiences in educational institutions. There is a thread which runs through my life which is a tendency to challenge those in authority. One moment I can trace this back to is the confrontational relationship which developed between me and my second headmistress in infant's school. When I started at school we had a very kind and gentle headmistress and I had a teacher whom I still remember with love and affection. I did not feel frightened at going to school because these people created an atmosphere of welcome, safety and excitement in learning. After a year my teacher emigrated to Canada and the headmistress died. This is the earliest bereavement which I can recall and of course it was hard to believe that my small world of school could change so much and that the change was irrevocable. The new headmistress was a very bossy and authoritarian woman who related to me with the vigour she might have used in relation to an adult adversary. I wonder why I annoyed her so much, I was not a particularly naughty child, but I was often called precocious and perhaps this also meant opinionated. I realise as I reflect on this now that my home background was one where I was encouraged to challenge and debate and we all used to interrupt each other constantly, building on each others’ ideas and responding to our feelings. This was not a politic way for me to behave in school once the new headteacher altered the ethos of the school.

I remember my mother telling me that the headmistress had said I could not play Titania in our production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream because I would get above myself. Instead I had to be in the crowd wearing a particularly unfetching brown robe. I remember that first experience of acting as a drab and dismal time and I recall the sense of disappointment that I had not been allowed to do more. I clearly recall a feeling of injustice at the arbitrary power the headmistress had exercised. The benign authority of her predecessors had been replaced by something which felt very different indeed and which I had not encountered in my rather bohemian and eccentric, academic and artistic family circle.

My focus above, on learning together in dialogue links strongly with Evans (1999) particularly where she talks about her school community's principles for action research which include both developing the self and listening, talking, sharing and supporting, questioning one's assumptions and going on a voyage of discovery. As we come from the same `family' within the educational community, this is not surprising; nor is the resonance I feel between my paper and those of (Whitehead, 1999), which has influenced me to consider the economics of education, and Lomax (1999), whose ideas on educative community are strongly consonant with the values I am stressing here.

I now wish to return to the way in which life events may intervene in a students' career and to make evident how this has happened within my own story as a doctoral student. Two years' into the process, I suffered five bereavements in the span of one year. As a person, it became important for me to incorporate my educational enquiry into my own process of survival. I could not afford to pursue an irrelevant and abstract course of enquiry; if my research did not help me to live my life more productively in emotional and intellectual and perhaps even in economical terms, then I could not afford to continue. I can hear the irony too. I choose to use economical metaphors to express my ontological problems because I wish to undermine those metaphors through showing the human cost of a life defying culture. I would like to think about education in economic terms from the point of view of thinkers like Amartya Sen who have foregrounded the need to consider the human costs of economic activity.

When my bereavements supervened, I had the benefit of working in a collaborative community whereby I could get friendship and support from individuals concerned to help me see my work through. In terms of PhD provision, I welcomed the collegial model which counteracts the truisms about doctoral work as isolated and lonely. I imagined that the period of bereavement would be the worst experience that I would go through whilst researching for my PhD. I am surprised to discover that I actually feel worse now than I did then, because of the climate in Higher Education. Although my bereavements were grievous to me, I was surrounded by love and concern and I knew what to do to offer reciprocal care to my close friends and family. At work we are not surrounded by love and concern and I feel that the government has no thought for the wellbeing of professional educators. On further reflection it occurs to me that I was not stopped from writing when I was bereaved. I found it difficult to write and think when I suffered the initial shocks, but there were not the amount of constraints upon my working time which have now come into place. I was in a better position because my lack of status in the university gave me a certain freedom. Once my position changed from research assistant to lecturer, I had to take on a great many more responsibilities and duties. I have found that I do not often have the physical, mental and emotional energy to do more than the `administrivia' which besets me. I get distressed because exhaustion means I cannot offer the same quality of attention to my students that I did in the recent past. The balance between home, family and work demands, always delicate to maintain, begins to break down as I take my distress home to my loved ones.

Here I am speaking to you from inside my life as a professional educator who also happens to be a person. I work in a school of education in a new university in the UK. I am privileged beyond words compared to the majority of people alive in the world today and I try never to forget that fact. I remember being made really aware of it when Orlando Fals Borda of Columbia reminded delegates of our privileged position (at the World Congress 3 on Action Learning, Action Research and Process Management, held at the University of Bath in 1994). It was one of the moments when you are told something which you would probably say you had always known but you suddenly feel what it means to know it more fully, to own the knowledge from within yourself. So I realise I am privileged and I understand that this position comes at others' expense, others who continue to suffer and struggle in many and different ways. With that privilege comes responsibility to do my little and particular bit to change the world for the better; or to protect and nurture what already exists as good.

But at the moment I cannot feel the benefit of privilege and I want to tell you why. Instead I feel despair that in two thousand years and counting, here in the west we do not seem to have improved the lot of the wider world. A few people have got hold of more staggering material wealth. In the UK, the gap between the rich and the poor has overtaken the gap which obtains in the United States. Education has not done enough to combat the injustice which still prevails. This highlights, for me, the relationship between the little and the big: between our particular contexts within education and a grander idea of the purpose of education as literally to lead out from obscurity to public knowledge and criticism and from the little to the big. If, as educators, we are not getting it `right' in the little context in which we work, how are we informing wider arenas, such as the notion of creating a new discipline of educational enquiry?

As the auto/biography of learning is both the means and the end of my enquiry, I am mindful of links back to past experience. I remember occasions in my schooling which were critical moments which shaped my sense of what it means to work in an institutional setting. I was ten years old when I carried out an early piece of research. We had been allowed to choose any topic; read and talk to people about it; then write what we had learned. As I am half French, I chose to look at the historical relationships between the French and the English. I greatly enjoyed doing the work and felt that I had learnt a great deal and produced a good piece of well illustrated work. I was proud and pleased when I handed it to my teacher. After a few days’ anticipation, we were told that prizes for the best work would be given in a whole school assembly. The headmaster called me on to the stage and announced that I must learn there and then that cheating was never condoned and I could not possibly have done the work myself, as it was `too good'. So the prize was given, it so happened, to my arch enemy at the time: Philip somebody. I was amazed and confused. I had probably already worked out that life is not necessarily fair, but this occasion brought it home to me neatly. It also did a great deal to destroy my, already shaky, faith in authority. My feelings then are analogous with my feelings now, that good, committed colleagues have been unfairly judged and found wanting. I walked off the stage back then without crying as I did not believe in crying in school. I'm not so sure I would pull it off again.

Foucault was right, we, in education, live in the panopticon. How does it feel? I would like to show you some of the more hidden and secret aspects of self as a professional educator. It feels as though my colleagues and I are being punished for breaking the rules, except we were never told quite what the rules were. As the shock of being told that our school is now under threat of closure ripples through us, we magnify each other's worries and begin to panic. I feel alone in my distress because I have not read accounts from other institutions where people talk about the bad effects of government initiatives on their places of work. It might be dangerous to let people know you feel weak. They are doing things to us, but I do not know who `they' are, nor why they are doing them. I feel infantilised and disempowered. I sit and watch my colleague as he copes with being told he must leave and that he may not tell us so. I see a vulnerable child and I actually weep. I always told myself I would never allow myself to give work such importance that it would lead me to tears. I break one of my own rules because my heart goes out to the man.

I recognise that I have read about people living through similar situations in literature. It has become a cliche to label situations ranging from the slightly peculiar to the downright odd as `Kafkaesque'. With a certain horror, I face the fact that our situation has already been written by Kafka as The Trial (1935). The horror comes for several reasons: there is the fact that Kafka did not wish his work to be published. Why did he not want us to hear the story? It seems Kafka was writing about the rise of Fascism in his time; how does our petty and banal situation hold echoes from such a place and time? As we look back over our recent history, of course the holocaust figures as the big human error; the cruelty to avoid at all costs: the secular fall of man. So perhaps the echoes come because this is on our minds as we think millennially. Or is it because the little tiny human cruelties and evasions which helped the machinery of hate to operate are closely related to, or even the same ones, which we now experience? Kafka was writing about faceless bureaucracy and that is why his work chimes with what is happening to me now.

One example of the bureaucratization of education is that our universities in the UK are now coming under the sway of a newly formed Institute for Teaching and Learning. This body is currently proposing twenty four categories of outcomes within which we will have to present evidence of compliance in order to remain `in good standing' as university lecturers. It is proposed that each lecturer present this evidence on a triennial basis. The outcomes are, in and of themselves, anti-educational. We already have internal quality assurance procedures; systems of external examination which act as peer review; the research assessment exercise through which we compete for research money; teaching quality assessments and the rest. My feeling is that if we are asked to do more accounting for ourselves, we shall have almost no time left in which to teach or research. We shall be spending the lion's share of our time justifying, explaining and recording our actions and very little time carrying out the action. I need to tell you my small story so that the impact of bureaucratic cruelty is exposed to scorn.



I wish to argue that, if auto/biographies of learning can begin to show what it is like to learn and teach, they will have a significant role to play in shaping a new discipline of educational enquiry. If we learn more about who we are, I think we have more chance of creating new forms of educational enquiry whilst recognising the damaging influence of bureaucratization. I would like to call for a celebration of the practical and lived alongside the theoretical and dreamed about. The reason that I embrace being an action researcher is the desire to make a difference through my actions in my social world and my little and particular context of learning. I think this can resonate with other people's concerns, so that each particular individual, existing principally in relation to others, is joined in the web of human connections out into the broader and grander, wider arenas.

Given the pressures that I have revealed in my auto/biography of learning, why is it worthwhile to continue? It is worth it to be able to be here and speaking to you today because I so value the feeling of connectedness we can create when we share our ideas together. It is worth it because I have learnt so much and made so many links between different aspects of mine and others’ ways of being in the world. The intense relation between teacher and learner is often fruitful, joyous and productive. I value the chance to nurture others and myself in an educative community. I love it when I feel that I am able to express something to which some others may want to listen and when people say my work has helped them in theirs. I value what I learn from my students about the education of children and adults. I welcome the chance that taking an auto/biographical and action research gives me to integrate different aspects of my being. It is worth it because the importance of students as vulnerable little particular people is paramount.


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