Doing collaborative autoethnography

Earlier this year I had a paper (Problematising pedagogical action research in formal teaching courses and academic development: a collaborative autoethnography) published in the journal ‘Educational Action Research’, with my co-author Professor Lin Norton. We used the approach of collaborative autoethnography (CAE) to explore the use of action research in academic development. This blog post pauses for thought to reflect on my own first-time experience of CAE. I’m doing this as a note to self, but also because this way of working was so rich and illuminating it is definitely something that I would encourage others to try.

Before outlining the main lessons that I took from working with this approach, it may be helpful to outline what is meant CAE? This is my working understanding ….

Autoethnography (AE) is a research approach in which the researcher calls upon their own experiences and undertakes ‘an ethnographic analysis of the cultural context and implications of that experience’ (Lapadat 2017, 589). It doesn’t ask the researchers to step-back from their position and look-in, instead the researcher is clearly invested in the sense making process, though with a mindfulness of the risk of introspection.

CAE is a social version of AE. It involves ‘researchers pooling their stories to find some commonalities and differences and then wrestling with these stories to discover the meanings of the stories in relation to their socio-cultural contexts’ (Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez 2016, 17). From our experience, wrestling is a very apt discussion – this is not about telling stories and asking what do they mean to me or us? This is about digging, questioning and reflecting to understand what it might tell us about the wider context. Our research looked at our experience of action research for academic development, but our analysis raised questions about What is valued in the university? How do we conceive research? What legitimises those who teach/supervise this type of activity? As I personally began with our CAE, I had a seismic leap in understanding when I understood the research wasn’t just about my story, or our stories: We were the data, we provided the analytical lens, in Breault’s terms (2016) we were the site of the research, but still the research needed to connect back and help us, and others, to learn about wider issues.

This post now just lists my lessons learned in-case they are helpful to others, and I am very open to challenge or discussion on this, since I am still getting to grips with the approach. For now though, here are my first time realisations.

Be humble about the tradition

CAE is an approach which is often used to explore traumatic experiences, serious situations of inequality and life changing events. Its use in pedagogy appears to be more limited. I took the view that we pedagogues were loaning the method. For me this meant respecting the approach, having the flexibility to work with it appropriately for the pedagogic context, but also having some humility in not aligning our work with the studies of pain, out of respect for the work of others in this field.

There are no rules -only principles.

There is no definitive blue-print for any stage of the CAE process, this may be in part down to the newness of the approach, or more likely because the nature of CAE is intensely personal – rendering a rule-based approach fully incompatible. There is no set format for sharing stories. There are no protocols for developing the focus of the stories. There is no recommended process for analysis. For me, once I understood that we needed to apply the broad principles we were able to fashion our own CAE, in a way that worked with the subject, the context and with our own ways of working. The approach demanded an evolving flexible plan. It demanded a direction, but with enough space to fashion the detail as the work progressed.

Find some CAE work that connects with you.

CAE is so broad and has so many flavours, it was helpful to locate work that resonated with our specific purpose, to help us to find a way through. Treat papers as exemplars perhaps, and evaluate the different possible ways of working in light of your own context and research question. I found the Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez (2016) paper was massively unlocking for me on the methodology. It helped me to ‘see’ first person research, collaborative writing, the level of personal investment that might be made in the writing process and it helped me to just ‘see’ the method evolve in use.

Organise your data

It is the most basic research skill, but oh wow is this important in CAE. I will fess up to being quite bad at this. I became so immersed in the data, the stories, the relational aspects of the process and the mechanics of the methods, that I sometimes forgot the basic housekeeping. I lost a lot of time searching for parts of the discussion. No damage done, but I was hugely inefficient. If I was doing a similar project again, I would demand more discipline of myself! If the project is being undertaken by email, I would set up a project email and/or Teams space to bring everything was under one digital roof. Make sure messages have clear title conventions and keep topic threads to a single step in the research.

Allow yourself to feel lost – learn from it

There were a number of times that I felt lost in the process of CAE. I frequently paused and though – ‘errr OK where now?’. I embraced and enjoyed the experience of feeling a bit lost – I knew I was learning and I had confidence we would move through each stage. I actively believe it is helpful for educators to be academically uncomfortable, since it gives us better empathy with our students. For the research, the emerging nature of the project meant that we had to explicitly surface possible ways forward and discuss which next step was best and why. To avoid stress in the process, perhaps consider that being lost is part of the creative process. My favourite line in all that I read was that CAE is like going in to the woods without a compass (Ellis, 2003). Being lost is a productive part of the sense-making process – it’s to be enjoyed, but it requires time and space to work though.

Collaborate in analysis

I found that Sughrua (2019) gave the clearest explanation of ‘a’ process of of CAE: The advice was relatively simple – each researcher creates and analyses their own story, and responds and analyses the stories of the others. The analysis is not a one stage process – there needs to be some steps which makes the process dynamic, evolving and collaborative. On reflection I can see that failing to involve all participants in the analysis would limit the insights generated and it would shift the approach from CAE to something else (perhaps narrative research where stories are tools and analysed by others).

Look deep during the analysis

Recalling that CAE involves the process of wrestling data, we need to look hard at what our stories tell us. It’s really hard to know how to do this in practice, but I think there is helpful synergy here between both action research (AR) and critical realism, and CAE. In AR the practice changing process is often about me, us and them (changing my practice, our practice and the organisation or context). In critical realism, we are encouraged to look at the different layers of a situation – the subjective world of individuals, the obvious world that we see, and the hidden forces which exert influence. I don’t want to confuse CAE here but both AR and critical realism offer a way of looking beyond self. I found working in AR and critical realism (via my previous EdD thesis work – see page 38 for a quick overview), prior to CAE gave me a sense of where I might look to answer the question ‘what can we learn from these stories?’. Bringing these frameworks to mind helped me to see our story as a set of clues to reveal more. To be clear though I am not suggesting melding different methodological traditions in an ad-hoc way, but it may be helpful to reflect on how to delve beyond surface level massages and to use our personal stories to shine a light on wider issues.

Communicate often and find a way forward, but beware of time elapsed

It goes without saying that close working is really important n CAE. Communicate often and in detail and keep records. I was challenged when time passed without CAE activity (due to other demands on time). I found that if a week or two went by, I needed to re-immerse myself in the project. I needed to refocus and catch up. Sometimes some time-elapsed gave me a feeling of being a stranger to my own work – this could be helpful in coming back with fresh eyes to find a way forward. Other times I found it hard to simply get back in to the flow. This reflection shows that CAE is intense. It isn’t something that I was just able to dip in and out of. It was ‘all in’.

Use a critical-friend to sense check

I was troubled by the question ‘How do we ensure that our CAE is trustworthy and in-keeping with the tradition?’. I’m not sure I have a full answer to this but two things gave confidence. First making decisions explicit in the write-up gave us confidence that we had followed an appropriate way forward (e.g. why did we analyse that way? How did we arrive at the research questions? How did we manage the story sharing?) and secondly using a critical friend to check that the journey presented is clear, coherent and trustworthy, was a useful step.

All this was from one application of CAE, and in no way am I claiming expertise here. I have learnt that there are some wonderful support communities online for this type of work too. I discovered the International Conference of Autoethnography @_IACE_ a little to late for this work, but I can see from Facebook and Twitter that there is an enormously supportive community ready to engage. I found using CAE richly rewarding and will undoubtedly use the approach again there are many questions around learning and teaching that would benefit from deep, purposeful research, and this approach holds great potential.

References

Breault, R.A. 2016. “‘Emerging Issues in Duoethnography.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 29 (6): 777–794. doi:10.1080/09518398.2016.1162866.

Chang, H., F.W. Ngunjiri, and K.A.C. Hernandez. 2016. Collaborative Autoethnography. London: Routledge.

Ellis, C. 2003. The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA:
AltaMira Press.

Lapadat, J.C. 2017. “Ethics in Autoethnography and Collaborative Autoethnography.” Qualitative Inquiry 23 (8): 589–603. doi:10.1177/1077800417704462

Sughrua, W.M. 2019. “A Nomenclature for Critical Autoethnography in the Arena of Disciplinary Atomization.” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 19 (6): 429–465.

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