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Auto/biography in educational contexts: reflections and possibilities.

Auto/biographical narrative [is] a form that could express the complexity of teaching, the way it is rooted in personal and social history, the way it gathers up our hopes and relentlessly requires us to play out the compelling issues of our lives in classrooms, day after day. (1)

In Madeleine Grumet's introduction to A Poet of Weird Abundance, Paula Salvio's auto/biographical foray into the teaching life of poet Anne Sexton, Grumet captures eloquently the promise of auto/biography (2) as a vehicle for exploring educational issues. Indeed, believing in the power of auto/biographical accounts to enrich educational theory and practice and the educational potential of lives helped fuel the formation of the (International) Society of Educational Biography (ISEB) in 1983 and the journal, Vitae Scholasticae, now in its 30th year of publication. Scholars have used these generative spaces to explore diverse intersections among lives and education that have expanded the contours of educational research.

I am pleased to contribute to the 30th anniversary edition of Vitae Scholasticae and its service as a "repositor[y] of knowledge" for educational biography. (3) I have been a member of the organization for a number of years and was honored to serve as President of ISEB during 2011-2012. The organization has introduced me to new research in biography and qualitative methodologies and provided a welcoming space to explore my interests in 19th century women's education, faculty retirement, methodology, historiography, and other educational topics that cross disciplinary borders and situate human lives in their educational and historical contexts. In this essay, I take the opportunity to revisit previous editions of Vitae to explore publication patterns over the last few years, consider responses from a recent survey I conducted with ISEB members, and discuss some emerging trajectories for educational auto/biography. From the journal's earlier emphasis on "scholarly chronicle" biographies (4) to the diverse narratives, qualitative studies, auto/ethnographies, and methodological pieces it publishes today, the journal and the ISEB conference continue to preserve a key site for researchers and teachers to produce and disseminate biographical scholarship, to theorize the relations between subjects/education, and to develop and share strategies for using auto/biographies in classrooms.

Offering such a repository remains essential. Schools remain formative spaces for shaping our identities, relationships, and futures; the relationships we cultivate with peers, teachers, and texts inform our social imaginaries and understandings of the world; teachers and administrators carry out vital cultural labor for our citizenry; and education remains a rich political site in which all kinds of conflicting epistemologies and messy cultural issues are negotiated. In addition, in our increasingly confessional, technological society, in which the borders among "personal" and "private" and "public" are constantly being redrawn--where we are, as technology scholar Turkle describes, constantly "alone together" (5)--we need critical tools for studying and theorizing lives and for situating them in these New Times.

In her work on Anne Sexton, Salvio asks a series of productive questions that speak to broader reconfigurations of public/private and, I suggest, the importance of utilizing locations such as Vitae for expanding and theorizing our auto/biographical practice: "How can we incorporate the personal into teaching without slipping into demand, confession, voyeurism, or unrefined reflection? How do we make our classrooms a space for the enunciation of something other than predictable retellings of socially inscribed stories of failure and success?" (6) How are teaching practices sometimes narcissistic extensions of our own interests? (7) More broadly, in directing her analytic gaze to a poet who defied the image of the "ideal teacher" through controversial topics and struggles with addiction and mental illness, Salvio raises questions pertinent to educational auto/biography: whose lives come to matter, and to be told, and why? How do we construct "good teaching," and what are the implications of such constructions? How do "normative standpoints" and criteria direct our educational practice? (8) These questions, as well as Salvio's work, echo an ISEB member's recent reflections:" the study and use of autobiography is becoming more complex and sophisticated. It is an entry point to some of the more intriguing work happening in scholarship today." (9)

This diversity and complexity is reflected in the manuscripts and book reviews published in Vitae over the last five years. In revisiting these journal issues, I was reminded of how readers' relationships with texts shift and change as our conceptions of subjectivity shift and change--or, as Mice expresses in Lewis Carroll's classic text, Alice in Wonderland, "I can't go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then." In previous readings, I tended to first dive in to Editor Linda Morice's introductory notes, search for papers by familiar authors, and then read the essays in order. My focus on content sometimes took priority over my methodological interests. In this reading, I skimmed, surfed, and re-read editions to seek patterns in methodological strategies and topics across issues. In the interests of highlighting biographical diversity, I also noted in more detail the particular form and technique authors chose to conduct and represent their work. I present a few examples here.

Historical Investigations

In terms of biographical form, each journal issue during this period includes historical scholarship, a key genre to render visible diverse educators who shaped educational practice and place them in their educational and historical contexts. Although this body of work reflects consistent attention to subject/context, researchers portray this relationship in diverse ways: some portray biographical figures as agents in shaping historical events while others focus on the insights lives offer for analyzing broader cultural events. Each reflects subtle differences in analytic emphasis, narrator voice, and biographical form and structure. For example, some manuscripts that focused on historical figures and events reflected aspects of the form, "scholarly chronicles," which uses documents and records to describe, often chronologically, an individual's experiences and accomplishments in a specific context. Dredge's (2008) account of an educator who developed programs for textile workers during the early 20th century reveals aspects of this biographical structure. Others, such as Kolodny's (2008) portrait of Mary Swift, and Pittman's (2009) account of Leopold, reflected narrative biography techniques, using descriptive writing to bring the subject to life for a contemporary reader based on the archival evidence available. (10)

Another form of historical representation that surfaced is what we might term a political biography, in which researchers examine a particular period of heightened political educational, or theoretical activity in an educator's life and analyze the broader significance of their actions during this space and time. Rather than crafting a full biographical portrait of a given individual or politician, the focus in these cases is illuminating portions of a life to convey individuals' roles in navigating a series of critical historical incidents. The reader is left with the sense that people's daily actions can shape historical events in profound ways. Stallones' (2011) discussion of two African-American educators in Texas who strategized how to advance education for African-Americans in the late 19th century provides a compelling example of this approach.

In contrast to these examples emphasizing agency and action, another biographical form evidenced in the journal is what might be called an instrumental biography, a rigorous focus on a life for what it reveals about broader cultural patterns. As one example of this approach, Wakefield (2011) examines the insights John Milton Gregory's life offers into religious and educational changes in the 19th century. These categories are not necessarily discrete. While such approaches may overlap and authors may draw techniques from varied traditions as their project demands, the nuances among the approaches underscore the diverse topics in educational biography and the complexity of forms available for studying and representing lives.

Methodological Trends

Attention to methodological approaches and studies of contemporary lives complements the journal's historical scholarship. Manuscripts discuss how to conduct and write biographies, consider methodological issues in researching ancestors, present auto/biographical and auto/ethnographic accounts of teaching lives, demonstrate narrative techniques, and report on qualitative studies of faculty lives.

Consistent with contemporary qualitative practices that foreground the author's voice in the telling of their tales, the manuscripts I revisited often include to varying degrees the researcher's reflections on the process of conducting and representing their research. As biographer Louis M. Smith notes at the close of his essay on Nora Barlow's work as an editor of Charles Darwin's manuscripts (2011),"I have continuing trouble in separating Nora, 'Charley,' and me. In an early draft of this presentation I found that I was really writing about Darwin and not about the issues of Nora's editing. At other times, I find that I tend to focus more on me rather than Nora." (11) Smith's observations undoubtedly echo the experience of many biographical scholars whose immersion in the lives of their subjects muddies clear distinctions among texts, subjects, and authors in the interpretive process. Indeed, some argue that biography is inherently autobiographical. Significantly, Smith emphasizes different voices in different manuscripts, in this study positioning his reflections in a methodological appendix to draw a line between author and biography. (12) Other manuscripts, such as Philipsen's (2011) qualitative study of female faculty, place the author's reflections early in the manuscript to emphasize how the topic under study relates to her own lived experiences.

Other scholarship demonstrates new methodological and representational techniques incorporating a/r/tography, poetic inquiry, and collaborative narratives to expand the boundaries of how we examine and share life accounts. This scholarship is in conversation with traditional biographical and qualitative conventions, asking questions, as Salvio does, about the implications of normative practices that have shaped educational and auto/biographical endeavors. One example of this scholarship is MacKenzie's (2011) reflexive exploration of her teaching choices, identity, and practice through poetic inquiry. She mobilizes the metaphor of breath to organize the stanzas throughout her poetic representation, highlighting the "living" nature of her inquiry and her story's "momentary" nature. Her framing comments and poetic form invite dialogue with her unknown reader. As Lather and Smithies, Richardson, and other scholars have explored, (13) implicit in such methodological choices and their evident disruption of historical conventions for representing research is the desire to utilize a broad array of research strategies and narrative techniques to create knowledge and explore the complexity of lived experience.

Auto/biography as Resistance

A third pattern I noted in my re-visiting of journal editions is the attention to individuals and processes that have been peripheral or excluded from dominant accounts. Indeed, the biographical genre has been embraced by many historically because of its role in exploring lives, experiences and processes that fall outside of traditional stories of success, leadership, and accomplishment. It is clear that the genres of autobiography and biography--and their implicit but always shifting methodological intersections (auto/biography)--continue to offer welcoming space for recovering and narrating lives that are lesser-known, or marginalized, or at times erased, and that their telling can illuminate relations of power in the creation of knowledge historically and enrich and shift our understanding of educational processes. As one respondent in my recent survey of ISEB members expressed as an important role of auto/biography: they offer a "space for the epistemological stances from voices and experiences that have been marginalized ... allowing for new ways of understanding the world."

In this spirit, authors have sought Vitae as a location for exploring questions and concerns of people of color, women, members of the working class, and diverse initiatives undertaken to advance educational rights and access for under-represented groups. Examples in the journal abound. In 2009, Reeves contributed an autobiographical essay focused on the challenges and possibilities involved in developing a charter school for indigenous people in the late 1990s. In 2010, with guest editors Lucy Townsend and Susan Fransoza, the journal published a special issue on women's education, incorporating essays on teacher anger, accounts of both historical and contemporary women's activists and leaders, female faculty's efforts to balance their professional and personal lives, and a variety of book reviews that analyzed texts focused on gender issues in education. In 2011, the journal published a collection of essays focused on the pedagogies of black educators. Edited by Donyell L. Roseboro and Sabrina N. Ross, the journal highlighted the work of black educators and activists who worked for educational equity and reform and theorized and initiated pedagogical practice through both informal and formal educational mechanisms. These rich exemplars point to topical and methodological patterns in the journal's recent history that will continue to evolve in future editions.

Voices of ISEB Members

To gather fresh insights into how educators experience ISEB and journal resources and use auto/biographical tools in their scholarship and teaching, I recently (2013) conducted a short on-line survey with ISEB members consisting of a mix of quantitative questions and seven open-ended questions. In this IRB-approved study, I also provided the opportunity for participants to expand their thoughts in a brief interview. In the open-ended survey responses, I asked participants to reflect briefly on 1) ways they have benefited from attending ISEB; 2) examples of how they incorporated conference material into teaching and research; 3) their future vision for ISEB; 4) their earliest memory of encountering auto/biography; 5) How they use auto/biographical work and assignments in teaching and research; 6) why they believe the study of auto/biography is important; and finally, 7) what changes and developing trends they observed in auto/biographical research.

Although data collection is ongoing, the open-ended responses thus far point to scholars valuing an array of genre characteristics that I explored above: auto/biographies can offer insights into marginalized lives; can place sell education, and historical context in conversation; can prompt educators' reflexivity about teaching and learning processes; and significantly, can foster our imaginations and sense of becoming. As one member expressed, the study of auto/biography "shows readers who we have been, who we are, and who we might become." The dynamic relationship of past and present, history and future also emerges in other responses. One participant suggested that auto/biography offers "an understanding of the past that may be helpful in decision making and problem solving in the future." Similarly, another member reflected that it is "one of the many ways to explore the past and the present. I love its intersections with larger issues such as memory, social memory, commemoration ..." For this researcher, life history, archival methods, and "various accompanying theoretical frameworks" have enabled research on 19th century figures who left few records behind.

The varied emphases on either subject or context evidenced in biographical essays discussed earlier in this essay also surface in respondents' assessment of the value of auto/biographical study. For one participant, individual agency is important: "I like to consider the impact of individuals on various facets of education." For others, auto/biography offers "insights into individual experiences during a particular time period or event ... that we may not capture in any other way." Several members valued the learning and connections auto/biography offers audiences: "the reader can relate to the story being told;" "it brings life and understanding to my classes." And for some, the practice is foundational to the research process. One member's response was particularly eloquent in this regard. S/he wrote, "this process, this study of the self, is at the core of developing one's ontological grounding. This is critical to knowing about the world and positioning one's self within the research process." In this view, auto/biographical work prompts researchers in any given study to consider relationships among self, context, research, and the creation of knowledge.

Some members reported that autobiographical and biographical resources also enhanced their classrooms. Teachers used resources in various ways: one respondent used biographies to "inform and broaden [her/his] perspective and approach," several mentioned incorporating biographical material through oral history, YouTube, and film clips while another taught through "autobiographical comments" and references. One approach respondents shared was using case studies and oral histories in teacher education and history of education courses. One member explained, "I communicate and give the skill or oral histories as a way to capture what previous generations of students and educators experiences were--especially before [computers].'The data also indicated that ISEB members were considering new ways to incorporate auto/biographical tools; one researcher mentioned beginning to "promote biographical research in undergraduate classes to provide application of theoretical, psychological concepts. "Teachers of literature, life history, disability studies, and curriculum studies refer to integrating biographical snapshots in their curriculum and assigning research projects using life story tools. Such methods have empowering potential. As one member expressed: "my students have learned that this topic, their story, is a legitimate topic of study."

Members discussed both personal and professional benefits from attending the annual ISEB conference. The conference provides, first, a vehicle for scholars with similar interests to interact and learn from one another; second, it fosters interests in educational biography and opportunities to expand scholars' knowledge base of resources and approaches; third, it offers opportunities for networking and professional development; fourth, it provides an outlet for scholars in diverse fields to present, publish, and further develop their work; and fifth, it exposes educators to tools and models for classroom use. I also suggest that attending to educators' lives may also serve an important psychological and political function in an era in which support for public schools continues to erode, accountability measures escalate, public discourses castigate educators for "inadequate" student performance, and educational demands constantly fluctuate. Auto/biographical approaches prompt us to construct and highlight the human agents in education; as one respondent expressed, the "people behind the teaching, the theories, and the practices involved." Not all auto/biographical approaches center on individual stories, as poststructuralist work displaces the humanist and individualistic subject in an effort to chart how such a subject functions and the discourses in which she is positioned. Salvio's work on Anne Sexton as personae demonstrates how, for example, teachers' lives can become productive sites for investigating normative and oppressive educational practices and springboards for thinking differently. Whether lives or discourses, diverse auto/biographical work can be rewarding for researchers, subjects, and readers alike.

Moving Forward: Possible Directions

Scholars' accounts of trends in auto/biographical research reflect conflicting reactions to the growth of social media, digital resources, and technologies. Researchers now use diverse technologies and tools to experiment with crafting different auto/biographical figures; to access and collect data; to collaborate across institutional and national borders; and to facilitate and share genealogical research. For example, in a recent presentation at ISEB, Lora Helvie-Mason and Amanda Pape (2013) described productive uses of electronic spaces such as websites and blogs to narrate family stories, post and discuss family pictures, records, and artifacts, and collect genealogical information. Researchers can limit access to such spaces or open them to any with Web access. In one productive instance, Pape described how a genealogical blog attracted the attention of a distant relative on another continent who was able to access and translate local family records written in her ancestor's native language that expanded her family knowledge.

In another example, Thalia Mulvihill and Raji Swaminathan (2013) described how a digital oral history collection with search word tools facilitated their research into school administrators' experiences. Digital resources and technologies thus enable new connections and collaborations, facilitate data gathering in unprecedented ways, and shape the possibilities of how researchers conduct and share auto/biographical research. As one survey respondent expressed, technology makes it "easier to access the work and life stories of others."

Yet technologies pose an array of personal, theoretical, and methodological dilemmas for auto/biographical researchers as well. If "technology has become the architect of our intimacies" as Sherry Turkle asserts, the vehicle by which we "recreate ourselves as online personae and give ourselves new bodies, homes, jobs, and romances," (14) researchers must grapple with how to imagine, study, and understand the auto/biographical personae and relationships such technologies produce. We are "inundated with public accounts of the private," one survey respondent expressed, with insufficient "auto/biographical literacy" to analyze and contextualize such accounts. These comments underscore the continuing importance of Kridel's charge to biographical researchers: despite increased, even relentless, attention to methodology in some qualitative circles, biographical work must reflect greater theoretical and methodological awareness, reflection, and transparency--awareness that authors as well as subjects are positioned within particular historical discourses, and that concepts of the Self are theoretically and historically situated. (15)

Some must also consider, as a survey respondent expressed, "how to cope with the decline of the print article ... and to deal with electronic publishing and self-publishing. "This wording, "how to cope" and "how to deal," has practical, psychological and conceptual connotations and conveys, I suggest, the implications of broader changes for researchers. Those who developed their skills and affinities for biographical work through the pleasures and trials of the archive must grapple in their daily research practice with some degree of loss that broader technological changes prompt. In addition, they must figure out the practical matters of how to access new digital materials, to navigate the new resources, and to learn about the new outlets--all of which take time, energy, and commitment for "digital outsiders."

As I have taken some necessary steps to learn about digital resources and technologies in my own work and teaching, I have begun writing an article entitled, "Reluctant Novice goes Techie," to capture my own (constructed) nostalgia for our print past and my own (constructed) reluctance to spend time learning these new tools amidst other demands and, admittedly, my preference for the tactile, familiar, and beloved experience of reading books-on-paper. I travel this terrain here not to reduce relationships with technology to simplified philia/phobia binaries, or to lament broader cultural changes that necessitate new theorizing and new practice. Rather, I acknowledge that new media and technologies are shaping auto/biographical research and methodology in rewarding and challenging ways and our field would benefit from auto/biographical scholarship that takes up the topic directly.

Another area of potential growth in autobiographical and biographical educational scholarship (I separate the terms purposely here) is greater focus on methods. Kridel noted that, too often, educational biographies continue to overlook the nuances among various auto/biographical approaches and forms and the significance of a given account for scholarship and practice. (16) As I discuss elsewhere, we cannot dictate a priori or universally, of course, what theoretical and methodological detail a given researcher deems necessary to highlight in their auto/biographical endeavors. Yet a degree of reflection and transparency regarding research design, approach, narrative form, researcher/subject relation and theoretical allegiances can work against the "god trick," or what Haraway describes as the performativity of an omniscient narrator unbounded by time, space, or the particular messy subjectivities of a corporeal form. (17) In this view, embodiment and context is always implicated in the researcher's construction of knowledge.

Several scholars propose approaches to validity in qualitative research that seem relevant to the need for producing more theoretically grounded auto/biographies; in an article in which six qualitative scholars discuss paradigmatic differences in quality criteria, Lather calls for a "rigor of reflective competence" in which researchers demonstrate validity in part through conveying" some sense" of the history, sociology, and philosophy of inquiry. (14) In this vision, researchers position their study in their broader research context, rather than relying on a simplistic and perfunctory checklist of validity criteria that ignores the historical and contextual production of any researcher's study. A contrasting conception of validity that holds promise for auto/biographical researchers concerns the practical effects of their accounts. For Erickson, researchers can demonstrate quality work through "educational imagination"--the degree to which their studies address and "illuminate" educational issues that aid schoolworkers and strengthen schools. (18) The benefit ISEB members describe in incorporating biographies and auto/biographies in their courses suggests a promising trajectory to explore. I welcome the opportunity to read about these pathways, and others, as we move forward.

Lucy E. Bailey

Oklahoma State University


(1) Madeleine Grumet in Paula Salvio, Anne Sexton: Teacher of Weird Abundance, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007), x.

(2) The term auto/biography refers here to a range of approaches in studying lives, whether our own, others, or selves-in-relation. The slash can also signal a theoretical assumption of life study that the self is always implicated in the study of others. Researchers' conceptions of their work within this complex category are important distinctions in the field.

(3) Lloyd Goodall, A Need to Know: The Clandestine History of a CIA Family. (Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2006), 233.

(4) Craig Kridel, "Biographical Meanderings: Reflections and Reminiscences on Writing Educational Biography," Vitae Scholasticae, 25 (2008), 8.

(5) Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011).

(6) This paragraph draws from pages in Salvio, Weird Abundance, including her questions, 4.

(7) Salvio, Weird Abundance, 8.

(8) Salvio, Weird Abundance, 6.

(9) All quotes from ISEB members are taken from the 2013 survey I conducted.

(10) These initial categories are drawn from Kridel, 2008, 8-9.

(11) Louis M. Smith, "The Artistry of an Editor: Nora Barlow and the Darwin Manuscripts," Vitae Scholasticae 28 (1), 37. (12) Smith, Artistry, 37.

(13) Patti Lather and Chris Smithies, Troubling the Angels: Women Living with HIV/AIDS (1997) and Laurel Richardson, Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life (Rutgers University Press, 1997).

(14) Turkle, Alone Together, 11.

(15) Kridel, Meanderings, 2008.

(16) Kridel, Meanderings, 2008.

(17) Lucy E. Bailey, "Necessary betrayals: Methodological reflections on a racist ancestor." Vitae Scholasticae, (2009).

(18) See Pamela A. Moss, D.C. Phillips, Frederick D. Erickson, Robert E. Floden, Patti A. Lather, and Barbara L. Schneider, "Learning From Our Differences: A Dialogue Across Perspectives on Quality in Education Research," Educational Researcher 38 (2009): 506.

(19) Moss et al, Learning, 501-517.
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Author:Bailey, Lucy E.
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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