Thoughts for the Field: A Personal Epilogue for Educational Biographers.
The Importance of Discussing Method
I could easily froth for pages about Willis, Brameld, Keliher, Cousins, Robinson, or, now, Harold Taylor, my current project whose unfinished memoir I am attempting to complete in mosaic-collage form. And I have indeed frothed and foamed at the mouth describing the significance of the work of these individuals . . . not at International Society of Educational Biography conferences or AERA Biographical and Documentary Research SIG meetings but, rather, at content-related venues: Willis at mid-20th century history meetings, Brameld at Neo-Marxists gatherings, Keliher at film history symposia, and Robinson at African American history conferences. Yet, when writing an essay for educational biographers, in recognition of the unlimited array of biographical subjects, I see our common ground and discussion topics focusing not on subject but on methodology and the inevitable situations that we know will arise for all of us. These situations include our research angst--the biographer's apologia noted by Carl Rollyson (1)--as we cope with the unease of our appropriation of other's words, thoughts, and experiences; our successful (or unsuccessful) ways to overcome insider/outsider status and build trust with our subjects and interviewees; our decisions of ethical taste and inclusion of details in our writing as we find ourselves as voyeurs and burglars reading others' mail and diaries; or our ability (or inability) to ascertain fundamental aspects of "truth" as we listen, wonder, and triangulate our sources, to name just a few topics. As research dilemmas, such issues are never resolved, most fortunately, and can always lead to ongoing conversations and wonderfully interesting revivals as has recently occurred with the seemingly worn-out James Frey case of fact versus fiction, resurrected afresh by Louis Menand in his recent New Yorker essay, "Faking It: Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship." (2) When writing for educational biographers, why should I describe the importance of Harold Taylor's career--an unjustly overlooked life, alas--when we all confront similar methodological issues and when there is so much for us to discuss?
These conversations need not be theoretical--method suggests what to do when we are turning pages in the archives or driving to the home of an interviewee. I can be told that, as an outsider, I need to establish trust with my informants (a fact of which I am already well aware), but I don't expect to accomplish this difficult feat by telling my interviewee to trust me. There certainly is no set of guidelines for establishing trust. During my 15 years of oral history work for the Secondary School Study project, (3) biographical in nature, one group of individuals welcomed me into their homes because, unknown to me, they had contacted a well-respected colleague who vouched for my sincerity and good will. Another group learned that I was "adopted" by a legendary African American Pentecostal shout band, and yet another group embraced me after they noticed that I knew the words to the third verse of Lift Every Voice. My participation in any methodology panel would not have included encouraging attendees to take up the trombone or to memorize lyrics. But if I had heard another biographer describe such settings and oral history experiences, I would have begun reexamining my level of familiarity with many different cultural mores and customs.
Similarly, to ascertain the biographical significance of documents, life experiences, and written facts is one of the primordial dilemmas of our research. I don't seek a significance checklist, but I am interested in how others have dealt with the issue and how, in a variety of settings, a researcher determines which papers and ideas are more important than others. No need for hypotheticals! I faced the problem head-on each day as I recently pruned an archival collection of originally 90 linear feet to a size--well, length--of 40 linear feet that is acceptable to the archives. All correspondence could not be kept (especially since the individual kept everything and the entire collection was boxed after his death). Much was tossed--with a tear and great regret--but indeed deaccessioned. In situations such as this, what does one do? What gives the archivist the right to keep or the biographer the right to underscore? What happens when .... yes, indeed, this is the research angst that we find ourselves falling into. These are the conversations that I wish I had heard at conferences with other educational biographers who have reconciled a different set of circumstances while addressing the same issues.
Is there a biographers temperament?
As I come to the end of my career, I have seen the joy as well as the pain and suffering of well-meaning educational biographers who have endured criticism from traditional historians who demanded facts and "real history" and not mere impressions; or insouciant dismissal from glib educational historians who cried out, "Alice Keliher! What has she ever done?" And I have comforted the heart-broken biographer who confessed that her 1,000-page manuscript had yet to find a publisher, and another heart-broken educational biographer who admitted that his 1,800-page manuscript had yet to find a publisher, and yet another heart-broken biographer who ... I find myself asking why a person engages in biographical inquiry. The question has been posed often and answered in various ways--typically with the "natural curiosity in others' lives" rationale, the "research calling--call to research" cry, or "how could one not do it--why not?" explanation. My years as a witness to countless accounts of educational biographers' research causes me to wonder if there is something else--could there be a "temperament" of the educational biographer or, I dare say, a type that draws one to the study of another's life, the warmth of a life being lived?
With the recent disassembling of Myers-Briggs theory, arising from the biography, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing and the review of that work by Anne Diebel, (4) this is certainly not the occasion to suggest any set of biographical research types (and I would not have done so even without Emre's work or Diebel's essay). Any framework or set of generalizations--the introvert who wishes to live through the life of another; the extrovert who seeks attention and enjoys being a few feet--if not a few private letters--from stardom; the sensitive researcher who wishes to bring attention to the deserved and forgotten; the analytical scholar who wishes to set the record straight and confirm that one's fame is deserved or undeserved--provide little insight into answering this question. We have all read the many caveats, suggestions, and descriptions of biographers who display necessary traits: meticulousness and imagination, empathy with hard-headed analysis, and curiosity along with skills of graceful writing ability and good storytelling. What temperament draws one to educational biography has become less a wonder to me now than what I fear may be the reverse: Are there temperaments unsuited to biographical research?
There have been many occasions throughout the years when I met seemingly conscientious biographers at conferences or in my role as curator and archivist of.a small research collection and began to wonder why on earth they were interested in those biographical figures when they seem, albeit on the surface, to have little knowledge of their subjects' lives and great interest in telling me theirs. I have been held captive as they staged "positionality filibusters" where I was told everything there was to know about themselves without reference to the biographical subject. Positionality is indeed important in research settings, and I am delighted when biographers' interpretive lenses are openly presented with thoughtfulness and sincerity. Yet, such longwinded introductions by biographers were always confounding. While supportive, I would worry whether these individuals had the temperament to be educational biographers, since the subject was relegated far behind their interest in themselves.
On other occasions I have found somewhat "interesting" a biographer's intent to point out--through many conference minutes or, later, many pages--the numerous fascinating similarities between himself or herself and the biographical subject. I would have found the discussion a bit more interesting if the author had dispensed with the self-dialogue and focused more attention on the subject with a full account of the interpretative framework--appropriate positionality--rather than what might be considered self-indulgent biographical facts and seemingly questionable details about the researcher's life and capabilities. Similarly, I would wonder if this person had the temperament to be an educational biographer.
I am cautious saying this in part because my mentor and muse, the late Louise DeSalvo, has said on many occasions that biographers' personal interests help to guide and define their biographical research:
Most importantly, that, if it is your predilection, you unashamedly bring whatever you are concerned with in your life into the arena of your work, to enrich and deepen your understanding of someone else's life, to create an ongoing dialectic between your life and your work in which your work enables you to understand your life better and your life enables you to better understand your subject's life. (5)
I am not suggesting that a biographer's soliloquy of facts about him or herself is not of interest or importance. I just wonder at times if it warrants such a full description in contrast to comments about the biographical subject. I certainly do not hold the educational biographer to a higher standard, nor will I broach any description of the "proper temperament" in this essay. Narcissism and self-indulgence, as well as insight, commitment to scholarship, and courage for the ideals of social justice, are spread throughout the field of education, yet I am still left wondering whether biographical research may not be suited for all . . . even though many may be interested in embarking upon biographical pursuits.
The Gordian knot that binds us to biographical inquiry has many twists. My meanderings are just that--I offer no definitive conclusions on whether there is a biographer's temperament nor, as we know from the professional literature, whether there is any such concept as a "unified self" to define and describe all actions of the subject, nor whether there could ever be a work described as the "definitive biography," and the countless other unresolvable issues with which we live. My comments are merely reverie as I wonder why we embark on our research adventures, often without the aid of a community past or present, and how we cope with the methodological issues that are inevitable when one decides to pursue biographical inquiry. Of course, I am more than willing to wax longingly--my own filibuster--about the unrecognized importance of Harold Taylor. No doubt those reading this essay would be waiting, too, to introduce their wrongly obscured biographical figures if they were sitting at my conference roundtable. But shouldn't method be discussed when methodologists come together? Content can be introduced when content specialists meet.
Conferences and publications mean much to any community and, from my perspective, those of us interested in educational biography represent a group with diverse interests but many common methodological problems. I have always seen similarities in our work and differences in the lives we research. Perhaps I have most enjoyed the thrill of discovery and the archival chase and have delighted in witnessing others who are engaged in the high adventure of this work. But I have not often needed minute details about the biographer's life. Rather, I needed and continue to need to engage in discussions with others--in medias res, who are in the thick of it--who are living and coping with those methodological issues that we, from the neophyte to the veteran, all confront and to discuss ways and manners in which solutions and resolutions are conceived and developed.
(1) Carl Rollyson, A Higher Form of Cannibalism: Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography (New York: Ivan R. Dec, 2005): 49.
(2) Louis Menand, "Faking It: Literary Hoaxes and the Ethics of Authorship," The New Yorker 40 (December 10, 2018): 68-73.
(3) Craig Kridel, Becoming an African American Progressive Educator: Narratives from 1940s Black Progressive High Schools (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Museum of Education, 2018), http://www.museumofeducation.info/narralives.pdf; Craig Kridel, Progressive Education in Black High Schools: The Secondary School Study, 1940-1946 (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Museum of Education, 2016), hltp://www.museumofeducalion.info/SSS_web-2015.pdf.
(4) Merve Emre, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (New York: Doubleday, 2018); Anne Diebel, "Simple Answers to Profound Questions," New York Review of Books 65, no. 20 (December 20, 2018): 57-59.
(5) Louise DeSalvo, "Advice to Aspiring Educational Biographers," In Writing Educational Biography: Explorations in Qualitative Research, ed. Craig Kridel (New York: Routledge, 1998): 270.
University of South Carolina
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|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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