Crops growingImage: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

Autoethnography as a research method

I'm making a bold declaration to use autoethnography as a research method within my PhD thesis, but am I there yet?

My PhD thesis has led me a merry dance down some rabbit holes and back up again for breath.  And in those times when I needed to breathe I started writing.  Writing by hand, copious lines in my research journals which now number three A4 jotters after only 6 months.

I stumbled on the concept of autoethnography as a research method when I was invited to watch an autoethnographic film made by Angelica Kroeger.  Her evocative piece explored the acceptance of death through the sensuous sights and sounds of a beachscape in Sweden on the Island of Faro, where Swedish film maker Ingmar Bergman found his sanctuary. Later, I was lucky enough to read about her methods in her PhD thesis which helped me to become more aware of this approach to research which systematically analyses personal experience to make sense of cultural experience (Ellis et al., 2010).

Researching a PhD in the early stages can feel anchorless, especially when research questions are fluid and you doubt your every move through what is commonly referred to as imposter syndrome.  There's some talk that if you are from Scotland you are perhaps even more likely to be prone to this according to Karyn McCluskey, Chief Exec of Community Justice Scotland so I needed to address this cultural inclination to self-deprecate. Somehow I found that I was "having a word with myself" to get through some trickier aspects of my research.  Not one for talking to myself, this manifested in long, hand-written, reflective paragraphs.

One day I examined a piece I had written to make sense of my positionality as a researcher and found that I related a story (below) about my experience 20 years ago as a student and how this brought me to where I am today.  It reflected my learning process through the serendipity of being hired as a research field assistant which then enabled a deeper form of situated, on-the-job learning and also inspired me to a path of environmental activism.

I wrote up the piece as an autoethnographic reflection, using creative imagery to engage with those who would read it.  It then became clear that I was not only reflecting on my own personal experiences linking research and teaching, but I was also storytelling.  As such, storytelling links well to my area of inquiry which examines the interaction between research/teaching and public engagement in HE. I am focusing on STEM education which is a tantalising challenge as literature reveals an apathy amongst some scientists to step outside of the positivist paradigm which is rooted in rational and measured deduction of scientific research data.  

Woman scientist in lab

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Teaching and public engagement throws human interaction into the mix which can really push academics to step outside traditional modes of communication to tell the story of their science to wider, non-specialist audiences.  This is nothing new, according to Dr Sam Illingworth who describes the historical tenets of science communication through poetry in his book "A sonnet to science".  His publication explores the lives of six scientist poets, including the lyrical works of Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell who formulated the theory of electromagnetic radiation.

I'll leave you with a glimpse of my first official autoethnographic reflection...

At agricultural college in the mid-1990s a Wednesday afternoon meant ubiquitous rugby games and for those who did not play, or support a team there was the prospect of study or paid work. Potato picking season was upon us and on hearing that £3 an hour was being paid I joined the Crop and Environment Research Centre (CERC) as a field assistant. CERC was a department attached to the University, yet it did not mix with our day-to-day classes. The inhabitants were uniformly clothed in white lab coats if you were a Doctor or Professor, or heavy metal T-shirts and long curtain-like hair if you were a postgrad or postdoc.

Over my four years in the otherworld of CERC I learned through fieldwork about groundwater pollution, nitrogen vulnerable zones (NVZs) and trials in growing crops using slurry. In my classes, sitting at the back of a dark lecture theatre I integrated this practical knowledge into agri-policy lectures with the dry edicts of the water directive framework which seemed little more than EU bureaucracy from the pages of a book. The integration of teaching and research by default through my Wednesday job enabled me to access deeper learning subconsciously through a zone of proximal development. This also led to significant changes that influenced my career. My fringe involvement with the work of CERC started a passion for activism, environmental inquiry, and a divergence from conventional agriculture favouring an ecological approach which 20 years ago was regarded as left-field, incongruent with profitability and success.

Twenty years on, I seek to understand how educational theory proposed by social constructivists, such as Dewey and Vygotsky can underline the importance of real-life research as a means to enhance student-led learning. This has led me to examine how the links between teaching and research enhance pedagogy to achieve collective paradigm shifts pertinent to pressing societal needs.

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Lucy Beattie

Lucy Beattie

Hi I'm Lucy, a PhD Candidate with the UWS Academy. I'm looking at the role of public engagement in connecting teaching and research in Higher Education

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