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AUTOETHNOGRAPHY:

MAKING SENSE OF PERSONAL & PROFESSIONAL EXPERIENCES

 

My work as a professional educator is rooted in an ever-deepening commitment to teaching and scholarship in a spirit of cooperation. I enjoy the academic environment for its intellectual vitality, constant invitation to learn, and especially for the opportunities it offers for engagement with colleagues and students. My philosophy of teaching is informed by the material I teach, relevant scholarship, personal knowledge deficits, times I have erred, and the lessons learned from teaching successes and failures.

An autoethnographic methodology has increasingly become a preference for teacher-researchers aiming to examine the multiplicity of social, cultural and educational factors that may have contributed to their identit(ies). An insightful triadic model helps illustrate the intricacy of the autoethnographic nomenclature. That is, autoethnographic insights can vary in their emphasis across the dimensions of: (1) the self [auto]; (2) the culture [ethno]; and (3) the research process [graphy] and align anywhere along the continuum of these three axes. In other words, autoethnography should be: (a) autobiographical in its content orientation; (b) cultural in its interpretive orientation; and (c) ethnographical in its methodological orientation. Accordingly, self-reflective writings devoid of one of these features may fail to be a true auto-ethno-graphy.

Personal Experience Narrative: As a student…

In 1989, I was an international exchange student to Japan and placed in an enormous public high school on the outskirts of Tokyo. I had never studied Japanese prior to my exchange year and could not have anticipated the experience of being totally immersed ay, including Saturdays. I was placed in the highest streamed class with the most capable students, largely because their homeroom teacher was fluent in English and had the ability to translate daily happenings to me.

Having achieved his English degree from a prestigious university in Tokyo, his overtly condescending manner superseded his level of fluency. Despite being over 25-years ago, I will forever recall the day that he decided to humiliate me in front of the entire class. Suddenly, in the middle of a dense Japanese speech, he switched to English and posed the question, ‘Donna, what is your ikken? He paced back-and-forth upon his raised stage area repeating the same question several times over with long pauses in between for effect. Of all the words in the Japanese language, the possibilities were enormous. He offered no multiple-choice and no visual clues. Not even a context; animal? vegetable? mineral? He then smugly announced that it meant ‘opinion’. At that point in time, I refrained from offering him my opinion.

Professional Experience Narrative: As a teacher…

In 2001, I returned to live and work in Japan and taught English for a short while at the English Language Education Council (ELEC) of Tokyo, which had contracts to teach predominantly government officials. I vividly recall one lesson when I was teaching officials from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). METI’s mission is to develop Japan’s economy and industry by focusing on promoting economic vitality in private companies, advancing external economic relationships, and securing stable and efficient supply of energy and mineral resources. And, I had the A-Team; most fluent in English and mostly comprising the highest officials. I assigned them an interesting article to read for homework and planned to review the content at the start of the proceeding lesson.

Dressed in a ‘power suit’ and speaking with a strong and authoritative voice, I asked, ‘So, how did you find the article?’ In deathly silence they stared at me mystified… My immediate reaction was one of horror. What had I given them to read? As I frantically ruffled through my papers with beads of sweat beginning to surface all over my reddened face, I thought I inadvertently offended these high-ranking persons with something shocking, distasteful and/or offensive. Finally, the most outspoken man apprehensively raised his hand and responded with, ‘But Donna, you gave it to us...’ I reflected upon his response. Hmmm… Indeed, he was correct. The class did not need to ‘find’ the article that I had provided for them to read.

What matters here is not so much what happened, the circumstances around it, and the context that gave rise to it, but rather what I experienced, what it meant for me, how I positioned myself, and interpreted it then (and now).

What is the good of experience if you do not reflect?

—Frederick the Great

Autoethnography is not neutral, but selects specific events and ignores others. This method is researcher-friendly as it allows researchers to access primary data from its genesis, as the primary source of data stems from the researcher, and it is reader-friendly as a narrative style of writing is oftentimes more engaging than conventional scholarly writing. But they do more than just tell stories. They render life experiences in relevant and meaningful ways i.e., enabling one’s unique voice—inclusive of colloquialisms, reverberations and emotional expressiveness—to be valued, while pursuing the fundamental goal of cultural understanding.

Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.

—Henry James

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