Written by: Catherine McConnell (University of Brighton), Elizabeth Marquis (McMaster University), and Lucy Mercer-Mapstone (University of Queensland) — note complete author-supplied affiliations and contact information at the end of this blog post.
When we (Catherine, Beth, and Lucy) met at the International Summer Institute on Students as Partners in 2016 we quickly discovered that, as practitioners of student-staff partnerships, we had many shared experiences. Our discussions were fruitful in terms of giving us a sense of belonging but we felt they warranted deeper exploration. So, we embarked on a process of delving into our own experiences in the hopes of learning in the process and sharing that learning with fellow practitioners and researchers. As we worked to find a way to effectively and systematically study ourselves, we arrived at the idea of using collaborative auto-ethnography as a methodological approach.
Above: Participants at the 2016 McMaster Summer Institute on Students as Partners in Teaching and Learning, where we first developed the idea for our CAE project.
Collaborative auto-ethnography (CAE) is a research method that involves ‘a group of researchers pooling their stories to find some commonalities and differences […] to discover the meanings of the stories in relation to their sociocultural contexts’ (Chang et al, 2013, p. 17). As such, it provided a perfect, if initially somewhat unfamiliar, way to collectively explore our individual experiences in a scholarly fashion.
We have put together this blog post to explain our developing understanding of the method and process of CAE, and how we, as a group of three researchers, have used it in our recent SoTL enquiry into ‘student-staff partnership in higher education.’
CAE builds upon ‘auto-ethnography,’ which is a method that uses a researcher’s personal experience to ‘describe and critique cultural beliefs, practices, and experiences’ (Adams et al, 2015, p.1). Auto-ethnography is a deeply personal and reflective process, usually taking place in a researcher’s own context, whether that be about practice or in a certain situation. Adding the dimension of multiple ethnographies (i.e., more than one voice) presents the possibility that the method can simultaneously be collaborative, autobiographical, and ethnographic.
For our shared research, we took up the CAE method through structured reflective writing, designing a writing activity to provide a framework that would guide our individual reflections. We set ourselves a word limit of 750 words that we would write and share with each other in a private online space. This activity was modelled on a set of reflective prompts, informed by Johns’ model of structured reflection (Johns, 2000), which had been adapted by colleagues at the University of Brighton, UK (2011) and which we subsequently re-appropriated. Specifically, we:
- Developed a framework of prompts/questions for reflection
- Wrote individual reflections guided by the framework
- Shared and read each other’s reflections
- Conducted iterative thematic analysis to discover key themes
Our developed framework was a useful facilitative tool to prompt us to take an open, honest account of our personal and professional experiences, affirming Johns’ interest in ‘making explicit the knowledge we use in our practice’ (Jasper, 2013, p.86). Posing questions that follow Johns’ (ibid, p.37) format of phased cue questions (phases involve preparatory, descriptive, reflective, anticipatory, and insight questions) we focused our SoTL enquiry on identity construction, navigation and enactment in the context of student-staff partnerships.
The framework below provides an illustration of the types of questions used to prompt our personal reflections about identity in the context of student-staff partnerships. This could be easily adapted to other SoTL topics – especially those that reflect on practice.
|Framework for reflective questioning|
|Description of experience||Phenomenon: describe in detail your partnership practice, or a specific partnership experience that seems especially noteworthy, without interpretation or judgement|
|Context: what were the significant background factors to this experience? Why did it take place, and what was its purpose?|
|Reflection||What were you trying to achieve?|
|Why did you behave as you did?|
|What were the consequences of your actions for yourself and others?|
|How did you feel about the experience when it was happening?|
|To what extent did your actions realize your understanding of partnership?|
|What identity(s) were you consciously aware of at the time?|
|What identity(s) do you believe were at play during this interaction in hindsight?|
|If multiple, which identity was most salient? How were they interacting?|
|Analysis: Influencing factors
|What factors influenced your decision-making? Some potential options to consider: Prior experiences, Societal expectations/ideologies/assumptions, Context|
|How was your salient identity affecting your actions?|
|How was the interaction between identities affecting your actions?|
|How was the presence of this identity(s) influencing your perceptions of those with whom you were interacting?|
|Analysis: Alternatives||What other choices did you have?|
|What could be the consequences of these choices?|
|Learning & Action||How do you feel about this experience now?|
|Has this experience changed your way of understanding yourself?|
|Did your salient identity change? If so, how and why?|
|In hindsight, how has is interaction/even affected your ongoing identity in partnership?|
|What new questions, challenges or issues has it raised?|
|Given the chance, what would you do differently next time?|
|How will you follow up on this experience in order to put your learning into practice?|
Once we had written and shared our individual reflections, we found it useful to read each other’s, and write a short ‘meta-reflection’ on the writing process. This enabled us to appraise the CAE method straight after the reflective process but before we began any analysis of the transcripts. Some of our observations included:
- The researchers felt a sense of belonging and solidarity to one another along with a communal ownership of an enquiry
- Writing and sharing reflections caused each of us a personal realisation and provided grounds for transformation. This process was not without some discomfort, though, perhaps because there is a level of vulnerable-making involved with sharing personal reflections with colleagues
- Sometimes the content of the reflections themselves was also unsettling or challenging, and caused discomfort in relation to an aspect of one’s own practice
- We experienced a heightened consciousness of our own values and beliefs relating to practice, the influence these have in partnership situations, and in our expectations of others
- We also noted a sense of excitement when reading each other’s writing inspired by the experience of sharing personal insights and aspects of our own identity that are usually implicit
While CAE proved a useful method for meaningfully exploring our research questions about our own experiences, then, it was also an exciting and sometimes uncomfortable process that supported reflective thinking and potential development of our practice as teachers and learners.
We are three SoTL practitioners working in the area of student-staff partnership in HE across three western countries, in differing roles, and in significantly different institutional contexts. Catherine McConnell is a Senior Lecturer in a Learning and Teaching centre, focusing her work and doctoral research on student-staff partnership, at the University of Brighton in the UK. Beth Marquis is Associate Director (Research) at the central teaching and learning institute at McMaster University in Canada. Her disciplinary training is in film and cultural studies. Lucy Mercer-Mapstone is a PhD candidate and research co-fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. She currently leads the collaborative design of a university-wide Students as Partners program that aims to embed a culture of partnership at the institution.
You can find out more about our study: Breaking Tradition Through Partnership: Navigating Identities and Dissonance in Student-Staff Partnerships in the EuroSoTL Conference Proceedings, p296.
Catherine McConnell * a, Elizabeth Marquis b, c Lucy Mercer-Mapstone
a Centre for Learning and Teaching, University of Brighton, Sussex, England. C.McConnell@brighton.ac.uk
b Arts & Science Program and MacPherson Institute, McMaster University. Hamilton, ON, Canada. firstname.lastname@example.org
c Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation, University of Queensland, St Lucia, Brisbane, 4072, Australia, email@example.com, orcid.org/0000-0001-7441-6568
Adams, T. E., Linn, H. J. S. and Ellis, C. (2015). Autoethnography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Chang, H., Ngunjiri, F., & Hernandez, W. (2013). Collaborative autoethnography. London: Routledge.
Jasper, M. (2013) Beginning Reflective Practice. (2nd edition) Hampshire: Cengage Learning.
Johns, C. (2000) Becoming a Reflective Practitioner. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.
University of Brighton. (2011). Critical Incident Analyses. Brighton: University of Brighton.