By Maura Smale
Author of “Many Hats, One Head: Considering Professional Identity in Academic Library Directorship”
I was an archaeologist before becoming a librarian, and while I do have a graduate degree in anthropology, I came to this project with no prior experience in reading, writing, or doing autoethnography. I’m also a person who responds well to a traditional, school-like environment when learning new things – reading and response assignments plus deadlines definitely work for me. I’m really, really grateful for the opportunity that Anne-Marie, Bob, and Rick provided for us to participate in the autoethnography learning community. The readings they selected helped me get up to speed with the research methods and gave me a head start on my own literature review (though more on that below). And it was great to discuss the readings and my other questions that came up during the process with my fellow chapter authors on our shared website. Honestly, I’m not sure that I could have written my chapter without having had the learning community experience first.
As I was writing this reflection I logged into our learning community site for the first time in a long time to read over my posts, and it’s been interesting to remember what I was thinking as my work on the research and writing got underway. One of the first sets of readings we tackled started at the very beginning: what is autoethnography, and what forms does this kind of research take? I blogged that the articles we read, while describing different projects and approaches to autoethnography, shared one thing in common:
“The justification, ‘yes this is a valid mode of inquiry’ aspects of these pieces are all super fascinating to me. This speaks, I think, to many of the ‘is this really research?’ concerns we as librarians have when we research and write for publication. I think there’s definitely value in the more traditional forms of LIS research and scholarship, but it is a sometimes-limiting box that we’ve drawn around ourselves, and I’m glad to be thinking on other ways to work.”
This tension I noted at the very beginning of my process stayed with me throughout my autoethnographic work, with varying degrees of intensity. I wrote and submitted an application to my college’s Institutional Review Board, as I do for any project involving human subjects, only to be told that my project didn’t require review because it didn’t fit the IRB definition of human subjects research, despite my intent to publish. And while my research process – assigning codes to text to reveal themes for analysis – was identical to my process on other projects, it didn’t feel the same. It’s almost as if considering myself as the research subject felt less authentic than considering others.
When I finally sat down to start writing, I found it very difficult to begin. Autoethnographies are usually described as either evocative or analytic and, while I’d generally found articles in the evocative style to be more compelling reads, I found myself gravitating toward writing something more analytic. Years of graduate study in the social sciences had lulled me into familiar comfort with that very formulaic writing style, and in my first draft I wasn’t able to shake it. Upon reflection now I think I’d convinced myself that I needed the analytic autoethnographic framework in order to believe that I was engaged in “real” research.
So I wrote that first draft with a formal literature review, description of methods, and discussion of results, and I sent it into our fearless editors and peer reviewer. I knew it was boring, but I hoped that at least it was competent.
When the feedback came in I was nervous (as usual) but excited to read it. More than any reviewers’ comments I’ve ever received, the feedback exploded my brain ever so slightly and in the best way. To quote Anne-Marie (though the other reviewers expressed similar sentiments): “I’m not sure fully analytic autoethnography is what this wants to be?“
And this was a suggestion that I knew all along but couldn’t see a way to and/or make myself do: to break out of the analytic mode and write my autoethnography in a more evocative style with more of myself in the writing. I made some big changes to the chapter: sections were reorganized, paragraphs moved around, and 2,300 words came out, which I plopped into a file I named “AELitReviewExcised.docx” because I couldn’t bear to delete them forever. Writing is hard and revising is even harder, deleting those words that were often so difficult to write in the first place.
While my finished product is still somewhat on the analytic side, it’s definitely been pushed in the evocative direction and it is much, much better than it was. Shedding that analytical shell, which feels so comfortable (like a security blanket!), was challenging and scary. I realized that I’d actually been nervous about it since I joined the autoethnography project the previous summer, and I’m so grateful for the nudges to do it.
This autoethnography project continues to affect me to this day. I’m delighted to be a part of it, and I cannot wait to read all of my co-contributors’ work and experiences, too.