“Tell me about yourself” in a critical auto-ethnography

“Tell me about yourself” in a critical auto-ethnography

An ethnography is an examination of a group or a culture, specifically about things we call “folkways” — customs and beliefs practiced by a particular group.

In my language and literacy courses, I have students critically reflect on their identity, and the pathways that brought them to this point in their lives. They research and write an “auto-ethnography” which becomes an analytic, multimodal portrait of one or some of their literacy learning experiences, placed within social, historical, cultural context. It should go beyond summary and autobiography to incorporate ethnographic analysis of the cultural contexts and practices, relationships, dynamics of power, etc.

The goal is to include prior work on teaching philosophy statements in the broader context of their literacy and learning experience. Theories and concepts from coursework should be used to frame analysis of personal experience with language and literacy.

This post will share all facets of the assignment. This is developed for an undergraduate literacy development course in a pre-service teacher education program. Please feel free to modify for your own class…or as you write your auto-ethnography.

Tell me about yourself

We begin by exploring self-identity inspired by the slam poetry pieces by Alex Dang. The goal of this project is to have individuals critically reflect on their stories up to this point. This vehicle should provide an opportunity for processing, evaluation, and catharsis of the learning pathways in their lives.

The shapes of stories

After some discussion about the Alex Dang video, we consider the shapes of stories as presented by Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut posits that there is one general shape of a story, and all else is a variation.

We test this idea by having students draw out the X and Y axis on a piece of paper and prepare to chart out the shape of a short story. We view the following video in class and chart out the shape of the action in the story.

We then take some time to review the different ways in which students charted out the shape of the story. What similarities and differences exist in this work? Was this an overly positive, or negative story? We also discuss the absence of text or narration, and the impact of this on the story.

The shape of your story

Following this activity, students flip over their piece of paper and draw another X and Y axis to chart out another story. This time they chart out the shape of their story. They are instructed to think creatively about the beginning and end of their story. They can choose how much detail to add to their story. They can make decisions about how honest to remain in the process.

After charting out the shape of their story, they once again share with individuals in their groups. They can be as honest and forthright about the shape of their story as needed. All students must share. All stories must be heard.

Following this review, students quietly review the shape of their story and identify three critical events, incidents, or time periods that are illustrative of their story. Circle these three critical events and write a couple of sentences about each event. Explain the time period. What happened? Who was there? What action occurred? What did you learn from this?

After this work, students flip over their work and leave class. They are to begin writing and reflecting outside of class.

Research and reflection

An auto-ethnography is a critical self-study that involves looking into the mirror and thinking critically about yourself. An autoethnography is like an autobiography, in that both of them are written by you, about you. But, while an autobiography is your own life story, an autoethnography is an examination of your behavior and your ideas — your personal culture or “folkways.”

Students use the following Google Doc to guide them through the five steps involved in researching, reflecting, and writing this document.

  1. You review what you already know about a topic.
  2. You do research to get more information.
  3. You decide what you think about the topic and what you want your reader to know or
  4. You organize your information and your views in a written document so that it will be as
    persuasive to your reader as possible.
  5. Revise your work to fix any weak spots.

Students take one week and write on their own. They create a rough draft of their work using this template.

Review of rough drafts

This rough draft is reviewed in class after some time alone reflecting through writing. The next class session is spent reviewing the rough copy. We begin with the following video to help frame our discussions.

After viewing the video, we have some discussion about the elements presented in the video, and lessons learned. We also talk about the challenges of presenting your own story. At this point, many of the students have questions about what to present, and how to present it in their final product.

To get feedback on the papers, we break into groups and conduct a modified charrette protocol in which students present on the story they want to tell, the three events they’ll use to frame their pathways, and how they’ll present this information.

Using the feedback from the charrette protocol, students leave class and continue writing and reflecting on the narrative they want to present.

The final product

The final presentation for this project is a remix of this template. Students present this as a Google Doc, or share it on their website as part of their “about me” section of their digital portfolio.

The final product should be an examination of their background, and then three vignettes, or snapshots of their past. The three vignettes should show, as opposed to tell about who they are, and some of the events that have brought them to this point in their careers. The auto-ethnography for this project closes by presenting and connecting their teaching philosophy to the materials they presented.

Assessment of this is framed by a rubric we design as a class. Students conduct as self-assessment, as well as an assessment by the course instructor.


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Also published on Medium.

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