While writing about your academic life, I say go with your gut
A few years ago, as part of my Professional Doctorate, I started a diary about my working life. In my diary I wrote about the daily occurrences that made me happy, sad, and mad. But mostly – as it turned out – when I was mad.
I turned to my diary when things went wrong. When I was frustrated because a student had made a mistake. When I was angry because it later transpired that the student had hidden the mistake and the situation was now beyond rectification. When I lay awake at night worrying if I’d dealt with the issue as best I could. And when, after weeks had passed, the student repeated the same mistake, and I was frustrated, angry, and lying awake all over again. The diary captured how I felt before I lost the raw emotion to the passage of time. I also wonder if it was cathartic. Getting it all down ‘put’ the feelings somewhere away from my head.
My diary entries are a powerful insight into my academic life, especially my role as a law clinic supervisor. Clinicians have stories to tell. Most days, someone pops into my office to share a tale about their clinical life (“I’ve got this case… can I just sense check this with you?” “You’ll never believe what’s happened! Right, how can I resolve this?”). However, the stories tend to remain within law school walls, hidden away. I wanted to use my diary entries to facilitate a greater understanding of the role of the law clinic supervisor, and the culture of clinical teaching in law.
There was just one problem. I wasn’t just writing about myself. My diary entries were entirely due to and dependent on the supervisory relationship I had with my students. Even though I didn’t name anyone in my diary, the more I wrote, the more I started to worry. I wondered how my students (past, present, and future) would react to my words. I panicked that they might query the efficacy of my supervision. I imagined complaints about my dithering, my abject failures, and my tendency to be exasperated.
In essence, I was concerned with relational ethics. I remember reading Carolyn Ellis’ work on ethics in life and being dogged by the question she posed: How could I discharge my relational responsibilities yet present my life in a complex and truthful way for readers?
I considered fictionalisation. Some researchers purposefully omit and intentionally add characters, places, and events. One of my favourite (fictional) accounts of life at an (imagined) university is Andrew Sparkes’ Embodiment, Academics, and the Audit Culture: A Story Seeking Consideration. Although our protagonist, Jim, and other characters – including bruised colleague Paul and research impact factor obsessed Steve – are constructs, they are inspired by “partial happenings,” “echoes of conversations,” and “whispers in corridors.” Another option was to obtain consent from the students who (anonymously) were part of my story.
My original intention was to read out a single diary entry at the 2nd British Autoethnography Conference. The entry contained 407 words; a perfect storm of confusion, annoyance, guilt, sympathy, and resolve following a conversation with one of my clinic students about their work. It captured the multifaceted connections a supervisor has with their law clinic students: mentor, colleague, boss, teacher, listening-ear, and careers advisor. But my worries about relational ethics wouldn’t die down. In a fit of naive temerity, I even wrote to Carolyn Ellis to ask her about the decisions she made when she wrote about her university life.
In the end, I didn’t fictionalise my story, and I didn’t ask my students for consent. I went with my gut. And my gut told me that it wasn’t right to let the diary entry into the public domain. So instead, I went to the conference and delivered a paper called “Should I share my journal entry with you? An ethical dilemma faced by an experiential educator.” And then I wrote about my concerns in this article, just published in the latest edition of Departures in Critical Qualitative Research.
I continue to be fascinated and challenged by the ethics of writing about my academic life. But even after all of the chapters and articles I have read, and conversations I have had, I come back to my gut every time. My gut lets me know if I have written something that needs further consideration before it goes to print. My gut tells me if I need to alter events, or miss them out altogether. The struggle is part of the process. For when we do not worry about potential for exploitation or betrayal of others, that might just be when the potential for damage is at its peak.
This blogpost is based on Should I Share My Journal Entry With You? A Critical Exploration of Relational Ethics in Autoethnography, also available on Northumbria NRL.
Elaine Gregersen (@alawuntoherself) is an Associate Professor in Law at Northumbria University. This story was published on January 11, 2018, on Elaine's blog, A Law Unto Herself (available here) and has been republished here with her permission.
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