Students encouraged to use autoethnography to enhance research

ALTOONA, Pa. — We have been hearing — and telling — stories for our entire lives. Some are fiction, some are fact, some are a mixture of both. These stories may be told so we learn something or to make us laugh (or cry). For all sorts of reasons, these stories are important. But how often does the person with the real-life story use that story for research, to learn about the storyteller him- or herself? That’s the definition of autoethnography — using stories about one’s life as research.

Kelly Munly, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Altoona, was in grad school when she first learned about autoethnography, “a method of looking at personal experience in a social and political context,” she explains. “You’re looking at a life experience or an issue touched by various experiences and exploring that on a personal level.” Over four semesters, Munly took classes with Professor Gresilda Tilley-Lubbs, well known for her own autoethnography work.

Munly found real benefit in the work: “This was not my main method for my dissertation research but it was invaluable to me in both my research and teaching development.”

Because of her positive experience, Munly decided to use autoethnography with her own students, inspired by the process mentored by Tilley-Lubbs. Munly’s approach was measured: “First I had students write about their ontology — the philosophy of the nature of being. Then they wrote about their epistemology — their philosophy of the nature of knowledge or knowing. Those initial processes are helpful for helping a student engage in who they are because it’s connected to their own vision.”

To help her students understand those concepts, Munly shared her own ideas with them.

“I looked at the reciprocity between caregivers and care receivers in long-term care contexts," she said. "In my own field work, care recipients also showed care to me as a caregiver. I felt cared for. That experience is bidirectional. When I go back to my philosophy of knowledge, I realize part of that recognition of reciprocity might come from my spiritual experience growing up. My parents brought epistemologies stemming from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds, but also meditation, into our home. In the epistemology or underpinning philosophy of the meditation we practiced, there is no hierarchy between human beings. Rather, the foundational idea is that all of existence, including individuals, stem from a unified field of Being.

“With this as a formative point of view,” she continues, “it’s natural for me to gravitate toward looking at all relationships, including in caregiving contexts, that way. My epistemology is connected to that. I don’t really prize intellectual prowess over someone’s life-long wisdom. I don’t see hierarchy in terms of knowledge. Why do we value one person’s work, experience, or perspective over another? I think it’s important for all academics to acknowledge that their epistemology influences both their research and their teaching.”

After the students wrote about their ontology and epistemology, Munly directed them to “do some journaling of vivid life experiences.” Once the subject matter that each student was going to focus on became clear, the class was instructed to look for research articles that relate to their topics. When they started writing, Munly stressed it should be “writing in a way that is evocative to your audience. My mentor would always say it’s not just about navel gazing, it’s sharing your experience in a social and political context to bring meaning to others and evoke a response.”

Two of Munly’s students, Chisomebi Emeh and Courtney Becker, felt the work was very valuable. Emeh had one semester with Munly, Becker had two. Their work helped them see both their pasts and their futures.

Emeh already had her career path mapped out — she wants to be a registered dietician — but she used her autoethnography work to better understand her chosen life path. “I got into health and fitness at a young age,” she said. Actually, she had no choice about that — Emeh was born with sickle cell anemia.

“Exploring the physical and emotional sides (of the illness) was the whole point of my autoethnography," said Emeh. "It’s bad. And a lot of African Americans don’t know about it. I wanted to get that out there and share my story. I’m really big on God, my spirituality. There’s no way that God made me and allowed me to remember these things without supporting me to get it out there.”

Emeh was fortunate in that when she was five she received a bone marrow transplant (her sister was her donor) and she is now free of the disease. Her memories of the transplant and chemo are vivid but she needed to interview her mother, who knew things Emeh was too young to remember. “She was dealing with a very sick child who would fall into crisis," she said. "I would have to go to the hospital and get a blood transfusion. That was my life until after transplant.” She does, however, have some memories of the treatment itself and its effect on her: “I remember the (chemo) port. I had to grow up really quickly.”

Munly’s research curriculum prepared Emeh for the writing. Approaching the project “reminded me of Psych 100. We learned about behaviors and emotions of people,” Emeh says. “We scheduled meetings outside of class and Dr. Munly asked me if I wanted to share part of my story. She was completely supportive throughout the entire thing. We would meet every single week for updates and she would ask how the draft was coming along and if I was struggling with anything. I did research, as she wanted some actual facts, numbers, and basic information on the donors.”

Writing an autoethnography about her experience, Emeh says, served more than one purpose for her. “I wanted to inform people about how real and how serious this is. Make sure you know your blood type and your genotype. My mom didn’t know my dad had the genetic trait. Every day I live my life, I have to be grateful and remember where I came from. (The autoethnography work) allowed me to reflect on it and bring hope to others who have sickle cell anemia.”

Courtney Becker wants to be a psychologist and is planning on pursing her master’s. “I want to study psychology, to be a clinical psychologist," she said. "I’m interested in how our brain works in the decision-making process and how a scent can bring back memories for people who are trying to reflect on things, how the smell of a simple candle in the home can bring back memories.”

Becker found her two semesters of autoethnography work, on a deeply personal subject she prefers to keep private, very helpful. “I enjoy writing. When I began to put things into words and read it back to myself I gained a better understanding of myself.”

Becker also really enjoyed the research aspect of the work: “Maybe a lot of students shy away from research but our minds are the only things holding us back. Take that step into studying, pick a topic to research, it can be very beneficial.”

Working on the autoethnography had a bonus for both students, when they attended the Twelfth Congress of Qualitative Inquiry at the University of Illinois-Urbana and each presented a poster. Becker highly recommends the conference experience to students: “For any student interested in doing research, take the extra step and, even if you’re not going to present, experience a qualitative or quantitative conference. My eyes were wide open.”

Munly encouraged both students to attend other sessions at the conference, which they did. Becker says, “I saw topics I had never thought about — and then to have a half hour on that one topic!” Munly observed that both students were engaged by other conference attendees about their work and demonstrated great professionalism in their presentations. Emeh and Becker felt respected and encouraged to keep going with their research interests and applications.