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Grumet_1990Retrospective_Autobiography_ Educational_Experience

Page history last edited by David Shutkin 12 years, 2 months ago

Grumet, M. (1990). Retrospective: Autobiography and the analysis of Educational Experience. Cambridge Journal of Education, 20(3), 321-325.



It is fashionable these days to view all writing as the imprint of some cultural behemoth, striding through consciousness, literature or criticism towards a compelling, if undetermined, destination. According to this deconstruction we, scribbling in our diaries, or squinting at our word processors, merely imagine that we are composing the original word that brings a new thought to expression. All language is social, all thought historical, all form predetermined, all invention shared, all intention sabotaged.


Nevertheless, I still write. I write in a journal that I carry with me most of the time. I don't write in it daily, so each slim volume lasts me about a year. It must be small and light enough not to burden my already degenerating lumbar discs, but it must be large enough so that my hand can rest on it comfortably as I write.


The one I have now is too small. I knew it was too small when I bought it, but all the pages had run out on my last one and life was going by. Then after I had written in the new little one for about three weeks, a friend gave my a journal almost twice its size, which is surprisingly light. I am tempted to take a razor and remove the already inscribed pages of the little journal to tape them into the big one. I am stopped though, by a strange injunction not to mess with what I have started, most of all not to violate my self-imposed law of containment by sprinkling notes all over the place.


I have read that Virginia Woolf left jottings everywhere. At times I have toyed with that possibility, for there are few other attributes of hers that I can appropriate to my own identity other than her writing habits. But this scatter method has never worked for me. I lose the jottings, I crumble them up and throw them away in a clean sweep of tidying or use their backs and margins for telephone numbers which then get tucked into secret places where they won't be lost and from which they can never be recovered. The only scatter notes I ever saved were the little pieces of paper recording the timing of my contractions when I went into labor in the summer of 1970. And even now I don't know whether I saved these jottings because I wanted to remember how it felt to be pacing around the quiet house at two or three in the morning, wondering whether these spasms would dwindle . . . or bring about birth--or whether upon finding them on my return from the hospital propped up on the mantle, on the dining room table, or on the kitchen counter near the phone, I saved them because their scatter seemed worthy of Virginia's labor as well as mine.


So you see, it is both things: inner and outer, personal and public, spontaneous and considered, mind and body.


I cannot speak of autobiography without relating it to some conversation real or imagined which I have had with someone else, and at the same time the text which I produce is dear to me like my own body and I am as concerned with its location, size and form as I am when I choose a robe to lounge around in, considering how long I will sit over coffee and the paper, how much of me it needs to cover, whether it can weather the washing of breakfast dishes and the watering of the plants.


I am not sure when I first started keeping a journal. I remember keeping a journal during a graduate school summer when I was taking a course with William Pinar on Existential Thought in Education. We were reading Kierkegaard and I went home from class that humid afternoon and discovered brown ants crawling through the cereal and cracker boxes in the cupboards. Revolted by the infestation, I remember standing at the sink, drowning the bugs and their camouflage of cheerios and frosted flake crumbs (it was over a decade ago--before fiber) in the swirling water that brought them down the drain. And I remember thinking about the inevitability of decay, and about death, nestled right in my cupboard. I have, I must confess, discovered other unwelcome visitors in the heart of my happy home since then, although you will be relieved to know that I can't recount their discovery or extermination with the detail which I can bring to the Kierkegaard plague.

I remember it because I wrote about it. It is a story that makes me remember how it felt to be in graduate school, reading Kierkegaard and how it felt to return to my kitchen, to cherry KoolAid stains on the counter and summer suppers of corn and fresh tomatoes before the kids' soccer games, to this place where life was all I ever wanted to see. John Didion's essay "On keeping a notebook" says it all; it hums through my mind like a mantra: "how it felt to me" collecting pieces of the mind's string too short to use" (Didion, 1967).


And that is why my journals are about to this day. Moments of being in the world that I want to save. Pictures of the world that I have witnessed. A sketch returns it all to me. A half a page in even the little journal is all I need to remember, in some later day, the whole scene, the whole situation and all of what I felt about it.


With Bill Pinar I started working with teachers and students to explore texts such as these as data for the study of educational experience. Like autobiography, education implies our presence in the world. That which we perceive, note, remember, is also that which we learn. This writing records moments of our intentional consciousness, or our attention and perception--and of our reflexive consciousness, of our way of thinking about the world we notice. To reread the journal is to see oneself seeing. We turned to autobiography to recover human feeling and motivation for studies of education that had become anonymous and quantitative.


In teaching, in educational research and theory, many of us have used the autobiographical mode because of its capacity to embrace the individuality of being, the ants swirling down the drain at 4 o'clock on a July afternoon, as well as the social construction of meaning: the conversations--with Kierkegaard, with the kids--that frame it as meaningful.

Women and men who teach, address this continuum of being every day as we bring the categories, language and abstractions of the academic disciplines to the particular people who are our students. The translation of the thick and precious specificity of being into the names for it that constitute our shared knowledge is only part of the process. Teaching must also reverse the process of generalization by returning the world to the specificity of lived experience.


Narratives of educational experience challenge their readers and writers to find both individuality and society, being and history and possibility in their texts. It is a brave company of educators who forsake simplistic polarities of individual and society to write, to read and to do scholarly work in these ways. It challenges feminists to encode the body and the idioms of meaningful lived relations without abandoning the disciplines of knowledge. It challenges teachers to listen to stories and to hear their resonance in the distant orchestration of academic knowledge. And it invites all of us, no matter how wide our disillusion, to notice how existence quickens us with joy surpassing despair.


At first the work was motivated by the desire to correct the anonymity of the quantitative research paradigm and to return the complexity, specificity, rhythm and logic of the biographical voice to studies in education [ n1].


Whereas the emphasis of the initial work was on the autobiographical writing, extending the work to preservice teacher education intensified my focus on the reading and interpretation of those writings. In Toward a Poor Curriculum (1976), William Pinar and I gathered the literary, psychoanalytic and phenomenological themes that informed this method. From them we distilled a rationale that supported the fluctuations of presence and distance, expression and analysis, specificity and generalization that characterized our methods of studying autobiographical narratives of educational experience.


After years of working in this way with teachers in various settings in the USA and Canada, I have come to recognize distinct themes that continue to appear in their narratives. Nevertheless, I have been interested in developing the kind of content analysis that would permit me to generalize about values, histories or kinds of consciousness that characterize teachers. Such content analysis, while using narratives as its data source, consigns their authors to the status of data, objectifying them by reserving the active, meaning-making privilege of subjectivity for the researcher who interprets the tales. My interest in the method is the hermeneutic process of this interpretation: negotiating the work of reading and interpreting the narratives with their writers.


As the interest of educational researchers and policy-makers has been drawn to the experience of teachers, both to the process of illuminating their expertise and to the project of strengthening their voices in the negotiations that determine educational policy, autobiographical writing has been included in many projects and research studies. Although such writing cannot be owned by any particular discipline or group of disciplines, I become nervous when the study of narrative is pruned from the humanities disciplines of history, philosophy and literature in which it is rooted and is grafted on to social science disciplines committed to generalized description, typology and prediction. I fear that studies designed to investigate `teacher thinking', for example, abuse the creative and transformative character of thought by reserving that function for the researcher. On the other hand a failure to engage in some analysis of the autobiographical texts beyond celebration and recapitulation leads to a patronizing sentimentality. It consigns the teacher's tale to myth, resonant but marginal because it is not part of the discourse that justifies real action.


Under the canopy of post-structuralism, sociologists, as well, I must admit, as some humanities scholars, have justified readings of autobiographical narratives which erase the subjectivity of their authors. Claiming that identity is a fiction, post modernists attribute our scribbles and fantasies to the determinations of genres and codes. I would be naive if I refused to admit influence in what we notice, what we choose to tell, and in how and why we tell what we do. Nevertheless, autobiographical method invites us to struggle with all those determinations. It is that struggle and its resolve to develop ourselves in ways that transcend the identities that others have constructed for us that bonds the projects of autobiography and education.


In summary, any writing and reading of our lives presents us with the challenge that is at the heart of every educational experience: making sense of our lives in the world. Autobiography becomes a medium for both teaching and research because each entry expresses the particular peace its author has made between the individuality of his or her subjectivity and the intersubjective and public character of meaning. The wound that haunts our consciousness by severing our private lives from our public world may begin to repair itself, at least on the level of text, as the languages of both worlds and their ways of being mingle in educational theory and practice. There is no formula for this relation. It is tuned to every writer and reader and to the situation they share.

And there is no model for its place in our culture and thought that we can borrow from other enterprises. Our readings are more instrumental than our readings of fiction, for we study these narratives to inform our practice as teachers and students. Our readings are less normative than our readings of religious texts and canonical texts, for we read to recreate meaning not repeat it. Our readings are less therapeutic than our readings of client narratives, for we read to direct collective action rather than to grasp the history of an individual's choice.


The ceremony of interpretation that accompanies narratives of educational experience is purposeful, directed and democratic. It challenges us who would educate others to acknowledge the courage and vision of the human spirit as we gather to write and read stories of what our lives mean.


Correspondence: Madeleine R. Grumet, School of Education, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, Brooklyn, NY 11210, USA.


[n1] See `Generations: the reconceptualization of teacher education' in The Journal of Teacher Education, where I provide a more detailed description of the development of autobiographical method in relation to the reconceptualist curriculum theory agenda.



DIDION, JOAN (1967) On keeping a notebook, in: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (New York, Delta).

PINAR, WILLIAM & GRUMET, MADELEINE (1976) Toward a Poor Curriculum (Dubuque, IA, Kendall/Hunt).


By MADELEINE R. GRUMET, School of Education, City University of New York

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