I have been assigning the autoethnography essay in my inclusive literature courses for several years. Prior to this, I would occasionally struggle with the idea that class discussions in these courses examined social justice matters as if their expression and manifestation took place primarily outside the classroom. In general, my students always approached the course readings with sensitivity and acumen. They have no trouble drawing connections between the literature and local, national, and global communities that face racism, bigotry and exclusion. Still, I was troubled by the impression that our investigation into these issues resonated as if they took place in the literature, and in the world-at-large, but outside of ourselves. The truth is, we are all enmeshed in the dynamics of equity and belonging, in one way or another. I wanted an assignment that would bring these experiences a little closer to home.
To provide some context, the courses I am referencing are 200 and 300-level literature courses that study texts by ethnic and women writers, and writers from LGBTQ+ communities. My teaching approach is contemplative, meaning my pedagogical framework involves the enrichment of the “whole person,” for the development of the self, and for the cultivation of a more just and sustainable world. Beth Berila in “Contemplating the Effects of Oppression: Integrating Mindfulness into Diversity Classrooms” states that “courses that deal with oppression and diversity can greatly benefit from contemplative practices, because they can help us unlearn the conditioned responses that uphold or result from systems of oppression” (57). In addition, contemplative pedagogy compliments intellectual rigor and increases stress resilience and attentiveness in students. Many of my assignments are designed to inspire introspection, creativity, deepened self-knowledge, ecoliteracy, and social consciousness as intrinsic threads within the tapestry of being human.
As part of a contemplative practice, students are asked to consider the role of activism and protest writing in the process of evolving cultural identities, and to examine how reading and critical inquiry allows us all to develop empathy for perspectives beyond our own experience. Our discussions often revolve around the importance of having a sense of belonging and a voice. It is easy for students to envision how belonging, or the lack thereof, expresses itself in the literature. They say characters in a novel, for example, are treated as “marginalized, “not accepted,” “living on the fringes,” or “outcasts.” While some students openly identify with these experiences in class discussions, many do not. It was unclear to me if students were truly internalizing how much they have been shaped by their experiences of inclusion and exclusion. I decided to integrate into the class an assignment that would encourage students to more deeply reflect upon their own sense of belonging, and the autoethnography essay fit the bill.
There are several important challenges to consider when assigning the autoethnography. First, as with all class assignments, the description and guidelines need to be crystal clear. So far, I have never encountered a student who has previously written an autoethnography for another class, so initially, students feel confused about the facets of an autoethnography. It is useful to have a conversation about autobiography and ethnography separately and then ask students to consider how these genres might function once combined. The traditional ethnography has its origins in the social sciences; however, according to Melissa Tombro in Teaching Autoethnography: Personal Writing in the Classroom, “in recent years, social scientists have sought a more inclusive model that allows for relaxing some of the rigid scientific constraints of ethnography in favor of the impact of more literary forms” (43). This alternative model allows students to be storytellers, to write personal essays that encompass both cultural literacy and artistic merit.
As with most personal essay assignments, some students will embrace the opportunity to tell their own stories, while others may feel uncomfortable with the endeavor. But the drafting of this essay may contain an added layer of apprehension for students. They need to write about their group identities and their own experiences with inclusion and exclusion. Some autoethnography assignments can be quite broad in scope asking students to write about how they fit into various hobbyist groups, such as gamer or yoga communities. For my inclusive literature classes, I ask students to write about group experiences related to the course content. They are asked to approach the writing from their positionality as members of a group or number of groups related to gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, and geography. And in assigning this essay as a form of contemplative pedagogy, it is important for me to remember that contemplative practices are not always comforting. They can be challenging, but they can also initiate healing, radical transformation and personal growth. I am always prepared to offer compassion, support and resources to students who are struggling and provide an alternative assignment, if needed.
It’s important to clarify for students that the essay is not simply a personal narration of experiences. Personal narrative and interviews can serve as evidence, but the essay is not just a subjective retelling of events. The goal is to distill the social and cultural from the personal and draw conclusions. It is an opportunity to share their own stories, and to engage in an intellectual inquiry of the cultural and social context of their experiences. Intellectual inquiry requires uncovering social and cultural biases, investigating power and authority, and recognizing one’s positionality in relation to others. Students are asked to include a description, and an analysis and critique of assumptions and beliefs gained from their group perspectives. What is it like to belong to this group? What are the limitations and advantages of belonging to this group? Do you ever feel excluded from other groups? Do you ever feel stereotyped? Do you feel comfortable around those who are not part of this group?
One potential challenge in assigning this essay is that students who identify as white may express that they have no culture. Robin Diangelo directly addresses this perspective in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism when she asserts that, “a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—‘just human’” (27). It is important to remind students that no one stands outside of culture. We have all been socialized to be of a specific gender, race and class. It is beneficial to have a conversation with students about this reality prior to assigning the essay. Ideally, the readings have already set the stage for this dialogue.
I always have the autoethnography due at mid-semester. Having the opportunity to read the essays early in the term gives me ample time to address complex or sensitive perspectives raised by the assignment before the end of the semester. Afterward, I request anonymous feedback in writing from students to get a sense of what they learned, if anything, from writing the autoethnography. The comments I receive are always illuminating. Students often say the essay “helped me to see myself differently,” and “it was interesting to take inventory of my own cultural background.” Some students comment that writing the essay was “therapeutic,” while others say, “I found the autoethnography to be difficult because I had never thought about myself in a cultural context.” Some feedback is heartbreaking. For example, one student wrote “personally, I struggled with it because I felt like I was writing something that thousands of other white feminists have written and it never changes anything. Even within ourselves.” Wow. Although it was troubling to read this feedback, it was still valuable information for me as the instructor. It reminded me that I needed to take some class time to talk about progress and hope.
In writing an autoethnography, students are offered the opportunity to explore their own sense of self and belonging in a way that is new, challenging, and enlightening for them. It is a powerful pedagogical mechanism for social consciousness and contemplative growth for students. In reading these essays, I become a better teacher. I gain insight into the ways in which students feel included or excluded in their local communities, and how their experiences fit into the larger national and global dialogues about race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability.
Berila, Beth. “Contemplating the Effects of Oppression: Integrating Mindfulness into Diversity Classrooms.” Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 55-68.
Diangelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon, 2018.
Tombro, Melissa. Teaching Autoethnography: Personal Writing in the Classroom. Open SUNY Textbooks, 2016.
Donelle Dreese is a poet, novelist, essayist and professor of English at Northern Kentucky University where she teaches Multicultural and Environmental Literatures, American Women Poets and writing courses. Her writing has been published in a wide variety of journals and magazines. She’s on Twitter (@donelledreese) and her website is donelledreese.com.