‘Autoblogography’ as research

laboratory instrumentsNext week I will bring this narrative to a close with an account of my ‘rite of passage’ last Friday. And I’ll attempt to draw some conclusions from the whole experience, especially with regard to my ‘research question’, i.e. is it possible to redress fossilization? Or, better, is it possible to redress long-term stabilization?

Before that, though, I’d like to dwell, not on the message, but on the medium. The scare quotes round ‘research question’ in the previous paragraph are deliberate, as is the use of the term ‘narrative’. A narrative this has been, but can it really be called research?

In a sense, all research is a kind of narrative: it presupposes a quest (or research question), a journey (or investigation), typically involving a sequence of steps (the methodology), and concluding with an ending (the findings). And there is often some kind of moral to the story, in the form of the discussion.  A case study, such as that of Wes (Schmidt 1983), is a particularly overt example of a research-story, with not only a narrative but a protagonist as well.

But, if all research is a kind of narrative, is all narrative a kind of research?

In tracing the history of ‘the narrative turn’ in the social sciences, and in applied linguistics in particular, Pavlenko (2007: 164) notes that the advent of narrative inquiry, in the form of diary-based studies, learner memoirs, and autobiographical interviews, has ‘challenged the portrayal of learners as unidimensional abstractions and presented them as human beings who have feelings […], who are positioned in terms of gender, race, and class […] and who exercise their agency in the learning process.’

In a similar vein, Kramsch (2009: 75) argues that, because emotions and feelings are implicated in language use, we need to engage with personal accounts of language learning since these are about ‘the serious life of the self: desire, fear, and survival’.

Pavlenko goes on to argue that autobiographical narratives are not only interesting and easy to read, but that they have value as a medium of reflection both for their authors and for their readers. And she adds, ‘most importantly, they are transformative as they shift the power relationship between researchers and participants, and between teachers and learners, making the object of the enquiry into the subject and granting the subject both agency and voice’ (2007: 180).

Canagarajah (1996: 327) makes a similar point:

In opposition to grand theories and global knowledge structures, narratives represent knowledge from the bottom up; in opposition to explicit forms of theorization, they embody implicit forms of reasoning and logic; in opposition to positivistic scholarly discourses which are elitist in their specialized and abstract nature, narratives represent concrete forms of knowledge that are open to further interpretation.

collecting gearNevertheless, narrative-based research is not without its problems, as Pennycook (2012: 31) acknowledges with regard to his own foray into the genre: ‘Using personal accounts, writing narratives, indulging in literary forms… raises some important concerns, and certainly it may be open to the challenges of self-indulgence, bad research and authorial over-presence’.

And Nelson, in a recent collection of papers devoted to narrative research (2011: 465), admits to being often disappointed by many narrative-based studies: ‘Too much detail, too little depth; too much angst, not enough insight; too much about what happened, not enough about what it all might mean’.

Nevertheless, in the same collection, Benson (2011: 546) defends the use of this line of research, by arguing that ‘narratives of language learning provide insight into both the unique experiences of individuals and the social and institutional processes involved in language learning in particular contexts of time and place.’ And he adds that ‘provided sufficient attention is paid to rigour in data collection and analysis, there is no reason to suppose that [language learning histories], understood here as stories told by learners, tell one any less about this reality than other kinds of data’ (2011: 550).

Provided sufficient attention is paid to rigour in data collection and analysis: there’s the rub. What makes a narrative study rigorous? Has my own ‘study’ been sufficiently rigorous to qualify as bona fide research? Will, for example, a post-test of my level in Spanish, using the same instrument I used for the pre-test (see ‘So, just how bad is it?’), be sufficient to add rigour?

I’ll leave those questions for you to ponder (while noting that one jaundiced blogger has already dismissed what he calls ‘the whole sorry saga’ of this blog, adding that ‘Scott’s account of his experiences as a student are [sic] particularly sparse and lacking in detail’. Yikes!)

Meanwhile, it seems to me that the literature on narrative inquiry has yet to fully embrace blogging, and the potential that the medium offers as a platform for collaborative research. For example, in discussing what he calls ‘narrative knowledging’, Barkhuizen (2011: 395) defines this as ‘the meaning making, learning, or knowledge construction that takes place during the narrative research activities of (co)constructing narratives, analysing narratives, reporting the findings, and reading/ watching/ listening to research reports.’

This definition seems particularly apposite in relation to blogging, for which ‘narrative knowledging’ might well serve as an alternative name. By means of the comments thread, blogging both disseminates and interweaves the processes of reporting, reading and analysis, to produce a richly-textured and multi-voiced documentary account of a dynamic investigative process. What blogging lacks in rigour, it makes up for in vigour!

collectors

References

Barkhuizen, G. (2011) ‘Narrative knowledging in TESOL,’ TESOL Quarterly, 45/3, 391-414.

Benson, P. (2011) ‘Language learning careers as an object of narrative research in TESOL,’ TESOL Quarterly, 45/3, 545-552.

Canagarajah, S. (1996) ‘From critical research practice to critical research reporting,’ TESOL Quarterly, 30, 321-331.

Kramsch, C. (2009) The Multilingual Subject, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nelson, C. (2011) ‘Narratives of classroom life: changing conceptions of knowledge,’ TESOL Quarterly, 45/3, 463-485.

Pavlenko, A. (2007) ‘Autobiographic narratives as data in applied linguistics,’ Applied Linguistics, 28/2, 163-188.

Pennycook, A. (2012) Language and Mobility: Unexpected Places, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Schmidt, R. (1983) ‘Interaction, acculturation and the acquisition of communicative competence,’ in Wolfson, N., and Judd, E. (eds) Sociolinguistics and Second Language Acquisition, Rowley, MA.: Newbury House.

Illustrations from Scheppelmann, T. (1940) Duden Español: Diccionario ilustrado de la lengua castellana, Leipzig: Bibliographisches Institut, AG.

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About Scott Thornbury

I write books about ELT methodology and teach on the MA TESOL program at the New School in New York. I live in Barcelona. View all posts by Scott Thornbury

11 responses to “‘Autoblogography’ as research

  • Scott B

    Do you mean to say that the whole thing is wrapping up next week?

    It feels like you have only just started and I’m sure you could find enough material to continue on for a much longer period of time. There has been so much written about learning from the point of teachers and quite a lot of language learning blogs from the point of the learner. But I don’t believe there has ever been much written about the first person learning experience from someone who knows so much about the subject. Why not make the most out of it?

    It will be a shame to see this blog wrap up so early. I was looking forward to watching the entirety of your journey.

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for your encouragement, Scott.

      Yes, three months is not nearly long enough to track a process as multifaceted and as (let’s face it) slow as second language development. But this seems to be a good point to take a break from the metacognitive process of describing it (in itself time-consuming) and devote that time and energy to the actual cognitive (and affective, social, somatic etc) process of doing it.

      But it’s the nature of blogging (like language learning) that it’s never ever finished. So, rather than being a definitive stop, this may be more like the pause that refreshes.

      • gotanda

        I do hope it is just a break, Scott. But, I understand just how time consuming it can be to write about this and it must get in the way of actually doing it. If you choose to come back from the refreshing pause, maybe a less arduous schedule like monthly would work? That would allow a better balance between time on learning and time time on reflection. And, we all know the learning itself can be a slow process.

        But, there is still quite a lot I would like to know about (others too, I expect!). How was the experience of the workshop presentation? How did your extensive reading work out? That might really need time to develop… There is still a lot to work out, isn’t there?

      • Scott Thornbury

        Hi Ted… yes, I may revive the blog periodically, especially if there any further breakthroughs. I’ll be blogging about the workshop next week (on the back of which I’ve just been asked to do a webinar in Spanish! – maybe I have a new career ahead of me).

  • PHILIP

    To my mind you will have improved your Spanish if you could write the same blog above in Spanish!Can you do it??? didn’t hear too much about writing long essay/blog pieces to iron out your Spanish on paper.

    As I remember you are very fond of getting students in Dogme lessons to get emergent language down on paper to consolidate it How often did you exactly do that?

    I studied Sociology and for every individual observation study, one other group study would come along and totally contradict it. I GAVE UP trying to suss out which was better. Alas I fear your looking to connect your experiences with some kind of metA Narrative. It’s unlikely to work!

    • Scott Thornbury

      Philip, hi, as part of my preparation for the workshop I gave last Friday I translated some of my blog posts into Spanish and the exercise was very instructive. I am loathe to inflict these on the world at large, however – each time I revisit one I find yet more ‘errors’!

      As for the metanarrative (a narrative about the narrative?) I’m not sure what you mean. Certainly, though, the experiment (if that’s what it’s safe to call it) has generated a kind of narrative structure that I never anticipated originally, with last Friday’s workshop being a kind of denouement.

  • Tom Ewens

    I can honestly say that one of the highlights of each Sunday over the last few months has been sitting down with a coffee and catching up with your blog. The posts (and also many of the comments) are thought-provoking and seem well-researched and written.

    As for the criticisms of a lack of academic rigour. It seems to me that you haven’t established a working definition of fossilization, or defined what it is that would constitute success for you. At the end of the project how will you know if you have de-fossilized or not?

    As you’ve suggested, fossilization is a very difficult concept to define. And if we don’t know what fossilization is, how can we possibly know if we’ve de-fossilized? Will you be tackling these problems retrospectively, perhaps?

    I think a couple of months ago a reader suggested that you write up your experiences as an academic article. I hope you are still planning to do that.

    And maybe even this could turn into something else for the round? 🙂

    • Tom Ewens

      Having said all that, you do distinguish between ‘fossilization’ and ‘stabilization’ in an earlier post. In that case, perhaps your experiment could ultimately shed more light on either (or both) of these concepts?

      • Scott Thornbury

        Thanks, Tom, for your comments. You’re right that I don’t define fossilization as a construct, largely because I follow Long (20013) in his view that terminal fossilization can never be demonstrated, and that, in the sense of what can be empirically demonstrated, ‘the more relevant object of study for researchers becomes stabilization, not fossilization’ (p.521). Hence I reject fossilization from the outset (see the post ‘Fossilization: Is it terminal, doctor?’).

        To research the exact nature of my own stabilized Spanish I would probably have needed a more comprehensive description of it at the beginning of the ‘treatment’ (although even such a description would not prove that my Spanish had stabilized unless compared with an earlier description made, say, 20 years earlier).

        All I have are the results of the pre-test I did using the Versant test (see the post ‘So, just how bad is it?’), which I will be able to compare with the results of a post-test using a different iteration of the same test (see next week’s blog).

  • Svetlana

    Dear Scott,

    What a shame that this is the last post but one in this blog! You haven’t tried all the means yet to destabilize your Spanish, have you? How about, for example, teaching Spanish and using your students as a motivational tool to become better at Spanish? There are so many books about how to motivate students, but very few about how to motivate teachers to become better teachers. One possible incentive is to unravel the tiniest language secrets and to improve yourself as a language user. And your students’ questions about language are a non-stop eternal journey through the jungles of a second language. Are you tempted to try?

    As for the narrative research it definitely has a lot advantages. A story is on the closest level to the fact – something which really took place. All kinds of interpretations, generalizations and conclusions can lead to a dead end because they lose touch with reality. Methodology is a very concrete, applied science. A lot of books on methodology leave you with nothing – you can either accept or deny the conclusions the author has made but then you are one-to-one with your students and you have to DO something . Stories about what you can do are therefore much more useful and besides, they give you the freedom to observe and interpret the results in your own way.

    And that’s what made this blog very special – everybody can try those things with their non-native languages.

    Thank you so much!

    And what comes next?

    • Scott Thornbury

      Thanks for the comment, Svetlana. No, I haven’t tried all the means for improving my Spanish, by any stretch. The termination of the blog doesn’t mean I don’t intend to, though! But I need to free up more time, so, either I fossilize or the blog does! 😉

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