Michele Santamaria is the Learning Design Librarian at Millersville University where she works to integrate information literacy into the General Education curriculum. Recent publications include a chapter in Library Juice Press’ anthology Poet Librarians in the Library of Babel and a refereed chapter in ACRL’s The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship. She lives in Lancaster, PA with her son and husband. You can follow her English Librarian musings @MUEngLib.
After recently watching the animated film “Inside Out” with my son, I stumbled upon some footage of Pixar animators talking about their collaboration process. I was struck by how one animator discussed the thrill and nerves around showing her colleagues “rough work.” It reminded me of what it was like to be part of an MFA program, to have a community with which to share things that were still in-progress. While the animator’s comments about showing “rough work” struck me as being similar to what I experienced as an MFA student, her words also struck me as having a strong similarity to what I experienced as part of an autoethnographic learning community.
This community was the result of a more standard call to produce a book, but rather than asking people to submit proposals, the editors wanted to know why potential contributors would be interested in the autoethnographic method. This is a qualitative approach to research that combines self-reflection with the anthropological fieldwork method. The idea was that contributors would be learning about the method and writing together at the same time. Anne Marie Deitering, Rick Stoddart, and Robert Schroeder were the librarians at the helm of the project. As such, they created an online learning community that resulted in the collection The Self as Subject: Autoethnographic Research into Identity, Culture, and Academic Librarianship.
For a list of resources that explain autoethnography and explore its complexities, I would recommend looking at the list compiled at the website created to accompany the book: https://exploringautoethnography.wordpress.com/readings-resources/. The website also includes some process stories detailing what it was like to write an autoethnography.
Taking part in the Autoethnographic Learning Community
I first saw the call for the autoethnographic learning community in a listserv and then went to the CFP which outlined the ways that we would pursue learning together about a methodology and supporting each other in a research process. I was drawn to the project because it would allow me to write in a way that honored my creative and anthropological training, but the idea of finding a group of people whom I could work with also deeply appealed to me. My prior chapter had been a two way communication street between me and the editor; however, feedback did not come across as feedback but as corrections.
“I was drawn to the project because it would allow me to write in a way that honored my creative and anthropological training, but the idea of finding a group of people whom I could work with also deeply appealed to me.”
One of the most important aspects of being a part of a learning community was that we were all learning about our methodology together rather than writing in isolation from other contributors. Placing myself in the position of “learner” rather than “expert” gave me permission to stumble, to write towards answers that I was unsure of rather than feeling like I needed to know what my piece would look like from the beginning. I was okay with this in part because I see myself as a writer and when I’m feeling healthy about writing, I trust that I am writing towards something, that the writing itself will help me to discover what I actually want to say. I tried to share this attitude toward writing with my learning community peers as well as techniques from creative writing that could help them think about “what if”: what if I did this to my piece? How would that change the shape of it, the ideas?
In terms of how we ran the community, it was 100% online for most of us. The editors created a blog space that functioned like a learning management system where readings were posted on a fairly regular basis. Similar to a learning management situation, people were asked to post an introduction of themselves and invited to participate in discussions around the readings. There was no “set” way to participate in terms of number of check-ins online. Nothing was “required,” but the less familiar you were with the methodology, the more it would have been necessary to read of what was posted and to engage in what essentially constituted a learning community. The editors occasionally ran “Google Hangouts” where we got to see each other’s faces and be very open about the kinds of challenges that we were facing. We were encouraged to start sharing work; eventually, the editors created a peer review system where our chapters were read by them as well as another reader from the learning community.
Feedback came from our editors but also from our peers. I purposefully sought out an “accountability partner” who identified as a creative writer to set up our own personal peer review system. This personal accountability partner, in the end, probably made a bigger difference to my writing than any other person in the learning community and I know that my suggestions also made their way into her final draft. Nonetheless, I also know that some of the experiences we shared during periodic Google hangouts made a huge difference, especially in terms of other librarians’ willingness to take risks with their chapters. I remember clearly saying that I had realized that I was scared to write what I needed to write; months later, someone else said how much it had helped to hear that someone else had been this scared.
What this underscores for me is both a sense of mundane ordinariness that we can bring to our research practices as well as a sense of heightened risk. One is essential for keeping the writing going; the other is essential for feeling like what we are doing actually matters. I would argue that it helps to have both. This sense of research as everyday practice that means something brings us back to my earlier discussion of rough work. Believing in “rough work” means showing “rough work” to someone, is a necessary and brave step.
Applying Some of These Practices to Your Research Practice
If you can find someone or an editorial duo or even trio like the one we had, I would say that replicating what we did with autoethnography would be a great way of getting your writing into print. Pragmatically, our autoethnography editors had the academic credibility to get the go-ahead on the book and to steer the highly experimental ship. If you are feeling isolated in your research attempts and do not have collaborators in your department, having this kind of research community can be invaluable.
Networking through opportunities like conferences, a program like ACRL Immersion, and social media can help us better connect with likeminded librarians who either share or could grow into sharing research interests. Part of what worked about the autoethnographic learning community was that we were becoming autoethnographers together; in seeking out research communities or even research collaborators, I would recommend looking beyond what someone might already be known for doing as a researcher (especially if they are early career) and thinking about affinities. I would include ways of generating ideas, a commitment to social justice, or any number of things under the affinity heading. I chose my accountability partner based on the fact that she identified as a creative writer; I knew that regardless of what kind of “training” she had in that, this would help us work together based on some shared values about giving feedback. In particular, I believed that a creative writer would help me push the work further, take bigger risks in terms of what I was willing to say.
To that end, being part of several kinds of learning communities, whether online or in-person, should help in terms of fostering the sense that a research agenda is something that you discover in conversation, interpersonally, as a human, and not something that you should magically have figured out in isolated communion with a lit review.
Aside from recommending this learning community focus, I would more broadly recommend the practice of sharing “rough work.” This can happen fairly easily with a research accountability partner with whom you exchange work on a fairly regular basis, someone with whom you can share something that is a bit rough and will provide a good mix of critique and encouragement. While I felt fairly confident going into the autoethnography learning community, there were moments where I doubted my ability to write the kind of chapter that I wanted to write. With each successive draft, I experimented more with what I was writing and my accountability partner encouraged me to push further. Whether what you are working on is more traditional or more experimental, a sense of writing to an audience is essential; embracing the value of sharing your rough work can help you gain that while increasing productivity and hopefully, confidence.
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