C's photo 2013

On Writing Teaccher-Researcher Narratives

 Christine Pearson Casanave*(casanave@redshift.com)

 In this short essay, I describe briefly what narratives are, discuss some issues in narrative writing, and make a case that language teachers and researchers can contribute to their own and others’ professional lives by writing and sharing tales of their own lives as language teachers and researchers.

When people construct oral or written narratives, about themselves or others, they are assembling fragments of a life—memories, recent and past events, emotions—into meaningful wholes (Bruner, 1987, 1991; Polkinghorne, 1988). In this sense, narratives really are constructed; they are not truthful and factual accounts no matter how accurate a narrator tries to be. Memories are always imprecise and selective. And when they are written up, either by the person who lived the experiences or by the person who was told the stories, more selection and tinkering happen. In other words, a published narrative, whether in print or online, represents a person’s life only partially. We might learn only what is salient in the narrator’s memories (this in itself is interesting) and only what the narrator chooses to share in public.

That said, personal narratives are not the same as fiction. Truths, no matter how partial, selective, and adjusted they are, are woven into narratives such that readers and listeners can participate to some extent in another person’s life. Insights can be derived from a well-told narrative that can help us reflect on our own lives. I am interested in the lives of language teachers, students, and researchers, and the narratives that they construct about themselves and their work. What motivated my first edited book (Casanave & Schecter, 1997), a collection of personal tales from well-known language educators, was that the authors’ lives were all invisible. I had read their published writing, but could not see them in their writing as people with complicated lives and professional trajectories. I wanted to know more about them—what motivated them, where their interests and passions came from, what paths they followed to become well-known educators, and what challenges they faced in their own teaching, research, and writing. Maybe I could learn something about my own life in the field of language education by reading their stories. But the stories had to be engaging enough to keep me turning pages.

So here is a problem: Published academic writing tends to be quite dense and dull and pretentious in many cases, and writing in the social sciences has an especially poor reputation (Billig, 2013). This is partly because many academic authors just don’t pay enough attention to the quality of their writing, and wrongly believe that if the writing is hard to read, it must be “good.” But it is also because authors often choose not to position themselves within their research or within their writing. We don’t have a sense of a human being behind the research or teaching, making choices, making mistakes, influencing all aspects of their supposedly “objective” stances. We don’t see these authors as writers either, in the sense that we have no sense, from a published article, how the writing was done. The published version looks so smooth, so linear, so polished, even when it is barely comprehensible. Published writing makes it seem as though the research or teaching that is being reported was accomplished easily and linearly, in the order in which it is written up in the paper. The published version also makes it seem as though the writing process flowed easily for the author.  The impression this creates for novice researchers and writers is first, that they should not write about themselves; second, that they will never be able to live up to these professional standards of researching and writing. Additionally, the impression this creates for novice scholars who write in English as a second language is that their English will never be good enough, and that by definition, native users of English can write well.

None of this is true, of course. A piece of published writing is the final stage of a long complex process. The published versions of most writing gloss over much of what is interesting in the life and writing of a language educator—the hardships, the struggles, the twists and turns, growth over time, the insights and wisdom, the processes of writing; all this is hidden. Career trajectories are not linear and smooth; most people struggle hard to become, and continue becoming, language educators. Moreover, writing, for most people, is not easy. I learned the hard way, first-hand, many times, how difficult it is for some people to write, whether they are writing in a mother tongue or a second language.  I thought as I grew older, gained experience in writing, that it would get easier, but I guess not: A personal article on my own language learning  experiences in Japan took me three years to complete (Casanave, 2012), yet by reading the article, you would never know this. This personal writing should have been easier, I complained to myself for the several years I suffered through this writing.

But personal narratives are hard to write, at least to write well. Authors have to have a reason to write them, beyond just telling a story (Bell, 2002). Why is the story important to someone besides yourself (or your immediate family, if you are writing a memoir)? What will your tale tell a reader that they don’t already know, that they should know, that might reveal to naïve novices the challenges in the lives of a professional language educator, that might change or enlighten them in some way? And then there is the issue of privacy, and of personally sensitive topics: Will what you write today embarrass you tomorrow? Or next year? Or in 10 years? Even the most personal of narratives in the academic pieces I have read (and written) withhold secrets. Finally, personal narratives are difficult to write because good writing of any kind (that is clear, beautiful, engaging, page turning, accessible yet rich…) requires great effort, sometimes many drafts. Even as a native user of English, I find it difficult to write well, and my published personal writing has posed more challenges for me than my more conventional academic writing.

Even though constructing well-written narratives of our lives as language teachers and researchers might be difficult, this is not a reason not to write and share them. If nothing else, writing and sharing narratives of our lives as teachers and researchers will convince others and ourselves that they and we are not alone. Teaching can be a notoriously isolating profession; we need all the connections we can forge, both within and across cultures.

REFERENCES

Bell, J. (2002). Narrative inquiry: More than just telling stories. TESOL Quarterly, 36(2),  207-213.

Billig, M. (2013). Learn to write badly: How to succeed in the social sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bruner, J. (1987). Life as narrative. Social Research, 54(1), 11-32.

Bruner, J. (1991).  The narrative construction of reality.  Critical Inquiry, 18, 1-21.

Casanave, C. P., & Schecter, S. R. (Eds.).  (1997).  On becoming a language educator:  Personal essays on professional development.  Mahwah, New Jersey:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Casanave, C. P. (2012). Diary of a dabbler: Ecological influences on an EFL teacher’s efforts to study Japanese informally. TESOL Quarterly, 46(4), 642-670.

Polkinghorne, D. E. (1988).  Narrative knowing and the human sciences.  Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

(*Christine Pearson Casanave began her teaching career as an ESL teacher, and helped found the MATESOL program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. She moved to Japan in 1990 after completing a PhD. In Japan, she taught at a Japanese university, and taught TESOL courses part time in two Tokyo-based American graduate schools. She is interested in qualitative and narrative inquiry, and in the writing of graduate students and professional language educators. Now based in California, she continues to advise doctoral students on their dissertations, to write and publish, and to review manuscripts for several journals. She is known for doing most of her academic reading while walking.)

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