Draft two of my auto ethno

I finished this piece last night. Tonight, though, I am really tired, grumpy and sick of trawling through journals that don’t have anything on the subject I am researching. I may have to spend some time in the library to finish my next assignment, due tomorrow. Not happy Jan about this as although I have written heaps of field notes, I am not sure how I should write them up given the task description. Apparently I should “draw on methodological literature” to do this, but I have none at home. So I’ve spent the best part of three hours trawling the internet trying to find journal articles that dealt specifically with observational methods. I found two articles. Two. Mad as a cut snake and need to close my eyes. I’m about to shut up shop and I will have to finish the assignment tomorrow. GRRRR.

Autoethnography: Jessica O’Bryan

My journey to research. 04/01/10

“You were always such a clever little thing” says Mum.

I could read at four. I read novels at six. I won prizes for writing when I was eight. My stories were strongly episodic and had a journeying element to them, much like the stories I was reading. There was much fantasy and creativity in them: chocolate planets; flying beds; talking animals. Enid Blyton would have been proud. I read the Lord of the Rings at ten. I was a state finalist in the National Spelling Bee when I was twelve. In school spelling bees I never got a word wrong. I did not need to practise my spelling.

I always had my nose in a book. I’m a fast reader. Sometimes I miss important or pivotal phrases in the books I am reading because I skim read. I am plot driven. I want to know the result, to get to the end, to resolve the conflict. But I often read the book again to understand the language, to work out how the author did it, how they created this world which held me captive. I read one hundred pages an hour, or thereabouts. I haven’t timed myself specifically, but this is what I discover when I think – I’ll just read for a minute. One hundred pages and an hour later I surface, bleary-eyed, into the real world, pushing away the tendrils of phrases which still twine me in their grasp. My husband often says – when I begin a new fiction novel – “see you tomorrow” as I have been known to read into the early hours of the morning. Reading is my solace, my comfort, my wonder. It was always this way. I used to invite friends over to play but I would often disappear and be found half an hour later in a corner reading a book.

I don’t need people for company. Too much time in company actually wears me out. I need to retreat into my thoughts. I daydream. I have an internal dialogue, although it is often silent or switched to the earworm channel. I need to stay mentally active. When I lived in Melbourne I would buy The Age every day. In this newspaper are a number of word puzzles. Cryptic crosswords; word anagram games, that sort of thing. I learned how to do cryptic crosswords in my twenties – some clever friends taught me the basics and I worked out the rest. When I need a real challenge I try The Times cryptic crossword, which is full of British references and much harder. I can never get more than half a dozen clues of The Times, but I can usually finish The Age crosswords. When I’m really bored I do the Quick crossword, the target anagram, and the sudoku.

“You use such big words, Jess. For goodness sake, can’t you just use smaller ones?” says my sister.

I like big words. However, it is not a conscious decision to use big words when talking – I just get used to them in my reading. Much of my understanding of big words is purely contextual – I’m not always sure of the exact meaning. This is very me. I generalise, I skim, I use big words. I am not rigorous. I am not exact. I am not neat or refined in my thinking. At times I cannot verbally articulate my thoughts – sentences come out all garbled and questions are adrift in poor syntax. I have been accused of generalising without foundation. Well. This is me; it’s my mum; it’s much of my family. We make sweeping statements about the way of things. But I am beginning to tire of this. It makes me seem silly and uneducated, when, actually, I have read something somewhere that backs up my assertions – I just can’t remember where I read it.

“When you set your mind to something, Jessie, you just put your head down and do it. It’s extraordinary, the focus you show” says Mum.

In 2007 I complete my Masters at Monash Uni. It is not a great experience – the course coordinator never responds to emails and I eventually have to shout a lot to get answers to simple administrative questions. But I am loving the learning. I want to be immersed deeply in the research. I find, too, that I am quite good at it. I do my Masters part-time on top of a full time load at work. It’s not always easy. I struggle in my final year too with competing demands of wedding preparations, opera role learning and an isolating work environment, but my last subject mark is the highest of the lot – 93%. I submit my last assignment early. I have finally learned how to do this study thing, after years of stumbling about, procrastinating, hating Schenkerian analysis or music theory, not handing in work, stopping and starting my undergraduate studies, angry at the world. I love the rigor of study and the clear end goal. I can feel my mind expanding. I feel like Neo in the penultimate scene from The Matrix, where he flexes his muscles and the green computer generated world expands around him, accommodating his new found ability.

“You’re very goal focussed, Jessie” says Mum.

In 2008 I am new to Queensland, away from my beloved Melbourne. I struggle with the heat, the absence of wog life, the lack of strip shopping which is such a Melbourne feature. I miss the trams and The Age. I have stopped doing the cryptic crossword – I hate the local newspapers. I am struggling with my disappointment about the amateur-standard quality of the Queensland Opera and my lack of opportunities with them. I am struggling with this hick town. I feel displaced. I have few friends here. In truth, I have no friends here other than those associated with my husband. I don’t mind at all, but I am already introverted. I need people to engage me with community life. I am teaching, singing and doing some piecemeal lecturing. In this Northern state, though, I feel slightly lost and without purpose or identity.

My husband and I head overseas on our honeymoon in July 2008, visiting England and Italy. Our last week is spent at a world music conference, in Bologna. I have a wonderful time there. I am interested in many of the papers, workshops and presentations, especially those on singing. One presentation in particular appeals to me: it is called “The role of the singing teaching studio”. I sit and wait for revelation as three presenters proceed to NOT tell me about the role of the singing teaching studio. I am angry. Many assertions are made about the “obvious” efficacy of the one-to-one singing lesson, without reference or research to back up such a claim. I talk with my husband about this after the presentation. We are walking along one of Bologna’s famous porticos in the mid afternoon. It is hot. I say heatedly: “You know, how do we know that one-to-one singing teaching is effective? I mean, I reckon it is, but how did she get away with saying this without backing up her statement with research?” He agrees with me and says “You know there is no research in this area.” “Well, someone should do some then!” I retort. “Yes, someone should”, says he, quietly. There is a long silence. “I think I have an idea. I think I have found my research topic. I need to go. See you later.” I race to the apartment, and immediately, almost frantically write down my initial thoughts. I am filled to the brim with ideas.

I have found a new goal.

“I love the way your mind works, the way you use your mind. I love that you think” says my husband.

“Ultimately, using self as subject is a way of acknowledging the self that was always there anyway and of exploring personal connections to our culture.” (Wall, 2006, p.11) The personal narrative above tells the reader about just a few aspects of me and my journey to doctoral studies. In the narrative I recount the influence of my family on my intellectual life. I alert the reader to my introspection, my ease with aloneness, my love of reading and my need for intellectual stimulation. I do not tell of my love of singing, my musical development or my early education. Why not? My musical education has a strong bearing on my chosen study. My early education provided me with the tools with which to tackle post-graduate research. My love of singing has determined most of my career path to this date, and continues to be a forward focus of my life. However, the facets of my life that have determined this research path can be traced from childhood, before singing became my primary focus, before formal education bothered me, and before I was required to really socially engage in the world. These facets reveal the inquirer in me, the explorer of books and ideas, the lover of language and concepts.

These aspects of my literary self are what led me to post-graduate study and what continue to nurture my love of study. These aspects also reveal something of the way I think, and help to shape my research identity. What are my epistemological beliefs? When I consider my plot driven reading style, I see me needing certainty. I need to know. I need to get to the end. But when I consider the reading material itself, I can see an affinity with narrative, with an unfolding of drama. My need for answers takes me away from post-structuralism – I am not interested in pulling theories apart without putting them back together. I have a personal distaste for critical theorists, mainly because I get irritated by the didactic and at times strident moralistic tone of much critical theory. Am I post-positivist then? I slide close to this leaning – numbers and certainties are seductive – but through my love of fiction I realize that I thrive on story telling and the possibilities of the life-world. I guess that leaves me with constructivism. Hatch writes that “constructivists assume a world in which universal, absolute realities are unknowable, and the objects of inquiry are individual perspectives or constructions of reality” (Hatch, 2002, p 15). I like this. My research design is paying homage to my post-positivist leanings with a survey, but the meat in the design is the case study, the life-worlds of my participants. This is the real stuff. I am so excited by the chance to develop the stories of my participants. Their stories indeed threaten to overtake my initial topic, which was initially examining a bounded system rather than the participants themselves. It is not the system itself that now appeals, but rather the people who operate within the system.

My epistemological constructivist position allies closely to my ontological position. I am anti-religious, and deeply opposed to organized religion, but I am comforted by the notion that there are unknowable things, that not all is certain. There is room for mystery, ineffability. There is room for mutability. The notion of “being” is a human construct and therefore subject to change.

This self-reflexive turn feels rather self-indulgent, as if I am going on a big navel-gazing Journey Of Me. But I am learning that reflexivity in my multifaceted career is a necessary part of developing rigor, excellence and reliability. As singer, teacher and now researcher, I am bound by the need to constantly examine my processes, my beliefs and my values about all I do. Schon writes “A practitioner’s reflection can serve as a corrective to over-learning. Through reflection, he can surface and criticize the tacit understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experiences of a specialized practice, and can make new sense of the situations of uncertainty or uniqueness which he may allow himself to experience.” (Schon, 1983, p. 61) A classical musician is heavily critical and deliberate in their practice in order to perform music to the highest standard possible. A teacher needs self-reflexivity to learn how they can become a better teacher for their students. A researcher must examine self-belief and values, their enculturation and tacit knowledge, if they are to understand their epistemological and ontological beliefs, which will be replicated in their research, regardless of notions of objectivity. It comes down in part to the finished product. Am what I producing reflective of my values and beliefs? And do I, in the end, value that product?

Autoethnography serves me well as an instrument to explicate my own beliefs and values. As Chang notes: “autoethnography is an excellent instructional tool to help not only social scientists, but also practitioners – such as teachers, medical personnel, counselors and human services workers – gain profound understanding of self and others and function more effectively with others” (Chang, 2008, p. 13). My research path is one of many paths I have taken to knowledge. It is proving to be, in a way, the most exciting, rewarding and richest path I have yet taken, because it reflexively turns to the other paths in my ever-changing life-journey, and rewards and enriches them too.


Chang, H. 2008. Autoethnography as method. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.

Hatch, A. 2002. Doing Qualitative Research in Education Settings. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Schon, D. 1983. The Reflective Practitioner. Basic Books, New York.

Wall, S. 2006. An Autoethnography on Learning about Autoethnography. International Journal of Qualitative methods 5 (2) June, pp 1 – 12. Article 9. http://www.ualberta.ca/~iiqm/backissues/5_2/pdf/wall.pdf                  Retrieved [26/08/09]


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