Writing about our experiences as legal educators is challenging – but worth exploring

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All Photos © Elaine Campbell, 2016

Research methods that focus on the self can throw up all sorts of issues, especially for those of us who work in a law school. But that doesn’t mean we should avoid them.

My work has always been reflective. Even when I’ve tried to avoid it, it just slips back in. For a long time, I worried that my style wasn’t ‘academically acceptable’. And I queried whether there would ever be a home for the type of introspective work that I seemed to gravitate towards. My dream was to write, in detail and depth, about my role as a law clinic supervisor. But I couldn’t see how I could make that dream a reality.

Then I discovered autoethnography. A place where your emotions and experience are at the centre of the story. A place where you analyse your own culture. A place where saying “I feel” is encouraged, not rejected. My world was turned upside down. I consumed autoethnographic articles day and night.  Sometimes uplifting,  sometimes upsetting, and often witty, these works of lived experience covered all manner of issue – working as a table dancer, dealing with sexism in the workplace, coming out of the closet.

Sadly, I found very few autoethnographic articles that were located in the world of higher education. And I’ve yet to find any written by lecturers about their experiences working in a law school. Why? Well, I suspect that there are two key challenges that we face, and which stop us from using an autoethnographic approach in our work:

We don’t give ourselves permission to write our stories 

Traditional academic writing. Be honest, it can be a little, well, formal or (dare I say it) boring. Laurel Richardson dares to say it. She calls it deadening. She also says that it suppresses narrativity, and this, I think, is an important point. It’s also troubling. We need stories of lived experience in order to understand a particular phenomenon; its truths and its place in our culture. Stories can also help us to make sense of our experiences.

There are so many stories about the law school which are begging to be told. We face so many issues – the changes to legal training,  new understandings of what it is to be a lawyer, student and staff engagement with technology – our world is a rich site for autoethnographic exploration.

Writing about ourselves is fraught with danger 

Sike warns that insider research, like autoethnography, is “inherently sensitive” and therefore “potentially dodgy in both ethical and career development terms”. And therein lies the problem. When we write about ourselves we are exposing our innermost thoughts and feelings to whoever happens to read our work. And that can mean friends, family, colleagues, employers (past, current and future).

And it’s not just about us. Yes, we are drawing on our own experiences, but those experiences are created by interacting with other people. For legal educators, our interactions are with fellow law school staff and our students.  For clinical legal educators, we can add to that list the clients who come to our clinic for legal advice. So what’s okay to write about and what isn’t? Should we tell everyone we come across that any interaction we have might end up in an autoethnographic article in the future? Should we employ strategies like “mindful slippage”?  These are questions that need further exploration. But we can only do that if we engage with autoethnography and start to figure out what an effective approach might look like.

Let’s mine our rich field and produce deep autoethnographies that allow others to understand our experiences. In doing so, we can start to share our strategies for dealing with the ethical challenges that law school autoethnographers face.

For more about autoethnography & legal education, please see my recently published article: Campbell, E (2016) “Exploring autoethnography as method and methodology in legal education research”, 3 Asian Journal of Legal Education 95-105.

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