Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

Townsend and Weiner, Deconstructing and Reconstructing Lives: Auto/biography in Educational Settings

Academic journal article Vitae Scholasticae

Townsend and Weiner, Deconstructing and Reconstructing Lives: Auto/biography in Educational Settings

Article excerpt

Lucy Forsyth Townsend and Gaby Weiner. Deconstructing and Reconstructing Lives: Auto/Biography in Educational Settings. The University of Western Ontario: Althouse Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-920354-69-8. 384 pages.

Lucy Townsend and Gaby Weiner explore the promise of auto/biography as an educational resource in their text, Deconstructing and Reconstructing Lives: Auto/biography in Educational Settings (2011). The authors' focus on researching, writing, and teaching educational auto/biography contributes a valuable perspective to life writing scholarship. The co-authored text integrates decades of auto/biographical research and reflection to teach readers core elements of these intertwined genres, strategies for interpreting texts, approaches for conducting auto/biographical research, and models for incorporating life-writing into classrooms. Integrated throughout are narrative snapshots of figures such as Emma Willard, Harriet Martineau, Sojourner Truth, and Lance Armstrong to facilitate the process of "deconstructing and re-constructing" auto/biographies. Weiner, a gender and justice scholar at Edinburgh University, and Townsend, a retired professor of education and member of the International Society for Educational Biography, have crafted a rich resource that is gracefully aligned with Vitae Scholasticae's mission--to honor and explore the educative value of lives.

The authors weave their previous scholarship with new exemplars into four sections and eleven chapters. Part One provides an overview of auto/biographical genres, core concepts in the field, and theoretical traditions influential for analyzing and writing auto/biography. In Chapter 2, the authors detail an "analytic framework" (21) for use in engaging with narratives and--significantly--understanding them as created rather than unmediated reflections of The Real. The productive imprint of a range of intellectual traditions, including deconstruction and poststructuralism, is discernible in the authors' rendering of four key categories integral to auto/biography (22): first, the politics of the auto/biographical subject, which includes theorizing identity, the auto/biographical self, and the role of the body/embodiment; second, the nature of the individual/social truths on which texts and audiences rely, which includes interrogating the notion of experience, the politics of sources (including memory), and the "conditions of truth" (39) operating in a given milieu; third, the role of the narrative form, conventions, and narrator voice; and fourth, the ethics of auto/biographical relationships with subject and audience. Chapter 2 thus provides key conceptual grounding for the text, traversing textured theoretical terrain in 25 pages, interrupting realist conceptions of auto/biographical sources and narratives, and nourishing the reader's critical skills for the chapters that follow.

In Part Two, "Deconstructing Auto/biography," the authors present diverse auto/biographical sources and excerpts with interpretive questions and commentary that enact the critical, "flexible" (46) stance articulated in Part One. Readers encounter chapters on documentary sources (obituaries, dictionary essays, and chronologies), biography and life writing, collective biography, and auto/biography and memoir. Intriguing examples range from broad historical inquiries into the "professional field" of Swedish teachers' using prosopography (159) to brief excerpts from 19th century women's epistles and diaries. With each exemplar, the authors model interpretive processes that readers might adopt for their own endeavors, including critical questions about "selves," sources, plots, audience, and the role of education: "What kind of self emerges in this text?" (108); "Whose voice predominates? How is education highlighted?" (118); "How is bodily development emphasized?" (206). Themes from Chapter 2 animate this section: the importance of capturing accounts of marginalized voices, of analyzing both biographers' and subjects' values and context (60), and of considering forces that shape the documentary record upon which life writing is based. …

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