Auto/biography in Educational Contexts: Reflections and Possibilities

By Bailey, Lucy E. | Vitae Scholasticae, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Auto/biography in Educational Contexts: Reflections and Possibilities


Bailey, Lucy E., Vitae Scholasticae


Auto/biographical narrative [is] a form that could express the complexity of teaching, the way it is rooted in personal and social history, the way it gathers up our hopes and relentlessly requires us to play out the compelling issues of our lives in classrooms, day after day. (1)

In Madeleine Grumet's introduction to A Poet of Weird Abundance, Paula Salvio's auto/biographical foray into the teaching life of poet Anne Sexton, Grumet captures eloquently the promise of auto/biography (2) as a vehicle for exploring educational issues. Indeed, believing in the power of auto/biographical accounts to enrich educational theory and practice and the educational potential of lives helped fuel the formation of the (International) Society of Educational Biography (ISEB) in 1983 and the journal, Vitae Scholasticae, now in its 30th year of publication. Scholars have used these generative spaces to explore diverse intersections among lives and education that have expanded the contours of educational research.

I am pleased to contribute to the 30th anniversary edition of Vitae Scholasticae and its service as a "repositor[y] of knowledge" for educational biography. (3) I have been a member of the organization for a number of years and was honored to serve as President of ISEB during 2011-2012. The organization has introduced me to new research in biography and qualitative methodologies and provided a welcoming space to explore my interests in 19th century women's education, faculty retirement, methodology, historiography, and other educational topics that cross disciplinary borders and situate human lives in their educational and historical contexts. In this essay, I take the opportunity to revisit previous editions of Vitae to explore publication patterns over the last few years, consider responses from a recent survey I conducted with ISEB members, and discuss some emerging trajectories for educational auto/biography. From the journal's earlier emphasis on "scholarly chronicle" biographies (4) to the diverse narratives, qualitative studies, auto/ethnographies, and methodological pieces it publishes today, the journal and the ISEB conference continue to preserve a key site for researchers and teachers to produce and disseminate biographical scholarship, to theorize the relations between subjects/education, and to develop and share strategies for using auto/biographies in classrooms.

Offering such a repository remains essential. Schools remain formative spaces for shaping our identities, relationships, and futures; the relationships we cultivate with peers, teachers, and texts inform our social imaginaries and understandings of the world; teachers and administrators carry out vital cultural labor for our citizenry; and education remains a rich political site in which all kinds of conflicting epistemologies and messy cultural issues are negotiated. In addition, in our increasingly confessional, technological society, in which the borders among "personal" and "private" and "public" are constantly being redrawn--where we are, as technology scholar Turkle describes, constantly "alone together" (5)--we need critical tools for studying and theorizing lives and for situating them in these New Times.

In her work on Anne Sexton, Salvio asks a series of productive questions that speak to broader reconfigurations of public/private and, I suggest, the importance of utilizing locations such as Vitae for expanding and theorizing our auto/biographical practice: "How can we incorporate the personal into teaching without slipping into demand, confession, voyeurism, or unrefined reflection? How do we make our classrooms a space for the enunciation of something other than predictable retellings of socially inscribed stories of failure and success?" (6) How are teaching practices sometimes narcissistic extensions of our own interests? (7) More broadly, in directing her analytic gaze to a poet who defied the image of the "ideal teacher" through controversial topics and struggles with addiction and mental illness, Salvio raises questions pertinent to educational auto/biography: whose lives come to matter, and to be told, and why? …

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