Current reading: The Subject of Documentary by Renov

I’ve started reading Michael Renov’s The Subject of Documentary. It is a collection of pieces he published elsewhere since the 80s. It focuses on where documentary has and can be used to examine the idea of the self. So far it has been really helpful for framing my own Autobiographical CineEthnographic research project this semester.

The goal of the project is to detail both my public work-related instances of communicative actions in the real of instruction and learning as well as my Lifeworld experiences that shape my perceptions of self as instructor, self as researcher, self as colleague, mentor, and all the other splinters of self. These are part of the “saturated self” (Gergen, 1992) that make up me as a faculty member in academia. Part of this comes from my own struggles to understand how others may perceive me versus my concept of self, which is often at odds with what reality may be experienced or constructed.

I am seeking a way to tell the story of how I function in the world of academia locally and globally as a means of understanding self as a set of holistic Habermasian (2002) dramaturgical identity communications (i.e. publications, teaching acts, learning acts, instructional designs) open to critique by experts and peers. This is rather than disjointed critiques without context and historically related acts that can help a reader or viewer understand the why and how of what has been done. I’m specifically examining my teaching of:

  • CECS 5440 – A completely new course on advanced instructional design taught as a hybrid (50% online/50% FTF) with a portfolio outcome and weekly meetings synchronously rather than any asynchronous forums.
  • CECS 6220 – A doctoral course with research components taught as a hybrid (40% online) in an attempt to teach students how to research towards a goal of generating a coherent theory of implementing technology in schools.

At the same time, I have several graduate teaching fellows who are also capturing their teaching and learning in textual narrative as well as video form as a means to capture their experiences with an experimental curriculum for computer literacy called The 2015 Project, which is a new iteration of the alternate reality course game format that started with The Door and most recently included its successor, Broken Window. All of the instructors here have taught all three versions of the course with their accompanying narratives and follow-up activities related to computer applications and design. I will largely be focused on my efforts to coordinate the sections, run the ARG for 10 weeks, and deal with myriad student complaints ranging from textbook problems to not being told exactly what to do in every aspect of the game.

I am video recording ing myself teaching every time we have a face-to-face meeting and capturing video of our online meetings in Adobe Connect Pro, Second Life, and other tools that allow it as part of developing my thick record. In addition, I have been capturing relevant e-mail exchanges, links to video and web sites influencing my teaching, worldview, and mental state each week and have developed separate blogs for each course and major subject of study as well as a central blog for reflecting on my practices of data collection, general moods and thoughts related to Lifeworld experiences that include home videos take with a Canon Vixia or my iPhone that detail what is happening there. Further, I have a separate blog related to my own personal issues which is what Renov may characterize as “video confessions” in which I engage in reflexive activity related to marriage and other struggles that accompany my professional life day-to-day. In addition, each blog includes a subjectivity statement in which I detail my own foibles and biases regarding the subjects under study (including myself).

In the end, we are conducting analysis using an expanded version of what Carspecken (1996) refers to as Critical Ethnography in Educational Research, which includes more specific methods for studying relevant systems and cultural contexts that have bearing on our teaching, learning and research. None of this has been entered into lightly and it is a challenge to force myself to do the videos as I am extremely uncomfortable being filmed, especially when engaged in the high identity-charged act of instruction. I will have four graduate students working with me to conduct the analysis in as much depth and with as many artifacts as I can provide. We will also include interviews with each instructor (including myself) at the end of the first third, second third, and last third (approximately) of the semester to follow-up on blog and video captures. In the end, we will construct three documentaries for each of the courses as well as a handbook for conducting Autobiographical Critical CineEthnographies for Studying Learning and Teaching. This will be a follow-up to a book, nearing completion in draft form, which details methods for constructing Critical CineEthnography for Social Research.

I was asked by a colleague today what I hope to get out of this endeavor. By this, I think he meant to ask what generalizable understandings I may draw from the research. However, I am not seeking generalizability, nor do I believe it is possible to generalize from so small a window opened on the narrative of a person or small group of person’s teaching experience. Instead, I am hoping to tell the story of a few instructors seeking to do something different that the story may be shared and each person may take from it a different lesson that is individual and relevant to them. I believe that we experience the world all at once in its objectivity, subjectivity, and relative truths. Separating them from one another is a vain attempt at understanding a part rather than the whole through the ONLY the senses of ONLY social construction, of ONLY the individual is much like the blind men seeking to understand the elephant.

To understand the self as an instructor, I believe that we must look to the external acts of teaching and learning including the artifacts as well as the internal state of the instructor and the social discourse and constative communications that influence what is and what becomes. This is a painful critical process as it exposes our myriad weaknesses as teachers and pricks the defenses we have developed which say that we are tolerable as faculty in our instructional role. However, in my experience, seeking truth is and likely should be a somewhat painful process and one where knowledge is attained through struggle rather than with ease.


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