We live by stories. Faculty and students connect best by sharing their stories. Yet in a thesis or dissertation, most students must set their stories aside in favor of “objective” quantitative or qualitative research.
There’s another option for students who work with Dr. Robert J. Nash, professor in the College of Education and Social Services at the University of Vermont and author of Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative (Teachers College Press 2004).
Nash and three former students spoke at the ACPA/NASPA meeting in Orlando in April: Dr. Andrea Silva McManus, faculty member at the New England Culinary Institute and Champlain College in Burlington VT; Dr. Pamela K. Gardner, director of career services at the University of Vermont in Burlington; and Dr. Jacob L. Diaz, assistant VP and dean of students at Seattle University WA.
Scholarly personal narrative (SPN) is a research methodology that blends the rigor of traditional scholarship with the writer’s personal experience. “It’s a special way of writing and thinking about our professional practice,” McManus said. Also called personal ethnography or autobiographical scholarship, SPN starts with the writer at the center and radiates outward. More than a memoir, it includes interpretation, theory and universal themes, contributing knowledge in the scholar’s professional field.
Women’s Studies and multicultural studies have been in the forefront of SPN writing. It’s spreading especially among the underrepresented, whose voices have been silenced. “People with narratives that aren’t out there want to write these,” McManus said.
Dr. Gardner was among the first to write an SPN dissertation. She described moving to the South in the 1970s and attending a school that had just started to bus in white students. She wrote of her love for her mixed-race science teacher, her horror at the struggling of a dissected live frog, her silent writhing under sexual abuse and the role of self-discovery in dealing with students and clients.
Dr. Diaz wrote a dissertation based on his experience with racism, overcoming low expectations as a Chicano in the academy. His success story is a passionate and compelling contribution to the higher ed literature.
Dr. Silva McManus’s dissertation traced her journey from the closeting of her intellect (reflecting negative messages on her ability and a parent’s death) to unconditional positive regard, in part through personal narrative. Her investigation led to specific advice for high school educators to know and value every student’s story.
To do this she had to be widely read in many fields from secondary education to grief, and bring it all together into a coherent story line. The personal story had to be tied to theory, prior scholarship and implications. Good SPN demands rigorous research and analysis.
Criticism of SPN as “soft” has sexual overtones. “Soft scholarship is one without a strong robust erection; it has no thrust, no power and ultimately no satisfaction,” McManus told WIHE. “Ultimately soft is feminine and hard is masculine, and the masculine still matters more.”
Critics want to exclude the “I” voice to preserve the status quo. They benefit from being the experts when new and different voices are excluded. “In my eyes it’s a tragedy that we have to keep the self out of scholarship,” she said.
If you want to write an SPN
Ask yourself, “Is this story I’ve lived compelling enough to universalize and generalize?” Will it add knowledge to your field? If so, you might use SPN to make sense of your experience in a way that’s useful to others. “You can dig very deeply into a subject that’s very important to you personally because it comes from your life,” she said.
These tips are adapted from Nash’s book:
- Move between the particular and the general.
- Apply your vast store of formal knowledge.
- Use citations where appropriate.
- Love and respect clear language.
- Have clear constructs and hooks.
- Tell a good story.
- Show your passion.
- Keep your story open-ended.
- Draw implications from your story.
- Make your writing both a craft and an art.
McManus recommends laying political groundwork if you’re in a setting where SPN isn’t yet widely accepted. Aca-demics say they’re open-minded—until you want to do something different. Figure out who are your allies and approach them one-on-one. Put together a group of allies to help strategize your proposal.
Personal rewards of this form of scholarship can be enormous. “For me, it was like letting out a tiger that had been caged up for years,” McManus said. “My doctoral experience transformed me and set me free.”
Knowledge expands as SPN wins recognition as a research methodology on a par with quantitative and qualitative methods. She could have interviewed a bunch of student who dropped out of high school, but she didn’t want to tell another person’s story. Her personal experience may carry more meaning for systemic educational reform.
Now she’s dedicating much of her professional life to bringing SPN into the mainstream. Interest grows from year to year. McManus uses it in her classes and students love it. Dozens of graduate students at the University of Vermont are writing SPN theses or dissertations.
“We all live by and through stories and assign stories to our lives,” she said. We made them up; we can change them. We’re responsible for the stories we live. By turning the lens of scholarship upon them, we can create stories that add to the depth and breadth of academic scholarship.
Contact Silva McManus at