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Paper presented at SCUTREA (Standing Conference on University Teaching and Research in the Education of Adults), July 3 - 5 2001 at University of East London, and included in: "Proceedings of the 31st Annual Conference of SCUTREA 2001: Travellers' Tales: From Adult Education to Lifelong Learning...and Beyond"
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Journey from the edge: challenging central discourses
Auto/biographical research frequently raises unanswered questions, as well as identifying paths and journeys that have been left behind because of painful memories and experiences (West, 1996). For adult learning, an auto/biography reveals the complex ways in which adults proceed within the frame of wider educational and social objectives, and within the contexts of whole life histories and lifeworlds. Auto/biography also implicates the researcher in her own personally reflective truth-seeking and experiential reconstruction. This search takes her to places where multiple regimes of truth reveal themselves and may be highly contested, where the self and the 'subject' of the research are challenged, particularly since auto/biographical research challenges the conventional distinctions between self and other.
This paper is derived from research into the nature and meaning of change in the personal, social and institutional lives of adult educators. Some of the educators were in the process of completing professional development and advance degree programs, so their lifelong learning journeys were also part of their narratives. Interpretations of difference and diversity were at the core of the research. I suggest adult educators as a group of professionals occupy multiple transitional and marginalized spaces. There are increasing expectations that adult educators will perform in ways that serve institutional agendas rather than learning and knowledge agendas. The process of narrative was significant in reconstituting and reflecting a sense of meaning and purpose for people continuing to work within an institutional context.
I focus on the narrative of an Aboriginal woman named 'Susan', which describes a journey from the edge. Her story is chosen because it highlights the connections between the personal and the social, and the troubled spaces we occupy in attempting to distinguish method and epistemology. Through a reflective auto/biographical narrative process, I explored Susan's social and educational histories and experiences, and their meanings in present, future and past. These were inevitably in a process of reconstruction and uncertain transition in view of the relationship between the narrator and the researcher; the process of reconstruction continues in the writing of this paper.
Research has the potential to reproduce colonizing discourses of the other; I was mindful of this perilous possibility even though narrative can be considered an empowering, feminist method. Aboriginal people seek self-governance and self-determination as a liberation from the hegemonic relations they have historically endured and currently endure. The narrative research method should not privilege myself over research participants such as Susan.
Aboriginal peoples in Canada have had a negative and even devastating experience of schooling, which has served as a barrier to their success in college, university and other adult education settings. A primary issue for Aboriginal people, as educators and learners, has been their exclusion from the central discourses of educational institutions. A controversial issue for Aboriginal educators and learners is the potential to be institutionalized by powerful 'normalizing' forces. These forces also provoke in individuals an internal struggle between coercion and consent and, as a consequence, a contradictory consciousness (Hoare & Smith, 1971). This struggle is also embodied in the narrative and the narrative process.
Susan lives and works in a contested space. As an Aboriginal woman politicized by the experience of residential schooling, her personal and institutional life remains in a political context. Feminists (Acker, Barry & Esseveld, 1996, Griffiths, 1998) argue that women and other people who have been marginalized benefit from a range of collaborative and empowering research methods, since the methods themselves are a way of challenging the dominant politics of knowledge. As Susan shared her story with me, I was unaware in the moment, that we were resisting the dominant research discourses, but I did know that this was not a traditional research space.
In spite of an abusive residential school experience, Susan did not anticipate that education would be a totally negative experience. She did not turn away from education. Rather, she has been engaged in the practice of learning and education all of her life. This lifelong learning approach was provoked and supported by her grandparents, and by her own determination. She has the resounding memory of her grandparents who told her she should finish school and 'be somebody'. Thus, obtaining an education was seen as a critical factor in Susan developing a meaningful sense of self. Susan's grandparents were from the first generation placed in residential schools; they did not complete school, and for them education held out a kind of promise for the self and for autonomy. Their experience was something Susan held in front of her as a message and a reminder. We discussed her transitions in her leaving school, going to vocational school, leaving the reserve to go to the city to complete her schooling, and then going on to university. There were difficult pauses in her educational history because of personal circumstances, but she pressed on. She made conscious decisions to continue her education.
Adults who have been absent from formal education for a few years often experience a sense of dislocation and uncertainty (West, 1996). Susan experienced these feelings -- as well as a sense of vulnerability and isolation, when she applied to and began university. Although Susan had successfully held jobs, worked in educational institutes and organized other people's training, she had to develop different study habits, and learn to write essays in a particular way to complete her degree. She required intellectual and spiritual supports. Susan eventually had the assistance of a tutor, but she also relied on her Native beliefs to guide her. These beliefs guide her today as a source of strength, part of her ways of knowing and learning. Susan said, 'that's one area I will not compromise - my spirituality', as this is integral to her life.
Susan spoke about the tensions she experienced with Eurocentric culture, resisting that culture and attempting to maintain her own culture. She talked about what it meant to do her Master's degree and whether she could do this within the culture of the academy.
The strains Susan associated with university reflect an existing contestation, not only with Aboriginal culture but also with other cultures, such as Asian, South Asian, and Middle-Eastern.
Cultural tensions were also mirrored in Susan's personal life, where cultures and worlds were often at odds. The notion of multiple lifeworlds has been explored extensively by Williamson (1998). Lifeworlds influence learning and give us information about how people make sense of change in their lives. Susan talked about working in the world of the educational institution, and about the other separate worlds that were hers as an Aboriginal woman and a woman with a family. These were marginalized locations where she lived and where she was in the process of negotiation for the long term. Susan described her partner as someone internally conflicted about his Aboriginal identity. This brought tension into the relationship and into the domain of parenting. As we talked further about her family, Susan expressed concerns for her daughter's future and her further education, 'I want her to be kept intact as she, until she reaches uh, oh, adulthood. You know I don't want her to be slashed and, and broken in pieces before she has her own strength. So I've always guarded that very fiercely'. I was struck by the imagery of 'slashed and broken'. This evoked in me a strong sense of the context from which Susan had emerged and survived. Susan told me that it was her own convictions that drove her forward. One of these convictions was to facilitate some changes for her daughter, for the next generation of Aboriginal people; she had to try and she had to be able to tell her daughter that she had tried.
Susan attempts to change circumstances and attitudes toward Aboriginal people extended to her position as a student advisor at a university college. She worked within difficult collegial and supervisory relationships in an environment where she has challenged the way she is treated, and the way Aboriginal students are treated. In talking about her job and her institution, she recounted the story of a memo she had written to an administrator, requesting some action be taken regarding what she saw as disrespectful conduct of faculty towards a student. Susan requested a response from the administrator. No response was given. Repeated verbal and written attempts yielded no recognition of her concern or indications that any action would be taken. We talked about this incident in several meetings because it represented some of her feelings of being silenced and ignored. Yet in the reconstruction of this story, she reconsidered in uncertain circumstances what her future approaches might be. Actions and change began to manifest themselves within the reflective research space.
Power and knowledge are co-produced and implicate interconnecting discourses such as economic and sexual relations (Foucault, 1972, 1980). Discourses of power and knowledge are embedded in the discursive practices of institutions: practices, actions and documents that might be perceived as ordinary. Power is active in social relations even when there is no consciousness of it. Susan declared that she would not tolerate racism, sexism or 'any kind of ism' any longer. Nor would she accept the kind of language that interpreted students as commodities - recruitment of particular students (e.g. international) brought in more revenue and were therefore identified as more important to the institution.
Susan knew that power was framed by being allowed to speak, by being heard, and by participating in the process of what is taken forward as valuable information and knowledge. She had said 'I feel that I'm starting to have a voice', and was being recognized as a knowledgeable agent in her own terms. In the narrative process, Susan was given space to reconsider what the centres of the discourse were, and how she might challenge them. Resistance is dialectical with power, and Susan exercised her resistance to authoritative forces within the institution by speaking out. Susan questioned what was seen as central to adult learning and the educational processes. She voiced concerns for herself and for others who were working from the margins of learning in the institution.
Susan exercised oppositional knowledge as a way of resisting oppression (Collins, 1998). It is within the politics of resistance and opposition that freedom and empowerment are possible. Susan has worked towards her own self-definition and self-determination, and these are requisites to liberation. This liberation is for herself but she also advocates for Aboriginal people as a collectivity. Aboriginal people have historically been placed in relation to and with reference to European, Western peoples and their knowledge. They have resisted this construction and countered this by posing a construct in which they are themselves at the centre. Susan was advocating for an epistemology and an institutional culture that places Aboriginal people at the centres of the discourses rather than being constructed through what are typically established as alternative education or access programs, since these terminologies continue to perpetuate European, Western models at the centres. Susan suggested Aboriginal people's self-determination is such that they can establish themselves in recreated mainstreams and centres, and name these as such.
Susan's experience was one in which she was defined by many institutions, including the one she worked in. She recounted stories of being told not to discuss certain subjects with the public. When she raised issues of Aboriginal people being excluded, there were numerous incidents in which she was ignored or there were attempts to silence her. In other incidents, people acknowledged with chagrin that yes, they had been exclusionary. For some individuals in the institution, Susan became a persistent symbol of the issues they would rather avoid. These individuals constructed her as the Aboriginal woman who would not let go - even as she continued to ask administrators and faculty to do something for Aboriginal people. The process of typecasting is not new for women, and not new in cultural politics, it is an approach to negating the content of the problem by totalizing, problematizing and politicizing the messenger. Aboriginal students were also storied by the institution. The administrator who did not answer Susan's memo perpetuated accounts that Susan and some students were not worthy of respect or basic courtesy. The memo is symbolic of the written texts of the institution, texts that are part of the discursive everyday practices of power, where students were often constructed in an authoritative norm of the good and the bad student. Some students then, were defined as not important or not visible. An administrator Susan worked with remarked on the worthiness of Aboriginal students and the account became one that focussed on generating money.
The tension between challenging the centres and being storied is illustrative of the dynamic relationship between human agency and social structure. The research was a space in which to reconsider what agency and structure meant in light of Susan's history and struggle with institutions. While she was subject to constraints, she had a sense of possibility and was also a knowledgeable agent (Giddens, 1991). A central question for Susan is whether or not she can remain clear in her objectives or whether her goals will be blurred by institutional agendas and forces. Will she become entangled in a contradictory consciousness by remaining in the institution - and what would this mean for her own future agency and voice?
Susan said, 'I'm just on the cusp of things'. Susan's story offers a complex glimpse into her cultured lifeworlds and reveals how stories can also be sites of resistance and can challenge dominant truths. As our meetings went on she talked openly about her anger and how she could mobilize her energy. Her story is about transition and her self-agency - the process of actualization and perhaps re-inventing herself, as well as advocating for Aboriginal people and her students. The narrative is punctuated with issues of self definition and challenging the assimilating discourses of institutions. Through storytelling, the journey was neither chronological or linear. Attempts to make sense of the past was part of the present and shaped in a context of anticipating the future. The construction of Susan's self through a narrative hermeneutic process took place through the interpretation of her life and the interconnections with social, institutional lives. Susan was able to use the narrative to name what she saw in her past and present, to exercise her voice and to re-story herself. I did not empower Susan, but the process of narrative lent itself to empowerment because I valued what Susan had to tell me.
I have chosen parts of Susan's narrative for the purposes of this paper. As such, it is a construction. The paper does not reflect many other stories in Susan's life and this raises issues of context and appropriation for the researcher. I too, am at the edge, for this process is part of a wider set of issues in both choosing to give a paper in the academy and attempting to advocate some of the concerns Susan has about further education. My own journey has involved concerns about my adult learning in transitional and marginal spaces - interrogating traditional epistemology and locating myself as an older adult learner.
Susan's narrative continues beyond the time and space we occupied together. Our relationship in the research process generated particular subject relations for both of us - a narrative truth seeking was in progress. Since I was struggling to make sense of the research overall, not just the meaning of Susan's story, I experienced, in one sense, a kind of fracturing. My own autobiography was engaged with Susan's. I was empathetic with the stories of racism and sexism and this facilitated personal and professional challenges for me and for my work.
The research raises questions and implications for adult learning for people who have consistently been outside of educational systems: what it means to go on to further education; whether or not education can facilitate empowerment, or whether the reality is further marginalization and continuing contradictions. These are dilemmas we face as adult educators. A clearly delineated educational history must be problematised as the dualities of self and other, knowing and learning, are challenged. Distinctions between biography and auto/biography are also challenged because of the interactive relational process of developing the narrative. Educational discourses become problematised in this process and we find ourselves on a personal, conceptual and methodological edge.
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Giddens, A (1991) Modernity and self identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Griffiths, M (1998) Telling stories about collaboration: secrets and lies? Paper presented at the Second international conference on self-study of teacher education practices. Herstmonceux. http://educ.queensu.ca/~ar/sstep2/griffith.htm
Provincial Advisory Committee on Post Secondary Education for Native Learners. (1990) Report to Minister of Advanced Education, Training and Technology. Victoria: Government of British Columbia.
Hoare, Q. & Smith, G.N (eds) (1971) Selections from the prison notebooks. Antonio Gramsci. New York: International Publishers.
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© Copyright 2002 A.S. Chan, Ph.D. & Associates
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