Autoethnography in Undergraduate Writing Courses

by Justin B. Hopkins (Author)
©2020 Textbook XXII, 190 Pages


Autoethnography in Undergraduate Writing Courses blends narrative and analysis in an engaging and applicable account of how the genre of autoethnography can be a valuable addition or alternative to traditional research assignments.
Many writing teachers struggle to motivate and equip students to conduct meaningful and effective research. Practicing autoethnography—the scholarly combination of personal reflection, artistic representation, and social/cultural research—provides an opportunity for students to research and write about something that genuinely interests them: their own experiences.
A genre of personal writing, autoethnography is comparable to pedagogy pioneered by expressivists like Donald Murray, Peter Elbow, and Wendy Bishop, among others. However, combining personal writing with research—as autoethnography does—is more rare. Some compositionists have already used autoethnography in their own research and teaching, but this book demonstrates why more compositionists should consider adopting autoethnography into their pedagogy.
The author shares his own experience teaching autoethnography at the undergraduate level, modeling its potential and demonstrating its impact. Written in a lively, conversational voice, the book presents substantial qualitative research, including samples of student writing, supplemented by student interviews and surveys.
These data indicate that practicing autoethnography can have unusually, if not uniquely, positive effects on students’ lives. Specifically, the author identifies and illustrates eight outcomes of practicing autoethnography: increased reflexivity, improved research and writing skills, greater awareness of ethical issues, critical empowerment, therapeutic catharsis, enjoyment, and the development of a sense of community.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter One: Introduction
  • Chapter Two: “What Is That?” Defining Autoethnography
  • Chapter Three: “How Do You Do That?” Practicing Autoethnography
  • Chapter Four: “How Do You Teach That?” Autoethnographic Pedagogy
  • Interchapter: “What’s Next?” Outcomes of Practicing Autoethnography
  • Chapter Five: Self and Context: Increasing Reflexivity
  • Chapter Six: Audience Awareness: Improving Writing Skills
  • Chapter Seven: Relevant References: Improving Research Skills
  • Chapter Eight: Writing Rightly: Ethical Consideration
  • Chapter Nine: Writing Wrongs: Critical Empowerment
  • Chapter Ten: Creative Catharsis: Therapeutic Potential
  • Chapter Eleven: Enjoyment and a Sense of Community
  • Chapter Twelve: “What Could Go Wrong?” Critique and Concern
  • Chapter Thirteen: Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Invitation to Interview and Interview Questions
  • Appendix B: Sample Course Syllabus
  • Appendix C: Sample Course Assignments
  • Appendix D: Additional Student Autoethnographies
  • Appendix E: Author’s Autoethnography
  • Index



A Reflection by David I. Hanauer on Autoethnography and the Meaning of Life

There is an interesting paradox at the heart of all lived experience. The paradox, simply put, is that while there is a constant onslaught of events to which each of us is a participant, these experiences do not come with a preassigned meaning. This is true even (or perhaps especially) of those events to which we have the strongest emotional reactions. The world and our lives are, to a large extent, a mystery even to ourselves.

Against this backdrop, society, our parents, schools, religious institutions, the news, social media, the government, our cultural heritage, and every other powerful discursive system aim to fill this void of meaning with their own ideological interpretations. Essentially, our lives are interpreted for us, and we often blindly and seemingly naturally believe the stories we are told about our own lives. Except there is nearly always a problem with this. The problem is that each of our lives is not easily reducible to the narrative meanings imposed upon it. There is often a sense of discomfort, alienation, and distance from the ways in which personal experience is experienced and the way it is discursively presented. This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that there are multiple meanings and interpretations present within any given experience. Rather than a single meaning, experience ←ix | x→comes both without meaning and simultaneously with multiple potential meanings. As I have argued elsewhere (Hanauer, 2003), there is a uniqueness in every individual’s life that is just not reducible to the stereotypical norm of society. We are just not fully the stories imposed upon us. There is always a space and a feeling of unease with ourselves.

This puts the consciousness of all of us, every human alive, in the difficult situation of being the locus of a long personal history of experienced events to which meanings have been assigned, which in many cases are only partial and sometimes problematic. There is a space between the experience of the event, the bodily imagistic memory of what happened and the way a person explains this to themselves, drawing upon the discursive resources to which they have been exposed. This space and unease make themselves known at points of crisis and significance in an individual’s life. The need to explain one’s own experiences and what they mean happens to everyone eventually. Life is full of drama, trauma, parting, danger, death, love, caring, and emotion.

Unfortunately, most education systems do not prepare individuals for these types of experience. Currently, higher education increasingly sees itself, in accordance with neo-liberal ideas, as a job agency and not as a site for the development of critical, self-reflective abilities. Even writing instruction, which historically has been the site of self-exploration, has been shifted to the role of “support” course designed to provide students with the types of academic writing that their disciplines and future employers require. While I have nothing against this beneficial function of a writing class, there is at this moment in history a far more important role that writing instruction can play. A brief purview of the current political and societal trends reveals the rise of populist, nationalist ideologies promising individual agency through group ideology. We have not seen such an increase in this sort of ideological positioning for a hundred years, and with it comes the specter and realities of xenophobia, division, hate, racism, and warmongering.

The power of these discourses to supersede the insecurity of a partial interpretation of self with a totality of self cannot be underestimated. The desire for an overriding interpretation of the meaning of one’s life is a powerful force, which attracts many who feel it as a simple solution to the problem of self. Of course, these types of populist, nationalist, and fascist interpretations come at the price of a stereotypical sense of self and other. To align oneself with such positions requires violence and distortion in relation to one’s own history. Specifically, one is required to mold and force the self to meet a predefined stereotype of self and to see others using the same ideological lens.

←x | xi→

It is against this context that writing instruction is crucial and a potential bulwark against the slippage of identity into stereotypical group membership. Writing can, when conducted seriously, be an influential source of self-exploration that counters the symbolic attacks of a variety of societal discourses. I am not talking about the multitude of self-presentation performances enacted on a range of social media platforms. That type of writing is primarily a rehearsal of a stereotypical sense of self. Rather, I am talking about the writing research methodologies under the heading of meaningful literacy instruction (Hanauer, 2012) which allow individual students to explore and explicate the meanings of their lives and to understand the ways in which they are uniquely positioned between a range of existing discourses and their own experiences. Primary among these approaches is the writing of interpretive autoethnographies (Denzin, 2014).

As such, I am very pleased to write the foreword for Justin Hopkins’ important book on the usage of autoethnography in the college composition classroom. The book carefully explicates and exemplifies autoethnography as a writing methodology and pedagogy that allows for the exploration of self in order to understand the different strands of meaning and feeling that are inherent in each experience and in our lives more broadly. Autoethnography allows the individual writer the option of really delving into the paradoxes and complexities of lived experience, not a simplistic imposition of a grand discursive meaning, but rather the careful explication of the complications of being oneself.

Hopkins’ book, in the tradition of all quality composition scholarship, is grounded within his own experiences as a writing instructor who has taught extensively using autoethnography and is an autoethnographer himself. The book provides a concrete sense of how this type of pedagogy can be used in the classroom and what outcomes can be expected. For any writing instructor, Hopkins provides the resources necessary to use autoethnography in the classroom setting. Simply put, this book lays the groundwork for the broad educational implementation of a program of autoethnographic writing for a wide range of student populations. This is the importance of the current publication.

At this time, as we face the rise of nationalism and its correlated racism and loss of self, writing instruction has a central role to play in helping students find a more honest and grounded meaning for their lives. Hopkins, through this book, shows a way in which this can be enacted. I cannot think of a more important contribution to literacy education at this present time.

David Ian Hanauer

Professor of Applied Linguistics/English

Indiana University of Pennsylvania

←xi | xii→


Denzin, N. (2014). Interpretive autoethnography. London: SAGE.

Hanauer, D. (2003). Multicultural moments in Poetry: The importance of the unique. Canadian Modern Language Review, 60(1), 27–54.

Hanauer, D. (2012). Meaningful literacy: Writing poetry in the language classroom. Language Teaching: Surveys and Studies, 45(1), 105–115.

←xii |



If the course had been titled “Autoethnography,” I might not have taken it.

I’d never heard of autoethnography before. It sounded kind of silly, frankly—oxymoronic, even: “auto-” meaning “self” and ethnography, as far as I knew, being the study of others. A professor I admired—a prominent compositionist—scoffed at the idea, waving a dismissive hand, and calling it a contradiction in terms.

Yet as I glanced over the offerings for the second summer of my Ph.D. coursework, the subtitle of the last class on the list intrigued me: “Life Writing.”

I’d liked writing about my life ever since I’d started keeping a (more or less) daily journal in a dark blue, wide-lined Mead notebook in sixth grade. I remember writing about building Lego castles, playing capture the flag, and getting a letter that had heart-dotted Js and Is and smelled of perfume. I wonder whatever happened to the girl who wrote that letter …

But that kind of writing, that free-form, reflexive, recursive, cursive scribbling was completely different from the kind of formal, sturdily-structured composition I’d been practicing for more than half my life since—academic prose, trying to join the academic pros.

I had no idea that these two kinds of writing could coexist.

Dr. David Hanauer’s “Life Writing” seminar introduced me to the genre of autoethnography: studying the self in relation to social/cultural context through a ←xiii | xiv→combination of personal reflection, artistic representation, and academic research (Ellis & Bochner, 2000, 2016).

We read Hanauer’s own autoethnography, about his experience as the son of a Holocaust survivor, in which he asserts: “Writing and the act of witnessing one’s own life offers the option of exploring the complexities of personal experience and presenting it for observation by another” (2012, pp. 845–846). Hanauer blends his own poetry, interviews with his father, and historical research to show the complex relationship he has with his heritage.

We read many examples of autoethnography, including Nora Murad’s (2005) on being a mother in an American-Jewish-Palestinian-Muslim family; Yuri Han’s (2012) on losing an ex-lover and colleague to cancer; Maria Daskalaki’s (2012) on being a scholar crossing geographic borders; Miriam Sobre-Denton’s (2012) on workplace bullying; Sunguen Yang’s (2012) on the significance of her decision to remain childless in South Korea; Benny LeMaster’s (2014) on coming out of the closet. I was simply astonished by the breadth of possible topics, and the intellectual and emotional depth of the writing.

As required, I wrote an autoethnography for the course. I decided to examine my experience of leaving Senegal, West Africa, to live in the United States. Born in New Jersey, I had grown up in Senegal as the child of missionary linguists, but when I graduated from high school, I returned to my passport country.

Concentrating specifically on what David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken (2009) call Third Culture Kid (TCK) “reentry,” and following Hanauer’s (2010, 2012) methodological lead, I wrote poetry representing my time of transition from living in Africa to living in America. I framed those poems with analysis of scholarship on the TCK phenomenon. (I will describe my process in greater detail in Chapter Three.)


XXII, 190
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XXII, 190 pp., 1 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Justin B. Hopkins (Author)

Justin B. Hopkins teaches and serves as Assistant Director of the Writing Center at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He holds a PhD in Composition and TESOL from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He has published in a variety of disciplines, including over forty reviews of Shakespeare’s plays.


Title: Autoethnography in Undergraduate Writing Courses
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