Expanding the boundaries of self-authorship: Supporting being and becoming professionals through visual and textual mediums

Alicen Coddington, Jacqueline Dohaney

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperpeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The system of contemporary higher education offers students the agency to (re)define their personal and professional identity through engagement with educational programs and the socio-spatial context of the university. Identity as stated by Tonso “is not merely something that people express about themselves, or shape in the presence of others; it is also and simultaneously something that learning communities make of people” (2006, p.301). This paper explores the identity (re)formation of students in a learning community called the Engineering Practice Academy at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia who are undertaking the Engineering Practice (Honours) degree.

The personal-social construction of students being and becoming professionals within the domain of engineering is explored in this paper through the development of a method, namely, Self-Authorship through Visual and Textual Mediums. The research presented in this paper and the development of this method is underpinned by Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s (2012) interpretation of Being in which perceptions play a central part. Perceptions that are formed through a lived body, a body that is embedded within a cultural and historical world. Further, this research sees human experiences as embodied within a multiplicity of practices, which inform being and becoming (Dall’Alba, 2009). It is through the intersections of human experience, engagement with others, production of knowledgeability and the continuum of being and becoming that humans continue the process of (re)defining their identity and position in the world.

The self-authorship method outlined in this paper is used as a mechanism for student participants to articulate and (re)define their personal and professional identity through structured activities. Their perceptions of self and professional identity as engineers continue to develop over the period of the four-year degree and throughout their life as professionals. This is because individuals “do not only learn knowledge and skills but, more importantly, our relation to our world changes in the process” (Dall’Alba & Sandberg, 2014, p. 292).

Self-authorship through visual and textual mediums: Method of identity inquiry
The Self-Authorship through Visual and Textual Mediums offers a method for the exploration of self and its development over time. Individuals’ recognition of self is entwined with personal-social and socio-spatial contexts, informed by the multiplicity of self-identity. The method is substantiated by narrative inquiry which is built on the understanding that there is no ultimate narrative of truth; instead narratives of experiences are individualistic, in motion and connected by the decisions of the storyteller. A narrative…

…is a scheme by means of which human beings give meaning to their experiences of temporality and personal action. Narrative meaning… provides a framework for understanding the past events of one’s life and for planning future actions (Polkinghorne, 1988, p.11).

As a method, Self-Authorship through Visual and Textual Mediums requests the student participants, through three separate yet connected activities, to: (1) depict themselves, as who you are now (i.e., ‘self’), (2) depict their future self in 2023, the year they commence a graduate position in industry, and (3) create a blueprint that outlines the touchpoints, activities, and goals they perceive will help them to get from their current to future self. In completing these three activities, each approximately 30-40 minutes in duration, participants use images and text, an A3 piece of white paper and drawing/writing instruments. Additionally, participants are asked to include their perceived personal ‘highlights and lowlights’ in all three pieces. The inclusion of identity highlights and lowlights is used to identify areas of change but also static/innate elements of self that participants perceive as unique to them.

The self-authorship method is a means of personal development, academic development and also a research mechanism used by the authors. For the purpose of personal development, the three activities are embedded into the curriculum of the Engineering Practice (Honours) degree and repeated at key points throughout the four-year degree. As an academic development mechanism, it provides the opportunity for the Engineering Practice Academy staff to evaluate students’ identity (re)formation processes and identify what educational touchpoints influence changes in professional identities. Finally, as a research mechanism, it provides longitudinal visual and textual data on the development of self-formation that can be analysed through multiple theoretical lenses.

Expected Outcomes
In summary, as a research method, Self-Authorship through Visual and Textual Mediums provides an explicit medium for the authentic description, articulation and demonstration of self. A potential limitation of the method includes ambiguity of what participants’ mean in the visual data through their drawings and depictions. To reduce this limitation, we request that participants annotate their drawings to extract the meaning behind potentially abstracted imagery. Further, some participants found the opportunities for self-reflection and depiction of self through drawing as initially entirely novel and uncomfortable, however, these barriers were reduced by participants being positioned in the same room as their peers and witnessing others engaging in the activity.

This project draws upon Dall’Alba’s notion of Embodied Experience and Merleau-Ponty’s understanding of Being. It presents a novel method for students to engage in (re)defining their identity as authors of their continual becoming. We outline how a visual and textual medium is being used in the Engineering Practice Academy as an interpretive and analytic method for researching students’ progressions of being and becoming professional engineers. The method lends itself to being applied and adapted across university courses and theoretical analysis approaches.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 12 Sept 2018
EventPhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference 2018: Student Being and Becoming in the Future University - Middlesex University, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Sept 201812 Sept 2018


ConferencePhilosophy and Theory of Higher Education Conference 2018: Student Being and Becoming in the Future University
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


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