“When talking about their lives, people lie sometimes, forget a lot, exaggerate,
become confused, and get things wrong. Yet they are revealing truths.
These truths don’t reveal the past ‘as it actually was’,
aspiring to a standard of objectivity.
They give us instead the truths of our experiences.” (Devault 26)
Follow these guidelines to write about your early life. Some of this assignment will be based NOT on your own memories but on material you gather by talking to your parents, siblings and others.
An autoethnography is not simply an autobiography. In it you tell a story about your life, but with a heightened awareness of your social and cultural embeddedness: in a family, a home, a neighborhood, a school, ethnicity(s), possibly religion, political affiliations, gender identity and more.
An autoethnography connects the autobiographical and personal to the cultural, social, political and economic. In it you explore the significance and influence on you of people and events, those close to home as well as further afield. You look at yourself from a distance and try to see yourself as an artist or writer or filmmaker might see and portray you.
Your autoethnography can be informal, not ‘academic’. I want to hear your unique voice. You can include thoughts, feelings, fears, even dreams and imaginings. Use “I”. Avoid the passive voice. If you like, you can write in the present tense, as if you’re writing as the child you were. If you discover something new about your life as you write, comment on it.
You can experiment with your writing. Use quotations, dialogue, remembered conversations and stories. Books, songs, sayings can capture a time, place, relationship.
If you like, use a largely visual format: tell your story with substantially captioned photos or drawings. Feel free to incorporate photos, drawings, poetry and other artistic elements.
Part 1 – Your first nine years
START HERE: Write about the world you were born into. Think about your parents’ life history – their struggles, losses, successes, desires and hopes, their values, opinions, politics, pleasures and passions – and how their experience affected you.
Think about the familial and social habits, mores, activities, beliefs, rules and expectations that pervaded your childhood. Think about your family’s economic position, how it affected your life, how each family member experienced it, and how it may have changed over time.
Here are some more topics you might want to write about. You don’t have to write about all of them! Use them to get focused. Some will be more apt than others. Don’t write about anything you feel uncomfortable sharing. Feel free to write about topics I haven’t mentioned that are significant to you.
Your home. Your neighborhood. The music you heard, or made. Do you remember a lullaby? Did you dance?
What was the emotional mood(s) of your home growing up. What role did sports, religion, art, nature, extended family, play in your childhood
What about family gatherings, holiday celebrations, rites of passage?
Think about the language and languages you heard and spoke. Was your family bi-or multi lingual? Did people mix and switch languages? Did they feel pride and love for certain languages? Shame and embarrassment for any? Who told you stories when you were young? Who read to you? Sang to you or with you? Who fed you?
Think about food. What was your relationship with food when you
were a child? Were you a fussy eater? Whose responsibility was it to shop, whose to cook, clean up? How did he/she/they feel about their roles? What did others in the family think? What kind of food did you eat? What foods did you love?
What about meal times. What were breakfast and dinner like in your house? Who ate together; where; what mood; what conversation; any tensions? Did you help with meals? Did your family have a garden? Did someone grow food? Did you help? What do you remember about being in the garden?
To what extent did you feel part of or somewhat outside ‘mainstream’ culture?
You may have experienced bullying, poverty, immigration problems, racism, homophobia, serious illness, death, even war. Write about these.
Don’t feel daunted by this assignment. Enjoy the process, do your best. Each person’s paper will be different.
Autoethnography Part Two: ages 9-18
Here are some things to think about. You don’t have to write about all of them.
Use them to get focused. Don’t write about anything you feel uncomfortable sharing. Feel free to write about topics I haven’t mentioned that are significant to you.
As with Part 1, continue to think about how your parents’ struggles, desires and hopes, their values, opinions, politics, religion, and above all how their expectations of you, affected and continue to affect you.
As with Part 1, think about the emotional mood(s) of your home. Think about your house; the music you heard; the role sports or religion or art or extended family played in your childhood. Think about family gatherings, holiday celebrations, rites of passage.
Think about language and languages, bilingualism, language mixing and switching.
Think about family stories and occasions of storytelling.
You may have experienced bullying, poverty, racism, homophobia, serious illness, death, even war. Write about these.
What sense did you have of who you were, your identity, or multiple identities? To what extent did you feel part of ‘mainstream’ culture, your parents’ culture, ‘alternative’ culture or cultures?
Feel free to talk about drugs or alcohol if they played a role in your life during these years, about friendship, relationships, sexuality, work, nature, music, art.
Feel free to talk about your physical and emotional experience of puberty; menstruation.
Write about particular challenges you may have had to deal with, and about successes,
and things you’re proud of.
Autoethnography Part Three: Age 18 to the present and into the future
Write about the years from 18 to now in the same way you’ve done in part one and two.
As in the first two parts, feel free to incorporate photos, drawings, poetry or other artistic elements. Then, talk about your hopes and visions of your future.
Answer this question: To what extent do your own plans and dreams for your future coincide or conflict with the expectations and hopes your parents (and other important people in your life) have for you.
When you write this third chapter of your autoethnography incorporate all you’ve learned this semester about ethnography, in particular, participant/observation. Use your deepened understanding of culture – its richness and prosocial, life-enhancing aspects as well as its constraints – to write this last episode of your life as a cultural being.
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