As you now know, autoethnography is a type of “life-writing” that bears many sim

As you now know, autoethnography is a type of “life-writing” that bears many similarities to—and is often practically indistinguishable from—other varieties of creative non-fiction, such as memoir and the personal essay. Like these genres, autoethnography allows writers to explore the many dimensions of their own “lived experience”: the complicated web of thoughts, feelings, conflicts, struggles, memories, encounters, identities, dreams, relationships, stories, and events that shape our sense of who we are. But whereas memoir and personal essays typically focus on the writer’s experience for its own sake, autoethnography seeks to understand how even a writer’s most intimate experiences—their experience of grief, say, or their experience of pleasure, depression, racism, sexism, shame, or joy—cannot be separated from the social, cultural, political, economic, historical, and institutional forces at work in the world around them. For autoethnography, personal experience is never just personal. Rather, it is inextricably connected to the larger social, cultural, political, economic, historical, and institutional systems and structures amidst which we live.
In the second half of the quarter, we will take our study of autoethnography and use it to compose our own autoethnographic texts. Autoethnography shows us that there is much to learn from describing, narrating, and interrogating our own experiences, especially when we contextualize these experiences by examining their relationship to the larger structures and forces that surround us. Thus, the Autoethnography Project begins by encouraging you to explore some aspect of your life that you experience as a “problem”: something that bothers, troubles, scares, or confuses you, something that you’re struggling with or working through, something that causes you to feel anxious, resentful, angry, dissatisfied, stressed. Then the Autoethnography Project asks you to consider how this seemingly “personal” problem is connected to and shaped by broader social, cultural, political, economic, historical, and institutional systems. Who else might share this “problem” with you? Or put a different way: What community or communities does the “problem” involve? Is the “problem” connected to issues of social stigma? Social pressures and expectations? Body image? Language barriers? Other “institutional” barriers, such as unequal access to knowledge, resources, or power? Feelings of inadequacy? Inadequacy of what kind? Rooted in what? Cultural conflicts? Intergenerational family conflicts? Economic deficits? Sexism? Racism? Homophobia? Immigration status? Something else? Basically, in this project, your own life and experience become legitimate subjects of research, and writing about them helps you comprehend both yourself and your world in a deeper, richer, and more empowering way.
Note: I strongly encourage you to use your autoethnography as a way to investigate aspects of your experience that really matter to you, “problems” in your life that you genuinely—perhaps even urgently—want to understand more fully. However, you should not feel compelled to write about emotions and/or experiences that you are not prepared to share in a public context; this project does not require you to be vulnerable in a way that will make you feel unsafe. Yes, I want you to take this autoethnography seriously, using it to grapple with and figure out aspects of your life that feel important and real. But no, I do not want you to exploit your own experience or a dimension of your identity simply because you think you need to do so in order to do well in the class. (That would be another version of the danger that Laura Bennett describes in her essay on the “First-Person Industrial Complex.” (Links to an external site.)) If you have concerns of this nature or are unsure whether or not to write about a particular experience, please make an appointment with me to talk one-on-one. There are many rich variations of autoethnography that do not require you to share publicly what you’d rather keep private—variations such as travel-writing, nature-writing, and autoethnographic writing that explores experiences of happiness, community, and joy.

As you now know, autoethnography is a type of “life-writing” that bears many sim
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