Episodes in the doctoral journey

G. Strawson. 2004. Against Narrativity.

This year we have to produce an autoethnography for the IDR (Independent Doctoral Researcher) unit.

I think people might find it odd that someone who keeps an extensive learning journal feels apprehensive about writing an autoethnography. While the intention of this blog was never to illuminate something distinctive or unique, or even typical/representative about the doctoral experience, I can see how it could inform such an analysis. One could even describe the blog *as* a distinctive aspect of my experience and development.

The apprehension comes from a feeling that I have no story; or at least that I lack ability and/or inclination to narrate my self-development. On a whim, I googled ‘help, I have no sense of self’, and the results were pretty interesting. It seems that many psychologists believe a strong sense of self is vital for happiness, contributing towards consistency of behaviour, self-esteem and trust; important ingredients for maintaining healthy relationships. A key dimension of ‘self’ is our values; deep-rooted beliefs that are important for motivation, focus and self-confidence. Apparently those with a shaky sense of self can benefit from slowing down and trying to truly sense how they feel about things; what they want and what they like doing.

I parked this information without feeling too troubled by it, and moved on to an essay by Galen Strawson, which resonated so strongly with me I thought my head might fall off.

Strawson feels there is a dominant view in the academy that not only we are naturally Narrative beings (we typically experience our lives as a story), but also that this is a desirable state, essential to our wellbeing. Sartre and the Stoics accept the first thesis but reject the second. Strawson rejects both.

Strawson proposes a continuum of self-experience that he feels is strongly related to Narrativity; that of temporal temperament. On one end of the scale is Diachronic self-experience, where one considers oneself as persisting continuously from the past through to the future, and therefore may more easily adopt a Narrative outlook. At the other end – where Strawson situates himself – is Episodic self-experience, where one has little or no sense that the self that one is was there in the past, and will be in the future.

I have tried to explain this to people (teachers, counsellors) before; that I do not see things that happened to my past selves as having happened to me. In most cases I am sure they thought I was being obtuse. As Strawson points out, Diachronics and Episodics are likely to misunderstand one another. I have often encountered the sense of bewilderment Goronwy Rees (1960, pp9-10) articulates so well; most recently on encountering our first (RRW1) EdD assignment, where we were advised to take a Narrative approach and given corresponding exemplars. It was a bit like standing in line for the high jump and looking down to find my legs were missing. I now wonder how many deeply non-Narrative people have had to ‘fake it’ over the years, and how successful they’ve been.

I also wonder whether every time I’ve got a bit emotional in the therapist’s chair was actually just frustrated bewilderment: Why are you asking me this? I don’t know! I wasn’t there! Do I have to make something up? Arrrrrggggghhh…

I felt a deep sense of relief on reading Strawson’s view that supporters of the ethical Narrativity thesis (Narrativity as essential for a good life) are just talking about themselves, and what is fundamentally true for them is not true for everyone. For some of us, being led to believe this may throw us ‘right off [our] own truth’ (p437).

My own truth is in the here and now; like Strawson I see the past existing most reliably as its shaping consequences on the present. My awareness of the fallibility of human memory is the reason I keep this blog; it is obvious to me that we are ‘unreliable narrators’ and ‘incorrigible self-fabulists’ (p444). Theodore Zeldin (2015) illustrates this equally clearly, citing the findings of Frederic Bartlett’s pioneering experiments of 100 years ago; that remembering involves ‘not the retrieval of an event as a complete entity but its reconstruction from innumerable dispersed fragments, which are almost inevitably mixed with more recent feelings and beliefs.’ (p161). I found Strawson’s Michel de Montaigne quote about memory (p450) particularly resonant. I wonder if Episodics and Diachronics have empirical differences in their ability to recall information (perhaps this is a circular hypothesis), or if they are simply more appreciative of the fallibility of human memory. I have been told that the speed with which I learn all 80 of my students’ names is exceptional (I generally have them all within ten minutes); at the same time, I encounter students from a year or two ago and often don’t remember them at all.

So, given my inability to recall, retell and narrate myself from beyond the present moment, am I going to completely flunk the IDR assignment? Maybe, maybe not. I have all this data to hand in the form of my blog at least, and it may feel false and contrived to try to draw a coherent commentary from it, but there must be something illuminative in here…

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