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Mapping an interpretive researcher's sensitivities toward her subject(s): A critical autobiography

Elisabeth Settelmaier
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
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Autobiographical Vignette - A small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind (Neil Armstrong)

Cuddled into the black leather TV-chair in my parents' living room, wrapped up in a blanket, I am watching the black and white pictures delivered from the moon's surface into our home in a small Austrian town. I remember having a strange feeling about the fact that some human beings are actually "up there" and are able to look down on "us"...

I was five years old when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. My family had gathered around the television set, my parents, my brothers, their girlfriends... I remember the tension in the room during those last moments before the landing - fear something might go wrong in the very last moment. At last it was certain - the human race had achieved something unique and I remember feeling that I had just witnessed something extraordinary. Pride of what humans can do, pride of what science can help us achieve. I believe that in this very moment the foundations for my interest in science were laid. As a child, I never wanted to become a nurse, a police-woman, least of all a teacher. Marie Curie as an idol was much more like it - funny enough, events and choices made during my later life have turned me into a science teacher. What is the meaning of that? Does that make me a bad science teacher?

Later I remember seeing pictures from the Houston control room. My mother pointed out a man to me, tall and blond, amongst the scientists and technicians, "This is Wernher von Braun," she said, "He originally came from Germany and is now one of the great American rocket scientists. He has contributed considerably to this event tonight." I was impressed to say the least. The fact that he came from a neighbouring country with some cultural and historical commonalities left us with a feeling as if we also to some degree shared the glory of the moment...


In this paper I explore how autobiography can benefit science education research through mapping the researcher's sensitivities toward her research topic which, in my case, is the teaching of ethical issues within science education. Exploring one's identity (Palmer, 1998) through critical reflective practice (Brookfield, 1995) leads not only to enhanced awareness of one's personal practical knowledge as a teacher and a researcher (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988) but also to transformative learning (Mezirow, 1991) - research can then become a journey of personal development. For transformative learning to occur, we, as teachers or researchers, need to engage in a critically reflective process during which we examine our assumptions through different lenses, one of which can be an autobiographical lens (Brookfield, 1995), "... Our autobiographies as learners in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood frame our approach to teaching at the start of our careers, and they frequently exert an influence that lasts a lifetime (p. 50)." Given this life-long influence and drawing from Parker Palmer's work, we might want to ask the question, "Who is the self that does the research?"

Autobiography and qualitative research

In these postmodern[1] - some say (post)postmodern times (Marcus, 1994), especially if we ground our interpretive work in the Seventh Moment of Qualitative Research, which amongst other issues is concerned with moral discourse (Lincoln & Denzin, 2000), dealing with one's own biases before interpreting and representing others becomes an important question of research ethics. The crisis of representation has taught us to look critically at attempts to speak authentically of other people's experiences. Many researchers now accept that they are not disinterested but are deeply invested in their studies, personally and profoundly (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001). Autobiographical research allows us to explore aspects of our interpretive horizons (Roth, 2000) and thus of our biases. Regarding the legitimisation of the research, Lincoln and Denzin (2000) emphasise that interpretive inquiry in the Seventh Moment celebrates autoethnography and personal accounts grounded in the striving to understand how others enact and construct meaning in their lives. Given that our autobiographies and our scholarly works are deeply integrated - we can therefore draw on our autobiographies to elucidate our knowledge (Roth & Bowen, 2000). One aspect that lends itself as a focus to our attention is the researcher's sensitivities towards her subject(s) which are characterised by a heightened awareness toward a certain knowledge area. The purpose of the paper lies in the exploration of Elisabeth's (author 1) sensitivities:

The role of sensitivities

Sensitivities are what makes us more perceptive towards certain phenomena than to others. Sensitivities are part of the legacy of evolution, Skolimowski informs us in his book "The Participatory Mind". Quoting Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, he explains that evolution is a process of augmentation of consciousness: after new insight is absorbed, the growing consciousness is expressed and articulated by the acquisition of new sensitivities. Sensitivities are therefore articulators of the growing consciousness (Skolimowski, 1994). Being sensitive toward ethical dilemmas, I believe, represents the growing consciousness and awareness of my history and culture as I develop as a human being. I can clearly trace back my interest in ethical dilemmas to my personal history and to certain formative events.

Organisation of the paper

Autobiographies need to be organised around particular foci: Denzin (1989), in his book "Interpretive Biography", examines different types of organisation of biographies and autobiographies. There can either be a chronological order from birth to death, or alternatively from death back to birth. Or less common, there can be no chronological order at all. In this paper, autobiographical stories or vignettes are organised around "nodal moments" (Bullough & Pinnegar 2001), epip hanies or turning points (Denzin, 1989), and "mentors who evoked us" (Palmer, 1998).

This paper is organised in two parts: Part One is concerned with discussing the theoretical context of autobiographical method in the social sciences in general and in science education in particular. Autobiographical vignettes interrupt the flow of the theoretical text in order to prepare the reader for Part Two of the paper in which I (author 1) describe the research I have been involved in, and relate the research to autobiographical vignettes in order to illustrate influential events, people, literature etc. that have led to the development of particular sensitivities. The connective tissue between the autobiographical vignettes is provided through interpretive commentary in which I analyse and interpret the stories. Occasionally this monologue turns into a dialogue in which Peter deepens the analysis by asking questions and discussing my interpretations in the role of a critical friend. In the following part of the paper, I relate my research into the teaching of ethical issues to my biographical background, I discuss methodological aspects of writing autobiographically, and I also include issues of quality control in self-studies.

Methodological aspects of autobiographical writing

Denzin (1989) defines autobiography as a person's life written by oneself or as inscribing and creating a life. Educational autobiographies in teacher education research have gained in importance, as Ken Zeichner, quoted by Bullough and Pinnegar (2001), pointed out in his presidential address to the American Educational Research Association in 1998. Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) add that self-study as a method to study our research practice points to a simple truth: to study a practice is simultaneously to study self - a study of self-in-relation to other. This type of self-study can also lead to the enhancement of personal practical knowledge (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988) and pedagogical thoughtfulness (van Manen, 1990).

Denzin (1989) quotes Derrida who asserted that real, concrete subjects live lives with meaning, and these meanings have a concrete presence in the lives of these people. As there is no direct window into the inner life of a person, the (auto)biographical method relies on subjective verbal and oral expressions. There cannot be a clear, unambiguous statement of anything, intention or a meaning. Denzin (1989) explains that biographies and autobiographies are conventionalised, narrative expressions of life experiences. Through the method "real appearances of real people" are created and they shape how lives are being told.

Autobiography and autoethnography blend ethnographic research with life writing, telling us about a culture as well as about lives at the same time (Roth, 2000). The two genres play an increasingly important role in the social sciences as the work of, eg., Ellis (1997), Ellis & Bochner (2000), clearly shows. Roth (2000) explains that although these two genres have become a central means of critiquing other forms of representing individuals and their culture, their influence in science education remains minimal. I agree with Roth (2000) that, apart from a special issue of the journal of Research in Science Education Research (Vol 30(1)) on autobiography, in which researchers such as, eg., Roth (2000); Tobin (2000) and Eisenhart (2000) published autobiographical accounts, as well as papers by Taylor and Timothy (2000) and Alfonso (2002), the widespread recognition of this genre as a methodology suitable for science education research has yet to happen.

The postpositivist tradition[2] of reporting science education research using a scientific, objectivist, "scholarly" writing style, has made it difficult for alternative genres of scholarly writing to be accepted amongst the majority of the science education research community. Barone (2001) reports on authors who (still) fret about the potential contamination through subjectivity of objective findings about the "real world", a soiling to be minimised. According to Cronbach (quoted by Barone) the primary purpose of (postpositivist) social scientific research is to reduce uncertainty, to seek literal truth.

Postmodernists, on the other hand, in their quest for understanding rather than explaining, have abandoned striving for certain and total knowledge that transcends a fallible, human perspective. Instead, they promote an epistemology of ambiguity whose purpose is the enhancement of meaning rather than the reduction of uncertainty. Poststructuralists believe that every autobiography is a construct for a particular audience. It looks at the intention behind the construct - interaction between reader and author to re-construct the writer (Rodriguez, 2000). Researchers working within a (post)postmodernist tradition[3], find themselves confronted with a variety of writing genres including autobiography, autoethnography, performance texts etc., each serving as a tool for better understanding and supporting interpretation of the "other". Such experimental texts (Richardson, 2000) serve to facilitate to "work the hyphen" as Michelle Fine calls it (Fine, Weis, Weseen, & Wong, 2000): when the "self" of the researcher meets the "other" - the participant's self. Using experimental writing genres within a postmodernist framework offers a possibility of addressing issues of legitimisation and representation in one's research.

Critical voices and autobiography

Despite the reasons that speak for the use of autobiography, there are critical voices, questioning the legitimacy of the autobiographical enterprise as scientific. Can autobiography ever be rigorous? How can we make sure that we do not only indulge in solipsism? Does autobiography as a form of arts-based, fictional writing not open the door for scientific dilettantism - research for the pleasure or benefit of the researcher only?

How to read an autobiography - quality guidelines

A number of researchers have suggested guidelines and quality standards for narrative and self-studies in particular. I would like to draw from Barone (2001) as well as from Bullough and Pinnegar (2001). Barone and Eisner listed qualities that turn a narrative into an arts-based text. They suggest that the language should be expressive, contextualised. The text should create a virtual reality and present an aesthetic form. It should carry the author's signature and above all, it should show a degree of textual ambiguity (Barone, 2001).

Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) ask the most crucial question of all: When does self-study ever become research? Answering their own question, they explain that history and biography need to be joined, "...When the issue confronted by the self is shown to have relationship to and bearing on the context and ethos of a time, the self-study moves to research (p. 15)." In order to answer the famous "so what?" question about the significance of the work that "wise" readers tend to ask, they emphasise that there must be a balance in evidence not only in what data have been gathered and presented but in how they have been analysed, in how they have been brought together in conversation. Ultimately they add that the aim of self-study research is moral, to gain understanding necessary to make that interaction, between the researcher's self and others who share a commitment to the development and nurturance of the young, increasingly educative.

According to Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) self-studies should ring true and enable connection and the author's voice should appear. This brings in the notion of what (Adler & Adler, 1994) refer to as verisimilitude. The stories should promote insight and interpretation. History should be engaged forthrightly and the author should take an honest stand. A good self-study should be a good read, and attend to nodal moments of our biographies, thereby enabling the reader to gain insight or understanding into the self. Good autobiography should reveal a lively conscience and balanced sense of self-importance, tells a recognisable story, portrays character de velopment, gives place to the dynamic struggle of living life whole, and offers new perspectives. The plot of the autobiography is a series of events deliberately arranged so as to reveal their dramatic, thematic, and emotional significance. Similar to fiction, a good autobiography tries to reproduce the emotional impact of the experience to move the reader.

Autobiographical writing results in narratives about our lives. But why, we may ask, is this worth the effort? What might be the intended purpose of writing an autobiographical narrative? Barone (2001) (quoting Bruner) suggests that narratives are designed to do what art does so well by laying bare questions which have been hidden by the answers. With regard to autobiography we might start to question that which seems unquestionable to us, a given fact, something that "has always been there". We might begin to confront what the phenomenologists call the "natural attitude" about ourselves. Mezirow (1991) explains that when self-reflection is critical, it involves a searching view of the unquestioningly accepted presuppositions. He continues that most of what we have learned about ourselves has not been examined for unconsciously incorporated assumptions. Instead of asking, "Why would anybody be interested in my unimportant life?", we might want to ask, "What experiences, issues, stories, from my life can be of benefit for others? How can this affect my research and my attitude about who I am dealing with as a researcher and what I hear from the participants? What can I learn from getting to know myself better?" This leads us to the questions I have asked in my self-study...

The What, the How, the Why and the Who? Questions that inform the research...

Questions characterise the beginning of Parker Palmer's book "The Courage to Teach" (Palmer, 1998) in which he poses a set of questions, the first, "What do we teach?" This question turns out to be the most commonly asked question of all with regard to teaching and learning, followed in popularity by, "How do we teach?" Somebody might even ask, "Why?" But only rarely does anybody ask: "Who is the self that teaches?" I would like to use these questions in the context of research:
  1. What is the research about?
  2. How do we perform the research?
  3. Why do we bother to inquire into a certain topic?
  4. Who is the researcher doing the study?
Engaging in critical self-reflection or in other words pondering about the implications of these questions on my own research, I realised how closely related to my own autobiography the answers to the four questions were. Denzin and Lincoln (1998) recognise this close connection between interpretive research and the researcher's biography by proposing that behind every interpretive study stands the biographically, multiculturally situated researcher. They suggest that
" ...three interconnected, generic activities define the qualitative research process. They go by a variety of labels, including...ontology, epistemology, and methodology. Behind these terms stands the personal biography of the gendered researcher, who speaks from a particular class, racial, cultural, and ethnic community perspective [p. 23]."
I realised that I, as the researcher, approach the world with a set of ideas, a framework (ontology) that specifies a set of questions (epistemology) that are then examined (methodology) in specific ways (Denzin & Lincoln, 1998). It is thus important to bring to the fore the historical background of a research study. In this paper, autobiography serves as a tool to put an interpretive research study about teaching ethics in science classrooms using dilemma stories into its biographical, historical context which is especially important for the interpretive act, as Roth (2000) reminds us.

At the end of Part 1 of the paper, I would like to tell a story of "how it all began". This vignette introduces the reader to the environment I grew up in. In the following Part 2 of the paper, I attempt to connect biography and history in greater detail, thereby putting personal struggle into the context and ethos of time in order for my stories to become research (Bullough & Pinnegar, 2001).

Autobiographical Vignette - How it all began?

Looking back I can see that some influences during my early life have probably made me very sensitive to ethical dilemma situations. One influential dilemma has to do with my birthplace: My father used to be a medical doctor before his retirement. He worked in medical research in Vienna, in the Netherlands, and in Britain, for many years before he gave up this academic career and became the senior anaesthetist at the local hospital in a semi-rural town in Upper Austria. My parents decided to move from Vienna to Braunau am Inn, a small but beautiful, medieval town of architectural splendour, only a few years before I was born.

This decision presented me with the dubious pleasure of sharing my birthplace, with Adolf Hitler, a fact that indeed was to be of some importance for my personal development later. It involves being confronted with a terrible past at an early age, as well as being "equated" with the Nazis of 60 years ago, no matter you're your personal political stance really is, due to the fact that many people overseas tend to identify Nazi with German or even worse Austrian, due to a lack of historical knowledge, I believe. The dilemma with Braunau for me was that, on the one hand, I love the place, I still have my parents and friends there. I like the people. I love the river Inn, its quiet hidden arms, the relatively intact ecosystems along the river, the bird and beaver colonies, the river-woods, that offered us children a great adventure playground in the sixties and seventies. But times have changed: Braunau is a border town within the European Union. In 2002 the river-woods are no longer safe for children to play in: they have become a different type of "playground" - illegal immigrants trying to cross the river into Germany play hide-and-seek with border patrols which are supposed to prevent "illegals" from "infiltrating" the German border. But this is a different story, reflecting the modern Austria...

The peacefulness and sleepiness of the small town is deceptive: Braunau's historical background tends to relate us to a terrible, incomprehensible past, even though Braunau's most notorious ex-citizen spent only two years of his life there, the first two years only. However, regardless how old Adolf was when he left, or how much of political indoctrination he has received whilst living here, to uncritical and unknowing overseas spectators, Braunau's reputation has been tainted for all times. The inhabitants of this small town do not really want to be seen in relation to this particular past. There is a strong spirit of political awareness about the past as especially this web-page shows clearly http://www.hrb.at/. This political awareness was especially obvious when a granite boulder was to be set up in front of Hitler's birthplace as a monument against Nazism, carrying the words, "Für Frieden, Freiheit und Demokratie - nie wieder Faschismus. Millionen Tote mahnen[4]. The population of Braunau was split because a great number of people rejected the project, but not as might be presumed because they opposed the monument as such or because they thought that Nazism was such great a thing but much rather out of fear that Braunau could become a pilgrimage-site for Neo-Nazis or other war-tourists from all over the world. Others saw it as a clear sign: Braunau is declaring its standpoint openly. Yet others, especially the elderly, thought the past should best be left alone and not be touched, "Let's be glad it's all over!"

PART 2 - the what, the why, the how and the who?

Part 2 is organised around several autobiographical vignettes that illustrate nodal moments and people of influence. The connective tissue between them is the interpretive comme ntary of myself in terms of how and why I think a certain story is related to my research. The interpretive commentary was based on a dialogue between Peter and I. These dialogues have been of great importance inasmuch as Peter's questions have repeatedly forced me to go back to my texts and clarify, go deeper in the analysis and it happened on several occasions that suddenly I had a very "moving" insight - you, as the reader, might not have felt it, but for me some of these insights were very significant, and I do not believe I might have engaged in this type of analysis ever, had it not been for the purpose of autobiographical analysis. At this stage I would like to introduce the reader to my research which represents a doctoral research study. Coming back to Parker Palmer's "questions", I am going to answer the first question by describing what my research is about.

The what: An evaluative research study on a teaching approach to moral education in science classrooms

My doctoral thesis research

My doctoral thesis inquires into the teaching of ethical issues in science classrooms. The research revolves around the use of dilemma stories and a teaching approach to moral education. I was closely involved in the curriculum development for this particular purpose, before moving to Australia. The research methodology turned out to be ethnographic after an initial flirtation with phenomenology and included participant-observation, in-depth interviews, focus group interviews, computer-assisted data analysis, and video analysis. I was using four dilemma stories, and collaborated with two female teachers - a biology and a physics/mathematics teacher. The "venue" was a public coeducational, senior high school in the Western suburbs of Graz, a city in the southeast of Austria. The fieldwork was organised around a month long project called "Ethics in Science". The dilemma stories were all written by me, in collaboration with the teachers in order to adjust the stories to the curriculum as taught at the time by the teachers in their classes. The focus was on the experiences of teachers and students with the dilemma teaching and culminated in an evaluation of the usefulness of dilemma stories within the context of ethics education.

Looking at my original thesis proposal which included pre-test, post-test, questionnaires etc., I find that the difference to what the thesis now looks like is striking. Most of the literature on moral education is presents research within the framework of quantitative research. Improving certain parameters of questionnaires in order to improve the measurement of students' morality levels is the most common form of research in this area. Reflecting on the deeper reasons for my decision to move away from quantitative research to qualitative research, and to choose ethnography as a research methodology, I realised that in an insightful moment I found that I did not want "to play God", I asked myself, "Who am I to judge other people's morality?" And this was what led me to ethnography. I found that I could only live up to the standards given to us by an ethics of care (Taylor, 1998), if I concentrated on the participants' experiences of the teaching approach, thereby evaluating my own work rather than their morality. In other words, I was more interested to understand what the participants had to say (tradition of "Verstehen" within postmodernist qualitative research) rather than to explain particular patters in the research data (tradition of "Erklären" in postpositivist quantitative research). In the following I introduce the genre of dilemma stories as a tool for moral education.

Dilemma stories

Dilemma stories are a genre that is characterised by ethical dilemma situations. The purpose of telling dilemma stories within moral education is to induce students to a moral dilemma situation in which choices have to be made by the characters in the story. The flow of the stories is interrupted at each dilemma situation. Students are asked to identify with the character having the dilemma, and reflect on how they would solve the problem. Then students are asked to exchange their views with colleagues. Eventually this teaching approach culminates in a whole-class discussion. The dilemma teaching approach is deeply grounded in radical and social constructivism.

In the following I present an example of a dilemma story (a summary) that I evaluated within the project. I chose this story because it has, as I found out through biographical analysis, a close relationship to my biography. The story is about research ethics, about whether there should be any restrictions to scientific research, and if yes, what they might look like. Sandra, who was not only the form teacher but also the mathematics and physics teacher of the Year 10 students, told the story freely within the context of the astrophysics curriculum. At several points throughout the story, questions relating to the moral dilemmas in the story were presented to the students and they were asked to make choices and explain these choices, first by themselves, later in form of group-work.

The rocket dilemma (A short summary)

The story is about a rocket scientist who has a life ideal: he wants to build a rocket that can fly to the moon. As the political situation in his country changes and a new regime comes into power, he is confronted with making a choice between staying on in a country where human rights violations are reportedly happening, or leaving his research behind which means, having to start anew somewhere else. At the same time, the new government offers him generous research funding - he decides to stay on and collaborates with the totalitarian regime. At some stage, he encounters serious problems in his research that can be resolved only through human experiments - the government offers him the "use" of concentration camp prisoners for this purpose. By this time, he is so driven by his goal that he overcomes any initial inhibitions and agrees to this offer. Many prisoners lose their lives. The government has engaged in a war and eventually the government forces him to change his research focus from rockets that can fly to the moon to missiles that can reach the enemy's territory. Once again he regards this "interruption" to his plans as temporary only. After the war, the researcher whose reputation has reached the leaders of the USA, is "invited" to the States to support the US space program with the knowledge he has gained during his career in his homeland. His biography is "whitewashed" to make him acceptable to the American public, his knowledge built on the lives of many victims from the concentration camps now makes him a sought after man, and he does not disappoint: The Americans are the first to reach the moon. An awe-inspiring moment, yet who thought about (or knew about) the prize that had to be paid to reach this goal?

#I - Interpretive commentary
You might have guessed whilst reading the story - the man in the story, the researcher, the torturer, was Wernher von Braun, the man I had come to idealise from the moment of the first landing on the moon. This closes the loop I started to draw in the first autobiographical vignette of this paper. Wernher von Braun might even have been one of my idols when I chose a career in science. You can imagine the shock when the truth about this man was revealed to me during my twenties. The impact of this revelation was strong enough for me to choose him as an example of bad research ethics for one of the dilemma stories I evaluated with the students. Yet, at the time when I was writing the dilemma stories, I was not aware of this connection - it became obvious to me only whilst I was writing my autobiography and I looked more closely at the reasons for which I chose to write particular stories. It also became clear to me that the reason why I am actually sitting here right at the moment, is because one day when I was a little girl I was sitting in my parents' living room in front of the television and watching the first landing of astronauts on the moon... it was then that my love for science was awakened. It is here that the sensitivities regarding research and research ethics were sharpened, due to the big disappointment I had when my idol turned out to be different from what I wanted him to be.

Whilst writing my autobiography, I found that there are different levels of depth when engaging in autobiographical research. There is, I found, always a "top-layer" of self-knowledge, a layer we have constructed and never really questioned afterwards. When one engages in critical self-reflexivity in combination with the act of writing, other issues that have been hidden from sight come to the surface, and yet others follow...

It occurs to me that there is an almost natural flow from the "what?" to the "Why?"...

The why...

On the surface

Again, there have been levels of autobiographical analysis about the issue of why. On the surface, the reason for me engaging in moral education within science teaching seems obvious: before moving to Australia, I was involved in a research project initiated by the Austrian Youth Red Cross. 1999 saw a major curriculum reform in Austria that not only introduced outcomes-based assessment to Austrian schools but also put a strong emphasis on values education. Yet, as it soon turned out, teachers were reluctant to engage in values or moral education: the primary reasons they gave were a "feeling of inadequacy" regarding the teaching of such issues, and a lack of material available for classroom use. The Austrian Youth Red Cross found that, based on the close relationship between ethics, values- and moral education and the Geneva Convention, they were supposed to help create such teaching materials, ready-to-use, suitable for all subject areas. I was involved in the development of the teaching approach, in the writing of dilemma stories, in the evaluation process, and in the writing process leading to the publication of a book that was distributed to Austrian schools.

Autobiographical Vignette - The Austrian Youth Red Cross Project: or one hundred infallible ways to make yourself unhappy (in Paul Watzlawick's sense!)

It was the task of the small research team under the guidance of Prof. Schwetz of the Pedagogical Academy in Graz to develop curriculum materials suitable for all subjects and ready-to-use. The dilemma stories were written by the members of the research team, using real-life topics (Gschweitl, Mattner-Begusch, Neumayr, & Schwetz, 1998). Yet the collaboration with the Youth Red Cross was a sobering experience: the meetings we had with representatives of the organisation were all too often frustrating, as our "employers" had a tendency to change their minds about contracts, story topics, styles, number of pages, not to mention potential payment, from meeting to meeting. This pattern culminated at a meeting at the headquarters in Vienna where we were supposed to present our work to the board of executives of the Austrian Youth Red Cross.

We felt great that day. We also felt that our stories were good - after all we had tried them out in either school classes or with groups of students, we were teaching discussion skills to. Well, suffice to say that the meeting did not turn out as great as the day started. I was told with regard to my story, for example, that there was no such thing as a "life-ideal", and that asking teachers to tell the stories freely was too much of an authoritative demand to place on the teacher. My colleagues received even harsher criticisms.

We had written the stories from our hearts. My colleagues and I left this session demoralised as we had planned an interactive dilemma-unit to not only present one of our stories, but also to give a hands-on impression of how things were going to work. As this initial attempt did not go down too well, we subsequently wrote for the Youth Red Cross publication very simple stories with no contentious issues, and were surprised that those were published without problem. This was good, on the one hand, because we did get some stories published, on the other hand, these were not the stories we cherished ...

#I - Interpretive commentary
Needless to say, I came away from this experience with a feeling of great dissatisfaction. For quite some time, I regarded with great displeasure the project, the book, and especially everything to do with dilemma stories. Yet one day, I think it must have been around the time that I seriously started to consider engaging in a doctoral thesis, my previous work regained importance. I realised that science education is a "fruitful" area of research into moral education. Of course, I wanted to include all the changes to the dilemma approach I had wanted to include during the Red Cross Project and was not "allowed" to do so.

Reflecting on ethical issues in science brought me back to the time when I was studying at the university of Salzburg in Austria for my Master's degree. I was primarily enrolled in a science degree in genetics and decided half way through my studies to change over to science education. For me, the reason to study science in the first place, was to "contribute something to create a better world." Thinking about the reasons for doing so brought to the surface two issues that I found very disturbing at the time:

Autobiographical Vignette - Prof. Czerny's rats

The girl is wearing a white coat - she is crying. She is sitting in the cafeteria of the natural sciences building at the University of Salzburg in Austria. I have known her for a while because we have done a few lab-courses together. Whilst I am yet undecided as to whether or not to become a scientist or a teacher, she has decided to go down the career path of a geneticist. She tells me sobbingly that she cannot stand the experiment she has to perform for her thesis: She must inject a thick syringe into the liver of a live rat in order to obtain a tissue sample - of ten lab rats only two have survived. When she showed great concern about this to her supervisor, he told her off angrily that she should not be a "wimp", "....if a rat dies, so what, take another one, and if that one dies as well, ,...well take another one..." and "..if you cannot handle this then you should find yourself a different profession!" She was totally beside herself and was questioning her choice of studies altogether.

#I - Interpretive commentary
This incident showed me the "ugly", the unattractive, the unethical side of scientific research. A second "nodal point" in my academic career saw me working as a research assistant in the government of Salzburg's radiation laboratory situated at the University of Salzburg. I have to mention that this was during the aftermath of the Cernobyl accident in 1986, and the lab was still concerned with measuring radiation levels of soils, food, milk etc. ...

Autobiographical Vignette - My time at the radiation lab

It was my duty to prepare food and soil samples for measurement, then to perform the measurement and to add the data to a databank. As part of my contract, I was not supposed to tell any "unauthorised" person about the outcomes of the measurements. It just so happened that, one day, I measured a sample of milk that had been drawn from a farmer whose farm is situated opposite my parents' holiday house, and this is where we often buy our fresh milk from. The measurement showed a high level of radiation, so high that that milk had to necessarily be "diluted" with less contaminated milk from other areas. Now the dilemma for me was clear - shall I comply with my work contract or shall I tell my parents that they are facing a potential health risk by consuming the "oh so healthy milk straight from the farmer's cow?" I have to admit that I decided to inform my parents, yet when I spoke with my boss about this dilemma he said that "people are not supposed to know details - they might panic!" Well I did anyway.....

#I - Interpretive commentary
After these events and with a certain degree of disillusionment about scientific research as a career, especially with the ethics of the research, I decided to contribute to a better world through teaching its children and becoming a teacher. At that time of my life, I became a member of several Non Government Organisations (NGOs), eg. Greenpeace, Global 2000, a fair-trade NGO and last but not least Amnesty International. For years to come I was a fervent letter writer and supported urgent actions in favour of prisoners who had been imprisoned because of their beliefs or political convictions. Autobiographical analysis has helped me to recognise that my vision to contribute to a better world, and all my social activities, were grounded in the work of a "mentor who influenced me deeply"....

Autobiographical Vignette - "Braunau? Isn't that the place where you know who was born?" or Can one be "made" a critical thinker? - Walter my German teacher

When I was a teenager, the source of my literary and philosophical "impulses" was my German teacher Walter. He was a German, history, and philosophy teacher. One might say, he never only teaches German or history or philosophy. He always combines all three of his subjects which results in an "exciting" mixture of: Who wrote what, and why? What were the historical circumstances of this text? What was the philosophical background at this time and of this author? He presents his subject in a way that you as a student live" through" the text.

One day, I think it was during Year 10, he told us about the "moral purpose" of his teaching (this is at least how I remember it), "As it is my duty to teach German in Hitler's birthplace - I see it as my foremost duty to educate my students towards being critical thinkers. First of all, don't believe what anyone tells you without checking first, then think about it and then speak up! Be especially wary of any so called "authorities" whoever they might be. Make up your own mind. Be yourselves, walk upright and be aware that democracy is a fragile thing carried only by those who "live it."

Bearing this background in mind, we read all sorts of literature (not only German literature of course) and over time we became very much aware of critical issues, because Walter would tirelessly show up uncritical tendencies in our essays. At that time, I thought he was too critical sometimes but I enjoyed the challenge of actually having to think before sitting down and writing an essay. I am convinced now, that the "tragic" coincidence that Hitler was born in Braunau, like most of us were, contributed considerably to make us much more aware of possible ethical and political dangers. Walter made it quite clear that being uncritical leaves your mind open for influences of any kind, which is especially dangerous for adolescents, who are just about developing their personality and belief systems. The only remedy against this is to have an opinion that you should be able to defend. I think now that Braunau, due to its past, is one of the few places in the world where you can find many (at least amongst the younger generation) people who critically reflect on both the past AND modern society!

My generation grew up facing a terrible incomprehensible past. "How could anyone do such things?" For us, this meant that we lived together with people who had been alive at the time of World War II, who had some kind of relationship to us (family members, neighbours, etc.) and who had played some sort of a role during this specific time. People who, like me, were born in this beautiful little Gothic town will always have to struggle more than other people with the legacy of the past. "Braunau? Isn't that the place where you know who was born?" Yes sure, but I was born there too just like several thousand other people. But, I suppose I would not have become who I am if I had been born and grown up somewhere else. I am still very grateful for the gift of Walter' s teaching.

The How....

Whilst I was reading literature on dilemma stories and moral education, somebody asked me, "Why dilemmas? What makes you think they work?". I pondered this question for quite a while, and suddenly I realised that there had been an incident in my past during my active time as a teacher that had made me sensitive to the use of dilemmas in teaching.

Autobiographical Vignette - How I came to teach dilemmas...

I got my first impression of the potential usefulness of dilemma stories while I was team-teaching ecology (a subject that tries to integrate geography and biology) together with my colleague Gerhard in a year 7 class. He and I had planned to address issues of mass tourism in alpine regions from a biological as well as from an economic perspective. Yet, the class turned out very differently to what we had planned, primarily through the unexpected initiative of my colleague. Whilst I was teaching from a biological point of view, he suddenly interrupted me, and starting to bring in an economic perspective in a quite contestatory manner. It took me a while to discover that he was doing this on purpose and I engaged in the dialogue that unfolded as an unplanned dilemma approach. Yet it worked out fabulously well: the students started to join into the discussion, they took sides, some became very serious in their attempts to convince "the other side"...

#I - Interpretive commentary
After the lesson, Gerhard and I were exhausted because this unplanned staging of a role-play had used up a lot of energy, but we agreed that this was a wonderful way to introduce students to two different perspectives on the same phenomenon, without necessarily privileging one. I realised how useful a teaching approach using dilemmas might be to illustrate ambiguous, potentially contentious issues. At a deeper level of analysis, it became clear why using dilemmas seems so natural to me. It lies in the fact that I took part in an adult educator course which deeply influenced my teaching style, my pedagogy, and my attitude toward learners ...

Autobiographical Vignette - Adult educator course

Being a teacher in Austria does not necessarily mean that you end up with a job - the truth is that there is a high unemployment rate amongst teachers, particularly amongst science teachers. My contract at the Gymnasium Klusemannstrasse ran out and I had to find other opportunities to make myself useful. One of these opportunities was a yearlong course in adult education that turned me into a communication facilitator and prepared me for the task to not only facilitate learning in large groups of people, but also to teach basics, such as presentation skills, discussion skills,. to adults as well as to students. In addition to this course, which actually taught me how to teach well, I gained new insights into areas such as NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), speech and voice training, meditation and other interesting topics. Adults are very different to teach - they stand up for themselves and demand respect. Dilemma-stories are widely used in communication courses in order to improve collaboration between participants, to exchange of ideas, and last but not least to induce self-reflective practice. In the years following this training course, I worked as an independent communication and education consultant in Graz in Austria.

#I - Interpretive commentary
I understand now that the teaching of large groups, in particular, led to a teaching style very much in accordance with constructivist principles. "Lecturing" was to be kept to a minimum, student activities had to include phases of working by themselves as well as exchange of opinions: learning from each other was emphasised. I also know now that the teaching used in the adult education pedagogy I was introduced to during this course was based on radical and social constructivism, though the terms were never mentioned as such. All of this played an important role when, during my doctoral research, I had to choose a methodology for the research. Constructivism as a theoretical framework seemed "natural" to me - after all I had been using "constructivist teaching approaches" unknowingly in my teaching for years. Two other aspects that have strongly influenced the "how" of the research lie in the fact that first I used to teach at the school where I completed my fieldwork, and, second I am the mother of a former student at that school. Given these experiences, it was very easy for me to gain access to the school, as well as to understand the structure, organisation and curriculum of the school. These aspects lead over to the next question, asking who is the person doing the research.

The Who...

On the surface, when I asked myself the question, "Who is the researcher doing the research?", I might have responded: I am a white, middle-class, Catholic, Middle-European, female researcher with South-Eastern-European (Austrian, Croatian, Czech, Hungarian) family heritage, with German as a mother tongue and several other languages, such as Croatian floating around the household, with a Catholic father and a Protestant mother, and in recent years with a growing interest in spirituality, human consciousness development, Integral Philosophy, and yoga. But of course, this covers only a small proportion of who I really am, after all I am the mother of four, and partner of....and the colleague of...and a friend of...and much more.

I might add that I am a science teacher and an adult educator with the vision - the vision to contribute to a better world. My vision, which is grounded in my past, and my past itself, have driven me to take on research into ethical dilemmas. The vision itself has changed over time: I want to support students in their quest to become critical self-determined citizens and consumers. Mentors, certain turning points along the way, have contributed in the shaping of this path. The following text has been drawn from my journal and forms a piece of phenomenological writing in van Manen's tradition (van Manen, 1990). The phenomenon in question is "Being in a dilemma situation." I think this text is best situated at the end of the autobiographical Part 2 of the paper.

Dilemmas experienced first hand

Since I started this dissertation-project, my life has been subject to many ethical dilemmas, some of which were very difficult to resolve. It has been as though Neale Donald Welsh's words, "You teach what you have to learn!" had to come true in my own life. On the 21st of August 2000, after having gone through a major personal crisis which had been the result of a family break-up, I took some time out to reflect on my life and I asked myself, "What does it actually mean to me, Lily, to be in a dilemma situation?"

Autobiographical Vignette - From my diary: 21st of August 2000?
Being in a dilemma situation

Helplessness - first emotion that comes up when I think about the dilemmas I have been in. I feel cornered, with no escape. I feel challenged to the extreme and under enormous pressure. I know that I have to make a decision but there is also the fear that I might make a wrong decision. I am trying to find guidelines on "How have I decided in similar situations before in my life?". I revisit my own values, which have their roots mainly in my childhood and adolescence upbringing, reassess those values, often only to find out that they have either lost their meaning for me, or that they are unsuitable for the current situation because there simply has not been a similar situation like this before. It is very scary to make this decision with no "real" guidelines. Sometimes I can find public, commonly shared values and guidelines, but they do not "feel good" or "feel right" for me. Then there is also some degree of anger as to "Why do I have to make this decision at all?", and an unwillingness to engage in a decision-making process. I find that time is an important factor - "How much time do I have of making this decision?" - The less time the greater the pressure. The dilemma situation is enhanced if the decision involves other people, especially those close to me, like my children or my partner. Trying to describe what I feel in my body, I experience a tight feeling around my heart and my throat, as if being suffocated by the necessity to make a decision. My thoughts are racing, many possibilities come up, disappear, reappear, thoughts going in circles. I feel restless. Insomnia, with all its related problems, is a common feature for me during times like this. I have repeatedly revisited similar situations in my memory, checked all possibilities and values, yet there is still the fear that I might have overlooked another possibility which would allow me to decide more easily...

Writing this text helped me with the interpretation of students interview-comments regarding the dilemma situation itself, especially with descriptions about how the students felt...

What have I learned from writing an autobiography?- Implications

For me as a researcher, writing an autobiography has yielded many valuable insights into how past and present are interrelated. Reflexivity, fostered through the process of writing, has led to transformative learning through reconsidering my own value and belief systems: an enhanced awareness or sensitivity towards ethical dilemmas is firmly grounded in the biography of the researcher. I believe that much of what I have learned can be grounded in the Theory of Transformative Learning (Mezirow, 1991). Mezirow explains that, through critical self-examination and assessment of assumptions, we can change our perspectives of how we see ourselves and our environment. With regard to research, this has led to a much clearer understanding of where my sensitivities towards ethical dilemmas come from and how they have affected and continue to affect my research.

For the reader, provided the stories are written well, there can be opportunities for identification with the researcher and for self-reflection and transformative learning in order to enhance awareness of personal-practical knowledge and for developing further as science teacher(s) and science teacher educator(s).


  1. The core of postmodernism is the doubt that any method or theory, discourse or genre, has a universal and general claim as the "right" or privileged form of authoritative knowledge. Postmodernism suspects all truth claims of serving particular interests (Richardson, 2000). Relativism is the characteristic philosophical stance. Quality criteria are trustworthiness and authenticity (Lincoln & Guba, 2000).

  2. Postpositivism is characterised by critical realism, and a modified dualist/objectivist attitude. External and internal validity, reliability, and objectivity suggest that findings are probably true (Lincoln & Guba, 2000).

  3. Integral Philosophy offers a potential postpostmodernist stance by promoting an integral vision (Neumayr & Taylor, 2001; Settelmaier & Taylor, 2001; Wilber, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000). Integral vision is a dialectical world view that recognises:

  4. (German) For peace, freedom, and democracy. Fascism never again! Millions of victims remind us!


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Author: Elisabeth Settelmaier
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Perth, Western Australia
Email: E.Settelmaier@curtin.edu.au

Please cite as: Settelmaier, E. (2003). Mapping an interpretive researcher's sensitivities toward her subject(s): A critical autobiography. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2003. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2003/settelmaier.html

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