top of page


From Research to Me-Search

By Jeff Frank

If we want to understand the current political landscape of college campuses, I suggest we look at a trend in doctoral training that took off around fifteen years ago and that hasn’t received enough attention: the rise of autoethnography. Autoethnography is a research method where the scholar studies their experience of the world. The doctoral student is the researcher and object of the research. In social science fields, especially, autoethnography is growing in popularity (at the time of writing, an introduction to this method has over 8,000 citations in Google Scholar). This means that a growing number of new professors will enter the classroom having spent the last five years of their lives studying their experience. Their intellectual training will have taught them to be reflective about how they experience the world and how their personal experience connects to larger issues in their discipline.

This worldview has the consequence of narrowing the academic’s focus to their own experience. What often ends up happening is that the political projects that the academic cares most about are found everywhere in their everyday life and hence in their research. Because the academic lives and works on a college campus, the college campus becomes the source of the scholar’s research and often the site of the academic’s political activism. This has led a rapid increase of studies of higher education, and this has the negative impact of overly politicizing the classroom and the college campus as each autoethnographer seeks to unmask or uncover new aspects of campus life that have yet to be scrutinized by the autoethnographic gaze.

Stepping back, I don’t want to discount the importance of focusing on one’s experiences a social and educational world, especially if one’s perspective is ignored, silenced, or dismissed. A healthy marketplace of ideas depends on a range of perspectives. Too often, the anticipation of social penalties for speech leads to self-censorship. Disciplined self-reflection, however, will often give one the courage to speak. This is a good thing. Academic communities and wider public often benefit from hearing silenced or underrepresented perspectives.

At the same time, as more academics focus their research on their identities , the academia virtue of impartiality is eroded. Scholarship becomes a world of political combat and free inquiry is undermined. When we center the self as the focus of research, disagreements—almost by necessity—become personal, and are thus more apt to become intractable. When there are no accepted external standpoints from which to adjudicate conflict, however, we enter the realm of politics, often without appreciating how this can undermine the enterprise of higher education.

To understand this, it is important to remember how high stakes an academic career feels. If someone engages with my scholarship in the philosophy of education in a critical way, it is often a good thing for my career. It means my work matters. It gives me an opportunity to defend or revise my position. By contrast, if someone criticizes the results of my autoethnographic work, I may feel attacked. It may appear that my experiences of the world—my very self—is being criticized. Suddenly, scholarship becomes about self-defense. If I’ve done the work of studying and then articulating my experience of the world, and you don’t believe that it is as impartial or significant as I take it to be, where does this leave us? If I’ve earned my doctorate by writing about my experience of the world, who is anyone else to argue against my findings? In undermining my position, you undermine my very standing in a community of inquiry.

This move toward self-defense and against the possibility of impartiality has far-reaching implications that haven’t been explored but can help explain important aspects of campus life. For one, I think it affects the student experience. This could be nostalgia, but I remember my college professors encouraging me to critically examine everything, especially the positions that they were most excited about or committed to. I think I would feel very uncomfortable critically examining an autoethnography, especially if my professor, or one of their friends, wrote it. By centering on the author, we lose an opportunity to create some distance, and this can very easily lead to self-censorship and related claims of harm. This tends to confuse and complicate principled arguments about academic freedom and free inquiry on campus. If the standards of a scholar’s discipline are grounded in autoethnographic and related methods, then it is often hard to avoid faculty, or students who identify with the autoethnographies read and discussed in class, feeling a sense of harm when these autoethnographies are critically discussed. This undermines the very possibility of free inquiry and chills discourse.

Second, I think the rise of autoethnographic methods also explains—in part—why so many students and faculty expect—if not demand—that college administrations craft statements in support of, or against, various causes. For a scholar who sees the world through the lens of their experience of the world, they assume that this is how others do—or should—approach the world. When a college leader supports institutional neutrality or institutional restraint, they are seen as evading their responsibility to engage with the world. Rather than appreciating that a college leader has a responsibility for promoting free inquiry—for all members of the academic community—scholars trained in autoethnography, or sympathetic to it, often fail to appreciate, if not actively denigrate, scholarly approaches that aspire to impartiality. Though education is shot through with politics and partiality, this doesn’t mean it is foolish or wrongheaded to aspire to impartiality and it doesn’t mean that a stance of institutional neutrality or restraint demonstrates a lack of care for students or faculty who feel very strongly about a cause. In fact, advocates of institutional neutrality or restraint argue that this principled stance is the very thing that guarantees freedoms we all appreciate and benefit from as members of an academic community.

Third, and closely related to demands for institutional statements, when someone sees their life in higher education as grounds for their research, they often also see higher education as the logical space for their political activism. While I can understand faculty and students wanting to protest policies and proposals that directly affect life on their campus, I often have a harder time understanding why a college campus is the best, or even a very appropriate, place to protest national and world affairs. College campuses are already spaces where students are exposed to, and engage with, a range of national and international issues. I worry that the autoethnographic lens has shrunk the world to the college campus, rather than empowering students to impact the world by working to change local, state, and national policies. Students who are concerned about how we are—or are not—funding conflicts and wars across the globe must actively learn about these issues on college campuses (and can protest, if need be, when this learning is made impossible or stifled), but the best way to impact these conflicts may not be through college protest or demanding statements from their colleges. It is convenient to protest where one lives and in a community of people who are tasked with focusing on your safety and wellbeing. But I also think the narrow focus on the campus as the site of politics is ultimately counterproductive. As mentioned above, when a college’s policies are in question, it makes sense to apply pressure to the people who have the power to change those policies. Disrupting the learning environment, without any hope of meaningful influence, strikes me as ill-conceived.

            As an alternative to the over personalization and politicization of the college campus, I suggest we think critically about ideals of impartiality. To be very clear, the autoethnographic method can usefully help the scholar gain a more objective or at least a more reflective perspective on their experience. When one is in an steadying friendship grounded in truthfulness, for example, one often comes to see aspects of oneself that one actively represses or downplays. Autoethnography, in a similar fashion, can help us get a more accurate and compelling understanding of who we are and how we relate to the world. The trouble occurs when this perspective runs up against perspectives that challenge or contradict this perspective, no matter how true we take this perspective to be. If our main methodologically footing is a reflection on our own experience, what happens when we try to engage someone who has spent the last several years centered in their own experience?

My concern, and I think we see this playing out in campus conflicts, is that we turn to politics and not the ideal of impartiality to seek a way forward. Put crudely, rather than seeking critical distance—attempting to assume the role of an impartial spectator—we dive deeper into our position, assuming the worst of someone who disagrees with our position while seeking reasons for why our position deserves the power to silence dissent. Though any methodological approach runs the risks of prematurely silencing or ignoring perspectives that would lead to a more truthful and ethical vision of the world, I think autoethnographic approaches put us most at risk of politicizing inquiry in ways that make impartiality impossible and unproductive forms of conflict virtually inevitable.

At times, sowing distrust of impartiality seems to be the very point of this methodology. Creatures like us very rarely achieve anything like impartiality, and the autoethnographer finds a certain type of virtue in admitting this fact. Rather than aspiring to impartiality, they “own” their positionality. But just because we begin with an acknowledgement of our partiality doesn’t mean this is where we are bound to end. Here we can learn from where sentimentalist thinkers like David Hume and especially Adam Smith, who teach that we humans are very much products of our upbringing and personal attachments. We are emotionally affected by the people around us, and this makes us tremendously partial. But just because we humans are partial, it doesn’t mean that we cannot aspire to the perspective of the impartial spectator.

In part six of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith draws a useful distinction between selfishness, social standing, and the impartial spectator. When we gain a wider familiarity with the world, we begin to judge our inclinations in the light of social approbation and social sanction. This gives us an opportunity to think about how we want to act. Though we may feel a strong inclination to act in a way that slights or cheats others, we often see that we have a stronger reason to want to gain the social standing that comes when we refrain from these kinds of actions. While this form of self-reflection is positive in many ways—allowing us to trade our selfish impulses for an ethical worldview—it also brings with it the risks of mere conformity. We begin treating social standing as an end, making the maintenance of our positive social standing the whole of ethical reflection.

Here the standpoint of the impartial spectator becomes important. Smith asserts, correctly in my mind, that there will be times when we need to risk our social standing to do what is right. We need to gain distance from the praise and shame of our immediate peers, looking for a broader and more impartial perspective. This is where the impartial spectator ideal comes in. Just as our social group helps us think beyond our merely selfish impulses, the standpoint of the impartial spectator allows us to think beyond the influence of our immediate social group. From the standpoint of the impartial spectator, we gain clarity and new standards of conduct to aspire to.

As Smith makes very clear in part six of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, it is too easy to rest content in the thought that we are better than most of our peers. Just because we may have a higher ethical or moral standing in our immediate social world, this doesn’t mean that we can rest content in our virtue. In fact, when we are most content, we may be most at risk of sliding into mere conformity with views that have social standing but that lack ethical truth or value.

To ground this discussion and bring it back to college campuses, I turn to Emily Chamlee-Wright’s excellent paper “Self-Censorship and Associational Life in the Liberal Academy.” Chamlee-Wright defends the importance of “abrasion” in promoting free inquiry. If we are too complacent in our thinking, we need some abrasion to keep us actively pursuing truth and maintaining self-command. This is why reading autoethnographic work can be of value. It is too easy to act in ignorance of the lived experiences of others. By learning about the experiences of people who are differently positioned in and by the social world we inhabit, we are given opportunities to become more reflective. By expanding our spheres of interaction, by expanding the marketplace of ideas we are trading in, we both feel the discomforts of abrasion and appreciate the importance of aspiring to impartiality. This is why self-command is such an important virtue for Smith. Someone who self-censors may be doing so out of concern for the feelings of others, but they may be self-censoring because they aren’t interested in doing the hard work of engaging others. By contrast, someone who engages abrasive viewpoints with an interest in self-command is working on developing an ability to discern—as impartially as possible—what they should believe and how they should act. By widening the marketplace of ideas they trade in, they can no longer rely on the social standards of their current social group, and so they must learn to develop new standards. This is why the perspective of the impartial spectator is so valuable. It allows us possibilities of continuous moral and ethical development.

Anything that causes us to lose faith or interest in the possibilities of this kind of development is unfortunate, and I think the self-centering of academia often leads to lack of faith in the project of ethical and moral development. Colleges and universities must do more to teach the importance of seeking the viewpoint of the impartial spectator. Right now, we are rushing headlong into intractable personal conflicts that can sometimes lead to violent and disruptive action. We need more opportunities to face conflict squarely, learning how to take the perspective of the impartial spectator.

Rather than centering ourselves and looking to win at all costs, we need to take more time understanding what is at stake, and what gets lost when we filter the world through the lenses of personal experience and the politicization of higher education. The personal and the political are useful lenses, but they are limited (like all lenses), and they don’t circumscribe the whole of reflective inquiry. To achieve a broader view, we need to gain some distance and invite the abrasion that comes through an ever-expanding marketplace of ideas.

Doing this, we will be presented with several options, all better than violence and the forced silencing of dissenting opinion. First, when we take the viewpoint of the impartial spectator, we can come to see that one position is better than another, and this should give us the courage to change our view if we find we are in the wrong. Second, we may come to see that one or more positions are equally valid, and if these views come into conflict, we will work to develop fair and impartial procedures for managing that conflict without silencing or sanctioning either side. Third, and most interesting to me, the vantage of the impartial spectator may allow us to develop what we might call possibilities for moral, ethical, and political innovation. Rather than there being a winner and a loser (or the need for conflict management between two equally correct sides), the standpoint of the impartial spectator might suggest a new way of thinking that can gain adherents and move us from division and to new perspectives and possibilities.

Young people need to see beyond their limited personal experience. One of the greatest gifts an education can bestow is the self-command needed to move from a partial and knowing position and to a broader and more impartial one. As risks of self-censorship and political violence rise for college campuses and the broader social world, colleges need to be spaces that rearticulate the possibilities of the impartial spectator as an avenue toward personal growth and social good. Colleges and universities can be a space apart from our overly heated, overly partisan, and very often overly irrational political lives. They can be places where students experience the freedom of looking critically at their most deeply held beliefs and the deeply held beliefs of others, not so that they end in a space of criticism and partisanship, but so that they experience possibilities of moral and ethical growth and development.

Without trust in the standpoint of the impartial spectator, these possibilities are often foreclosed, leaving us centered in our narrow and partial self-concerns and distrustful of new perspectives. When we treat impartiality as an impossibility, then we can act in irrational and sometimes violent ways. It is of the utmost importance that we reclaim Smith’s ideal spectator ideal. Doing so would have immediate and very positive impacts on the life of colleges and universities, allowing them to be the beacons of freedom they are meant to be. 

Jeff Frank is a Professor of Education and the Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Assessment.


bottom of page