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Lawrence, Ann M. Teacher-Educator Identity Work in Doctoral Programs. RTE, Nov. 2017. Posted 01/04/2017.

Lawrence, Ann M. ‘(Dis)identifying as Writers, Scholars, and Researchers: Former Schoolteachers’ Professional Identity Work during Their Teaching-Education Doctoral Studies.” Research in the Teaching of English 52.2 (2017): 181-210. Print.

Ann M. Lawrence reports a longitudinal study of the ways in which teacher-education doctoral students specializing in language, literacy, and/or literature education at a Midwestern research university constructed identities as writers, scholars, and researchers. Lawrence’s fieldwork over 16 consecutive semesters (185) gathered data from doctoral students who were previously PreK-12 schoolteachers (189) working toward professional positions as “university-based teacher educators” (182; emphasis original). Lawrence’s research suggested that these students were reluctant to accept the identities of writer, scholar, or researcher for themselves.

Lawrence investigated the process of identity formation in two contexts, the doctoral program itself and extracurricular writing groups. Her data consisted of narratives on the semester evaluation forms for the writing groups, which she facilitated as “writing coach” (195). She focused particularly on “quick-write[s],” which she defines as “10 minutes of continuous, stream-of-consciousness writing” in response to the terms “writer,” “scholar,” and “researcher” and the question, “What criteria are you using to evaluate your writing/research?” (190). The prompts were designed to avoid “assuming connections between participation [as writers, scholars, and researchers] and identification” (190). Follow-up interviews and conversations also supplied data.

An important concept to Lawrence’s theoretical design was that of “figured worlds,” a term drawn from the identity-formation work of D. Holland, W. Lachicotte, D. Skinner, and C. Cain (183-84). In such worlds, participants identify “figuratively in terms of “available cultural associations with the personas” involved in that world, as well as “idealized versions of those characters and familiar plots of their activities” (183; emphasis original). For example, “academia” is a figured world; Lawrence casts the doctoral program and the writing-group environment as “localized figured worlds” in which

particular characters and actors [were] recognized, significance [was] assigned to certain acts, and particular outcomes [were] valued over others. (Holland et al., qtd. in Lawrence 184; emendations in Lawrence)

Both Holland et al. and Lawrence integrate this concept with Bakhtin’s theory that “authoritative discourses” can become “internally persuasive” as people develop identities voa the discourses, which direct activities and perceptions within figured worlds (Bakhtin, qtd. in Lawrence 184).

Lawrence notes that in both the doctoral program and the writing groups, participants produced academic research writing, in many cases successfully submitting to conferences, journals, and books—even “compet[ing]” with faculty mentors (189). She reports that in the doctoral-program figured world, the participants were cast as students under the directorship of an authoritative faculty supervisor. In contrast, in the voluntary writing groups, which met both face-to-face and online, participants were considered colleagues and collaborators (184, 187).

Comprehensive tables track the shifting identifications of the participants across semesters as they worked on a variety of scholarly and professional products. Lawrence’s analysis of the quick-writes of the 10 woman and single man in the study revealed “a genre of (dis)identification narrative recounted by the women” but not by the man (194).

The narrative, Lawrence writes, developed through three “plot points” (195). The women recognized the “figural” personas associated with the terms writer, scholar, and researcher: “literary authors, discerning individuals, and meticulous investigators” (196). In the second plot move, the women distanced themselves from such figures, whom they saw as hierarchical and elite, characterized by “exclusiveness” and, in the depiction of one student, “superiority” (197). Finally, the women “revised their initial images of writers, scholars, and researchers to evoke more of their own values, practices, and goals,” creating

a revised figurative identity that did not require publication, privileged the self as audience, and promoted the aesthetic experience of “spontaneous” composing, rather than adherence to genre “conventions.” (quotations from study participant in Lawrence 197)

In Lawrence’s view, with these moves, the women recognized “figurative identities” affiliated with the figured world of academia but refused “positional” identifications that would have required them to accept the relations of power, authority, and privilege associated with their perceptions of these figures (196). The women opted to recreate the figures into “amalgams” with limited expertise and authority that they were then willing to claim (197).

In contrast, the male participant aligned himself with the conventional academic identities, displaying little of the conflict evident in the women’s narratives (200-01). However, he subsequently revealed to Lawrence that his portrayal of himself concealed responses similar to those of the women that he had felt “inhibited from sharing” because of “sociocultural norms” dictating masculine expressions of weakness or doubt (202).

Lawrence indicates that the voluntary writing groups introduced many of the skills necessary to successful academic research and publication, but that the study participants struggled to accept the role of authoritative colleague that these groups offered, opting more often for the role of “student’ encouraged by the doctoral figured world (202-03), thus, in Bakhtin’s terms, finding the “schoolishness” (A. E. Whitney, qtd. in Lawrence 206) of the program’s “authoritative discourses” more “internally persuasive” (203). For Lawrence, these choices may be related to an “imposter syndrome” derived from the widespread lack of authority granted to schoolteachers and even to teacher-researchers in general, especially to the women who most often occupy these roles (204-05).

Lawrence stresses the importance of teacher-education programs that encourage developing faculty to recognize and act on their authority as researchers and colleagues. She notes that in later correspondence, her participants reported that their tendency to avoid these roles affected their ability to earn promotions and assert their expertise in their later careers (204-05).

In her discussion, Lawrence explores how the figured worlds of the writing groups and the more formal doctoral program might work together more effectively to encourage professional identity formation among students like her participants. Because the groups, as voluntary and extracurricular activities, did not command the “institutional authority” of the program itself, their influence on identities may have been undercut (206).

Lawrence suggests that program faculty might become more proactive as participant-facilitators in these groups by acting as colleagues rather than supervisors and sharing their own experiences as writers and researchers (207). Although faculty might fear “potential risks to faculty authority” (207), Lawrence argues that such roles can lead faculty to explore their own roles as educators and allow group members, including faculty, to analyze their trajectories through different identities, including that of “schoolteacher,” which Lawrence sees as an important springboard for the study of writing education (182). Such interaction, Lawrence contends, can make the doctoral program itself more conducive to collegial interaction (206-07). Lawrence urges more research into the development of faculty identity with attention to gender and to the productive intersection of possible figured worlds (205-06).