Writing Inward: The Transformative Power of Critical Self-Reflection

My recently published academic book chapter titled “Critical Ethnography and Dialogic Reflection in Student-Led Language Research” discusses critical approaches and self-reflection in language studies (see References below). I also presented a report about the study featured in the chapter at the 19th World Congress of Applied Linguistics (AILA 2021) as “North-South Dialogues: Critical Ethnography of Brazilian EFL Education.”

While the book itself (see left) is in the field of sociolinguistics, the concepts of contemplative writing and dialogism are relevant to many other areas. In this post, I am summarizing and re-interpreting some of the study findings from my book chapter to explain critical self-reflection in a broader context.

Background

In 2017, teaching an Introduction to Linguistics course at Los Angeles City College, I assigned my students a special term project: based on the data they would collect from live interviews as well as theories studied in the course, they were expected to describe and explain language use and attitudes of university students enrolled in an upper-level English course at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT) in Cuiabá, Brazil.

The secondary goal of the project was to ‘turn the lamp inwards’, so to speak, and engage the students in the critical evaluation of what they learned about themselves from participating in the project.

Because my class had a lot more students than those in the English course in Brazil, I split my students into groups of 2-3 to interview a single Brazilian student live via FaceTime, Whatsapp, and other social media tools. In the end, we had 7 working research groups.

I had previously adjusted the content of the course to make it more relevant to the project, for example, a lecture on historical linguistics would focus on the historical development of Portuguese; regional dialectology would would use Portuguese dialects, including Brazilian Portuguese, as case studies; a special lecture was added on the university education system in Brazil, and the Mato Grosso region, and so on.

Leaving aside the first part of the project, which was to conduct the interviews and produce group research papers and class presentations, I’d like to focus on its final step, in which my students wrote free-structured essays evaluating their experiences. I provided them with the following questionnaire to stimulate their self-reflection.

  • What have you gained from participation in this project, for example, setting up and conducting the interviews, writing the research paper, and/or the PowerPoint presentation? Was it a new experience?
  • Can you relate your interviewee’s language learning experience to your own?
  • What have you learned about your own research skills, language learning, and language use?
  • What difficulties did you meet along the way?
  • Did the project highlight any areas you need to improve in?
  • What have you learned from being a part of a research team?
  • Where can you apply the knowledge gained from this project?

The resulting individual essays were surprisingly diverse, even in the same group. In other words, 2-3 students in the same group would see the same interviewee differently, and learn completely different lessons from the experience. Why? What happens when one contemplates an experience?

Meaning perspectives

Educational psychology emphasizes that to learn something, we have to make meaning of it. But it doesn’t occur in a vacuum: “the way learners interpret and reinterpret their sense experience is central to making meaning and hence learning” (Jack Mezirow, 1991).

These meaning perspectives are central to Mezirow’s transformative learning theory. A person’s beliefs, cultural influences, discourses, feelings, ideas, and judgments shape the interpretation of an experience, and are embedded in beliefs and behaviors. From the psychological standpoint, the individual interprets new information based on his/her stages of moral, ethical, and ego development, as well as capacity for reflective judgement (Mezirow 1990: 2). Applying meaning perspective prospective analysis to language studies, for instance, can reveal, behaviorist, cultural relativist, Freudian, Marxist, positivist, or others biases influencing how the studies are conducted, how the conclusions are interpreted, but also how one is transformed through engagement in research experience.

Symbolic interaction in communication

Another critical framework useful to analyze reflection and self-reflection is dialogism, a theory put forward by the Russian linguist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin. Dialogism argues that the speaker is not an isolated entity participating in communication with other isolated entities, but an active representative of a culture, who produces speech in relation to and tension with other speakers. In other words, speech only exists in addressivity, that is when addressed to someone else (Bakhtin via Holquist 1990: 48).

To study communication and thought process, one needs to study both the speaker (or writer), the addressee of his or her speech, and the relationship between the two. Even when the addressee does not speak, he or she continues to actively participate in the co-construction of meaning. The presence of the addressee thus is critical to the production of speech and, in a broader sense, to the production of language. More often than not, the speaker is engaged in dialogic relationships with multiple addressees, as for example, when participating in a conversation with several people or writing the same piece for multiple audiences.

Just like Mezirow several decades later, Bakhtin was interested in how the speaker makes meaning within a culture, and acts based on those meanings. Meaning of speech, writing, and language at large – and here Bakhtin connects to critical sociolinguists like Jan Blommaert and Dell Hymes – possesses an inherent social value, that is it arises from within the individual, and in shared social experience through the medium of the sign, and “understanding comes about as a response to sign with signs” (49).

The transformative power of critical reflection

Meaning perspectives develop through reflection. Mezirow explains that “reflection involves a critique of assumptions to determine whether the belief, often acquired through cultural assimilation in childhood, remains functional for us as adults” (Mezirow, 1991). Through reflection, we are able to understand ourselves better.

Various forms of language expression, including speech and writing, allow the researchers to learn communicatively about and from their subjects. Mezirow suggests that in this process, the researcher focuses less on testing hypotheses, and more on “searching, often intuitively, for themes and metaphors by which to fit the unfamiliar into a meaning perspective” (3). Critical reflection evaluates the new information, but also re-examines it vis-à-vis existing ideas, judgements, and biases.

Learning, therefore, has the potential to change the way we engage with the world. It can become a transformative experience for the adult, making his or her frames of reference more inclusive, discriminating, open, and reflective. What mediates this re-assessment of beliefs, feelings, and values is internal dialogue, similar to Bakhtin, in which the learner/researchers/writer draws on the information received from the speaker to make meaning of both the speaker and oneself.

Case Study: Carlos and Christopher (US) vs. Celso (Brazil) | Multiple dialogues, different meaning perspectives

Due to the publishing limitations, I could only profile 2 out of 7 research groups in my book chapter as case studies to illustrate the process of reflexive and self-reflexive critical inquiry in research writing. I am sharing one of them below.

Self-reflexive essays provided my students with a critical space to engage in multiple dialogic relationships, such as:

  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. the respondent: a Brazilian peer learning English
  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. his/her peers in the U.S. research group
  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. the professor
  • U.S. student ethnographer vs. his/her own prior experience

All these strands are present in Christopher’s essay. Early on, Christopher identifies the problems collaborating with his group project partner: “Carlos was extremely sweet and easy to work with, and he pulled his weight in terms of time and effort. However, the task of combining and communicating two people’s completely different thoughts, ideas, voices, vocabularies [was] very difficult. . . I felt I had a more firm understanding of the concepts in class and how to apply them to the prompt than my partner, as well as a more developed writing style. . . I struggled to find a possibility to enmesh both our voices and our knowledge in a way that did not seem inconsistent and scattered. . . I definitely learned that I can be more involved in a group or partner effort at every stage.”

Christopher’s conclusion exemplifies the transformative nature of his research experience. By reflecting on his group interaction, Christopher exhibits Mezirow’s final stage of reflective judgment – a perspective about his own perspective, and it is not surprising that Christopher’s critical experience takes place in an educational setting because “age and education are major factors in critical judgment. College graduates consistently earn higher scores on tests of reflective judgment” (Mezirow 2003: 61).

Sometimes, dialogic strands merge, as in another passage where Christopher, is speaking both to himself and, likely, to me, his professor, the only other reader of his paper: “This project brought a personal connection to the subjects and concepts that are central to the study of linguistics. . . Conversely, the lessons learned in class added an abundance of interest and understanding – not only to the research project, but also to the self-reflexive discussions about the English language and linguistics that I had with Celso.”

Carlos and Christopher had anticipated Celso’s difficulties in speaking English as they are “common in L2 learning at his age, at which it becomes virtually impossible to eventually sound like a native speaker” (Christopher A. and Carlos S., 2017). Thus, it was the fluent aspects of Celso’s English writing, which contrasted the phonological and lexical challenges in his speech, that surprised them.

Both US students were further impressed with Celso’s confidence and lack of embarrassment in speaking English with them. To Christopher, in particular, “the most fulfilling part of the project was the inspiration I gained from Celso. He was so fearless to speak to native speakers in a language he was not totally secure in, and so resolved in his goals at such a young age. To enhance and validate my own academic experience by engaging with an inspiring stranger about his academic experience . . . was an incredible, rare opportunity” (Christopher A., 2017). Here we also witness transformative discoveries, but of a different kind. Speaking with Celso makes Christopher re-evaluate his stereotyped attitudes about non-native language abilities (Celso’s pre-supposed second language proficiency) and non-native speaker behavior (Celso’s surprising comfort with using his imperfect command of English), but also consider his own academic experience

The only dialogic strand in which Carlos’s reflections on this project echo Christopher’s is his recognition of the value of the class and the project itself, which is the one addressed to the professor. The lessons learned, however, are vastly different.

Carlos’s essay is permeated by acute awareness of the class and economic aspects of language learning. Writing about “the challenges and difficulties foreign students face while learning a new language,” English in Celso’s case, French in Carlos’s, Carlos wonders if countries that are not “first world countries such as our United States” offer the same quality of language education because “the amount of resources in a foreign country is much less. . . Identifying these challenges . . . felt like an experience in real life to me” (Carlos S.). It is important to Carlos because contrasting Celso’s experience with his own, he notes that “the differences and challenges I have faced compared to my interviewee, [. . . ] have been overwhelming at times. For instance, I have had a few financial problems in order to pay for school in consecutive semesters,”

What complicates the situation further is that Celso, an anticipated representative of a developing country, is not what Carlos had expected.

For many years, the higher education system in Brazil has been the training ground for the country’s white, upper-class elite. To gain access to highly selective public universities, like UFMT (on the left), applicants have to pass rigorous entrance exams called vestibular, to prepare for which, they, in most cases, have to have graduated from a private college prep school (Stanek 2013, 4).

It hardly came as a surprise that in a random federal university English class, which provided the setting for this study, there were 5 white students and only 2 students of Afro-Brazilian descent.

Celso, as Carlos and Chris report in their research paper, is an example of how the system works. According to the information they collected, Celso, a white student, comes from a family of college graduates, who guide and support him in his higher education. Prior to admission to UFMT, he “received great schooling, relative to the rest of Brazil” (Christopher A. and Carlos S.).

Carlos, in contrast, represents the Los Angeles City College student. LACC is an urban community college, with a student body that is 68% African American, Hispanic, or ‘multi-ethnic’ (LACC Institutional Self Evaluation Report 12). 12 out of 17 students in the linguistics course itself, i.e., 71%, were Hispanic, 4 white, and one Asian American. Carlos’s “a few financial problems in order to pay for school” are also hardly surprising: 63% of LACC students receive financial aid.

No such references appear in Christopher’s paper, most likely due to the class difference between the meaning perspectives of Carlos, a working-class Hispanic, and Christopher, a middle-class white youth. This difference in their socioeconomic frame of reference affects what they recall as meaningful from their research experience.

Conclusions

Critical self-reflection can be a transformative experience for the researcher/writer. Embedded in research or writing, critical perspectives may activate reflection and re-evaluation of one’s own knowledge and identity and lead to belief correction and/or a shift in the researcher’s frame of reference such as stereotyped attitudes (Carlos), or habits of mind (Christopher). Critically-guided research and writing thus encourages the researcher, even a student researcher in an introductory linguistics course, to move from knowledge-telling to knowledge-transforming.

Researchers and writers engage in multiple dialogic relationships with their subjects and themselves. Those dialogic strands may converge and diverge in post-research self-reflexive writing.

Lastly, the reflective judgment of the same research experience may vary dramatically depending on the researcher’s sociocultural and psychological meaning perspectives, for example, in a focus on the economic implications of language learning (Carlos) vs. the emotive, motivational aspect (Christopher).


References

A., Christopher. (2017). Self-Reflexive Essay. Unpublished essay. Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles.

A., Christopher, and Carlos S. (2017). Second Language Acquisition by a Brazilian Portuguese Student. Unpublished research paper. Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles.

Cook-Gumperz, Jenny (ed.) 1988. The Social Construction of Literacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holquist, Michael. (1990). Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World. London and New York: Routledge.

Igoudin, A. Lane. (2021).Critical Ethnography and Dialogic Reflection in Student-Led Language Research.” In Barros, Solange Maria, and Danie De Jesus (eds.) What Is Critical in Language Studies? Disclosing Social Inequalities and Injustice, Ch. 5., pp. 59-70. London: Routledge.

LACC Institutional Self Evaluation Report in Support of Reaffirmation of Accreditation. (2016). Los Angeles City College.

Mezirow, Jack. (1990). “How Critical Reflection Triggers Transformative Learning.” Fostering Critical Reflection in Adulthood, 1-6.

Mezirow, J. (1991). Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Mezirow, Jack. (2003). “Transformative Learning as Discourse.” Journal of Transformative Education1(1), 58-63.

S., Carlos. (2017). Self-Reflexive Essay. Unpublished essay. Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles.

Stanek, C. (2013). The Educational System of Brazil. IEM Spotlight, 10(1), 1-6.

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