new publication: an autoethnography on French, data science, and paradigm change
I’m pleased to share the publication of a new chapter of an edited volume. The chapter in question is “I"m a French teacher, not a data scientist”: Culture and languages across my professions, and it’s part of a volume called Cultures and languages across the curriculum in higher education. According to the CLAC Consortium, Culture and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) is a:
a curricular framework that provides opportunities to develop and apply language and intercultural competence within all academic disciplines through the use of multilingual resources and the inclusion of multiple cultural perspectives.
For two years during graduate school, I was lucky enough to serve as a French Language Fellow for the CLAC program housed in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) at Michigan State. I didn’t know much about CLAC when I applied for the position, and I’m still not an expert in the area, but I was nervous about trading my BA in French Teaching for a PhD in Educational Technology, which made me eager to hold onto French teaching for as long as I could. For my two years with the RCAH, I coordinated French immersion activities for students where we focused on language and culture. It was a wonderful experience, and when Dr. India Plough invited me to contribute to a volume of autoethnographic reflections by CLAC participants, I couldn’t say no!
I’d never written an autoethnography before, but from the beginning, I appreciated the opportunity to reflect on how my final two years as a French teacher overlapped with my beginning years as an internet researcher. On one hand, this was a pretty important professional transition—one that would lead to my currently being hired in a School of Information Science rather than a College of Education. On the other hand, at the time that the invitation to write the autoethnography came, I was also beginning to realize how much my history with French (and the humanities more broadly) influenced my approach to internet research and data science-adjacent methods. I was excited to write about how my past as a French teacher shaped my present as the instructor for my unit’s Introduction to Data Science course.
As I wrote, I took the idea of autoethnography seriously—rather than dash out a quick reflective essay, I delved deep into old journals, class notes, and other records that I kept during my time with the RCAH. I’d expected to write the autoethnography about my professional transition from French teacher to internet researcher as well as my simultaneous (but contrasting) paradigmatic transition from positivist to interpretivist worldviews. As I write early in the chapter:
When working with digital data, I feel closer to the explicit paradigm of autoethnography than the implicit paradigm of data science; that is, I feel “closer to [French?] literature than to physics” and tend to offer “stories rather than theories” (Ellis et al., 2011, p. 274), even when those stories are told with millions of data points.
In the pages that follow, I will show how I brought a data science-adjacent paradigm to my work as a French teacher when I began my encounter with CLAC—and how this encounter has inspired me to bring a French teacher’s paradigm to my data science-adjacent work ever since.
However, in reading through old journals and really opening myself up to reflection, I was surprised to see how much these professional shifts overlapped with other important shifts in my life. These two years of wrapping up French teaching and beginning internet research also coincided with two years of increasing questions about the faith tradition I grew up in and increasing awareness of my complicity in homophobia and white supremacy. By way of example, here’s a blurb from my description of an earlier period of the two years I’m writing about:
Two months before discussing “le pacs,” I write in my journal about a friend I’ve made in my Latter-day Saint congregation who is as open about being gay as he is about just how hellish the gay Mormon experience can be. “Despite all my questions on the subject,” I write, “I continue to want to trust the teachings of church authorities.” I’m moved by my friend’s plight but not engaged enough to do anything about it… my (straight) Mormon experience remains tremendously important to me, and I don’t know how to separate that meaning from an insistence that everything I hear from the pulpit must also be true.
By contrast, in the next section, I write:
The throughline of my evolving career is no longer an interest in technology (whether French, games, or Twitter) but rather an interest in the use of particular technologies to produce and interpret meaning within particular sociocultural contexts. Even as I’ve focused on the technical, I’ve always known that French is never true, per se. Yet, it’s just as obvious that not being true (i.e., “only” being meaningful) has never taken away from the value of French. Maybe there’s something to learn from this—and from Skerrett’s (2014) argument that there exist religious literacies that “represent reality, make and interpret meaning … and achieve a range of goals within and across religious and other social contexts” (p. 966).
In short, this autoethnography ended up being a deeply personal chapter that not only touched on changes in my professional life but also served as an account of faith transition and (to a lesser extent) political awakening. That seems appropriate for an autoethnography, and while I doubt that this chapter will ever be widely (or even narrowly!) cited, I do think it’s one of the more important things that I’ve ever written, and I’m grateful that India invited me to contribute a chapter.
The chapter is unfortunately not open access, but bits of it can be read here at Google Books (my chapter is the last one in Section I), and I’ll work on eventually getting a preprint up.
- research paradigms
- grad school
- language education
- India Plough
- faith transition
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Community of Christ
- data science
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