5. Ethical Considerations
As I consider writing an autoethnography about my involvement and experience of the culture at work, I am plagued by ethics. I am writing about my experience through a lens that has developed over my lifetime. Does it matter what others might feel about my writings? Am I violating confidentiality or hurting my former colleagues in some way or taking advantage of my relationships with them for my own gain? I will be writing about my experience of our relationship, I do not have any claim to truth of any of the events or situations that I will describe. (Jones, 2007)
This seems a simplistic understanding of writing about my experiences at work. My old colleagues have shared this journey with me but, is the work I am doing on this project important to them (personally or professionally)? I do not know. I have mentioned this project, but it seems that there is no connection, only ongoing disinterest or at times confusion (of course this has been a two-year journey for me.)
I interpret a lack of questions as dis-interest. Occasionally, if the topic comes up, the questions are posed with assumptions of knowing the answer, not understanding that we have discussed this before, I just continue to explain the situation. So, I will wrestle with this in conjunction with my advisors, my friends (who are not necessarily colleagues), those I have purposefully approached to assist me and authors who have written about the ethics regarding autoethnographies and, surprisingly, bioethics.
Bochner and Ellis (2016) state: “I believe it is important to act from a ‘relational ethics of care,’ a series of ongoing, uncertain processes where relationships and relational ethics guide you. Often what is ethical to do in any situation may not be clear, but something must be done and/or decided.”
If I look at the ethics of autoethnography from this Bochner/Ellis perspective – I should keep in mind the ethics of what I write as I write. I will strive to be transparent about the thought processes or conversations I have selected for discussions. At this point, I do not believe that these situations could/should be co-authored with my colleagues – for four reasons.
The first is for their safety (a sense of being put on the spot and possibly singled out by other colleagues).
The second reason is the process of co-authoring can be cumbersome and challenging to find time and ways to co-create iterations of events.
The third reason is for my own safety. I do not wish to be a target of any of my former colleagues because of the content or the situations I choose to write about (offence might be taken even if none was intended).
The final reason is the power dynamics involved at work. If a situation involves a supervisor or someone who has a history of behaving like a bully, I would not want to deal with this. I am striving for some autonomy with my writing. There is potential that I would be giving up control of that content (whether the manager is portrayed in positive or negative light).
So, I will be mindful of what I write but I do not believe that direct involvement of my former colleagues would be helpful. Also, this is about my practice not theirs. I will be describing events where they are participants from my perspective and analysing my responses not theirs.
Andrew and Le Rossignol (2017) suggest that there are several principles involved in writing autoethnographically: position and context are to be considered in the telling of a story; worldview is embedded and constituted by language and influences how we build relationships; finally, the idea of no or little harm to others might give them rights over how they are represented. The first two principles are easy enough to keep in mind as I am approaching what I write from a social construction collaborative stance. The third however, is the crux of the ethical issue for me, are there ‘rights’ of my former colleagues over what I have written? Will they be harmed by my project? How would I feel if they ever did read it? These are specific questions to Bochner/Ellis that suggests keeping in mind what you write as you write it.
Our lives unfold within a narrative environment and we are part of the narrative environment of others. These positions place an ethical obligation to take care. If words have the power to change others, and we contribute to the authoring of other lives through the process of communication and shared experiences then we have an ethical obligation to be aware of precisely what we are doing when we tell stories that involve others (Baldwin, 2013). This ethical obligation can confound the struggle as I select the stories and anecdotes I wish to include.
Elaine Campbell (2017) discusses the inner critic that will try to prevent the writing of the story. Some things you believe will offend, will not, while others that you think will not offend, will. She says to write it anyhow.
It seems like this inner critic is an important aspect of maintaining consideration of what you write as you write and a means to continually keep in mind the questions mentioned above. I need not allow the inner critic to stop the writing – but I can allow it to keep me mindful. This voice can keep me true to my internal integrity. I do not want to be guilty of oppressing others, even if they might behave oppressively. However, I do not want their views or ideas to silence my description of an experience.
I would also like to be mindful of Frank (2016) when he states:
The bioethics that this stance supports is, before all else, a response to suffering. Its work begins in witnessing suffering, and on some occasions the work may end there. Suffering needs to be told in stories, and storytelling requires a commitment to speak the truth—not merely to acknowledge truth obliquely among colleagues, but to speak it directly and publicly. Frank, 2016, p. 21
At times, I will be discussing my suffering or acknowledging (recognizing) the suffering of others. I will struggle to articulate truth as authentically as I can. I know it will not be objective it will be from my perspective. I believe it is important for these topics to be discussed and taken as opportunities for change. Certainly, for change for myself on a personal and professional level, but if others connect with these stories, perhaps we can work for change on other levels.
For this project, I will not mention names and avoid roles whenever possible. I know however, that I am identifiable and certainly those I worked with might also be identifiable to a lesser degree. I believe that including either retired or current colleagues from other programs on my ‘project team’ would be helpful in these ethical discussions. They could help me struggle with the question of ‘how my colleagues might react to reading this’ and keep the inner critic from preventing me from pursuing this project.
With all of this in mind, I had initally decided to limit access to these discussions of my work. However, Mary Gergen encouraged me to consider this further. And so, I will not be limiting access to the full text of the discussions. These are not co-created, and this is about how I follow my ideas of anti-oppressive collaborative practices. I invite any who read the scenarios to comment. I do of course have the opportunity to monitor comments and not allow them to be posted publicly, I do want to maintain a standard of collegiality.
I agree with Carolyn Ellis when she says that “writing difficult stories is a gift to self, a reflexive attempt to construct meaning in our lives and heal or grow from our pain.” She goes on to discuss that people want to do the right thing, live meaningful lives that seek the good and “as researchers, we long to do ethical research that makes a difference.” (Ellis, 2007, p. 26)
I will be as transparent as possible in my writing and I will keep in mind that this project is primarily an examination of my practices and see how well I meet my personal challenge ‘to be the change I wish to see in the world’. I believe that others will benefit from reading and discussing this project as it relates to them and their work.