Jen’s PhD Series: Part 3. The masks

It’s been a while since my last post, but in the interim I had my viva (examination) and am pleased to say that it went well! And I’m even more pleased to say that it’s all over. Hooray!


Very early on in my research I started to explore the idea of the ‘mask’ as a useful metaphor for high-stakes online reflection. A mask is artificial, in the sense that isn’t a natural part of the body, but it has a profound relationship with identity and with the idea of the face. That relationship has been explored in theatre, anthropology, sociology, literature and culture. Like the experiences of students and teachers, the mask turned out to be complex, and by the time I came to analyse my data I had identified six mask ‘genres’. These have structured my thesis. I’ve written about them a bit in this blog, and there’s a recently published paper of mine that describes them in some detail. In this post, I’ll describe how the mask metaphor worked, and what issues I focused on in the research.

The six mask types I used were: performance, trace, disguise, protection, discipline and transformation. Each of these helped me think in a different way about my data, and about what I was trying to do in arguing for a different kind of approach to online reflective practices.

Here’s a brief rundown of how I used the masks:

performance – masks worn to portray a character, for the benefit of an audience. In my thesis, I used this mask to explore how students perform particular sorts of reflective identities, and their awareness of different sorts of audiences.

trace – death masks, which are commemorations of a person who has died, and are more or less faithful representations, or “traces”, of that person, formed from an impression of their face after death. I asked how we might see digital archives and databases, which store the reflective writing of students, as traces, and what this implies about control and ownership.

disguise – masks that are intended to hide a person’s identity. I applied the metaphor of the mask as disguise to reflective practices themselves, showing how ‘authenticity’ and ‘development’ disguise practices of surveillance and confessional (in the Foucauldian sense* of constructing and legitimising certain kinds of knowledge as “truth”).

protection – strong masks worn to protect the face and head while doing dangerous work. I argued that the way online reflection is taught and structured through digital templates can protect students from the vulnerability of confession, but at the cost of limiting and constraining other possibilities of expression.

discipline – masks with two purposes: to restrain or injure the wearer, and to display the consequences of unacceptable behaviour to the wider community. I suggested that reflection in professional education produces identities through processes of repetition and training, with the aim of shaping the practice of would-be professionals.

transformation – masks worn during rituals or ceremonies to produce transformative effects on the wearer and the community. Reflection is intended to transform practice and selfhood through contemplation over time, but I explored how online reflection can make use of speed, risk and fragmentation to produce different kinds of identity or subjectivity shifts.

*I think it would be a good idea in the next post to talk a bit about how I used the theories of Michel Foucault to make certain kinds of arguments about reflective practices. That will be fun to write!

Here’s the paper that describes some of the conceptual issues in my research, including the masks:

Ross, J. (2011). Traces of self: online reflective practices and performances in higher education (PDF). Teaching in Higher Education, 16/1.

Mask images copyright info:

[1] Creative Commons licensed work by Giant Gingkgo,

[2] L’Inconnue de la Seine, Retrieved 6/8/11.

[3] Stock image by Brasil2,

[4] Stock image by KeithBinns,

[5] © 2005 David Monniaux; Retrieved 6/8/2011.

[6] Stock image by stellalevi,

2 thoughts on “Jen’s PhD Series: Part 3. The masks”

  1. Congratulations, Jen! So glad for you 🙂

    Your work on masks certainly resonates for me with regard to my own experiences online. I’ll be checking out your paper at some point this weekend!

  2. thanks so much, Gem – hope yours is coming along swimmingly! Happy to discuss any of this more at some point if it would be helpful. 🙂

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