paper for AoIR conference – traces of self

Here is my PhD-related paper for the AoIR conference in Copenhagen in October.


This paper explores some conceptual issues emerging from my research into the question of how students and teachers negotiate issues of identity, authenticity, ownership, privacy and performativity in high-stakes online reflection in higher education.

The traces produced by online reflection are traces of a cultural moment and a political imperative, as much as traces of individuals. This paper critically examines how a humanist discourse of a ‘true self’, which can be understood or revealed through reflection, masks the increasingly invasive character of educational practices which demand confession and self-surveillance as evidence of progress and learning, and asks: in what ways might working online complicate, corroborate or undermine notions of the ‘true self’ in these contexts?

Download Traces of self: online reflective practices and performances in higher education as a PDF file.

more about masks

 I have been exploring the mask as a metaphor for high-stakes reflection. Having begun with two categories of mask – disguise and performance – I have now identified six (overlapping) genres:

Protective masks are worn while doing dangerous work (fighting or welding for example). Armour is an interesting sub-genre because it is both protective and a display of strength designed to intimidate the enemy. Different cultures had different traditions of armour design – European armour tended to be anonymous, while Japanese armour was designed to look vicious and frightening.

The idea of a person’s ‘true self’ or, in some cases, their deformity, being hidden behind a mask is an extremely common metaphor in art, literature, popular culture and in everyday life. Power is also often described as being ‘masked’: “Modern ‘power is tolerable only on condition that it mask a substantial part of itself. Its success is proportional to its ability to hide its own mechanisms’ (HS 86)” (Dreyfus and Rabinow 1982, 134). The image here is called “The Treacherous Patriot Unmask’d”, from the National Portrait Gallery collection.

Theatrical traditions around the world involve performers donning masks to portray different characters. The distinction between performance and disguise is extremely blurry, but we might say that disguise is primarily intended to hide something, while performance is primarily intended to show something.
The death mask (Mary Queen of Scots’ is pictured here) constitutes a physical trace or archive of the person who has died. It is obviously not for the person it represents, and nor does that person have any say or control over the matter – making it an interesting route to exploring agency and archive in online reflective practices.

“Demon masks are still used in healing rituals in Sri Lanka… One of the most powerful cures… is a masked performance in which the demon associated with the ailment, and others who may also have played a role in causing it, are made to appear” (British Museum, online). Formal, ritual performances involving masks are transformative in the moment, but may also have a lasting impact on communities and individuals.
The scold’s bridle (pictured here) was used in Scotland from at least the mid-sixteenth century to punish women for talking too much, nagging, or inappropriate speech – it worked by restraining and sometimes injuring the tongue . Other forms of punishment involved masks which simultaneously restrained or injured the wearer and publicly humiliated them .

The extent to which online reflective practices can be understood as masks is an issue I want to explore more, and I hope to use these metaphors as structuring elements in my research.


British Museum. Changing Face: masks from the British Museum. retrieved 16 December 2007. <

Dreyfus, H., & Rabinow, P. (1982). Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Padstow: T.J. Press Ltd.

high-stakes reflection (mirrors, maps and masks)

Preamble: ever since I started my part-time doctoral research just over a year ago I’ve known that I really want to blog about it eventually. Other researchers’ blogs (Chris Sessums, danah boyd, Lilia Efimova – to name a few I admire) have become really important to me not only in terms of their content but also in giving me ideas about what kinds of researcher it’s possible to be, and how to communicate well in this medium. I think it’s time for me to start practicing.

I became interested in online reflective practices when I worked as e-portfolio co-ordinator in the School of Education at the University of Edinburgh. These practices are well-established in many programmes in my School, and part of my role was supporting lecturers and tutors to envision how they could move their existing offline activities online (into electronic portfolios).

One of the things I found really fascinating in the e-portfolio literature was Barrett and Carney’s idea of ‘conflicting’ or ‘competing’ paradigms: ‘positivist’ (product-driven, performative, externally assessed, based on externally defined outcomes), vs ‘constructivist’ (process-driven, reflective, learner constructed outcomes) (2005, p7-8). These are also sometimes described as ‘map’ and ‘mirror’ portfolios. This helped me understand what I was seeing in discussions I had with colleagues about what the purpose of the (e)portfolio was. (I don’t think this is unique to e-portfolios, but I do think that the move towards database-driven storage of portfolios exposes these tensions, since it lends itself much more to assessment-driven and administrative uses than do local portfolios (paper-based or electronic, but not stored in a central database) (Kimball 2005). Also, any time we talk about doing things differently the question of what we’re actually trying to achieve seems to come up.)

Then I became interested in the extent to which the tension between these ‘conflicting’ paradigms might in fact be an intrinsic part of professional reflective practices. Reflective practice is a key focus in teacher education, for example, and informs many of the professional development activities undertaken as part of programmes and placements. The professional community values self-regulation (General Teaching Council Scotland, “Transition from Student to Teacher.” aspiring teachers have to show that they understand and can use the language of reflection, critical thinking and practice development, and that they are willing and able to embrace the ethos of continual self-assessment and improvement. In other words, reflection and self-regulation form part of the basis on which candidates are judged to be competent professionals. So, it seems there is complex relationship between reflection and performance. When what is being assessed or judged is the learner’s ability to be reflective, then reflection itself is performative.

To describe this, along with ‘map’ and ‘mirror’, I have added a third category: portfolio as ‘mask’. I’ve been working on this metaphor a bit over the past few months and am delighted by its richness – so far I’ve identified at least 6 (overlapping) genres of mask: protection, disguise, performance, memory, transformation, punishment. I’ll post more about that another day.

Over the past year, as well as continuing to write and think about e-portfolios, I have been exploring literature around narrative, performativity, identity, professional development and authenticity, and am theorising from a broadly post-structuralist perspective about identity performances. I’m now at the stage of thinking about data generation and I realise that, although I started out by thinking quite specifically about e-portfolios and professional practices (see my PhD proposal), the landscape in higher education includes a lot of online reflective practices around blogging as well. However, since what I am really interested in is the relationship between performance, performativity and reflection, some blogging contexts are more relevant than others. In particular, blogging which is summatively assessed seems to me to carry the same kind of tensions I’ve been talking about with regard to e-portfolios and professional education.

My current thinking is that these practices, grouped together, might usefully be described as ‘high-stakes reflection’, and that this is what I want to explore in my research.

What else might fit into this category? Could scholarly blogging constitute a third strand of high-stakes reflection in higher education, in the sense that it is intimately connected with the academic’s reputation and identity?

“why do I blog under my own name? …I feel that part of my ‘authority’ here on the blog when I’m writing more serious posts depends on you the readers knowing exactly who I am and how and why I’m qualified to do this.” (Howard 2005, )

An element of choice could set this type of high-stakes reflection apart. Students are not allowed, for the most part, to choose whether to participate in the reflective assessments or professional development activities their lecturers assign to them. Academic bloggers, on the other hand, appear to be free to choose whether and what to blog. However, it may increasingly be the case that in some fields (like e-learning, to name one I know well), academics are expected to blog in much the same way that they are expected to publish in more traditional settings. Anyway, that’s more thinking I need to do, and also I need to decide if this third strand is too ‘out there’ to fit in to my current research project, focussing as it would on academics (or perhaps research students – making it maybe too ‘in here’!) rather than taught students in higher education.

I also need to do more digging to discover if ‘high-stakes reflection’ is a term I should be attributing to someone, or whether I made it up. If anyone’s heard it before, please let me know!


Barrett, H. and J. Carney. (2005). “Conflicting Paradigms and Competing Purposes in Electronic Portfolio Development.” Retrieved 12 July, 2006 from

Kimball, M. (2005). “Database e-portfolio systems: a critical appraisal.” Computers and Composition 22: 434-458.

Importing a blog into Facebook

I’ve just figured out how to import blog posts into my Facebook profile as ‘notes’ (use the “import a blog” setting in the Notes, enter the RSS feed for your blog, then Facebook will add a new note whenever you write a new post). In fact, I’ve only just realised today how many RSS feeds there are in Facebook. I’ve just subscribed to my friends’ status updates, and posted items, via my RSS reader (NetNewsWire).

newest project

A quick note about the research project I’m currently involved in – the National Museums Online Learning Project. This involves a consortium of English national museums:

  • British Museum
  • Imperial War Museum
  • Natural History Museum
  • National Portrait Gallery
  • Royal Amouries Museum
  • Sir John Soane’s Museum
  • Tate
  • Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Wallace Collection

working together to develop new ways of getting their digital collections used in schools, and by adult learners. My role is as part of the University of Edinburgh’s research team, evaluating the project (formatively and summatively).

There’s more about the project here: