Biography 23.2 (2000) 415-417
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Biography and Education: A Reader, edited by Michael Erben, is the nineteenth volume in the Social Research and Education Series, a group of books devoted to investigating trends and methods in educational research. As the Series editor, Robert Burgess, indicates in the Preface, the volumes provide theoretical overviews of fields, and contributors "raise critical concerns that are particular to the field of education and reflect on the implications of research for educational policy and practice" (iv). The aim of this volume in particular is to aid students, teachers, and researchers in their work with autobiographical and biographical material in and out of the classroom. The book's eleven essays provide strong support for the use of autobiography and biography as tools for learning, and offer sound advice for researchers and teachers interested in using auto/biographical methods in their work.
Biography and autobiography increasingly have become both the subjects for study in literature courses and the basis for assignments in writing classes in many colleges and universities in the United States and United Kingdom, as researchers and teachers see the potential of life stories for developing reading and writing competence. Michael Erben acknowledges in the Introduction the growing popularity of biography and life courses in undergraduate and graduate education, and the increasing amount of scholarship in biography, suggesting that there's a consequent need to assess the variety of research work being done in the field. The essays in this volume address that need: their variety in approach and content indicates the range of possibilities for conducting research and using such research in educational contexts.
As Erben points out, despite the diversity in these essays, the important connection among them is the recognition that "individual motivations and social influences have no easy demarcation" (1). Biographical research develops the relationship of individual lives--and individuals within their group identities--to the culture that surrounds them. Insofar as lives are part of a cultural and social network, information gathered from biographical research can reveal something of the wider society. This interaction between the individual and the social, and the complexities that arise from an awareness of that interaction, forms the basis of much of the research and study that the essays address. Contributors to this collection, all from universities in the UK, chose case studies and commentary, interviews and [End Page 415] direct transcription, theory and applications, interspersed biographical data and autobiographical response, as methods to reveal biographical subjects and to illuminate the ways that individual and culture affect one another.
The first essay, by Erben, describes the essential characteristics of biographical research, which he categorizes as empirical information, imaginative reconstruction, and narrative analysis. Highlighting the importance of purpose as a crucial element in biographical research, he suggests that the kinds of data that might be gathered, as well as the variety and amount of data, depend on the aim of the study: "That objective being the purpose of the research, without which investigations would remain amorphous and pointless" (9).
This essay serves as a fine introduction to the ten essays that follow in the collection. Each demonstrates a different approach to gathering data, to using the imagination, or to making narrative central in the presentation of the research. Robin Usher's essay, "The Story of the Self: Education, Experience and Autobiography," critiques the familiar "personal experience" writing assignment by suggesting how much more complex that task is than is traditionally assumed, and how artful, rather than truthful, the telling of personal story is. She argues that autobiography is understood and taught in a limited and uncritical way, and that students need to see the constructed character of the past as they write, the ideological character of what they choose. Usher speaks to the powerful effect language has over event, and her suggestions can allow teachers to emphasize the shaping power of writing, the role of revision and of form in making meaning. Interestingly, Usher notes that autobiographical accounts written by...