In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Better Understanding Students’ Self-Authorship via Self-Portraits
  • Michele M. Welkener (bio) and Marcia B. Baxter Magolda (bio)

Student-created self-portraits expand the possibilities for understanding how students’ complex identities, relationships, and epistemologies shape their self-authoring potential. An illustrative student self-portrait demonstrates how this method reveals the nuances of development.

I like writing, but I can’t express myself the same way [as] with pictures, because it just . . . says so much more than I could even explain. Like it’s so much more intense. (Vivian)

Understanding the complexity of students’ meaning making is essential for educators to foster students’ growth toward collegiate learning outcomes. An internally generated view of self, relationships, and knowledge, or the ability to “self-author,” enables students to think critically, develop intercultural maturity, and become good citizens and leaders (Baxter Magolda, 2004; Kegan & Lahey, 2009; King & Baxter Magolda, 2005; Torres, 2009). Because meaning making is shaped by both personal and environmental contexts that are difficult to draw out in interviews alone, our study explored a new avenue for garnering evidence related to self-authorship—employing self-portraiture as a data-gathering tool. The notion of thought and experience being inextricably interwoven with the esthetic dates back to the work of Dewey (1934). He claimed “the [esthetic] experience itself has a satisfying emotional quality because it possesses internal integration and fulfillment reached through ordered and organized movement” and “no intellectual activity is an integral [enduring] event . . . unless it is rounded out with this quality” (p. 38). The act of creating a self-portrait requires individuals to tap into an often underutilized and yet powerful interface between the mind, emotions, and imagination to present ideas in representational signs and symbols. As evidenced in Vivian’s quote at the start of this article, the power of such an experience may be unmatched by communications limited to words.

In this article, we will situate this new approach in the self-authorship literature, share details of the method, and highlight an example portrait and the developmental insights that can be gained from it.


Robert Kegan (1994) coined the term self-authorship to describe a meaning-making structure characterized by [End Page 580]

an ideology, an internal identity, a self-authorship that can coordinate, integrate, act upon, or invent values, beliefs, convictions, generalizations, ideals, abstractions, interpersonal loyalties, and intrapersonal states. It is no longer authored by them, it authors them and thereby achieves a personal authority.

(p. 185, italics in original)

The self-authoring mind enables one to “step back enough from the social environment to generate an internal ‘seat of judgment’ or personal authority that evaluates and makes choices about external expectations” (Kegan & Lahey, 2009, p. 17). This way of making meaning of oneself, social relations, and the world contrasts with prior meaning-making structures in which such aspects are defined by external expectations.

Baxter Magolda (2008, 2009) elaborated on the development of self-authorship by identifying three elements within it based on her 25-year study of adult meaning making. The first element, trusting the internal voice, emerged when her participants realized that although they could not control reality, they could manage their reactions to external influences. As they worked to use their internal voices to shape their reactions, they developed confidence in using their personal beliefs and values to guide their lives. In the second element, building an internal foundation, “participants consciously set about creating a philosophy or framework—an internal foundation—to guide their reactions to reality” (2009, p. 326). This involved synthesizing their identities, relationships, beliefs, and values into a coherent set of internal commitments from which to operate. Securing internal commitments, the third element, emerged when participants shifted from constructing their internal commitments to living them.

Assessing self-authorship is complicated due to the constructive-developmental assumptions upon which it is based (Baxter Magolda & King, 2012; Kegan, 1994). Assessment requires understanding how people make meaning (or the structure of meaning making) instead of what they believe (or the content). These structures gradually transform from one to another and often overlap while in transition. They are further influenced by multiple personal and environmental factors, including the support people have to use...