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Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative

reviewed by Joyce M. Lieberman - 2005

coverTitle: Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative
Author(s): Robert J. Nash
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807745251, Pages: 179, Year: 2004
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The subject of “scholarship” is all about loving ideas so much that we are willing to play with them, to take chances with them, to express our passions about them, to deliver them in some fresh, new ways; to nurture and care for them; and to continually test and challenge them in the company of others. —Robert J. Nash

Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative can be summed up in one word: liberating! In two words: a paradigm shift. One of the first books I was required to read, as a doctoral student in education policy at George Washington University a decade ago, was Kuhn’s (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. According to Kuhn, a paradigm shift is a change from one way of thinking to another. It’s a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It does not just happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change. In other words, advancement is evolutionary.

As I studied education policy and worked in schools—urban, suburban, and rural—I often wondered when education would evolve or experience a paradigm shift like those in the hard sciences. When will we be able to connect research conducted in universities, think tanks, government agencies, and foundations to the realities of teaching and learning in public schools? More specifically, how can we shift the paradigm to reflect the logic that “there is no one way”? Now that I am a member of the “academy,” I wonder when and how we can make this logical shift as well, specifically in how we conduct research, teach our students to conduct research, and write about it. This book gives me hope that the pendulum, instead of hanging motionless, is beginning to swing, recognizing the credibility of multiple genres of scholarly writing.

Nash argues “for the validity of an alternative form of intellectual inquiry” that he calls scholarly personal narrative (SPN). Chapter 1 provides a strong literature-based rationale for why SPN writing matters. Nash states that he hopes to make the case that although controversial, SPN research is important in its own right because “it dares to redefine the idea of ‘rigor’ to fit its own set of truth criteria” (p. 5; e.g., trustworthiness, honesty, plausibility, situatedness, interpretiveness, self-consciousness, introspection/self-reflection, and universability). Perhaps research conducted via SPN can serve as one conduit through which research is more strongly connected with the realities of teaching and learning in public P–20 education today.


Chapter 2 provides the reader with multiple perspectives on SPN writing, including Nash’s own definition that it is the

unabashed, up-front admission that your own life signifies . . . there is genuine wisdom and meaning in your unique life [and] . . . what you have lived, loved, loathed, and learned in a lifetime of extraordinary (or ordinary) challenges and satisfactions can be of enormous benefit to others. (p. 24)

Nash believes that personal narrative writing is important to educators and other helping professionals because

good teaching, good helping, and good leadership are, in one sense, all about storytelling and story-evoking. It is in the mutual exchange of stories that professionals and scholars are able to meet clients and students where they actually live their lives. It is in the mutual sharing of our personal stories, particularly in the willingness of professionals to listen to the stories of others, that we make the deepest connections with those we are serving. (p. 2)

Writing an SPN is about hearing the sound of your own voice through memoirs, personal narrative essays, and/or autobiographies. By sharing our stories, we can touch our own life and the lives of others. Beginning the process is usually the hardest part. For that reason, Nash has created 10 tentative guidelines for writing an SPN, the topic of Chapter 3:


Establish clear constructs, hooks, and questions.


Move from the particular to the general and back again . . . often.


Try to draw larger implications from your personal stories.


Draw from your vast store of formal background knowledge.


Always try to tell a good story.


Show some passion.


Tell your story in an open-ended way.


Remember that writing is both a craft and an art.


Use citations whenever appropriate.


Love and respect eloquent (i.e., clear) language.

In concluding this chapter, Nash reflects on and recommends reading Tompkins’s (1996) A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned as an exemplary specimen of SPN writing. Tompkins “beautifully melds vernacular writing and academic discourse, without a trace of the off-putting technical vocabulary of her discipline,” according to Nash, and the story she tells “revolve[s] around her deep-seated ambivalent feelings about being situated both inside and outside the academy” (p. 72).

Chapters 4 and 5 provide the reader with a selection of SPN excerpts written by Nash’s students, organized under the themes of transition and self-empowerment—a way in which the students “can find just the right words to describe who they are struggling to become . . . to best explore how they might best be able to weather the gathering storms of having to face and eventually overcome major life transitions” (p. 97)—and authenticity and connection, emphasizing that “as professionals, [the students] know before all else, they are called upon to ‘profess’ a belief or faith in the power of connections and relationships before all else” (p. 100). The narratives are varied within each of these themes, thus supporting the belief that there is no one way to write an SPN.

In the last chapter, Nash addresses the controversies and challenges inherent in personal narrative writing in traditional academia but argues that they are not insurmountable. These challenges are grouped into three categories: ethics, truth, and politics. Although these three categories need to be considered, they too continue to evolve and change. So, too, must scholarly writing. Nash states that the main lesson he learned while teaching students to write SPNs is that the three most important qualities are passion, resilience, and faith: “To write a personal narrative is to look deeply within ourselves for the meaning that just might, when done well, resonate with other lives; maybe even inspire them in some significant ways” (p. 22).

In P–20 education and beyond, we are still caught in the cycle of “the more things change, the more they stay the same, i.e., one size fits all.” A major aspect of Nash’s argument is that “not all research needs to be replicable, testable, or measurable in the same scientific ways” (p. 5). We are in need of a paradigm shift—one that recognizes and accepts alternate ways of making sense of the world around us—beginning with ourselves. Perhaps it would be wise to revisit the sage advice of Dewey that “it”—in this case, scholarly writing—does not have to be either-or! I’m with you Dr. Nash! Thanks.


Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tompkins, J. (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned. New York: Perseus.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 107 Number 7, 2005, p. 1451-1454
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11727, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:59:38 PM

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About the Author
  • Joyce Lieberman
    Northern Illinois University
    E-mail Author
    JOYCE M. LIEBERMAN, Assistant Professor, Curriculum Leadership, Department of Teaching and Learning, Northern Illinois University. Research/teaching interests include education policy/change, professional development, and mentoring doctoral students.
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