Contemplating the Academy Using Memory-Work as Method

Pausing at the Threshold
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In this chapter, we detail how we adapted the memory-work method to reflect on our academic lives. We wanted to better understand the factors that shaped our trajectories through the academy and our experiences of it as teacher educators and to make our findings accessible to others. We are an international collective of 5 former teacher educators. We followed a 3-phase recursive process - writing memories evoked by prompts in the third person; collectively analysing the written memories and reappraising them through dialogic conversations. We draw on several of our prompts to bring the theory to life in this, the first of two chapters.

Context of the Study

Self-study of teaching and teacher education practice is not, in itself, a methodology; rather, the self-study researcher has available a variety of tools for data collection and methods for data analysis, according to the context and purpose of any one study (Tidwell & Jónsdóttir, 2020). We are an international group of five senior or recently retired teacher educators who came together in this project to reflect on our academic lives in order to better understand the factors that shaped our trajectories through the academy. We wanted to tease out and make accessible to others the wisdom garnered through our experiences as senior academics and teacher educators. In this chapter, we focus on how we adapted methods of collective memory work and of dialogic inquiry to serve our purpose. In a companion chapter in this volume, (Garbett, Heap et al., 2023) we communicate the outcomes of using this method, in hopes of giving some support to a new generation of colleagues.

Self-study and collective memory work have roots in efforts to develop qualitative research methods that go beyond the individual as the unit of analysis and blur the distinction between researcher and research subject (Garbett et al., 2020). The roots of collective memory work are in feminist and socialist politics (Haug, 1980/2021), with some of the early collectives in early memory work being educators (Breiter & Witt-Low, 1991, 2021). While an increasing number of researchers who do self-study are to be found outside of teacher education (Butler & Branyon, 2020), the focus of most self-study researchers continues to be the practice of teaching.

In recent years, a website has been developed to make freely available a cornucopia of publications about collective memory-work. Robert Hamm, the compiler and also a translator from the original German into English of a variety of the works, introduced the website thus:

To start with Collective Memory-Work … what it is, and what it is not.
CMW is a method of research, a method of learning and reflection, developed by Frigga Haug and the group Frauenformen in the 1980s at the intersection of academic research, feminist and Marxist theory, and political practice. In its original format it entails a group reflecting on a topic of shared interest by using short written memory scenes of the group members as the core material. It can be used in, e.g., social research, adult education, social activist groups, professional reflection processes.
The term Collective Memory-Work is prone to a common misunderstanding. Here it refers to a group working collectively with individual memories, hence Collective Memory-Work. It does not refer to working with collective memories (or cultural memories) as, e.g. in history workshops.
Over more than three decades the method has been successfully used in a variety of fields. It has been adapted and adjusted according to purposes of the applications, institutional frameworks, organisational necessities and methodological considerations. (

From the early years of the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practice, researchers have used memory work of various forms in studying their practice with the aim of improving it. Having engaged in a series of collectives spanning 30 years, anchored in Canada and South Africa, Mitchell et al. (2020) detailed the development of their use of collective memory-work for “future-oriented remembering” (p. 22) in a chronologically organised scholarly memoir. To the original method as set forth by Frigga Haug (1987), made available to a wider English-speaking audience by Crawford et al. (1992), these collectives have added arts-based methods of data collection and analysis (Pithouse-Morgan et al., 2019), and combined memory-work with such methods as academic autoethnography (Pillay et al., 2016).

Researching across a variety of contexts, Strong-Wilson et al. (2013, 2014) illustrated that memory work is primarily about transformation, and how critically engaging with the past can help to avoid injustice or trauma in the present and future. Recognising the subjectivity of social processes is a key aspect of memory work (Easpaig, 2017), and the gendered nature of the experience of members of our group in academic careers resonated with Haug’s original purposes (1980/2021). We chose to use memory work as a way of coming to know our experiences, in order to harness the wisdom of lives filled with transitions and to better understand how our memories can influence current life and future possibilities, for others as well as for ourselves (Fraser & Michell, 2015).


Our purpose in the larger project was to focus our attention on how our former selves have often unquestioningly accepted the ways of the academy and to use dialogic memory-work to learn from each other and contribute our findings. However, the contribution this chapter makes is to unpack the usefulness of memory-work as a self-study methodology, rather than to report on what we have learned (which is the focus of the companion chapter in this volume).


In this chapter, we focus on how we built our self-study method, collaborative memory work, from two sources: collective memory-work and dialogic inquiry.

The impetus to form our collective came from two of us whose recently published study (Garbett & Thomas, 2020) begged to be extended, suggesting that collective memory-work might be an appropriate method for senior scholars to generate narratives about our lives as academics. The first step was to reach out to like-minded colleagues who might be interested in joining a collective. In this, we followed Mitchell and Pithouse-Morgan’s (2014) principles for collective storytelling: “Work with a group of people (5–9 people) who have already established a sense of mutual trust and care and have agreed on confidentiality. The setting should be comfortable and private” (p. 97). In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we found Zoom video-conferencing to be an effective way to bridge the distances from New Zealand to North America. We shared initial organizing memos, background literature to review, and ethics application preparation by email and in Dropbox.

We started by reading Fraser and Michell (2015) as an example of a recent use of the method in academia. Those authors encouraged us as they pointed out “the potential benefits of using the method, which include its ability to inspire trust and solidarity in a group setting and connect the personal with the political” (p. 321). Vasudevan’s (2011) description covered the main points of the method: writing that focuses on the way language is used to construct a memory account, which a research collective can submit to critical discourse analysis to systematically and collaboratively process individual memory accounts, probing the gaps or lapses in the account in order to recognise the known and unknown about the authors. In addition to Haug’s own writings (1987, 2008), we found more detailed procedures for generating and analysing written memories (Crawford et al., 1992/2021; Hamm, 2021; Mitchell & Pithouse-Morgan, 2014; Small et al., 2011). Haug herself seemed to give permission to researchers to play with the method and adapt it; in an undated website from the 21st century, Haug (n.d.) said about her method:

I have, however, refrained from actually documenting research steps in written form. The current research methodology seems in need of further improvement, arbitrary in individual steps, and one-sidedly limited to the linguistic problem. It has not matured enough to be publicized as a general guide.

Therefore, we took the liberty of coming up with a set of steps that seemed common across the memory-work literature we were consulting and that fitted our purpose: learning from each other what we were taking away from a life in the academy as we stood on the threshold of “de-institutionalized” lives.

According to Crawford et al. (1992/2021):

Memory-work involves at least three phases. First, the collection of written memories according to certain rules. Second, the collective analysis of those written memories. There is also a third phase in which there is further reappraisal; a reappraisal of the memories and their analysis in the context of a range of theories and academic disciplines. (p. 169)

They also connect the first two phases to self in a way now familiar to self-study researchers who work either collaboratively, or at least with a critical friend:

The self talking with itself, is phase 1, and responding to itself as others respond to it is phase 2. The meanings reached or arrived at by the group are a function of the meanings as negotiated then at the time of the remembered event and those now collectively theorized. Meanings are negotiated until a 'common' sense is achieved. (p.166)

We departed from the more structured methods of analysis to be found in some accounts of collective memory-work. We did not fill out a table following the “Format for Record of Collective Editing Process” (Haug, n.d., p. 13) nor its adaptation by Hamm (2021), systematically listing the words used by each writer, sorted into such categories as subjects, activities, emotions, motivations and so on. Instead, we used methods of dialogic inquiry, as a means to build mutual understanding, encouraging the construction of personal meaning and ensuring engagement (Bound, 2010), which most of us had used in previous self-studies in other collaborations (for example Davey & Ham, 2009; East et al., 2009; Tolosa et al., 2016).

We engaged in dialogue, one of five tools “where narrative and text are the data focus” (Tidwell & Jonsdottir, 2020, p. 6). We used dialogue both to produce data—in sharing and interrogating our memory narratives, and to analyse data—as we went beyond story, across stories, and across sessions to identify new understandings to connect with the literature and to share beyond ourselves (East et al., 2009). Our Zoom meetings were a platform for developing dialogic understanding where new “meaning … arises when different perspectives are brought together” (Wegerif, 2006, p. 146, cited in Pithouse-Morgan & van Laren, 2015, p. 83).

The Method of Working With Memories

Memory-work, for our collaboration, was a recursive process carried out entirely across the internet. To date, we have explored six prompts. The protocols we agreed on for each prompt were as follows.

Phase 1. Written Memories

  1. Meeting electronically via Zoom, we developed a research question that was motivated by our desire to explore a common issue in our professional lives. In our start-up session, we brainstormed a list of potential prompts from our lives as academics. The prompts were such that they stimulated memories of situations in which we felt strong emotions. As Onyx and Small (2001) stated, “[t]he trick is to produce the more jagged stuff of personal lived experience’’ (p. 776). Akin to the work of Pithouse-Morgan and van Laren (2015), we used dialogic memory-work to push ourselves “to confront challenging, reflexive questions about our past with the aim of making future change possible” (p. 83).
  2. We settled on the first prompt, an experience of being mentored in our academic careers. In the meantime, we also submitted the plan for our work for ethics review at the university where one of the not-yet-retired members was still in residence.
  3. Each of us then found an individual memory of an experience, event or scene prompted by the agreed-upon statement and related to the common issue.
  4. Spending no more than 30 minutes, we wrote that memory in as much detail as possible, no detail considered too trivial, but limited to a half hour of writing.
  5. We each gave ourselves a pseudonym and wrote in the third person, thereby reducing the temptation to produce autobiography, instead of focusing on a rich experience. We tried hard to stick to description, without interpretation or explanation or backstory.
  6. Given our geographic distance and pandemic distancing, rather than meeting in person we each sent our 30-minutes of writing as an attachment to the group before the next Zoom meeting.

Phase 2. Collective Analysis of the Written Memories

  1. In the Zoom meeting, using Share Screen, each read aloud her memory to the others, without interruption, as the others followed along.
  2. After each had read her memory and answered questions, we used dialogic inquiry to generate more meaning, intentionally probing our collective understanding of the memory until we were collectively satisfied with our understanding.
  3. Then we moved to the next person.

Phase 3. Reappraisal and Analysis in a Larger Context

  1. At the end of each Zoom session, we used dialogic inquiry to recognise what we had learned from each other, especially in terms of what commonalities had emerged, and what direction our collective learning seemed to be taking.
  2. From this discussion, we agreed on a prompt statement that emerged for the next session’s memory writing.
  3. In later cycles, we repositioned, reframed, and reimagined previous discussions as we integrated new learnings with themes from past cycles.
  4. Preparing proposals together for several international presentations presented yet another form of reappraisal and analysis. The literature review for each proposal guaranteed that we were “moving beyond story” (Loughran, 2010) and making disciplinary and theoretical connections.

Every session was recorded on Zoom. The convener of the group emailed a meeting summary and recording link. All data were stored in Dropbox, facilitating access for further analysis, especially for anyone who may have missed part or all of a meeting. We met via Zoom as often as was necessary to move the research agenda forward and were always mindful of one another’s competing demands. Regular email exchanges contributed to the development of deeper collaboration and collegial relationships. We supported one another to maintain a balance between our personal and professional lives and cared for one another as humans because collective memory-work can be challenging and difficult as well as affirming and empowering.

Our Method in Action

Using memory-work allowed both positive and negative memories to surface, which in turn created a rich data source. Through interrogation (e.g., seeking hidden agendas, probing dismissed hurts) we have surfaced emotions, considered memories anew, and understood them differently.

We found that writing our memory response to each prompt in the third person, with pseudonyms, provided a useful separation between us and our memories. It depersonalised and de-identified individuals in the accounts. It also served to enable a deeper analysis because we each held our “personal” memories at arm’s length. In conversation, even when we agreed with others about an idea, each person had a slightly different or even unique understanding of the shared idea. When the conversation moved to dialogue, critique, and inquiry coupled with evidence, new reflections and responses emerged. The dialogue moved through cycles of consideration of the idea, linking it with research, other ideas, and evidence. Knowledge emerged in the spaces between thought, talk, and participants (Pinnegar & Hamilton, 2009). In the following discussion, italics are used to indicate anonymised excerpts from our writings.

Phase One: Writing Our Memories

Our collaboration was an opportunity to address our research focus, which was to reflect on our academic lives in order to gain a richer perspective, informed by our colleagues’ provocation and support. As part of our initial brainstorm, we discussed who our intended audience was, given our privileged position of being able to write for no other reason than we wanted to contribute something of value to our peers.

The prompts we brainstormed fell into two groups—soul-destroying or deeply satisfying. For example, prompts of soul-destroying memories included imposter syndrome, promotions, merging institutions, and not having your voice heard. Those which were deeply satisfying included celebrations, opportunities, and freedoms. Many that we brainstormed in our initial meeting were not picked up. We needed prompts that would elicit a distinct memory and evoke strong emotions, and settled on “Being Mentored” for our first prompt. The memories and discussion that followed led us to Prompt 2 “Being a Mentor.” These formed the basis of a paper that we presented at the Canadian Association for Research. Prompts 3-6 also followed on from the conclusion of the preceding discussion as we let the process itself move us forward rather than being goal focused–a process referred to as wanderfahring (East et al., 2009).

As per our protocols, we each wrote for no more than 30 minutes and always in the third person. For example, when writing to Prompt 3, “A memory of receiving an unanticipated kindness in academia,” one author began, 

She searched her memory but it wasn’t as easy. Unexpected and random acts of kindness in the workplace? One thing was for sure, little sprang to mind when it came to the institution or colleagues. Her close work friends, sure. They were thoughtful, a muffin or some sushi left on her desk to come back to after 4 hours of teaching, a flat white from the caf, a book they thought she might like to read... they were the acts of thoughtful friendship...and an ethic of mutual care.

Even though we were all writing in the third person, we entertained multiple different styles and text types. These ranged from lists, single event narratives, rich reflective notes, and poetry, to wide-ranging descriptions. Quotes from other sources were used sometimes, for example when writing on Prompt 4: "If she could take a small bag on her adventures through life, she wondered what self-care strategies she would take," one author included in her memory writing, "In a society that says, ‘Put yourself last,’ self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary" (Brown, 2010).

Sometimes, the style was very pragmatic. One author listed actual items that she would pack in response to Prompt 4, including,

  1. A little stash of teas and one stainless water bottle for making and for carrying tea and other liquids
  2. An iPad for connecting with internet to get eBooks, eMusic, email, and to write journal entries, etc.
  3. A 5.5x8.5 inch notebook, paper, pen, and pencil for off-the-grid, and stamps for postcards

Another of us was refreshingly candid, 

Her bag is nearly full. She hopes that it is watertight, not too heavy, not too light. She hopes there is enough in there to sustain her and protect her from whatever is coming her way. Confidence, self-assurance, positivity, love, affection, vulnerability.... She laughs as she shuts her little suitcase. Realistically, who gives a royal rat’s arse about any of these self-doubts. She is who she is, nothing more, nothing less.

Other times, the writing was poetic and evocative, 

Walking through and round the park and botanical gardens in all seasons; sauntering along empty stretches of beach with gulls wheeling and squawking overhead; mooching around a garden nursery sussing out bee-friendly annuals… Driving in the countryside, audiobook blue-toothed. Leaving the world behind. And large flat whites in noisy cafes with friends…

Other than the time limit, we put no constraints on what we wrote. The time limit was imposed to guarantee that writing was a task we could all manage within our busy lives. It also gave added impetus to free-write without too much concern for editing or crafting. Writing in the third person gave us a degree of anonymity and a different perspective on our memory.

Phase 2: Collectively Analysing Our Written Memories

Our Zoom meeting always began with a quick welcome and informal catch-up off-record, before we each began reading aloud our memories for the others. Even though we were writing in the third person, reading our memories often foregrounded heartfelt sentiments.

Questions for understanding came easily after each reading. For example: “Can you talk with us about making cups of tea? What is it about making tea that is self-care?”

Comments back and forth, developed a collective meaning, “What I liked was what some of the things that you packed really meant. So ‘stamps for postcards’ meant connecting with people was important to you. Notebooks and journals–reflecting are important for self-care.”

Within the dialogic inquiry, we often challenged one another’s intent, interpretation, or assumptions. For example, one of us had written about a kindness a junior colleague (who was already making a mark nationally and with whom she had an invested relationship) had surprisingly given her by including her on a grant application. What to her was “one of the kindest, most selfless acts anyone in the academy had ever done” for her in her 20-year career prompted a rather different, seemingly more cynical response from others.

When we make grant applications, the co-investigators, …people are very strategic, they have to detail what contribution each colleague will be making. There’s a reason behind it–it isn’t kindness, it is to build a team on paper that will get the grant. Having your name on it would be helpful in some way.

Hearing and understanding through dialogue the often contradictory but individual positions people held was crucial to this part of the process.

Phase 3: Reappraisal and Analysis in a Larger Context

At the end of each Zoom session, we discussed what had surfaced in terms of emergent key understandings and commonalities that had emerged. For example, as part of the self-care discussion arising from Prompt 4, we revisited the importance of kindness, but in this discussion, it was as a form of self-care.

This led to a discussion about the gendered nature of kindness, potential exploitation, and, as one of us commented, whether “the bosses then say here we've got a bunch of these people who are going to do this kind of work, let's take advantage of this. Then it becomes required rather than giving from the heart…”

We saw that kindness was a deeply held value for each of us but one that was undervalued and usually unrecognised by our institutions. We concluded that “we don’t value kindness the way we value accomplishments or the ability to make money in academic circles, to be awarded research grants and publish…It is something that is crucial to human relations, but isn’t highly valued."


As we indicated earlier, using memory-work allowed both positive and negative memories to surface, which in turn created a rich data source of memory narratives that could be shared and interrogated, and connected with the literature. During our meetings, through dialogue, we were able to come to new understandings, surfacing, (re)considering, and reinterpreting our memories anew.

Collaborative memory-work has enabled us to turn often deeply personal memories into research for a broader audience. As we articulated earlier in this account, aided by the use of writing in the third person, this separation allowed a deeper level of analysis. This chapter evidences the rigor and trustworthiness of the methods used to generate our findings over this three-year project. These findings are shared in the companion chapter (Garbett et al., 2023).

We also acknowledge our dear colleague, Lynn Thomas, who began this memory-work journey with us but died in June 2022. We finish with Lynn’s words acknowledging the value to her of the memory-work process: “These meetings are really important for me. I do look forward to them in the sense that I can still think. I can still articulate. It's wonderful.” Her insights underline the continuing value of memory work for us all.


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Dawn Garbett

University of Auckland

Linda Fitzgerald

University of Northern Iowa

Rena Heap

The University of Auckland

Lynn Thomas

Université de Sherbrooke

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