Reflections on Identity

Susannah Wilson

Wenger (1998) describes identity as “multiple interwoven trajectories,” linking membership to different communities simultaneously. This essay is partially a plea for help: my trajectories are unravelling. Halfway through the first year of a Professional Doctorate, if I can use the term ‘academic’ at all, it must be preceded by ‘novice’. But I’d be more comfortable altogether if I didn’t use the term at all. I have failed, so far, to weave the identity of academic into my sense of self.

I had not realised that the new role of researcher would be so difficult to incorporate. I knew—instinctively as well as theoretically—that our identities are being negotiated all the time; I had recognised and embraced my multiple role identities of (amongst others) mother, teacher, wife, friend, runner. The prospect of adding one more role identity into the mix did not ring any alarm bells. I was unaware, at the time of applying for the programme, that the specific identity roles of teaching and research are cited as potentially in conflict with each other (Xerri, 2017); I was blissfully unaware of the tensions I was about to unleash within my sense of self.

I am not someone for whom identity is usually an issue—especially with reference to my teaching role. My identity as a teaching practitioner is clear, strong and confident. I have a confidence in the decisions I make as a practitioner—a confidence bordering on arrogance, sometimes—born of my experience and the knowledge I have in my field. I deliver training as a practitioner to other teaching practitioners; I lead a curriculum area and feel confident in my ability to do so. But within my identity as a practitioner, my social bases of identity (Barnard, 2019) clearly align: characteristics of my personal identity (I am logical; I am systematic; I am capable) align well with my role identity of practitioner. As a researcher, the same cannot be said. In the role of researcher, I am filled with self-doubt—I flit between ideas and I do not feel capable of the task ahead. I am scared of this role as much as I am excited by it—and I do not feel competent to achieve.

There is a certain irony in these struggles, in that my proposed research area includes an exploration of the extent to which student identities affect the learning and feedback processes. So I read widely about how successful learning is linked to identity (e.g. Brzeski, 2017). I note that learners’ understanding of their “possible selves” (Dornyei and Ushodi, 2009) are fundamental to how they act, and how the ‘possible self’ must include the concept of success within their study. I read, I note, I make links between the literature and my own learners—and I fail to see my reflection in these portrayals of learners.

My confidence in my practitioner identity is born also of the support I receive from practitioners around me. Family gatherings are overrun with teachers, of different subjects and at different levels; many of my closest friends are teachers. I am a teacher living in a world where teachers and the practice of teaching is valued.

Perhaps this more clearly explains the tension that I now experience. It is the practice of teaching that is valued: the hard graft of working with learners; the responsibilities of leading an exam class; the relentless, physically onerous task of performing in the classroom, hour after hour, day after day. Our discussions about our roles are filled with battle metaphors—we are ‘frontline’ teachers; we face an uphill ‘battle’ getting our learners to engage. We are fighters, we are grafters, and our work is hard. There is a “sanctioned importance” (Behar, 2014, p. 37) to my work as a practitioner, and I enjoy working in the knowledge that my efforts are sanctioned by my community.

This new identity of researcher does not sit well within these circles. Hargreaves (1996, cited in Rose, 2002) suggests that the agenda for educational research is set by researchers, not practitioners, and this leads to a gap between the requirements of practitioners and the work of researchers. The requirements of academic research—that it is “abstract and theoretical, or in some other way generalised” (McIntyre, 2005)—render it irrelevant to the complex specificity required by practitioners. Knowing this, perhaps, forms the basis of my struggles. Barnard (2019) suggests that identity tensions result from “seeking a unique sense of self while simultaneously wanting to belong and be accepted by others.” I want my work to be accepted and understood by the teaching practitioner community that I hold so dear, and my experiences within it suggest that this will not happen. So I will not talk about it—and I resolve these issues by highlighting my practitioner identity—revising my identity to decrease the prominence of researcher.

But, again, my proposed research area should help me. I underline and highlight references to the difficulties students face in expressing their identities in new learning communities (Wenger-Trayner et al., 2015), and how these struggles may jeopardize their learning successes. I walk into the kitchen, make a cup of tea, reflecting on all of this, and fail to recognise myself as a learner researcher in this picture. I stretch my arms, shaking out the student-shaped tensions in my shoulders—and if I do recognise myself, I fail to take the advice that I know I would otherwise give to any other student. I have a blind spot, and am in danger of taking myself out because of it.

We all have such blind spots—areas of weakness which we cannot or will not acknowledge. If I were to interrogate mine, I would note that they relate to a desire to avoid posturing. But my definition of ‘posturing’ is skewed, I think. When lining up at the start line of a running event, I’ll avoid stretching for fear of being the ostentatious athlete. I teach literature, but will avoid conspicuous reading of poetry in a coffee shop—even if it is just preparation for my next class. I don’t judge my fellow runners for limbering up; I’m envious of the person on the adjacent table reading Keats with their coffee. And I’m the one who risks an injury, or an insufficient understanding of the canon. But I’m too self-conscious of how it will appear if I were to adopt the same behaviours: I cannot engage with these aspects of my identity in public. My understanding of ‘posturing’ means that I jeopardize my own success, for fear of appearing to overreach.

Similarly, I reject a public display of ‘doctoral researcher’ behaviours. Travelling back from the first residential weekend of my studies, I was desperate to look through the reading list, review my notes, read some of the papers towards which I had been directed. I had all the paperwork safely stored in a purple translucent folder, along with a packet of post-it notes, two biros in different colours and a set of highlighters. I wanted to start reading, annotating, making links, planning. But I knew that the label ‘doctoral researcher’ was emblazoned on the front of the handbook; that the headers and footers were trumpeting ‘Doctorate in Education’ and ‘Professional Doctorate’. In the very busy, very public space of the train carriage, I was physically confined in the window seat: my belongings squeezed onto my share of the table in front of me and another passenger trapping my access to the aisle. I was equally confined in my actions. I was torn between wanting to start my doctorate study—wanting to engage with the ideas and the processes and the content—and not being able to engage with it publically.

Again, though, if I could have but got on with my work, I would have found some reassurance within the literature. Charmaz (2017, p. 36) suggests that qualitative research is “infused with” Anglo-North American viewpoints and assumptions, which favour the individual over the collective. My focus is on an individual here—myself—and my fear of “losing face” is common in the context of the research I hope to do. If I could have but got on with my work, I could have been engaging with these ideas. Such self-consciousness could be moulded into the methodological self-consciousness and reflexivity which qualitative research requires. But, sitting on that train, I couldn’t get over the barriers which I had erected for myself. Now, halfway through that first year, they still cause me to stumble.

And yet. My inner researcher is secure in her knowledge that identity is not fixed. She waits, patient and steadfast, for these tensions to dissolve; for me to resolve these issues and allow her back in. She is right to do so. I have just once managed to articulate these concerns clearly, during a meeting with a supervisor designed to provide further academic and pastoral support. I blurted out my concerns—the words tumbling out in fragments, in incomplete sentences complete with emotionally charged gurning and flappy hands. I was unable to gauge his reaction properly—the Skype software unable to fully overcome the barriers to communication caused by our distance—and I was suddenly filled with dread that he’d take my concerns seriously. I had thought that I was speaking a truth—but I realised that, should he recommend that I give up my researcher identity, I would be bereft. I realised that she had become part of me; I realised that I would fight to weave her closer into me. I hope we’ll get there.


Barnard, A. (2019). Developing Researcherhood: Identity tensions and identity work of women academics reflecting on their researcher identity. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 20 (3).

Behar, R. (2014). The Vulnerable Observer. Beacon Press.

Brzeski, A. (2017). Literary practices, identity and engagement: integrating multifaceted identities of college students to support learning. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 22 (3). Pp. 391-408. doi: 10.1080/13596748.2017.1358519.

Charmaz, K. (2017). The Power of Constructivist Grounded Theory for Critical Inquiry. Qualitative Inquiry, 23 (1), pp. 34-45. doi: 10.1177/1077800416657105.

Dornyei, Z. and Ushioda, E. (2009). Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self. Channel View Publications.

McIntyre, D. (2005). Bridging the gap between research and practice. Cambridge Journal of Education, 35 (3), pp. 357-382.

Rose, R. (2002). Teaching as a ‘research-based profession’: encouraging practitioner research in special education, British Journal of Special Education, 29 (1).

Wenger-Trayner, E. et al., (2015). Learning in Landscapes of Practice. Abingdon: Routledge


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