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Autoethnography: Understanding the bias of the brain

Researcher: Sherick Hughes
image of brain and students

On the first day of his Autoethnography in/as Educational Research class, Sherick Hughes, professor at the School of Education, talks about implicit and explicit biases, and the major impact they have on teachers and students in classrooms, and on society as a whole.

And, as autoethnography is a research methodology of critical self-reflection, he starts by exposing his own.

“Even the man teaching the class has biases – we all do. I’m going to be asking them to be really honest with themselves and have these conversations together as a group. So, I do this bias exposure to show that I can practice this process with them, I can embody it,” says Hughes. “I have made a career of sharing my mistakes and my blind spots, along with the ways I continue growing through them.”

His recent book “Autoethnography: Process, Product, and Possibility for Critical Social Research” serves as an introduction to autoethnography as well as a guide for educators and educational researchers to consider in their own work.

The Edge
Sherick Hughes’ “process, product and possibility” research model for autoethnography has the potential to help future and current teachers tackle major social issues in education, such as racial and ethnic disparities in classrooms and school systems. Though the concept, used more often in the health sciences, is relatively new to education, this research methodology has the power to transform education by asking teachers and education leaders to investigate and confront their own cultural biases with openness and vulnerability. Gaining a greater understanding of themselves and how these influences play out in their lives will improve both the way they teach and conduct research. Hughes’ current investigation into how the process of autoethnography can change the brain may offer broader opportunities to help others change for the better.

According to the National Education Association, nearly 80 percent of teachers are white females, and many of them will be teaching at schools with predominately black and Latino students. If these teachers have never confronted how race, class and gender impact classroom trends, their students could have negative experiences in their classrooms, that, over time, can influence the trajectory of their lives.

“When our students and alumni see inequities in educational systems, they should be the leaders to ask questions, not only of the structures at work, but also of themselves,” says Hughes. “For example, one might ask, ‘If my school has a large number of students of color, why are there so few teachers of color at the school? Why are students with subjective special-needs labels, (such as Emotionally Disturbed or Learning Disabled), disproportionately non-white or impoverished at my school? How might I be contributing to these inequity and disproportionality issues?’”

When we have time to act rationally and think through my biases, we can either name and manage them toward more consistently equitable and just interactions with the object of my biases; or convince ourselves that we don’t have them, thereby increasing our potential to do more harm to the object of our biases, says Hughes.

Harvard’s Natasha Kumar Warikoo and her colleagues note that in high-stress situations, our knee-jerk thoughts tend to have more of an influence on our actions, particularly with the objects of our biases.

“In a school, you make decisions under stress all the time. So, if teachers’ knee-jerk reactions are ones that could be detrimental to a student who is the object of her/his biases, we have to question that,” Hughes said. For example, “If you’re a white Christian female teacher or principal going to a high stress, under-resourced, high-stakes testing accountability school, and you have strong biases toward black, brown, and/or Muslim male students and their families, you might rationally know that’s wrong. But, it’s really worthy work to explore why you have these biases and to learn how to effectively engage de-biasing strategies, before you are in charge of a classroom or school, where that could lead to negative outcomes for students.”


Hughes, whose research focuses on issues of race in education teaches his students autoethnography so they can study themselves critically, taking a deep look at how their racial and cultural predispositions have influenced their relationships to power, as well as how these things have brought them privileges (the advantages they experience in our sociocultural context) and penalties (the disadvantages they experience in our sociocultural context).

Ethnography is the study of people and cultures. Autoethnography is an extension of that study, a systematic method of critical self-reflection within those discussions of people and cultural contexts. It’s intended to help professionals – anyone from educators to health-care providers – investigate their racial and cultural biases, begin to understand where they originate, and see how they influence the way they work, live and interact with others.

Hughes uses his own childhood experience as an example: the early intelligence tests he took as a child set him on a different trajectory than his siblings and friends in school. Performing well academically was a privilege. A penalty was limited access to educational opportunities available to wealthy children, as a child who qualified for free/reduced lunch in a poor, rural school district.

“As University of Maryland Professor Patricia Hill Collins explains, we all have privileges and penalties. If I walk across campus, and the students I walk past have their own biases at play, being male may be something they have a positive association with in that moment. If they see men as strong or powerful, being a man is privilege,” Hughes says. “But, then, my racial identity may bring a negative association for some others who have an implicit bias toward black people. If their implicit biases lead them to devalue, deskill, or infantilize me, because I’m black, that’s a penalty I experience.”

Together Hughes and his students work through research-based exercises developed to help them begin the journey of autoethnography. The exercises test their reactions in the moment. Their automatic answers and reactions will expose their biases, especially the ones they’ve never acknowledged or recognized.

“In high-stress situations, our knee-jerk thoughts tend to have more of an influence on our actions, particularly with the objects of our biases.”

“In teaching students how to do autoethnographies, we ask them to identify an area in which they know they struggle; most often, the people with whom they have the least contact and experience. We ask students to question what words and images most immediately come to mind when they hear certain words like black male, white female, or Muslim. This exercise gets them thinking about association bias, how much of that bias is implicit, explicit, and how much is just unacknowledged or dismissed. It calls them to question how they think about people, and how those thoughts might be linked to how they treat people.”

Many of these students will go in their careers to influence not only P-12 schools, but also, educational theories, policies and practices. They’re going to work in academia and participate in research that will impact how education is taught and experienced.

“If they can learn how to be better and more critical participants by using this research method now, it’s absolutely going to influence the quality and integrity of the work they do; and of the communities they call home.”


The next step in autoethnography is writing it down, examining the mistakes and missteps we all experience as part of the way we categorize the world around us. For Hughes’ students, writing about and exploring the roots of how and why they see the world, and beginning to ask themselves what they can do about it, is the work they’ll do in the class.

For students to unpack the difficult feelings that can come as a result of the process is very important, says Hughes. If future educators don’t begin to uncover, learn about and discuss their biases, they may unnecessarily bring those biases into their own classrooms as educators, says Hughes.

Hughes asks his students to turn the problems they’ve identified within themselves into an autoethnographical research questions: How did I learn to associate negative messages to certain racial, cultural and ethnic groups? What were the origins of those negative messages in my life and what can I about it?

It is not easy, at first. A level of comfort among the students can take a while to find. But Hughes makes it clear that, in working with autoethnography, the School of Education classroom can be a safer space to talk about tough topics, when confidentiality is agreed upon and upheld by the group. With this agreement, students can reveal their vulnerabilities and tell their truths about what their biased minds quickly categorize as positive or negative.

“If we’re having trouble getting there, sometimes I remind them they are learning a research methodology that helps them better refine their craft. Where else will they get to do something like this process, but at a research university?”

Hughes again uses his own autoethnographical work as an example:

“The first time I taught a particular course in diversity, equity and social justice, I received several negative evaluations from students. Some called me racist and said the only thing they had learned in my class is that I’m black.”

Hughes discussed this with his minority colleagues from other schools, who shared they had similar experiences. “The more we talked, the less upset I was about the evaluations themselves, and the more I wanted to know what I could have done differently and what exercises could have helped those students participate more productively. How could I improve my critical-race pedagogy? And, had the students and I carried any implicit biases into the classroom that affected the way I taught the class and what the students learned?”


Can the processes of taking on an autoethnography actually change the brain? Hughes is collaborating with two neuroscientists to see how autoethnography as a centered component of race- and equity-based coursework may help rewire the brain to decrease automatic negative associations with images and words that reflect the object of participants’ biases.

In post-tests given at the end of the semester, Hughes found quantitative data to support the changes students described at the end of the semester in their autoethnographies. Some 51 percent of his students who participated in the pilot study also have a positive change in their implicit biases via the Harvard Implicit Association Test, and statistically significant decreases (p < .01) via the Quick Discrimination Index, considered a highly valid and reliable survey to assess subtle racial and gender bias. They are encouraging statistics, says Hughes, because it shows human beings can change for the better. Future studies will also examine how long these changes last and what boosters need to occur to sustain them.

De-biasing strategies should be ongoing, he says. Educators will continue to have their biases tested as they enter new school systems, grade levels and classrooms. Throughout a career, an educator may enter many different communities where they may encounter ethnic groups, poverty levels, religious affiliations or parenting styles that are new to them. An educator may spend much of her career in an urban area and have a new set of biases to confront when she moves to a rural school system.

“Autoethnography should absolutely be used as professional development. We can always work on decreasing our biases, especially the ones we’ve purposefully dismissed for so long.”

It’s an admirable undertaking, even when it’s hard, even when it forces educators to be vulnerable and investigate the parts of ourselves we know need to change, if we are to really live the egalitarian principles we espouse, Hughes says.

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By Courtney Mitchell