Elena Worsfold: PGCE Work 2005-06:

Education Autobiography

The Sociology of Autobiography is a qualitative research method by which a broad based narrative of a life is a means to connect "private troubles" with "public issues" on the lines given by C. Wright Mills (1959). It starts with a means of extracting the life narrative of the researched informant, and whilst this can be done with a light touch unstructured interview, or in education through teachers facilitating the life writing of individuals (it is individualist, even if supported through group work, e.g. Harrison and Miller, 2006), it can also be done in essay format such as this.
It is usually for the informant to determine the key events in the life story, and this person must provide the connecting narrative, and then the researcher links these to the main issues. The informant may have been told the parameters of interest, but this should not restrict the connections the performer makes. Here the sociological technique is being transferred to education, which is the parameter of interest, so the public issues are educational, and, furthermore, the analyst and life story provider is the same person, rather as when the sociologist uses his or her own experience towards doing qualitative work including personal life story narrative.
The autobiography is useful only in so far as it does make the connection between private events and sociological and educational  public issues; this parallels the concern shown for assessment of the autobiographical method when it is student work (Harrison and Miller, 2006). So I move to my autobiography, making some public issue points along the way, and concluding with broader public issue matters that derive from the narrative as a whole.
I did not attend a prestigious school. Elite party members, children of high education staff and captains of industry sent their children to the city centre prestigious schools in Voronezh, Russia. My mother was an Assistant Professor/ Senior Lecturer in the Technology of Vodka and Spirits Based Production in the Department of Brewing in the Technological Academy in Voronezh but she did not have the connections to admit me to the prestigious school and we also lived far from this school. Incidentally I was born in Cherkassy Ukraine because my mother went to my grandmother for support in her last days of pregnancy; I was also brought up there from ten months until three years, while she did her Ph.D, and between five until six, and for all summer holidays until 15 years old. My father was an ordinary party member so he had no privileges for my entry into the best school. So from September 1st 1974 (aged seven) I went to the catchment school of the area of my parents' new flat (lived in from when I was six and a half). This school was in a newly built area in the 1960s and 1970s, where there were blocks of flats for workers moving from the wider region (300 by 300 kilometres square) to work in the defence supported semiconductor industry on the left bank of the river of Voronezh, a location that itself consisted of villages before then. My parents had moved there not because we came from outer villages but because my father worked as an engineer in the microelectronics industry.
Schools were the same for primary and secondary periods, and I was there for ten years. Teachers focused across subjects in the first three years, and then the teachers were subject specialists in later years. From seven to nine I was good at Maths but made mistakes in Russian language. I was not an excellent student in these years. However, from aged nine I started to get excellent marks in every subject until the end of school. There were four randomly divided very mixed ability classes in the year and every year from then on until 17 I was the second highest performer of the year. I was second because the person who was first also performed very well in her earliest primary years. In June 1984 I received the equivalent of 15 equivalent GCSEs/ AS levels with excellent marks.
A third of students left when 15 to go to non-university higher level education or vocational education (no one went straight into work). Whilst Russian education was structured around achievement it did not have an academic and vocational division as in the United Kingdom. When 17 (September 1984) I decided to go to the Faculty of Physics for a speciality in Microelectronics at Voronezh State University. Because of my excellent school certificate I only had to pass two exams out of four for entry, which were Maths and Physics. I needed a Good and an Excellent for entry, but received Excellent in both.
I stayed there for five years. A fair comparison with English qualifications is that this resulted in a Masters level degree in Physics. It is called Diploma (Honours) of Higher Education and came from the Department of Physics of Microelectronics and Semiconductor Devices at Voronezh State University. The modules had included Microelectronics, Physics of Semiconductors and Semiconductor Devices, Technology of Semiconductors, High Mathematics, Theoretical and Quantum Physics, Computing and General Physics, General Studies, Social Studies and English as a Foreign language. For my fifth year I went to Moscow to the  Physical Chemistry Research Institute. Regarding research, I was involved in producing and investigating electrical properties of superconductor ceramics and vacuum condencers of Bi-Sr-Ca-Cu-O system, optical properties of semiconductors, investigating new semiconductor materials A(II)-B(VI) group, and Method of Polishing Etching of Zincum Diarsenid.
After graduation in 1989 I remained in the Department of Physics of Semiconductors and Microelectronics for research work and after two years in 1991 at 24 years I formally entered three years of postgraduate study with an additional year take in order to finish. This resulted in my Ph.D in Technical Sciences in December 1995. The speciality was Solid-State Electronics, Microelectronics and Nanoelectronics, and the subject of the thesis was Numerical Simulation of Power High Voltage Bipolar and DMOS Transistors.
These were lean years in Russia, and most of the semiconductor industry (as supported by the Ministry of Defence) closed down. The Department in the University was halved in size and all research laboratories in collaboration with the Voronezh Scientific Manufacturing Company were closed down. Of its ten thousand workers only one thousand remained in employment. As a result I could not be promoted to a Senior Researcher post or a teaching position there. I looked for work elsewhere in education.
I have always had an interest in photography on both sides of the camera. Pictures of me taken at the time I was working as a scientific researcher (around 1990) show me as quite and peculiarly slim. This was complex: it reflected stress of getting my qualifications; it also continued when I was both personally happy with my employment and yet could not support myself on its very low salary; and this was also the time that the Soviet Union moved towards collapse. When I was working in the school my weight came back. Uncertainty and lack of advancement in the West is associated with obesity. For me, the private trouble oscillation between early thinness and later added weight is linked directly to the public issue of the crisis around the collapse of the Soviet Union but also uncertainty in the UK with forms of training and the short term nature of work. Fat is a feminist issue, as Susie Orbach, the psychoanalyst, has stated in her book (1979).
I find this relevant because, as Gerhard Riemann (2003) points out, a significant boost to autobiography as a sociological method came about because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and problems in Baltic states. He states that it is personal narratives that can extra give sociological insight to the ending of a superpower. It is not simply that times were hard in terms of surviving, but that the very ideological basis of existence, the culture in the mind, had gone overnight, leaving people bereft from all that they had grown up believing. In terms of ideology, I was in Komsomol (the youth wing of the Communist Party) but refused all requests to take up leadership. My orientation that was fundamentally disturbed was that of steady progress through Higher Education and towards defence supported semiconductor research, and yet as the society changed I could not support myself, doors closed in terms of prospects, shifts were made downwards in terms of teaching levels, and education entered an ideological vacuum. Russia went through a period of semi-criminal wild west style capitalism, and only recently has it been trying to avoid becoming its version of an American free for all. Now it is trying to find a Russian cultural economy, though with an embedded political elite (centralist and anti-democratic) that is clearing out the competition from its close wealthy oligarchs, and still with a strong condition of corruption.
So from 1996-1997 I worked for one academic year as a part time teacher of ICT in a secondary school. I did not enjoy this job; also I would have been paid better in Higher Education due to my Ph.D. Then in 1997 I found a post at Voronezh State Pedagogical University as a Lecturer and after a year Assistant Professor/ Senior Lecturer of the New Computer Technologies and Teaching Tools Department. This involved teaching Windows OS and Microsoft Office, various programming languages, High and Computational Mathematics, Pedagogical Issues of Computer Aided Education, Computer Psychodiagnostics, and I was Supervisor of theses for diplomas of Higher Education. This was as high as I wanted to go, for such little pay, and any higher would have been into an all absorbing professorship which I did not want for its payment.
The alternative would have been commercial work in my own business for which I did not have the background or necessary criminal and official connections.
I was now thirty three and Russian society expects marriage by the age of twenty five. If you are single you cannot be elected to Head of Department, Dean, Vice Chancellor or Head of Faculty without being married. This is rather different from recent British gender history, where marriage for women has prevented or slowed career development. I had had a number of short unsatisfactory relationships including in an isolated village - I am a city girl.
There are ten million more women in Russia than men altogether. Life expectancy for women was 72 and men 59, and the gap between the two noticeably expands from the late twenties upwards due to conscription into military forces. This brutalises many men, and also there was a general level of male violence and criminal activity. Alcoholism was also rife. So I had an advert on an email list for the interest of foreign men in general. I was not especially interested in the UK but I wanted to avoid the United States.
I entered into a correspondence with Adrian Worsfold and decided to visit, from which a decision was made to marry. As well as seeing compatibility, this was also because in order to continue the relationship beyond six months marriage is required by the Home Office (unless homosexual: this being before Civil Partnerships). This was despite him living in a village and with his mother (but I had lived with my parents). I expected a grilling of at least forty five minutes at the British Embassy to gain a six month initial visa (the time span in which to marry) but in the event I was asked about my qualifications and experience in less than fifteen minutes and was given the necessary documentation. My admission to the UK was on the formal basis of a relationship but the actual basis was economics. There was a publicly presented policy on immigration and an actual policy, this at a time of controversy over asylum seekers moving in huge numbers given problems in Eastern Europe and Russia, the war in the former Yugoslavia and additionally Africa in crises close to the wealthy European Union. The British economy maintained itself at a time of recession elsewhere partly because of credit and partly due to low paid immigration, but I was one of the immigrants within the system and, being legitimate, discovered how training was restricted and meaningful work difficult to obtain.
As a result my last Russian post lasted until May 2001 when I came to the UK, being discharged September 2001. For some time then after I did not work, until a friend of Adrian's (he had produced a website for his firm) used me for occasional computer training from October. From this I did a little as an Examinations Invigilator at Hull College from March 2003, and from there was a Lecturer in Mathematics from September 2003 to July 2004.
I had come from a society in which education careers were state supported and long term, but in a process of partial collapse and reorientetation, to a society which follows short-terms in employment and decentralisation to corporate colleges. The funding for education in the UK, creating opportunities for lower end ability learning and flexible teaching, contrasts with a difficulty of access to Higher Education unless you are already research active. The bridge across was effectively cut unless transferring abroad for work reasons. There was a deliberate limitation of directed support for education and training that would allow a foreign national to be research active.
What I did do in terms of training was take advantage of the directed funding that allowed me to use adult education in getting ICT III and taking English designed for foreign students, switching to the necessary standard of GCSE for English rather than have to explain an equivalent qualification. I note that had I come to the UK now, the ICT course would not have been so available in local Adult Education due to the shift of funding to 16 to 19 years, undermining the principle of lifelong learning. I have retained a friendship with an adult education tutor who describes the extent of the cutbacks now taking place locally and across the UK.
Two changes were happening to me that had started in Russia. One was the movement from Physics to Mathematics, which was due to the economic collapse taking place and the universality of Mathematics. I had also moved towards teaching ICT then (rather different from the programming I used to do). The other was coming from high level research and teaching to lower level. In the UK these intensified, due to the demand for key skills and basic skills and the nature of funding and provision.
In the UK I found a Russian and Ukrainian cafe which was a hub of the community across both sides of the River Humber. Here I made a number of friends, including women who have married British men. Many have stopped working, and others have not continued their higher level careers. It is generally women who have emigrated from Russia, and intelligent women too. They left a declining Russia which could no longer support what was expected. Yet in coming to the UK (as well as elsewhere in the West), the jobs gained are much lower level, part time and transitory, and the result is a disappointment where, eventually, divorce becomes frequent. Some of these people have returned to Ukraine and Russia, still unable to take up their past careers but with at least the knowledge of the home culture and society.
The principal problem I faced was that the smooth transfer from one level of education to another in Russia, and from researching to teaching, was not possible here. If I was now going to have a career in teaching, I would have to be qualified according to the rules and methods of the United Kingdom. The rules for further education employment were changing anyway, and I needed maximum flexibility for a variety of routes in the future. Given this and my high level of education, I needed a teaching qualification to match. I had to wait until I was here for three years or more. This is how I came to the University of Portsmouth.
I should add that within this process my husband had short term work, including teaching Literacy at Hull college when I taught Numeracy. He has a Ph.D in Sociology and MA in a Theology subject. We both lost our jobs at the same time at Hull College due to reorganising Key Skills there. He went on to do his PGCE (Secondary), in Religious Education, for which he was successful and yet warning signs existed about his own unsuitability for school teaching. From this I ruled out school teaching for myself. Eventually he received a Sociology teaching post at a Sixth Form College. He is best suited for Higher Education, and with no opportunities arising during the MA has had no further chance of access for the same absence of research activity reasons. He has been disappointed about the actual substance of AS and A2 levels (inadequate levels of literacy and low levels of abstract thinking), and found the clear informal labelling of failure for badly behaved GCSE students in sixth form college, and is now considering a completely different future away from education.
Therefore we live with very high levels of uncertainty, both in the short term and long term. The public presentation of education is that of continued investment and (for schools) a national curriculum driven statistical rise in standards that continues in post compulsory education with the intention of putting fifty per cent of students into Higher Education. This is the figure long achieved in Russia, but here the increasing stress on basic skills across Mathematics, English and Computing suggests another story, and the frustrated debate following the Tomlinson Report, suggests a different reality at the same time as apparent success. In amongst this, however, is the experience of trying to build and not achieving short term education posts and needing formal successful training in order to continue.
On a theoretical level I am an example of the role ambivalence that comes from the Sociology of the Stranger. This is a structural position in society. Georg Simmel (1950) introduced this concept for individuals in marginal groups, and either are mobile in terms of a given society or have the characteristic of mobility thrust upon them. The principle ethnic group historically for this have been Jews, with a history to match, but it can apply to several ethnic and other marginal groups who carry out taboo roles or find themselves somewhat out of synchronisation with the majority society. Gerhard Riemann (2003) in his use of autobiography referred to this in work done by two students Christa Noack and Heike Kahlerthülya, under Professor Hoffmann-Riem, interviewing a Turkish migrant woman into Germany. The person who acquires the structural position of a stranger can acquire an "objective" view of a situation in a society that holds others in its material interests. The knowledge of two cultures enhances this ambivalence through being never quite in either, but it allows comparison and contrast of each. I have done such analysis in my own work comparing Russia and the UK within the PGCE training. A principal contrast is the systematised and formal didactic nature of teaching in Russia compared with the student centred learning of the UK, and the relative outcomes. The state of two cultures internalised is most directly experienced by people like me, who hold the sociological position of stranger, and who has the condition of unstable mobility maintained.

Elena Worsfold



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Simmel, G. (1950), Wolff, K. (trans.), 'The Sociology of Georg Simmel', New York: Free Press, Macmillan, in Coser, L. A., Rosenberg, B. (1976), Sociological Theory, 4th edition, London: Collier Macmillan, 535-540.