When the eight participants in this project came together in September 2021, none of us knew each other. While we all identified as being and becoming academics of working-class heritage (WCH), we were quite a heterogeneous group. Five of us identified as being female and three as being male. There were a range of ages stretching from the 30s to the 50s. Geographically, we originated from an array of urban and rural spaces across the four UK nations, and Eastern Europe. In terms of ethnicity, everyone within this self-selecting group identified as white. 

Most of our interactions and discussions were carried out via Teams. However, on some occasions, different people within the groups met outside of our virtual inquiry space. Some of the group came together for EuroSoTL in Manchester in May 2022, where we presented our experiences as a developing community of inquiry. Through our work, we have highlighted that a key component for any groups such as this to work is the need for trust, particularly when sharing intimate memories tinged with pain, trauma and joy. Without the trust, approaches such as this one are less likely to be meaningful. 
At the conceptual heart of this project was a commitment to create narrative encounters as a means of keeping meaning open and developing new understandings (Goodson and Gill, 2011). The narrative encounter is an unsettling one as it asks people to be attentive to how the stories of others shape their own stories and potentially tell them something different about others as well as themselves. The notion of unsettling is synonymous with rupture that leads to complicating actions needed for stories to move forward, maintaining the interest of the listener or reader. With the intention of causing disequilibrium in the hope it would lead to moments of interrogation, there was always the concern that this process would cause emotional dissonance. Therefore, the ethical dimensions of the study were constantly visible, acting as a reminder to care for each other and our stories.   

Georgiana and Adam having a coffee

Georgiana and Adam having a coffee

As bell hooks (2009, p5) states, “we know ourselves through the art and act of remembering”; which can evoke a range of emotional responses. At times, this work was emotionally discomforting as we revisited happenings and places sometimes tinged with trauma. After the second story circle, it became apparent that we needed to decompress and talk about the emotional demands of sharing. Talking about how the study was affecting ways we (re)interpreted and remembered stories required the sharing of vulnerabilities, which wouldn’t have happened without an emerging sense of trust. We realised that emotional work was a necessary component of the storytelling process. Therefore, rather than resort to that most human of responses to resolve ambiguity and ward off contradiction to find comfort (see Boler, 1999), we worked with emotional discomfort to create our stories. 

From the outset of the project, we pursued the pedagogic principle of co-production of knowledge. This situated the study within participatory paradigms, with a particular emphasis on decision-making as a shared act. This concept of participation was aligned with an aspirant notion of collectivity leading to the creation of an exilic space were power was distributed equally. However, the practicalities of an academic life, where time is short and demands are multiple, meant that participants wanted direction and guidance from the principal investigator (PI). While I, in my role as PI, initially felt it undemocratic to take more of a directional role, I came to the realisation that to not respond to what participants requested was not in the spirit of a democratic participatory approach 
(Amba et al, 2018). Therefore, I started to put deadlines in place, ensure there were regular updates and maintain contact through progress meetings. The experience illustrated how often idealistic interpretations of what participatory looks like can be problematised by the situational complexities of the research site. In this instance, the everyday demands of being a busy academic necessitated more direction.    

The project illustrated that intersectional identity characteristics such as gender, age, and ethnicity challenge the idea of working-class identity as something homogenous and stable. In addition, this work has highlighted the spatial nature of stories and how the people we share social and cultural spaces with will influence the stories we create to represent who we are becoming. As Jill Stauffer (2015) maintains, representations of self are, for good and bad, intersubjectively formed in the company of other people. Therefore, in studies such as this, meaning needs to be kept open through questioning to help us remain vigilant to the danger of any one story becoming sacrosanct. This requires co-operation, trust, compassion and care for each other. 

Sheet music with people on Teams down the righthand side

Online meeting looking at Jessica's sheet music