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Patricia L. McMahon, Ph.D
McMahon, P. (1993). A narrative study of three levels of reflection in a college composition class: Teacher journal, student portfolios, teacher-student discourse. UMI ProQuest Digital Dissertation #AAT 9329582


I began my career as an eleventh and twelfth grade English teacher. After earning my M.A. in English, I taught at the community college level for many years. Teaching at the community college, particularly in the composition classroom, led me to the work of my dissertation. Writing my dissertation was a completely enjoyable experience; I learned so much about who I am-the writer, the teacher, the researcher. It was in the process of writing my narrative study that I was able to articulate my pedagogy and come to understand my interpretive world view, and these insights have had a profound impact on my life-in and out of the classroom.

My dissertation provided me the foundation to explore more deeply through narrative inquiry. I am particularly interested in how writing fiction may inform our thinking about learning and teaching, and I have written both mildly and wildly fictive representations of my own teaching experiences as a means of inquiry about my pedagogy. In the past few years, I have been published and have presented at AERA on this topic of arts-based educational research.

My participation in our Study Group is longstanding. I have been a member since 1991. I joined for the purpose of writing my dissertation; I have stayed on all these years because it is a community that is intellectually nourishing and because strong friendships have grown through the years as a result of our scholarly pursuits. My participation in this group has contributed greatly to my personal and professional growth.

I am now an associate professor of teacher education and director of secondary education at Carlow College. In addition to overseeing the secondary student teachers and teaching seminars, I teach Curriculum and Methods of Teaching English, Reading and Writing across the Disciplines, and Advanced Secondary Field Experience. In the fall, I will be teaching in the Master's of Educational Praxis program as well.

Dissertation Abstract:

This narrative study focuses on my struggles to create a more personally meaningful learning experience for students and teacher alike in the college composition classroom. In Chapter I, I introduce my desire to involve students more rigorously in their own writing process and in the life of the class. In Chapter II, I begin to think about reflection in the composition curriculum and devise an educational encounter to engage my students in the process of reflection.

The centerpiece of this curriculum is the requirement of a writing portfolio, for which I provide no specific guidelines or model. Purposely problematizing the learning experience, I ask my students to capture their thinking both in the form of the reflective content of their portfolio and in negotiating for themselves a reflective procedure which allows them to create the structure of the portfolio itself.

Chapter III, my reflective journal, is the story of what occurs in the classroom as a result of this task. Here, I explain what transpires during the course of one semester when students are asked to construct knowledge for themselves, and I describe our work as a discourse community as we attempt to understand how knowledge is made and what it means to reflect.

In Chapter IV, I am faced with the task of analyzing 65 student portfolios in order to reach conclusions about the nature of reflection exhibited within them. Struggling to envision a conceptual framework to capture the range of material before me, I realize I am working to make meaning, trusting the same inductive process in which I had placed my students. Eventually, I see my students' writing as their means of making sense of the portfolio experience itself.

Four categories of response to the portfolio emerge: "Searching for Boundaries," "Finding a Voice," "Pursuing Connections," and "Making Discoveries." I describe each mode of interpretation in Chapter V, where I present individual portrayals of students' reflection as it is represented in their writing and in their discourse.

In Chapter VI, I reflect on the lessons I have learned from this experience.


Piantanida, M., McMahon, P.L., & Garman, N.B. (2003). Sculpting the contours of arts-based educational research with a discourse community. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(2), 182-191.

Piantanida, M., McMahon, P.L., & Garman, N.B. (2003). On the value of "leaky boundaries"čA response to Patrick Slattery. Qualitative Inquiry, 9(2), 198-201.

McMahon, P.L. (2000). From angst to story to research text: The role of arts-based educational research in teacher inquiry. The Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 16(1), 125-145.

Piantanida, M., Garman, N.B., & McMahon, P.L. (2000). Crafting an arts-based educational research thesis: Issues of tradition and solipsism. In P. Willis, R. Smith and E. Collins (Eds.), Being, seeking, telling: Expressive approaches to qualitative adult education research. Flaxton, Queensland, Australia: Post Pressed. (Invited chapter)

McMahon, P. L. (1999). Becoming through writing. In M. Piantanida and N. Garman, The qualitative dissertation: A guide for students and faculty. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press, Inc. (Invited essay)

Works in Progress:

From Mildly to Wildly Fictive: Reflecting in Pedagogical Time through the Art of Story (chapter for Study Group book, The authority to imagine: Ontology and dissertation writing in education)


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