Using collaborative autoethnography in online teaching to improve doctoral mentor/mentee relationships

Concurrent Session 2

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Brief Abstract

Using Collaborative Autoethnogahpy (CAE), we examined our “teaching through feedback,” and relationships with doctoral students. We present how we used CAE and technology to explore relationship deterioration and repair. The authors will demonstrate and engage the audience in a mock-CAE session.


Dr. Jennifer O'Connor Duffy graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College. She then received her master's and doctoral degree in higher education administration from Boston College where she studied gender and educational inequality. She was selected as the Boston College Lynch School of Education Graduate Student Commencement Speaker. She has taught undergraduate and graduate students in education, leadership, and gender studies at several institutions including Suffolk University, Northeastern University, Kaplan University, Walden University, and Anna Maria College. She currently serves as Director of Faculty Research and Scholarly Activities at Bay Path University. Her most recent line of scholarship focuses on mentoring on-line doctoral students.

Extended Abstract

Within academia, trust in mentoring relationships has been studied in the context of face-to-face relationships and also in the context of those relationships that are established and maintained online. de Janasz and Godshalk (2013) found virtual mentoring effects on mentees’ learning and satisfaction to be equivalent to face-to-face mentoring. In both contexts, the mentor–mentee relationship involves some amount of vulnerability, or exposure to potential harm. Eller et al. (2013) identified mutual respect and trust as a key component to effective face-to-face mentoring, specifically noting the vulnerability of mentees, and Leners and Sitzman (2006) noted that both mentors and mentees may be vulnerable in the online environment.

We originally studied the idea of trust in doctoral mentor/mentee relationships in online environments, exploring dissertation chairs’ perceptions of and ways to implement trust actions in that relationship (Rademaker, Duffy O’Connor, Wetzler, & Zaikina-Montgomery, 2016). We created and implemented an exploratory, multiple-case study project and used an anonymous, online, open-ended questionnaire to allow participants to provide broad perspectives on the definition of trust and the ways in which they implement trust activities within their own work with students. The boundaries of the case were dissertation chairs’ perceptions of trust, and we categorized each chair’s response as a single case in order to account for the differences in how chairs work with their students. We discovered that chairs identified the significance of feedback, consistency, and personal connections to adequately establish trust with doctoral students.

Following that study, we then explored how dissertation chairs work to improve relationships in online environments, when that trust breaks down.  Numerous researchers have explored how individuals respond to relationship deterioration in a variety of settings. We used Rusbult’s (1982) theoretical framework of relationship deterioration, which included four sub-constructs, Exit, Voice, Loyalty, & Neglect. As we examined our own work as dissertation chairs, we brought our discussions together using a Collaborative Autoethnography (CAE) (Chang, 2013) method, sharing, reflecting and questioning each other utilizing both synchronous and asynchronous technologies as we were dispersed around the country. We found that we all shared empathy for our students, but still, some relationships deteriorate too far, and we then may resort to exit or neglect.  Rusbult defined these categories as:

Exit. Once a relationship deteriorates, both parties may consider the destructive, active approach of exiting.  The mentor who desires to exit but cannot do so because the student is an assigned doctoral mentee may have little choice but to work on repairing the relationship

Voice. Individuals who adopt an active, constructive approach are exercising their voice in trying to repair the relationship. For mentors locked into relationships with particular graduate students, voice may be the only viable strategy, regardless of the cause of conflict or level of prior investment.

Loyalty. When an individual adopts a passive, constructive approach, he or she is waiting for the relationship to improve.  Both experienced and novice mentors are likely to empathize if a doctoral student encounters common struggles, such as writer's block, as they themselves may have experienced similar difficulties.  

Neglect. At times, an individual may decide to pursue a passive, destructive end to an existing relationship.  With the many demands on mentors' time (teaching courses, conducting research, engaging in service), having a student disengage may be greeted with reciprocal disengagement by the mentor.  


Collaborative autoethnography (CAE) “focuses on self-interrogation, but does so collectively and cooperatively within a team of researchers” (Chang et al., 2013, p. 21). CAE allows multiple authors to participate in collective and cross-analytic questioning, in order to both encourage multivocality in reflection and collaborative process in self-analysis. In staying true to the practice of CAE, we used both synchronous technologies, such as Skype and Google tools such as chat and Google docs as well as asynchronous technology. We used the following research questions to guide our inquiry:

RQ1: What prompted the deterioration in the relationship?

RQ2: How did the dissertation chair respond?

RQ3: What was the outcome?

RQ4: What are the implications for us, collectively, as chairs for the future of how we work to restore “relationship satisfaction” in our student/mentor relationships?


We've chosen one case from our work to illustrate CAE, giving the vignette, and demonstrating questioning techniques.

Collaborative Autoethnography

Through CAE we were able to each examine our practice of “teaching through feedback,” explore our relationships with our students, and find the nuances of relationship dissatisfaction.  We then brought those examples to the group, sharing our thoughts and reflections on these examples as expressions of Rusbolt’s “exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect” as stages of relationship repair or relationship disengagement. Our challenge was to collaborate synchronously and asynchronously using technology: google calls, skype chat, dropbox, and google drive. In each synchronous group session, as we listened to each other share our cases, we questioned and empathized with similar situations and feelings.  We also expressed where our experiences differed, or suggested alternative reflections on the meaning of the experience. Chang, Ngunjiri, and Hernandez (2013) suggested this process offers five benefits that helps with analysis and connection: “(1) collective exploration of researcher subjectivity; (2) power-sharing among [the] researcher/participants; (3) efficiency and enrichment in the research process; (4) deeper learning about self and other; and (5) community building” (p. 25).

  All four of us mentor doctoral students through the dissertation process, so the phenomenon of building relationships with doctoral students is very similar. However, we are all very different in the way we approach the dissertation process and the way we approach our relationships with our students.  Some of us come from a primarily quantitative research background, while others are from a qualitative background.  Some of us are strict in our relationship parameters with our students, while others are more relaxed. We bring our contextual experiences as well to our work, as we all work virtually, and our students are all fully online students.  Collectively, our experiences are diverse, but the phenomenon we experience (mentoring doctoral students through the dissertation) is similar.  Using CAE allowed us to examine our similarities and differences and learn from each other, particularly in how to negotiate and perhaps improve the relationship we have with our students. Technology allowed us to come together virtually in real time and improved our communication and organizational skills.


As we worked to help each other understand their cases, one of our first realizations was that we all worked extensively to try to repair our relationships with our students.  Through several rounds of analysis (both multiple coding passes, and interpretive/thematic analysis) we chose the theme of empathy to represent our findings. Many scholars have noted the significance of the mentor-mentee relationship to student success in doctoral work. Online doctoral work may require more support for that relationship, as students may feel isolated, and depend upon their mentor more than in a brick-and-mortar setting. Our work suggested that we continuously worked to support students in doctoral learning, and through empathy strove to repair relationships as much as possible.

Practice Session

We believe that CAE facilitated our understanding of relationship breakdown and relationship repair. Now we invite you to enter this conversation. In groups of 4-6, we will practice CAE techniques of questioning, relating, and demonstrating our understanding, to come up with group suggestions for repairing (or exiting) the relationship: What do you do when these relationships deteriorate?

  1. Do you have experience with doctoral mentor--mentee relationships deteriorating? Could you share?

  2. What techniques have you used to mentor doctoral students when the trust breaks down?

    1. Have there been situations when it’s just beyond repair?

    2. What do you do, and how do you continue to mentor (or, do you?)?



Chang, H., Ngunjiri, F. W., & Hernandez, K. C. (2013). Collaborative autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. Learning, 22(1), 20–37.doi:10.1080/13611267.2014.882603

Eller, L. S., Lev, E. L., & Feurer, A. (2014). Key components of an effective mentoring relationship: A qualitative study. Nurse Education Today, 34(5), 815–820.

de Janasz, S. C., & Godshalk, V. M. (2013). The role of e-mentoring in protégés’ learning and satisfaction. Group & Organization Management, 38(6), 743–774. doi:10.1177/1059601113511296

Leners, D. W., & Sitzman, K. (2006). Graduate student perceptions: Feeling the passion of CARING online. Nursing Education Perspectives, 27(6), 315–319.

Rademaker, L., Duffy O’Connor, J., Wetzler, E., & Zaikina-Montgomery, H. (2016). Chair Perceptions of Trust between Mentor and Mentee in Online Doctoral DissertationMentoring. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 20(1), 1-13.

Rusbult, C. E., Zembrodt, I. M., & Gunn, L. K. (1982). Exit, voice, loyalty, and neglect: Responses to dissatisfaction in romantic involvements. Journal of Personality and Social  Psychology, 43(6), 1230-1242. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.43.6.1230