NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Crossing the borders of professional identities

By Stephen Murphy — There’s a question I used to dread: “So, what do you do?” It has a second part to it, assumed and unvoiced: “ … for a living”. And what I dreaded was the rabbit hole this opened. If I told a taxi driver “I work in film”, there’d be a follow-up – typically, “like an actor?”

If I provided the detail that I did sound for film, there’d be more back and forth:

TD: “Doing the music?”

SM: “No, not music. All the other sounds you hear.”

TD: “But don’t they just record all that when they shoot the movie?”

And so it went on.

The “what you do” question is about professional identity (Caza & Creary, 2016), and it’s from that identity that people form opinions about who you are and your worth to society.

As I started to teach more regularly, I found I had an out when asked the question. I could now say I was a teacher, and then the conversation would be much shorter. It seems everybody thinks they know what a teacher does.

But in truth, my sound identity never left. This answer was just my way of getting out of annoying conversations.

I learned, however, I had two identities – teacher, and sound practitioner. This became apparent when noticed I was behaving and talking differently about sound according to where I was. In the classroom I would talk about sound in terms of acoustics and technological detail. But elsewhere, it was just what I did, the work itself. This recognition that I was dividing a central part of myself into two compartments lead me to question why I did what I did in the classroom. I looked for where I was drawing boundaries in my professional life, and how easily I could move from one area to another without questioning what was happening.

Students had come to our courses to gain the skills and knowledge to enter the film and television workplace. While a lot of the teaching took place in classrooms, the practical component was always significant, conducted in studios where students could take part in simulated work activities such as sound recording or film production.

It was between these two spaces that I saw myself operating in different modes. In one, as the classroom teacher, standing at the whiteboard. In the other, more as workplace supervisor or mentor, watching, guiding, filling in knowledge gaps when required, allowing the students to practise their roles. In some ways, I was guiding students to enter a community of practice (Wenger, 1998) – the community of the film industry.

In the classroom, the community of practice was one the students knew well. They had been in it since kindergarten, they had learned what was expected of them and what the role of the teacher was. But in the studio, in the middle of production, things were different. This was about more than skills and knowledge – behaviours mattered here. How to be when on a film set, how to do the work of film production. The hierarchy, the protocols, the standards, when to speak up, having the confidence to perform in the role. They were studying to gain skills and knowledge for work in the industry, and in doing so they were already entering into a new community of practice. And I was their guide.

To uncover the detail of what was going on I have been using autoethnographic methods (Ellis, 2004). Ellis & Bochner (2000) have described authethnography as the intersection of self (auto), culture (ethnos) and writing (graphy, or writing, referring to both the process and the product). In this research, I am situated in two cultures as well as at the boundary crossing between them.

In my work and life I have found myself at a border, shifting identity each time I cross. It was only as I began to look back, to see the other side, and to observe the crossing, that I realised there were questions to be asked. As I continue to find answers, I tell research stories so that others may hear and respond, to reflect on their own practice and on the intersections in their working lives.


Caza, B. B., & Creary, S. (2016). The construction of professional identity. In Perspectives on Contemporary Professional Work (pp. 259-285). Edward Elgar Publishing. doi:10.4337/9781783475582.00022

Ellis, C. (2004). The ethnographic I: A methodological novel about autoethnography. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. P. (2000). Autoethnography, personal narrative, reflexivity: Researcher as subject. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), The handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 733-768). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

During his childhood Stephen Murphy developed a fascination with film, television and sound that has been with him ever since. After study at the Australian Film Television and Radio School, his sound work has spanned commercials, short films, series and feature films. He has worked on location and in post-production, as a sound consultant for Dolby, and has also spent many years teaching and training others. He was sound supervisor on the AFTRS innovation project, Precipice, a binaural, narrative podcast series presented at Vivid Sydney 2017.

Stephen is currently the President of the Australian Screen Sound Guild, and Head of Sound at the Australian Film Television and Radio School.

More from this issue

More from this issue

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