The home to be lived in generation after generation, the violin passed down … we cultivate the disciplines of care and attention in small, pivotal ways that have large, far-reaching effects on ourselves and others. Out of what is hidden we make the visible and then call it work; work that makes sense of the hours we are privileged to live.
David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity
Storytelling is for an other just as much as it is for oneself.
Arthur Frank, The Wounded Storyteller
I’ve come back from Palo Alto thinking hard about what it means to attempt to make sense of a complex, troubled and large system by listening to the stories of people who thread their lives through it. At the closing #dlrn15 panel on Saturday, George Siemens began a process that has continued in many people’s writing and thinking since: a scrupulous and thoughtful self-critique that I think is quite rare for events like this. So now people who were there or were following along online are debating what could have happened differently, and what needs to happen now. I’m still turning this over in my hands, but it seems to me a really important and hopeful sign that there’s something asking to be taken seriously here, that involves a will to slow down, to stay with an idea until we have settled our score with it, to advocate for our skills and expertise as thinkers, not just as content generators and citation scouts.
For me, some very unexpected conversations about exploring narrative as a way of making sense of higher education were a highlight, so I was interested to hear George say in the closing session that we use narrative as a way of communicating what we researched, rather than as research itself. That’s not exactly where I sit. But I also heard Mike Caulfield say, in the same closing session, that it feels as though we have reached the end of something in higher education, and I’m paying attention to the way that sounds.
Could it be that we have reached the end of our romance with data sufficiency?
Over the last little while, higher education institutions have become the grandest of data cathedrals. Data parses all the mysteries for us, and data directs our thoughts and guides our choices. We turn to data hoping for better news. Data is both moralising and weirdly malleable. We can get different answers with different questions, without ever seeming to compromise data’s impression of hygiene. And so we keep investing in both computing and human resources to expand the cathedral, to make room for more of all of it: business analytics, learning analytics, web analytics, citations, outcomes, grades, performance indicators, rankings, ratings, evaluations, and all the indexes of this and that. Data is our panopticon: we keep an eye on it keeping an eye on us. We adjust ourselves, and calculate, and strategise because we’re always thinking two steps ahead to what the data will show. In fact, some days it seems like all we do is appease the data yet to come.
The stories of higher education experience are more tentative, and their meaning is unfixed. They contradict each other. They contradict themselves. They’re compromised from the moment they’re first handled: our fingerprints are all over them. We retell the same stories and they change. Their priorities rise and then recede. Stories are unreliable, furtive, slippery, unsettling. They seem loose, lazy, undisciplined, as if we’ve all become a bit unbuttoned in public.
And yet when they’re told—as we saw in Marcia Devlin’s beautiful keynote talk about cultural capital in higher education—things become suddenly clear. We have so much in common. And even when we don’t, still we have a capacity to listen to each other, and to honour what is particular in the experience of another person.
Arthur Frank, sociologist of illness, engages with all of this in his advocacy for the stories that emerge from the “narrative wreckage” of illness and other identity shocks. Over several books, Frank develops ideas that he finds in Levinas about the way in which narrative represents our capacity to pay attention, and on this basis to form a relationship of care to the strangers around us. For Levinas, and so for Frank, listening is the moral act at the heart of this relationship, and I was reminded of this today in a post that popped up from health blogger Marie Ennis O’Connor:
When your story is received and witnessed by others, the stories themselves change as they are told and heard, creating a social fabric around which we care for each other. Through sharing stories, we create empathic bonds between ourselves and our listeners. Those who listen to our stories, tell others, and in this way the circle of shared experience widens.
Arthur Frank hooks this up to an idea about the postmodern that makes sense for me, and makes a strong case that without these stories, our understanding is not as sufficient as we thought:
The postmodern experience of illness begins when ill people recognise that more is involved in their experiences than the medical story can tell.
This is where we are now in higher education. The story data can tell about what we have done, and what we should plan for, is revealing itself as incomplete. Data itself is becoming fatigued. Sure, we might go up or down six places in the rankings, but we’re now openly unconvinced that this crude measure tells us something valuable about the complexity of work going on all around us, in the hours we are privileged to live.
This is my first step towards thinking about what I learned at #dLRN15, and the beginning of some thoughts about how exactly we can advance the practice of narrative research. There’s plenty of implicit and explicit narrative work nested inside ethnographies of higher education, and there are many projects that value the ways that students and university workers (not only academics) narrate their experience. But we haven’t yet found the capacity to examine the structures and systems of higher education itself in these terms, and I think Frank’s models will be useful to us, especially his sense that when a narrative is disrupted—as ours certainly is—our sense making is shaped by the search for a new story.
Telling an interrupted life requires a new narrative. … The stories are uncomfortable, and their uncomfortable quality is all the more reason they have to be told. Otherwise, the interrupted voice remains silenced.
Thanks to everyone at #dLRN15 and beyond (and afterwards) for helping shape these beginning thoughts.