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.

19 Responses

  • Data is a science of the parts, narrative is a science of the whole. Unfortunately, from the point of view of data, the whole does not exist.

    You write: “we haven’t yet found the capacity to examine the structures and systems of higher education itself in these terms”. That’s rather an indictment! It means we are uncertain of what a university is for, what it means.

    • Kate Bowles

      This is really helpful, as it’s clarified for me that this is exactly what I think: the sense of purpose that attaches to higher education has been rapidly changed by a combination of factors and new assumptions about value, and this has introduced a new level of uncertainty to our practice.

      But I’m not sure narrative is a science of the whole, in the terms in which I think of it. To me narrative is a patchwork of fragments that we continually rearrange, because sensemaking is never quite fixed. What we seem to be doing when this happens is searching for a preferred way of presenting things. Arthur Frank uses a lovely phrase “settle the hash”, and says that we never quite achieve this settling.

  • Thank you. Where does this place the ‘researcher’, what implications for ‘research’? Does the interrupted voice belong in places other than the ears of an intended listener?

  • Kate Bowles

    I wonder. Narrative research isn’t entirely a novelty, so I think we have both the means and precedent to take this approach. The question of intent is really critical though. We can never quite seal the room in which our stories are heard, so inevitably there are first listeners and then many others, as stories are passed around. The question is whether we can systematise this without absolutely breaking what it is. I find this a really challenging question.

    In therapeutic contexts narrative is a really powerful tool precisely because there’s no need to distort the narrative to suit research outputs. So maybe the question, exactly as you put it, is about “research” itself.

    Thank you so much for these questions. I don’t find them at all easy to address.

    • I think you have put your finger on an elephantine mess in the room. What value does research have if it is not possible to systemise? So perhaps what is of most value is precisely what you can not systemise? What contexts are not ‘therapeutic” or “antitherapeutic”?

      • Kate Bowles

        Yes, this is exactly the question that interests me. Can we use narrative research while understanding that its ability to draw out fine details is precisely what doesn’t lend itself to scale and systematicity? What is systematicity if not the blurring of difference at the micro level in order to sustain generalisations that can be put to work? And what if those differences that we presently can’t account for with data prove to be something we really would find useful to think about?

    • think of oral tradition and multiple variants, as many songs as there are singers (and listeners)

  • Regarding fragments and wholes. Today we are suspicious of wholes, we’ve inherited the suspicion against all kinds of idealism. But there are many different ways of thinking about a whole, and they are in fact necessary to thought. Of course we never get the full thing. We die, and we don’t witness the whole of our own life, because we’re not there anymore. But that doesn’t mean we don’t see meaningful shapes that are less than this. Every meaningful shape is a whole. A narrative is about combining elements into a meaningful shape.

    Consider a commentator describing a moment in a sporting match. It is but a fragment of the whole match. But that moment is exciting or dull because of a shape that anticipates a larger whole. Perhaps the 3 point basket is the moment the game turns. Perhaps the solo cyclist gains enough time to win the Tour. If you pay attention, there are all sorts of failed narratives tried on during a match – especially obvious over longer contests like a 3 week cycling tour – that turn out to never be. But finding the fragment that fits is itself a rewarding pursuit.

  • Having a map of fixed points doesn’t tell of the in-between parts. A point is not descriptive in any way of travel to get there.

    • Kate Bowles

      Scott, I love this. I’m currently reading Wilfred Thesiger’s travel diaries from his exploration of the Awash River in Ethiopia at the beginning of the 20th century, and wondering about the meaning of those distances he covered with considerable difficulty. Distance itself isn’t a fixed thing; and time is measure of how hard it is to cover that distance in a particular way. So the map doesn’t change nearly as much as the journey does, if A is still a fixed distance from B but now you can fly there. And every gain is fraught with losses.

  • Kate, you’ve given me an idea about mapping. Sent a a concern through patient relations on how neither the cancer clinic nor my cardiologist are ever in touch with me and the messages they do send go to my family doctor and either are considered not of my concern or simply get lost. (My fave is the invitation to open heart surgery that got lost so I ended up 3 months late).

    Anyway a cancer doctor responded with a concise list of the reasons for, treatments for and places I’d been so I could make sense of my treatment after it was done. As a map it wasn’t a particularly accurate depiction of how I had experienced the journey–how was I to know that infusion #3 was actually a notable location? That the lost weeks when infusions were delayed due to platelet crashes and severe sickness were not worth noting, even in the margins? And how did I know the journey was over at THIS POINT when no one at the clinic even said goodbye as I left?

    What was this thing that happened? If the people who rule this district they have mapped out are unaware of the actual state of my travels, might I still be trapped in there?

    My sense of my caregivers is of tour guides who not only neglect to count passengers when leaving each stop but have lost the whole bus. Think I need to remind this doctor to fill in his time card at the END of the day. As Andrew suggests, we’ve lost the in-between along with our sense of where wholeness is.

    • I’m really struck by how useful this is, how beautifully put. I’ve read it again and again, and I can see myself in this account. “How did I know the journey was over at this point?” That’s exactly what happened to me. As a patient I felt my journey as an effort to make sense of these absences and gaps in the data version of my illness; it was like that weird sensation when driving in fog that you can see certain things quite clearly inside the space of the fog itself, but others can’t see you. Thank you.

  • francesbell

    I have read this post three times over several days and I am still thinking about it. Sharing stories between learners, teachers, researchers, administrators, librarians, even IT support workers 😉 was part of the fabric of my experience of working in HE – less so the cleaners, gardeners, but that could have been possible.
    You say “But we haven’t yet found the capacity to examine the structures and systems of higher education itself in these terms” and this is what has given me so much food for thought. It often seemed that the higher up the food chain, the less appetite there was for honestly shared conversation. I can remember bringing heart-breaking stories indicating significant systemic problems only to be faced with marketing speak, quick fix, inadequate solutions, related to the external perspective of the institution rather than the lived experiences of those working and studying within it. A carefully selected subset of those stories was surfaced on web sites 🙁

    • Frances, you’re so right about this. The stories that we allow to be told are those that seem to humanise e.g. the student experience for marketing purposes. The students who feature in these stories don’t control them, and there are many stories that don’t find themselves in the “carefully selected subset”. What interests me then is the story of the institution itself, which is very carefully told, a smooth and persuasive teleology in which excellence is the horizon and no one is left behind.

      What I found so startling and enriching about #dlrn15 came right at the end: the willingness to have an honestly shared conversation commencing on the possibility that even the underlying presence of the meeting could have had flaws. In higher education we have become quite scathing about the potential for critique to be constructive and to be heard respectfully; we simply dismiss it as the usual suspects holding back the pace of change.

      We need to do better than this in relation to institutional storytelling that engages change.

      • francesbell

        I have been preoccupied recently by institutional storytelling in the context of UK Learning Disability Services. I will try to blog but the live tweeting a couple of weeks ago of the inquest of a young man with autism who drowned in the bath at a treatment unit surfaced some stories that had been submerged by the institutional story. The inquest was live tweeted over 2 weeks at @lbinquest and made for compelling reading. I have been following the sad story for a year but the live tweeting was mesmerising as we saw the institution try to protect itself by blaming family (particularly the young man’s mother), junior staff, anyone but itself – and who is an institution?
        It carried resonances for me but ones that I don’t feel able to discuss in public. One of the difficulties of challenging institutional story-telling with alternative stories is that in telling our own story, we are also telling that of others and that isn’t always fair or appropriate.

  • Kate, to pick up just one part of this, I’m not sure that universities are yet “the grandest of data cathedrals”, and that might be some of their problem. This role surely falls to the big tech companies, who collect, read and fetish over data like no-one else. University leaders know they’ve lost the edge here and are ever more desperate to assert themselves again. This is partially the root of the angst and the fever.

  • That’s beautifully put, Travis — we are in the grip of a kind of data fever. So yes, reflecting on this I’d say we’re not the grandest, but we’re almost hysterically focused on what data can tell us, and relatively uncritical about the flattening of human experience that has to occur for data to be readable at all. This is very useful, thanks.

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