Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Storytelling and academic writing. Part 1

Two weeks ago I started a storytelling course with approximately 60 000 students from all over the world. The first week we had lectures to teach us about some basic elements in story building. Now it is already the second week, and we are talking about TV series - a topic not exactly in the very heart of my interest in storytelling...

Instead, I would like to investigate storytelling in academic writing, because I believe it can bring science much closer to the "ordinary" people, or even, to the researchers themselves. Statistics show, that most of the articles published, only have one single reader. That means we have to learn some new ways of telling people about our work.

One good example of popular science´s success is TED-talks project. Everyone can listen to these talks, and experience, how complicated stuff are made short interesting chunks for global audiences. They even have a special section about storytelling, containing 6 talks. I would like to share with you the first one of these, presented by a Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is talking about "the danger of a single story".

Another way of sharing, is using graphic storytelling. Ken Robinson´s Ted-talk about Changes in Education Paradigms, was drawn on a whiteboard by graphic facilitator, and become viral. Today more than 10 million people have seen the clip in youtube. Simple picture, and few selected words make a very powerful combination.

These two examples make it clear, that using the possibilities of storytelling can make a difference. But how to bring the elements of storytelling into academic writing? 

I will give you a great example of an academic article published in 2009 by professor Rosalind Gill from UK. 
How are you? 
I am totally stressed at the moment, to be honest. Work is piling up and I'm just drowning. I don't know when I'm going to have time to start on that secrecy and silence book chapter – I’m so, so late with it now, and I feel really bad that I'm letting Roisin down, but I literally never have a second. 
I know, I know exactly what you mean. 
I mean, I had 115 e-mails yesterday and they all needed answering. I'm doing 16 hour days just trying to keep on top of it. I feel like I'm always late with everything, and my 'to do' list grows faster than I can cross things off it. It’s like one of those fungi in a horror movie that doubles in size every few hours! (Laughter)And I never ever have chance to do any of my own work. I’m sleeping really badly and it all just feels completely out of control… 
It's the same for me. Reading? What that? Thinking? No chance! And you feel awful, don’t you. With me I feel like I’m constantly stealing time from the kids too- I’ll go off to check messages in the middle of a game of Monopoly or something. Sometimes I just feel like quitting. 
Yeah I know. It just gets worse. Still hoping to win the lottery, then?(laughter) But how are you? 
Do you really want to know?! (laughter) (Yeh) well, awful actually. I’m really fed up. I heard yesterday that my article for x journal was turned down. (Oh no!) You know, the one I worked on for ages and ages.I poured so much of myself into that piece (I know). And one of the referee's comments was vile – it said something like "my first year undergraduates have a better understanding of the field than this author does -- why are they wasting all of our time". When I read it it was like a slap in the face, Ros. It was all I could do not to burst out crying in the postroom, but I had a lecture right afterwards so I somehow managed to pull myself together and go and do that. But last night, I just didn't sleep (poor you) I just kept on going over and over with all these negative comments ringing round my head. And you know the worst thing is, they are right: I am useless (no you're not), I'm a complete fraud, and I should have realised that I was going to be found out if I sent my work to a top journal like that. 
This is the way how she starts her article "Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia". I love her beginning! You just cannot help, but to feel sympathy, to find mirroring elements of your own personal academic struggles, you want to be connected, and find out more of the lives of these people. She goes on changing the gear to a more of an academic approach, explaining the context, analysing, but still keeping her personal voice, the I in the discussion...
This is a transcript of a conversation I had with a female friend in the few days before
(finally) beginning work on this chapter. Both speakers are white, both work in ‘old’ (pre-1992) British Universities, and both are employed on ‘continuing’ contracts - thus are already marked as ‘privileged’ in multiple ways in the contemporary academy. Mine is easily recognizable as the voice which worries about how late this article is! Some readers may find this fragment of conversation rather odd, but I suspect for many more it will appear familiar and may strike deep chords of recognition. It speaks of many things: exhaustion, stress, overload, insomnia, anxiety, shame,
aggression, hurt, guilt and feelings of out-of-placeness, fraudulence and fear of exposure within the contemporary academy. These feelings, these affective embodied experiences, occupy a strange position in relation to questions of secrecy and silence. 
Professor Gill is breaking the traditional rules of academia, and sharing her own academic life, her personal effort to create this piece of writing, and connecting it to the wider problematics of neo-liberal society, and its academia. Partly literature, partly research. Touching the borders, and inviting to think together... 
What would it mean to turn our lens upon our own labour processes, organisational governance and conditions of production? What would we find if, instead of studying others, we focussed our gaze upon our own community, and took as our data not the polished publication or the beautifully crafted talk, but the unending flow of communications and practices in which we are all embedded and enmeshed, often reluctantly: the proliferating e-mails, the minutes of meetings, the job applications, the peer reviews, the promotion assessments, the drafts of the RAE narrative, the committee papers, the student feedback forms, even the after-seminar chats?
Don´t you just want to hug her? On my computer I do have more examples of this storytelling kind of academic writing. Unfortunately not all of it is publicly available. Perhaps I will share some more already next time... 

Political Philosophy MOOC: An Online Reading List

I was writing about my interest into political philosophy earlier today. Here follows the online reading list for the course provided by the joint action of students taking part. My special thanks to Jessica Anon and Hamish Morrison, and others for making the hard work of searching. 
Jessica´s comments: "It is a cruel irony that Machiavelli was remembered for the one book he wrote about dictatorship and none of the dozens he wrote about democracy. Alas. Worth noting that it is unclear whether or not reading the Prince is expected to be important to this class at all, though it is clear that Machiavelli's other work is considered more important."

The extensive reading list is accompanied by a suggestion how to be able to manage it all.
"Please start with Bobbio, in particular the chapter on the state, leaving aside for the moment the chapter regarding democracy and dictatorship. 
Then go over to Max Weber, in particular Economy and Society, vol.1, part 1, ch.1, in particular §§ 1,2,5, 8,9, 16,17. Weber's 'orgies of differentiation' (the ability to make distinctions and definitions remains nonetheless the highest virtue of a political philosopher!) may scare you; in this case turn to his more easy-going (if any in Weber's work!) Politics as a Vocation - in which you will however miss the conceptual completeness of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. This work is nearly hundred years old, this means a classic rather than a result of present theorization. 
David Easton's main work The Political System (1965) will soon be fifty, hence it cannot be said to mirror the present state of affairs in political science. But in the last decades I have not read a general conceptualization of politics equalling its overarching and vigorous character. Let me urge you to look around, perhaps finding a recent book, not necessarily in English, that may satisfy your needs in a way compatible with the method followed in this course. 
Among the classical readings that may serve as historical illustrations to some aspects of this first Part, try Machiavelli: not only and not so much Il principe (*The Prince* ), but rather the Discourses on the First Ten Books of Titus Livy, in which the role of institutionalized conflict for the preservation of the Roman Republic is highlighted. 
Also see Carl Schmitt's The Concept of the Political as an example of the search for the specificity of the political as different from other spheres of action. Kant on the other hand wanted to define the dependence of politics on rational-reasonable morality rather than its autonomy (see Appendix to Perpetual Peace ), but I would suggest to save him as well as Aristotle and Hobbes for the other parts of this MOOC." 
The illustrations to the post is a fresco of the Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio LORENZETTI.

Struggling online

Besides the wonderful "Future of Storytelling" MOOC, I am also enrolled in a course of Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Both of the courses are provided by IVERSITY platform.

Today I was listening to the lectures by dr Furio Cerutti. He is an old Italian professor working hard to provide people with the necessary means to learn about political philosophy. I really admire his way of communicating with the audiences. He has a unique kind of sincerity, and a special charm when taking the students through the complex dynamics of political philosophy.

Prof Cerutti gives the global audiences some good old lectures of key terms that are provided online with an extensive reading list for those seriously interested. No special tricks, no special struggles, nothing too complex for an introductory course. I just love this kind of simplicity and clarity!

The professor from Florence is also special because of his very nice letters to students. I will post here the last one he sent us earlier today. Here is something to learn for all of us working online and writing - how to maintain our authentic voice, and stay close to our audiences.    

Dear students,
as the lectures, called on the iversity website 'chapters', are intended to be an ongoing argument from the first to the fifth video (or micro-unit), you will find the quizzes as well as the slides used in the lecture in the fifth video of each lecture or chapter.
As soon (in twelve days or so) as I have the shooting of part 2 of the course behind me, I will design and upload some 'discussion questions' that may enhance your interaction, and also go back to some of the questions raised in the Forum.
Technology and format of a MOOC are uncharted waters for all, especially for your old professor; he still hopes he can rely on your patience for the adjustments that become necessary. To put it as the Austrian philosopher of science Otto Neurath put it with regard to scientific knowledge, "we are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom".
Furio Cerutti

Friday, October 18, 2013

Taking your writing to the next level: Storytelling #storymooc

Well, it has been quite a while since I was sharing some new ideas or materials about writing on this page. Now I am back from holidays, creating writing workshops, and a small poetry festival, reading and writing myself.  The autumn has arrived in Sweden. It feels that I am ready now to continue my journey in English writing.

Besides grammar, academic argumentation, and rhetorics, one must also learn to built up a living connection between yourself as a writer, your topic, and your readers. It is one thing to know what to say, but knowing how to say it so that people get engaged in what ever you have to say, is the most important part of your writing.

Just few days back, I discovered an interesting webinar "Researcher, write to be read!". Swedish researcher Jenny Helin was talking online about the research texts that are killing the audiences with their boring stereotyped lines. She asks for the ethics of writing: What kind of reality are we creating with our boring academic texts that no one wishes to read? 

I totally agree with her suggestions to think of an academic text as a meeting place for a discussion. Instead of purely informing, open a dialogue, invite your reader to participate, and collaborate. It is of course much easier to say than to do. Especially, because of the traditionally very strict academic publishing rules that allow very little creativity, and experimentation in forms.

Something has to be done, because already today, Jenny Helin says, there is an average less than one reader per academic article. Isn´t that alarming? Why to write about your research in the first place, when no one is actually reading it? What greater meaning will our thousands of hours of serious work have, if nothing grows out of it in the future?

During my personal academic career, I have come across some pretty good examples about communicative scientific texts. One of my favourite being Susan Engel´s "Children´s need to know: Curiosity in Schools". She twines the elements of storytelling with research facts, and creates an argumentation that is much more appealing than in most other cases.

In order to take my own writing further, and break the mainstream trend of boring texts, I decided to participate in the online course about the future of storytelling. I will learn how to bring stories to my writing, and make it more alive.

The course starts in few days. See you there!

You might also be interested in:

The Beginning
Discussions with an Apple Tree
Creative imagination in writing
Research plan guidelines
My creative writing blog in English

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Me and another 1288 students made it!

After a week on a holiday I opened my mailbox and found a letter:

Congratulations are in order for the 1289 students who earned a Statement of Accomplishment for English Composition I: Achieving Expertise. About half of those students had a score of 85% or higher. As such, I decided to award a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction to those students.

We started with 60 000 participants, most of them failed. In my opinion it is not about the certificate, but about learning. Congratulations to all who learned something new during the process! I know I learned a lot.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Research Plan Guidelines

I have another deadline facing me in few days. It has to do with the Writing II: Rhetorical Composing coursera I am taking. It is already week 7 by now. I have managed to make all the deadlines so far. Lets see how it goes this time... 

At the moment they suggest me to make a research plan. To support the process have the professors provided nice guidelines some of which I would like to share:

Given your claim, audience, and argumentative purpose, consider message, medium, and manner as well as recency, relevance, and readership in examining and evaluating the research and evidence you’re compiling: 
Message: Identify your persuasive claim and purpose. What is your claim and what end do you envision your text achieving? Are you hoping to make your audience better informed? Consider alternative perspectives? Become more tolerant of alternative perspectives? Change an opinion? Move to action?
Medium: What form will the argument take? What are the implications for you as a writer as you engage readers in this medium or genre? If you’re writing a blog post, how does that affect how you argue? How does it affect how you cite your sources? If you’re writing an opinion piece for a professional newsletter, how do the conventions and constraints of that genre and location affect the decisions you make about how you use and refer to your sources?
Manner: Consider again rhetorical appeals, metaphors, commonplaces, rhetorical tense, and visual rhetoric as you work toward a draft of your research assignment. How will you employ these elements in service of achieving your persuasive ends?
Recency: In what ways does the recency of source material matter? In other words, from what timeframe are you most likely use material? Why?
Relevance: Of what relevance to your argument is the material? In other words, what kinds of material—and from what sources—have you found and why are you considering using it? Why is it relevant for this audience? For this purpose? For this venue?
Readership: What material will be most persuasive to your audience? Why?
Now consider how you might align or adapt the source materials you’ve collected to suit your audience, purpose, and argumentative goal:
 Alignment: Do the sources you’re using align with your opinions or claims? To what extent or under what circumstances? Alternatively, if you’re using sources you’re contesting, how do those sources diverge from or not align with your position? It’s important to clarify—both for yourself and for your readers—your position relative to your sources.
Adaptation: In what ways might you need to adapt or adjust evidence from your sources to suit your argument? For example, if a source addresses the effects of spousal abuse on women in their 60s but you’re addressing the effects of spousal abuse on women in their 30s, what adaptation might you need to make to maintain both the integrity of the evidence (your source) and your claim and argument? 
All the vocabulary and tools used before the writing process starts, are explained quite well in these few short sections. I am writing nearly every day. Details like that become automatic and I do not actually analyse each time in such a linear way how I am addressing it all, but I still have an explanation to each of these, if someone cares to ask. 

Since I have not had time to start the research process for this assignment just yet, I do not have a clear picture to share here now. I have been reading and thinking about Michel Foucault and postmodern research in education since I am giving a lecture about the topic next week in Norway. I will probably write something in this direction. Just two days ago I was visiting Uppsala, it is one of the places where Foucault used to work, he wrote his "Madness and civilization" there. Unfortunately the Swedish professors at the time did not realise the value of the ideas the young man was presenting and so he had to move to another university in order to get his doctoral thesis accepted. It is a wonderful story about madness and higher education system. Perhaps I´ll write about that...    

Sunday, June 9, 2013

English Composition I: final reflection

The following were the course learning objectives:

  Summarize, analyze, question, and evaluate written and visual texts
  Argue and support a position
  Recognize audience and disciplinary expectations
  Identify and use the stages of the writing process
  Identify characteristics of effective sentence and paragraph-level prose
  Apply proper citation practices
  Discuss how to transfer and apply your writing knowledge to other writing occasions

What have you learned in this course? Choose 2-4 of our course learning objectives, describing each objective and referring specifically to particular passages from your coursework that demonstrate your progress towards and/or struggles with that objective. Indicate why you have chosen those objectives as the most important for you. Cut and paste specific portions of your coursework, and use them as evidence for your argument. In this way, by having an introduction, argument, evidence, and conclusion, your “portfolio cover letter” will both discuss and demonstrate how effectively you have achieved the goals of the course. Length: ~500-750 words.

The common struggles for any academic writer is summarizing, analyzing, questioning, and evaluating written and visual texts. What a challenge it is! Every text or a visual image has so many meanings as there are people. During this course I have had an excellent chance to work more closely with this problematic. One on hand, composing the essays for assignment demanded working with several texts on my own. Secondly, since the course has peer-to-peer review as its main evaluation and learning tool, it has given me, as a writer, a possibility to experiment and see how my texts are summarized, analyzed, questioned and evaluated by outside readers.

Critical feminist writing is a field that meets a wall of indifference by some audiences, at the same time it is an emerging area of interests for many. How to be able to write in an open way and invite people to critically examine their assumptions and agendas hidden from most of the members of our society? That has been a big question mark during this course.

To give some examples of my writing I would like to point out two possible passages.

Firstly, I would like to invite you to read an excerpt of my case study about who are the experts in education. Among others I quote Ivan Illich known for his critical writing about US school systems already back in seventies.
As a possible future innovation Ivan Illich is inviting people to think about “learning webs”. According to him the good educational systems will: “provide access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known.” (2012:75)While being part of MOOC, some people have perhaps experienced that Illich has a point here. Even though there are minor drawbacks and some try their best to control and institutionalize, the realm of educational practices is shifting. People are taking more responsibility of their personal learning as well as teaching others. It is indeed happening online with the help of the learning webs.
This case study is available online in my blog AppleTree: http://evelintamm.wordpress.com/2013/05/23/who-are-the-experts/
The second passage is taking my readers to a Nordic conference about early education where the only speakers are male at the same time when audience, Norwegian kindergarten teachers, is female with only few exceptions. I present a picture of a professor talking about himself and his work.

“This picture presents us with a sentimental stage of expertise in educational research. As I am the one who took the picture just a few days ago, I know that the audience mainly consisted of women. It is a typical picture of educational conferences held in Europe. An old man talking about his work, talking about something that has been done a long time ago and having a lot of women carefully listening and making notes. This is a picture of expertise in the field of education, where most of the people occupied with the work are women but the know-how still belongs to men. I would argue that the expert in my area of study often looks like an old white Western male presenting himself, having only very little to do with the actual field of the research. The gap between educational theory and practice is therefore profound.

This was an excerpt of my visual image analyses assignment. You can read the full assignment in my blog AppleTree http://evelintamm.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/mom-watch-me-im-doing-the-impossible-part-ii/.      

In both of these sections I not only analyze, question and evaluate, but I also give arguments in support of my positions. The course outline has fitted into multiple approaches and enabled everyone to work in their own realms coming together as a global writing community and support each other in our personal growth. Even so, it has been a great challenge to incorporate my writing style and interests, the demands of the course curricula and my timetable. To do that I have sometimes made compromises but not really that many. Thank you!