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