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... 

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