Emily Dickinson and telling truth slant

‘There are more things in heaven and earth’ said Hamlet to Horatio, ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ I’ve just read an article (Frankham and Smears 2012) that plays with this idea by weaving thoughts about Emily Dickinson’s poetry through a discussion of what educational research can and can’t reveal. It is, in some ways, an article in praise of ethnography and its willingness to dwell in uncertainty and incompleteness and to be surprised and even unsettled by what emerges.

Emily Dickinson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

The authors of the article contrast this circuitous research methodology (Jung called it ‘circumambulation’) with the way

our approach to and intentions for educational research become distorted by a focus on outputs (361)… This paper argues for the dangers and possibilities of ethnography in order that the discourse about our purposes and practices might exceed the limits of our performative educational and research culture.(362)

Dickinson used poetic language to lure us into a more complicated and nuanced landscape than the one described by outputs and outcomes. The authors suggest that ethnography – especially ethnography that finds space for ambiguity, conflicting stories and unexpected surprises – can take us to a similar place. They quote Polanyi as follows:

We make sense of experience by relying on clues of which we are often aware only as pointers to their hidden meaning; this meaning is an aspect of a reality which as such can yet reveal itself in an indeterminate range of future discoveries. (366)

And they remind us of what Geertz wrote:

The strange idea that reality has an idiom in which it prefers to be described, that its very nature demands we talk about it without fuss – a spade is a spade, a rose is a rose –  on pain of illusion, trumpery, and self-bewitchment, leads onto the even stranger idea that, if literalism is lost, so is fact. (369)


Frankham, J. and E. Smears ( 2012). “Choosing not choosing: the indirections of ethnography and educational research, .” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 33(3): 361-375.


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