Can a short story be a valid form of research or scholarship?

Distinguished Professor Art Bochner

I’ve just finished reading an article in an academic journal that was more like a good short story (Bochner 2012). The characters were engaging, there was a coherent and intriguing plot, and the themes (the significance of the dream world,  living life with authenticity, fears associated with moving beyond the familiar) are relevant for us teachers.

Furthermore, the article was written by a scholar. I discovered, when I searched for Arthur Bochner on the web, that he has written four books, scores of articles, won numerous awards, and is currently Distinguished University Professor at the University of South Florida. There’s no question that the article has been written by someone who has been deeply involved in scholarship for many, many years.

But is the article itself scholarly?

It tells the story of Art (the author) seeking the help of a therapist to make sense of a gnawing feeling that his successful career as a quantitative researcher is leading him to live an inauthentic life.  It begins:

I walk swiftly through the open door of my therapist’s office and take my usual position on the soft, black leather couch sitting against the windowless wall. For a client like me, a therapist’s couch is a significant symbol drenched in meaning, carrying the weight of history. True to form, this one is no ordinary couch. You don’t sit on it, you sit in it. The couch prompts a memory of the bean-bag chairs of the 1960’s—a prominent hippy symbol of freedom. Bean bags looked cushy and comfortable but turned out to make your butt sore and your back stiff, a reminder that freedom comes at a price. I can’t help wondering why Dr. Milton chose this couch. Shouldn’t a therapist’s couch provide something more than an illusion of freedom?

Can something which reads like a short story, which in many ways is a short story, be itself scholarly? Is this research?

I’m particularly interested in these questions because I’ve been experimenting with ways of writing about educational issues which might find some kind of home in the academic world. I enjoy writing. I like to use some of the techniques of what Tom Barone has called ‘literary non-fiction’ (Barone 2000). I want to find ways of including, in what I write about teachers and students,

actual felt process of life, the tensions interwoven and shifting from moment to moment, the flowing and slowing, the drive and directedness of desires, above all the rhythmic continuity of our own selfhood … (Susanne Langer, quoted in Barone 2000).

And this is what Art Bochner’s story does.

But is this research? Or  scholarship? Doesn’t an article like this belong in a literary journal rather than in an academic journal?

These are important questions for me, not only because of my own desire to write in ways which convey the ‘actual felt process of life’. They are also connected to my students’ questions about whether their own experience and thoughts can be expressed in their assignments, or whether these need to be ‘backed up by the research’. If Art’s story is ‘backed up’ by research (and his CV would imply that it is), there’s no direct evidence of it in the article itself.

If his article is the result of the creation of knowledge (Professor Kyd’s definition of research), then what evidence is there that we can trust this knowledge?

If the article is the result of a search for knowledge (Professor Kyd’s definition of scholarship), what evidence is there that this search has been informed by a scholarly community?

If we accept that Professor Bochner’s personal experience is valid research or scholarship, on what grounds do we reject our students’ personal experience if it’s not explicitly informed by research or scholarship?

My own tentative answer to these questions is something like this: This article is a short story, and is neither scholarship or research (though it’s almost certainly informed by both, and it’s clear that Professor Bochner’s other writing is research-rich and scholarly). We should continue to insist that our students show that their reflections on their experience are informed by communities of research and scholarship.

But I say this while at the same time remembering that I’ve argued in favour of giving a student a High Distinction for a story that read very much like Art Bochner’s.

Tentative answers. I’d welcome some discussion.

***

Barone, T. (2000). Aesthetics, politics, and educational inquiry. New York, Peter Lang.

Bochner, A. P. (2012). “Between Obligation and Inspiration : Choosing Qualitative Inquiry.” Qualitative Inquiry 18 (7): 535-543.

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2 thoughts on “Can a short story be a valid form of research or scholarship?

  1. It’s a matter of trust.

    Rogers suggests that we should “trust in the human organism” which suggests that students are inherently trustworthy. But I don’t think that Rogers was suggesting that students don’t need to research or provide evidence – more that we can trust them to know what’s good for them; trust in their ability to learn.

    But anyway, trust. Trust of the kind that defines something as scholarly (or as research) is something that must be earned – one most prove that they are trustworthy. Within the academic community this has come to mean evidence (proof) of research through the citation of such research. If we place a piece of writing within a larger context, trust might be earned by a history – “it’s clear that Professor Bochner’s other writing is research-rich and scholarly” – and we might trust a piece of writing sans “evidence” because the author has already earned our trust. This doesn’t make it “scholarly” though, because the article in isolation does not carry the proof required to win the trust of a stranger (someone unfamiliar with Bochner).

    But what about stories? Good writing is often informed by a lot of research, even if it isn’t made explicit. Sometimes this is research in the scholarly sense – learning about other languages, cultures, time periods etc in order to create a realistic world – and sometimes it is a research of experience; “anecdotal evidence”, you could call it. It cannot be trusted in a scholarly sense, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.

    I think it’s important to keep the two separate – writing that is scholarly and writing that is not – but to not necessarily attach value judgements to these groups. Calling something scholarly should change the way something is used, but not change its inherent usefulness.

    AND, also, as a final note, there should be a distinction between writing that is not scholarly because it has not cited evidence, and writing that is perceived as not scholarly because of the way it is written. I don’t think there is any good reason why a story could not be considered scholarly – but it would need to provide the kind of “proof” (citing evidence) that would allow a “stranger” to “Trust” it. Something should not be dismissed as “not scholarly” because it is easy and enjoyable to read. That is absurd.

  2. Pingback: A means of knowing and a way of telling | degrees of fiction

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