On writing fiction as an attempted act of scholarship

RomeoJulietPrologueI’m doing my head in at the moment, trying to think about methodology in educational research. This started as a simple blog post which attempted to

  1. describe the project I’m currently working on
  2. ask myself if it’s a valid piece of educational research, or just a lot of fun
  3. wonder aloud whether our project is ‘legitimate academic scholarship’ and if the way we’re approaching this project might be dignified with the impressive sounding word ‘methodology’.

What’s happened, however, is that as I’ve been writing I’ve found myself  asking more and more questions and my thinking keeps getting tangled up. I’ve ditched several drafts.

I’m going to try again.

For the past few months, I’ve been working with three beginning teachers (two in their first year out, one who’s just finished her teacher education course), and we’ve produced a fictional short story. At the moment (it’s not finished) the 8000 word story is called Both alike in dignity, a quote from the prologue of Romeo and Juliet. It describes a young pre-service teacher introducing Shakespeare’s play to his class, his mentor teacher’s reaction, and the distressing events that follow. We’re rather pleased with the outcome, though there’s still work to be done before we’re ready to attempt some kind of publication.

How have we got there?

In September of this year, I contacted these three students to see if they’d be interested in being part of a project to write some educational fiction. I described some of the relevant reading I’d been doing (Greene 1995; Stronach and MacLure 1997; Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ; Britzman 2003), and explained to them that I wanted to attempt to write a story, or a series of stories, that would in some way describe classrooms in a way that spoke to the complexity of being a teacher, that troubled simplistic accounts of a beginning teacher’s life. I wanted to look at a teacher’s work in terms of navigating a way through and around competing and intersecting discourses (Britzman 2003), intersecting life trajectories (Massey 2005) and desiring body-minds (Spinoza 1677; Semetsky and Depech-Ramey 2010). We would not set out, I suggested, to demonstrate any particular truth about any set of educational issues, but instead try to produce a creative piece which would evoke visceral responses and perhaps lead to useful conversations and even insights into the lived lives of teachers in schools.

Why fiction? There were two main reasons. The pragmatic reason was so that my colleagues could speak frankly about what they’d experienced without any concern that there might be repercussions for their young careers; we would create a fiction which, while informed by real experiences, transformed these into what Peter Clough calls ‘symbolic equivalents’. The deeper motivation was to draw on what is valued by our own discipline: we were all English teachers and we all believed that the creation of imagined worlds was a valid way of discovering and describing aspects of the world inaccessible to more rational disciplines and discourses (a belief supported by my own background in the ontologies and epistemologies of depth psychology). By writing a story, we felt we were opening ourselves up to discovering something. (And this morning I found a reference to a chapter by L. Richardson called ‘Writing: a method of inquiry’, which I will follow up when I can.)

My three students agreed to be a part of the project, and so we set about creating our story. First we talked together and wrote, them about their experiences and me about what seemed to me to be the emerging themes. I then produced a couple of tentative beginnings to a possible story (we still had no plot line), and we discussed the veracity of the emerging characters. There was a good deal of experimentation at this stage, with me drawing on my collaborators’ writing to create characters and scenes, and my colleagues responding, reacting, suggesting possibilities. Two characters emerged from this process. There was some initial antipathy expressed by some in our group towards these two characters as they appeared in these early versions, so we wrote to each other about how we might flesh them out in a more rounded and sympathetic way, how we might breathe some more convincing life into them.

We still had no plot for our story, and then I remembered an incident that had occurred a year or so ago and which (substantially fictionalised) might provide us with what we were seeking. I wrote a first draft, my colleagues responded,  and an iterative process ensued which saw me producing seven drafts before we were ready to show it to some valued and experienced outsiders. They, in turn, gave us further feedback, which we’re currently working with.

So, in conclusion, while the story was (in the end) written by me, it was a genuine collaboration: the initial inspiration was provided by the actual experiences of my colleagues and drafts of the early sketches and subsequent whole-story drafts were constantly being adjusted, reshaped by their responses and suggestions. While I have been the writer, and while the story has been shaped (largely unconsciously) by my theoretical lenses, it’s a story which has come out of our collaboration in its many forms.

 ****

So, to return to my questions: what is the nature of the thing we have produced? Is it, and the process that led to its production, an example of scholarship? Is it research?

Before I try to answer this, I want to return to what I think is a relevant current preoccupation of mine, which is the question of whether English is a discipline (a valid and distinct way of knowing the world, with its own unique methods of inquiry and forms of representation). Bill Green and Phil Cormack (2008) and Robert Dixon (2012) have suggested that English as we encounter it in schools is a hybrid subject and not a discipline at all. I find myself wanting to suggest that this is precisely what is wrong with school English at the moment, and why students – in general – find it difficult to be enthusiastic about it.I’m beginning to think that we need to reclaim its disciplinary status, or to at least ask ourselves what would be different about our teaching of school English if we were to remember that at its core is the claim that to engage imaginatively with the world through what we read and what we write is to know the world in ways unique to the English discipline.

This is an argument which, obviously, I need to think much more about, both to test out its robustness and to tease out its implications. But it’s an important argument in my current thinking about the nature of our story-writing project.

Our writing of this story, it seems to me, is an attempt to use the methods which our discipline values (in particular, the way our discipline claims that an imaginative exploration through story gives us access to aspects of the human denied to other disciplines) in order to understand better the classroom worlds we experience and in which we do our work. The argument here is that the imaginative act of creating a piece of fiction is to draw on a valid disciplinary practice in order to see more of what is.

This imaginative move is not something that can be explained, though folk like Freud, Jung, Winnicott and Hillman have all had a go. It’s just that it seems to be a useful and disciplinary-valued source of insight.

But there’s a related argument which, while I come to no fixed conclusion about it, seems relevant here. Good theory helps us to see more than we would otherwise, and there are at least two theories that have informed my thinking (and perhaps have informed the unconscious imaginative act itself, though I have no way of knowing if this is the case and, if so, to what extent). A Spinoza/Deleuzian theorizing about desiring and relational body-minds informs the underlying ontology of the story, and Doreen Massey’s notions of the nature of space have directed my gaze at the way in which space is the product of relations. Her view of space is my view of classrooms and staffrooms:

In this open interactional space there are always connections yet to be made, juxtapositions yet to flower into interaction (or not, for not all potential connections have to be established), relations which may or may not be accomplished.

Further, I’d want to make a distinction between research/scholarship that is designed explain what is experienced and that which has as its aim to make visible what was previously underappreciated or only partially seen (Barone 2001; Clough 2002 ). In our story, we are not just attempting to further our own understanding (standing, as we do, on the shoulders of the educational, disciplinary and poststructuralist scholars who have influenced our thinking and helped us shape our methodology); we are also attempting to contribute in generative ways to the thinking of those who might read our story and who might then find themselves seeing new aspects of, and reflecting in new ways on, their own experiences, perceptions and theories.

References:

Barone, T. (2001). “Pragmatizing the imaginary: a response to a fictionalized case study of teaching.” Harvard Educational Review 71(4).

Britzman, D. (2003). Practice Makes Practice: A critical study of learning to teach, revised edition. Albany, State University of New York Press.

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

Dixon, R. (2012). “‘English’ in the Australian Curriculum: English.” English in Australia 47(1).

Green, B. &. Cormack, Phil (2008). “Curriculum history, ‘English’ and the New Education; or, installing the empire of English?” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 16(3): 253 — 267.

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Massey, Doreen (2005). For space. London, Sage.

Semetsky, I. and J. A. Depech-Ramey (2010). “Jung’s Psychology and Deleuze’s Philosophy: The unconscious in learning.” Educational Philosophy and Theory online.

Spinoza, B. (1677). The Ethics. London, Everyman.

Stronach, I. and M. MacLure (1997). Educational research undone: the postmodern embrace. Buckingham, Open University Press.

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One thought on “On writing fiction as an attempted act of scholarship

  1. Pingback: Secondary English: hybrid subject or coherent discipline? « degrees of fiction

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