Creating accessible texts for our students

The great majority of my students complain that the literature we ask them to read in our courses, the literature we require them to reference in their assessment tasks, is dry, inaccessible and unhelpful. A few persist and find (as I do) a community of scholars which connects and extends. The majority do what is needed to pass, forget what they’ve read, and are then easy prey for the staffroom cynics who tell them that academic learning is useless.

Art Bochner (Bochner, 2012)has some sympathy with this majority. Writing about the kind of research literature which dominates our courses, he remarks

Readers are not encouraged to see and feel the struggles and emotions of the research participants. Normally, we deprive them of an opportunity to care about the particular people whose struggles nourish the researcher’s hunger for truth. Thus, narrative inquiry has evolved as largely a cognitive activity in which investigators present themselves as disinterested spectators, surveying, watching, analyzing, and reporting at a distance about people’s personal, institutional and cultural lives. Although contradictions, emotions, and subjectivities may be recognized as concrete lived experiences, they usually are expressed in forms of writing that dissolve concrete events in solutions of abstract analysis. The reader is left to look through a stained glass window, to use Edith Turner’s (1993) apt analogy, seeing only murky and featureless profiles. The concrete details of sensual, emotional, and embodied experience are replaced by typologies and abstractions that remove events from their context, distancing readers from the actions and feelings of particular human beings engaged in the joint action of evolving relationships. 159

He concludes

If our research is to mean something to our readers — to be acts of meaning — our writing needs to attract, awaken, and arouse them, inviting readers into conversation with the incidents, feelings, contingencies, contradictions, memories, and desires that our research stories depict. 158

I agree. That’s why I’m drawn to what Bochner calls ‘fictionalised ethnography’ and what I’ve been calling ‘mythopoetic scholarship’.

At the same time, though, there’s an inherent danger in this move to create accessible texts. The challenge is to resist the lazy or over-committed student’s demand that everything be made easy, the growing tendency in the current competitive higher education environment to sacrifice rigour for instant gratification. Fictionalised ethnography could easily slip down this slope. We need to write stories that unsettle as well as attract.

If, as Bochner says in this article (and I love the way he says it!), ethnographic fictions are ‘both a means of knowing and a way of telling about the social world’, then significant struggle needs to have given birth to the knowing and be a consequence of the telling.

I’m pretty sure Bochner would agree.  He sees these kinds of stories as being ‘a material intervention into people’s lives, one that not only represents but also creates experience, putting meanings in motion’.  157


Bochner, A. P. (2012). Autoethnography as acts of meaning. Narrative Inquiry, 22(1), 155-164.



2 thoughts on “Creating accessible texts for our students

  1. Hi Steve,

    When I started the Dip Ed in mid 2010, before the strike team makeover, I had just come from completing my bachelor of science. The journals that we’d been taught to pick apart during that time had to uphold scientific rigour, not just in their methods but also in their writing style. This was what myself and other science students had come understand was critical for empirical evidence. Jumping from the B.Sci to a Dip Ed was a huge challenge for me, mostly because the texts that we were asked to read were often based on anecdotal evidence or some form of article based on niceties of science but struggled to stand up to scientific rigour. My first six months in the Dip Ed were difficult, I did well enough in my assessments but I had to change the entire way I evaluated texts. The use of “powerful” language had no place in my writing skills, and it was often these “dry” papers that I was able to fall back on to gain a better understanding of a concept, the language held a similar form to what I was used to reading. It provided me with a little reassurance that me that this new field of study wasn’t all “wishy-washy” – mind you that view changed considerably over the course of my education studies.

    I guess my point is that some of the texts that provide the reader with a this distanced analysis provide a hook for some students entering the fields of sociology and psychology and education for the first time.

    As to your last point about the risk of making things too easy. I agree 100%. Its a post graduate course, for some the learning curve might be steep, but remember that picture of the bird falling from the nest? Those that’ll make it, will. Those that don’t can dust themselves off and reflect on what they could improve on and try again. For some that might be too big an ask, but I’d prefer to be in a *profession* where the effort and study I’ve put into it is respected and valued by society, not just have “done the time”.

    Mad Love,

    Joseph Stephens

  2. Jo, so good to hear from you! It’s good to be reminded of the way someone with a science background might find the more ‘dry’ papers reassuring. My concern (which I think your experience in the Grad Dip might confirm) is that the social sciences in general, and curriculum studies in particular, sometimes fall into the trap of pretending to be ‘scientific’, able to meet scientific criteria, when in fact it can’t … or, at least, a lot of it can’t … and shouldn’t. The study of our educational lives has (increasingly?) been perverted by the idea that if you can’t measure it, it’s not important, and that if your attempt to understand something is not backed up by numbers, then it’s not valid. This is bunkum, and I think we’ve suffered under this disillusion for too long. It’s time, I think, to reassert the value of sitting together, sharing our insights and stories, creating a sense of community and determined to work together to solve problems as any good family does … by listening, encouraging, valuing, supporting, stimulating, guiding, and so on. Some of our moves to ‘be accountable’ and ‘to provide evidence’ are leaving some very fine values and practices starved for oxygen. I think about the kinds of tutorial discussions that you were such a strong part of, and see those as models for the kind of educational exploration in community that I’m trying to describe.
    And as for what you’ve said about the bird in the nest, and the importance of effort and study, I couldn’t agree more!
    Thanks again Jo for your response and the reminder.

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