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
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.