Story as agitator

 The issue of impact has been troubling me. My kind of writing is unlikely to have the kind of impact that shows up on citation indexes. Perhaps I can strategically place my articles in high-ranking journals but that’s not the kind of impact my kind of writing is really after.

What am I after?

I want to agitate, complicate, induct and animate. When I write those words, who am I thinking of as the audience? Who am I wanting to agitate, unsettle, induct and animate?

It’s teachers and education students, people in the field, rather than the readers of journals (though, that’s not entirely true; I do want to find and involve myself in an academic community discussing the kind of methodology I’ve been exploring here). But essentially the audience I’m wanting to reach are the teachers who come to my workshops, my students here at UC, my past students.

A former student responded, last month, to one of my stories in a way that has become familiar to me.

Oh my god, Steve [she wrote in an email]. Your story. Just finished it. I am left feeling… feelings. …  I read the first half of the story, then I had a break for a few days, came back and started again from the beginning and [scribbled] comments as I read … questions and thoughts and connections. It started to feel like a conversation between the margin and the story because everything I commented on somehow came up later in the story, and a couple of times I just had to write “yes!” … [It] is so heartbreaking and raw… raw like a nerve.

I said this response was familiar to me. It reminds me of the teacher who threw my book, School Portrait, across the room after reading the opening chapter, then finished it and needed to get in touch with me. Or the person who moved house to live in Canberra after reading it, because she wanted her children to attend the school I’d been writing about.

Impact. I know my stories, my scholarship, my writing, can have impact; it’s a very different kind of impact from the one valued by universities.

But is it?

One of the things I’ve come to know about myself is that people value the way I sit quietly in a conversation until something emerges. This is connected to Somerville’s ‘methodology of postmodern emergence’, and what I’m calling a mythopoetic methodology. I’m imagining myself in a bigger research team, investigating (to use the example I’ve been using in these last posts) the tension between professional learning, higher standards and greater accountability, and making a contribution to the team’s understanding of the issues by drawing attention, in a number of ways, to the lived lives of actual teachers. One of the main ways I’d do this would be to write fiction, to tell stories concocted in my imagination but sourced from my (and other teachers’) experience, and told in such a way that certain issues or factors sitting partly in the background, factors rendered invisible by the garish bright light of the rational intellect, might come into view.

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7 thoughts on “Story as agitator

  1. I have found that the best way of preventing stress about university-defined impact is to cease caring about university-based promotion or grants. The only reason an academic needs to have ‘high-impact’ publications, in my mind, is to argue a case for promotion or have a better shot at an ARC grant. I care for neither. Perhaps I am just young and naive, but I prefer your brand of impact, Steve 🙂

    • Thanks kmcg. Good to hear from you again. Look forward to a chance to chat about these things. I’m old and crusty, but oddly increasingly worried about not having a voice out there, which I guess means having an impact (my brand of impact:-))

  2. This is perhaps naive – it’s certainly divorced from thoughts of accountability. I think though, really, that the impact of writing can’t be measured or even necessarily traced. A bit like teaching. You might not know for twenty years how your words affected an individual, or if they did. And yet, you are already getting so many warm, heartfelt responses. Perhaps – perhaps! – this can be solace enough.

    • Thanks Rach. Yes, I agree about not being able to measure, or even really know about, impact. Yet I quite like the fact that there is chatter about impact (though the way it’s ‘measured’ is so often laughable). I like the encouragement for academics to be, in some effective way, out in the world. What do you think?

  3. I certainly want academics to be effective ‘out in the world’ and for it to be encouraged. I just don’t think that writing does have measurable impact and that attempts to measure are usually limiting. Other types of academic activity (perhaps lab field work) might have measurable impact but not most of the work that we do, as education and humanities professionals.

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