Mythopoetics and narrative inquiry: what’s the difference?

Why did I hesitate when, last week, someone called my research methodology ‘narrative inquiry’? Why am I drawn instead to talking about ‘a mythopoetic methodology’?

Narrative inquiry, as I understand it, involves the use of narratives – people’s stories – to get at dimensions of a phenomenon. It sees these stories or narratives as forms of evidence, as data that can be drawn on to inform useful insight about the way the world is. Even the most subjective strand of narrative inquiry – autoethnography, the telling and analyzing of the author’s own stories – has this sense of bringing to the surface, or subjecting to the gaze, pre-existing data in order to study it.

Mythopoetics is about something slightly different. It’s about creating something new. It’s not about unearthing and making sense of what exists already; it’s not about gathering data. It’s about the scholar submitting him/herself to the novelist’s or the poet’s discipline, finding words for intuition and the products of the imagination, and then subjecting those words to the disciplined process of distinguishing between the clever and the authentic, the slick and that which resonates with how the writer actually experiences life.

I’m wondering if the different approaches of Jean Clandinin and Margaret Somerville is significant here. Clandinin’s focus is on the stories that people tell and how these stories creates identity: stories to live by. Somerville talks about a methodology of postmodern emergence, an approach which privileges waiting patiently and with an open mind in the place of unknowing, immersed in certain almost meditative practices in order to allow meanings to emerge.

Mythopoetics is in the Somerville camp.

If I’m right here, about this distinction, and if I’m in the mythopoetic rather than the narrative camp, will my faculty – see that there’s room for the mythopoetic in a faculty collaborative research project? As we investigate, for example, the field of mentoring and professional development in a climate that privileges accountability and standards, will those leading the projects see a role for mythopoetics?

As soon as I typed that sentence, the theme of my Prague talk popped into mind. What do stories do? They agitate, complicate, induct and animate. That’s the role they’d need to play in the bigger project, doing their work first on the research team itself, then as part of the research team’s findings.

It’s important, for myself, to keep in mind that I’m not a researcher doing narrative inquiry, but someone trying to understand and practise a mythopoetic methodology.

A means of knowing and a way of telling

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

For months, maybe years, I’ve been wrestling with how my love of story (telling them, reading them, writing them) can be reconciled with the serious research/scholarship world I find myself in. Can a story be considered scholarship? I’ve asked myself (out loud, often on this blog). I’ve hacked my way (it’s not been unpleasant) through journal articles, and I’ve been connecting all this with things I’ve learned during my years as a teacher and a therapist, and I’ve finally come to the conclusion that, yes, writing fiction can be considered scholarly, both because writers are involved in a scholarly search when they’re trying to write a particular kind of fiction, and the act of publishing the resultant story is a scholarly act in itself, because it’s a powerful way of communicating insights; I’ve suggested, in my writing and in a recent seminar, that a certain kind of fictional writing is both a scholarly method and a scholarly form.

If you’ve hacked your way through that last sentence, you’ll understand better my uncertainty about whether to laugh or cry. I’ve been trying to find the words to say what I’m thinking, my phrases are often frustratingly convoluted and unnecessarily wordy … and yesterday I picked up an article by Art Bochner who said all I’ve been trying to say in a simple, clear sentence.

Stories, he said, are ‘both a means of knowing and a way of telling about the social world.’ (Bochner, 2012, p. 155)


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

On joy and depression in the teaching of English

 Sometimes, Sylvia thinks as she sits in the Las Vegas airport lounge waiting for her flight home, 140 characters aren’t enough. Like right now. One tweet is definitely not enough to say all she wants to say about the week she has just spent at her first English teachers conference.  For twenty minutes she posts to Twitter, or re-tweets as she comes across other posts from members of her rapidly expanding PLN:

 OMG! Just finished #ncte12 #alan12 English teachers conference. I’ve found my Tribe [Seth Godin]

Met authors. Bought books. Talked all night about writing. This is why I wanted to be an English teacher!

Listened to Penny Kittle, Jim Burke, Kelly Gallagher, Tom Newkirk. Inspired. And Ken Robinson. Wow!!

RT Great graphic novels from 2012 … via @Salon

RT @pennykittle: @KellyGToGo What should children read? MORE. Amen to that!

RT Jim Burke@englishcomp   NYTimes: What Should Children Read? (Meditation on nonfiction & teaching CCore by teacher/friend of Malcolm Gladwell)

I love Tom Newkirk’s book “The Art of Slow Reading.” This is so re-assuring! #titletalk

RT I would love to spend a week with #titletalk folks. Everyone brings 20 books and the week is spent rdg, talking writing rdg and so on.

RT@pennykittle Hope you don’t mind. We just started a book club for your book Book Love. Already nearly 30 people signed on!

RT Carol Jago@CarolJago  Teaching Frankenstein? Here’s the preface to 1831 edition  #edchat

RT Donalyn Miller@donalynbooks  Shout your favorite book of the year– any age range. #titletalk

Her flight is being called, so Sylvia turns off her iPhone. She can’t wait to get back, to sleep in her own bed for starters, and then to return to school, to her English classes, with all this energetic joy she’s feeling. The imagination. The consolations and inspirations of literature. The joys of writing and talking, deeply, about words that move us, shock us, make us laugh. The sense that she’s been given this privileged opportunity to set up, in her own classroom, mini-versions of the conference she’s just attended, places where her students will explore, through what they read and what they write, the worlds within and without.


 Three days after attending the conference, Sylvia sits at her desk at home in the small hours of the night, all the post-conference elation drained from her body. She’s spent the past hour writing about the English Departmental meeting earlier in the day, and is wondering whether she should risk posting it on her blog. Probably not.

This is what she has written.

 I am lost for words. In fact I’m lost full stop.

For most of last week I loved being an English teacher. Feeling myself a member of the tribe. Amongst my own. I bought books and sat in corners with colleagues sharing excited thoughts about what we’d been reading. I rubbed shoulders with authors whose words take me into other worlds, worlds which become my own world. I was part of a virtual and live community made up of those who love language and the imagination and stories. I felt alive in a way that I did when I was studying English at college, a part of a community of readers and writers, a member of a tribe who had access to a unique way of knowing that helps us see more of what is around and within us. I couldn’t wait to get back to my classroom, invigorated, inspired, renewed, clarified.

Today I feel immersed in hopelessness.

We spent our lunchtime today – me, the Head of our faculty, and another colleague –  arguing about Enrico’s grade on the essay he wrote. Enrico is one of my students. He’s 15. I’ve been working with Enrico for months, now, trying to get him to see that writing can be a way of exploring things that matter. At first he was resistant, but then we talked one day while I was on lunchtime playground duty about the worried look on his face, and he told me that his younger brother had left home overnight and the family didn’t know where he was. We had a writing lesson straight afterwards, and I encouraged him to write, privately, about what was on his mind. Over the next weeks we developed it into a longer story, partly fictionalized, and he told me how he enjoyed the writing, how it felt good think, in a slow way, about some of the stuff that he and his family have been experiencing.

So, before the conference, when it came time to work on the essay task that was going to be graded, I encouraged him to write an essay about loss. His brother had returned, but there was a time when Enrico didn’t know what had happened to him. He’d talked, too, about the loss of a family dog that had wandered off and never returned. So there seemed to be lots of material there for Enrico to draw on.

He’d written the essay while I’d been away.

It was full of heart-felt material, it was a piece of writing that mattered to him, but my colleagues insisted that it be given a fail. It wasn’t smoothly written, he didn’t support his argument by quoting from the text we’ve been studying, and he didn’t discuss the writer’s techniques. Furthermore, it took a different tack from the rather glib and restrictive stimulus quote that the students had been asked to respond to. The essay didn’t fulfill the requirements of the rubric, and my colleagues, or one of them at least whose opinions matter, had insisted that his essay be given a FAIL.

My colleagues argue that we’re assessing his writing and not his character, but that’s not the way Enrico is going to experience it. And I can’t help thinking back to the English teacher’s conference, and to the talks given by all those authors who talked about the vulnerable parts of themselves which they explored and articulated in their books. They, or most of them, had the consolation of knowing that their writing had been published before, had the support of the editor and the publisher and probably lots of other folk. They’d been invited to our conference! Enrico, of course, has none of this.

I was reminded at the conference that reading and writing are at the heart of our discipline, that English is core because, through it, we learn about our own and others’ world. I so want this insight to determine what happens in my own English classroom.

It doesn’t, though. It can’t.

I end up feeling guilty that I’m not preparing students like Enrico for the hurdles he’ll have to jump. Is this just my inexperience? Is this just because I’ve only been teaching a short time? Will I ever find a way of helping him ‘play the game’ while at the same time getting some deeper pleasure out of reading and writing?

I don’t know how to do this.

I feel empty and defeated.


A Note on the story

The above story is entirely fictional (though the tweets were inspired, and sometimes copied, from tweets I read following the NCTE English Teachers conference in Las Vegas earlier this month). It’s a story I’ve written quickly in order to help me think about a link I’m becoming increasingly interested in: the possibility that some of the external demands on English teachers are distracting us from our core disciplinary business, and are unnecessarily depressing for teachers (especially young ones like Sylvia) and students (like Enrico).

What is a story? What does a story do?

Over my teaching life, I’ve thought a lot about stories: what they are and what they do.

Initially my interest was in what they do. I discovered, pretty quickly in the early days of my teaching, that telling a story to my primary school students could calm a restless class, produce a kind of hypnotic spell over challenging students, and create a dream-like space that seemed to build relationship (between me and my students?) and community (a sense that we’d together taken part in some kind of meaningful and pleasurable ritual?). Stories worked, and as a young teacher I grabbed hold of anything that seemed to work.

I began to wonder, then, why stories worked. What are they? This led to an interest in the ideas of Freud and Jung, Joseph Campbell and James Hillman. Stories, these writers told me, were products of the unconscious. Just as myths were imaginative attempts to make sense of the way the world seemed to be, so stories were ways in which we gave shape and words to impulses and intuitions that came up from what Campbell once called the unsuspected Aladdin caves beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness. [1] Telling stories, then, seemed to be an exercise in giving voice to truths. Stories were versions of realities that couldn’t be named – and were in some ways therefore inaccessible – in other ways.

During the 90s, I trained and worked as a psychotherapist, and I would often ask the young people who came to see me to tell me a story. One day, for example, a 15 year old boy [who I have called here Joseph] experiencing some unsettling internal and external conflicts in his life, created on my study floor a little scene with two small boxes, and then told me this story:

There’s the evil and the good, and between them is the sea and at each end of sea there are two boxes of mystery. At one side of the sea there are the good things, the sweet smelling, the comfortable and the good ruler. On the other side, there is the evil and it’s all enclosed in bushes, a sense of not letting the rest of the world know what’s going on inside. There are the sour smelling things, the funny and evil kind of things, and an evil kind of a ruler. And also on the evil side there is a part that the good side has conquered, and its armour is being taken off and it is being exposed and converted to the good. And in the middle of the sea, and between the two sides, there is a sun which is a meeting point, not very high where neither will fight, like a conference area where they talk.

It seemed to me at the time desperately important that I understand this story, and that more generally in my practice that I understand what stories are. Were they products of the unconscious which, when brought up into the light, released some kind of energy? Were they clues to internal conflicts which needed to be addressed and in some ways resolved? Were they indications of a teleological impulse which, when identified, allowed the story-teller to move forward more confidently? What was a story?

Slowly, though, I came to believe that it was less important to answer the What is a story? question, and more important to focus on the question What does a story do? As I worked with Joseph and with many others, I came to see that stories do many things, and that principally the sharing of stories helped to create a network of relationships: human, spatial and intellectual.  To tell a story is to attempt to create a relationship, and attempt to mate with the world. As I put it in my thesis:

My fifteen-year-old client Joseph tells me a story. It’s an exciting story and I rush off and include it in a talk I’m giving to the local Jung Society. But then my next session with Joseph is unexpectedly flat, I have a disquieting dream and I find myself wondering if I somehow missed the point of Joseph’s story. So I talk to my supervisor Giles and I tell him the story (and the story of my confusion) and Giles tells me a story or two of his own. At our next session Joseph tells me some more stories (by now I’m using the word ‘story’ to describe many different kinds of things) and the stories I tell him back have incorporated in them some Joseph-bits and Giles-bits. This three-way story-telling (with cross-fertilisations) continues for over a year and I then write a thesis (another story!) about it.

I’ve recently needed to think again about these two questions: What is a story? What does a story do? I’m involved in a project where we’re creating some fiction set in educational settings, and there’s renewed internal pressure on me to think about the nature of the stories we are about to write. What are they? Are they attempts at representing suppressed or unrecognized truths? Is that their potential value? Or are they, like the stories told in my psychotherapy practice, attempts to create an affect, attempts to create (both amongst the members of the project team and amongst readers of the stories we produce) a series of conversations and networks of relationships? Are we wanting to name truths, or create responses?

[1] “For the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but dangerous jinn abide.” Joseph Campbell The Hero with a thousand faces

The ethnographic challenge

Of his paintings, Picasso famously said: ‘the artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies’ (1923:7). This is what I am seeking to do with the stories in this section, to use literary techniques and the sources of research data to create the truths of professional and personal lives. Thus the purpose of the book is identical with the central backbone of any art/istic endeavor, which is to tell the truth as one sees it. (p17 of Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press.

I’ve been reading more of Peter Clough’s book, which is centred around five fictional short stories, each set in a school and each deeply unsettling (to me, at least).

Here, for example, is how the story ‘Rob’ begins:

When Rob Joynson was 43 he came into school on a Tuesday morning much as usual; and passing at 10.40 by a maths class taken by Michelle G. – a probationer of 23 – and hearing terrible noise; and seeing through the window a boy at the back fetch a fat gob on Michelle’s back as she walked down the aisle smiling, smiling too, too nervously, her hands doing ‘Down, please: down, down’ at the noise; seeing this marbled yellow gob on Michelle’s ordinary blouse on her decent body, Rob Joynson rushed into the room and to the back and took the boy – Mark something – by the ears, both ears, and pulled him up out of – through almost – his desk and repeatedly smashed his head against a chart of tessellations on the wall. And Michelle pulled at him from behind and screamed, and he twisted the boy down by his ears and pushed at him with his foot, kicking until he was quite under the desk. Then Rob started to cry and there was a terrible silence … (37)

They are complex stories, and full of tensions and ethical challenges. There are no simple truths about either the issues or the characters.* These are ‘ethnographic operas’ that I imagine Deborah Britzman applauding, where characters negotiate (always problematically, often unconsciously and inarticulately) competing worlds.

To speak and act as if there is one monolithic culture of teachers, students, or schools is to take up a discourse that is at once authoritative and impossible. Within any given culture, there exists a multiplicity of realities – both given and possible – that form competing ideologies, discourses, and the discursive practices that are made available because of them. It is within our subjectivities that we can make sense of these competing conditions even as these competing conditions ‘condition’ our subjectivity in contradictory ways. (Britzman 2003, 71)

Peter Clough’s stories are clearly evidence-based. In his book, he is explicit about where the evidence came from, and how he used the evidence to create these fictional short stories. But the evidence isn’t drawn upon to prove anything. He argues that narratives and fictions seek to evoke rather than to explain (73) and need to be judged according to their verisimilitude rather than their verifiability (15).

When I reflect on the impact his stories have on me as a reader, I can see how this kind of educational writing achieves something that more conventional research or scholarship cannot do. It takes me behind the scenes, into the lived lives of people involved in educational settings. It troubles any superficial notion I might have that solutions to difficult policy issues is simple, because lives are at stake, and lives are complex. Conflict in real life is not only between generations, classes, ethnic groups or economic interests; conflicts in real life are also internal to individuals. Outcomes (tragic or otherwise, though all of Clough’s stories have tragic outcomes) are not just the result of one group having more power than another, but of one set of an individual’s inclinations proving too strong for another set.  The ethnographic opera is played out on many different levels, within and between characters, within and between groups.

Translating life’s realities as lived by men and women into story, and doing it in such a way as still to be believed, is the  ethnographic challenge. (64)


Clough quotes Stronach & MacLure 1998:57 as follows: “One goal [of educational research] must be to produce accounts which deny the reader [the] comfort of a shared ground with the author, foreground ambivalence and undermine the authority fo their own assertions.”


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.

Visiting the Morgan Library: intersecting worlds of scholarship and fiction

The Morgan Library

Around about this time last year, I visited the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.  The library itself is breathtaking, a grand room full of first edition books, priceless art works, and displays of fiction writer’s manuscripts and letters. To be in the room is to be in the presence of scholarship; this is what is must have been like to have stood inside one of the great libraries of the ancient world, in Constantinople or Alexandria.

I find places like this to be inspiring. They stir up in me yearnings to be a part of the world of scholarship, to join those reading and writing their way into greater insight or clarity about the way things are.

I discovered, while at the Morgan, that they had a Dickens exhibition running. Dickens is my favourite writer. He also stirs up in me yearnings to be other than what I experience myself to be.  When I read a Dickens novel or biography, or go to a Dickens exhibition, I find myself wanting to write fiction about the worlds of teachers and students, about the lifeworlds or the mythopoetics of classrooms.

This morning I opened a book about narratives and fictions in educational research.

Narrative … opens up (to its audiences) a deeper view of life in familiar contexts: it can make the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. As a means of educational report, stories can provide a means by which those truths, which cannot be otherwise told, are uncovered. The fictionalization of educational experiences offers researchers the opportunities to import fragments of data from various real events in order to speak to the heart of social consciousness – thus providing the protection of anonymity to the research participants without stripping away the rawness of real happenings. … [These] are stories which could be true, they derive from real events and feelings and conversations, but they are ultimately fictions: versions of the truth which are woven from an amalgam of raw data, real details and (where necessary) symbolic equivalents (Yalom, 1991).

Clough, P. (2002 ). Narratives and Fictions in Educational Research Buckingham, Philadelphia, Open University Press. p8

I wonder if this is where these recent blog posts are leading me and why I find Britzman’s phrase about ‘ethnographic opera’ so apt. I’m guessing that this is why it seems right that my blog is called ‘Degrees of fiction’.

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.

Are a writer’s characters just the author in fancy dress?

In a chapter called ‘Truth and culture’ in her book on Foucault, Clare O’Farrell writes

Foucault notes early on in his career, following Nietzsche, that the ‘fact’ is already an interpretation. In other words, his writings are based on elements which are already ‘fictions’, things that have already been selected, fabricated and organised in certain ways. There are no primary sources or even physical artefacts that one can accept without question. Everything is already a secondary source, an interpretation. (p84)

I was thinking about this as I drove down to Melbourne a couple of weeks ago, listening to a Late Night Live interviewwith Mark McKenna, the biographer of Manning Clark.

Part of Heidi Smith’s Portrait of Manning and Dymphna Clark, taken at “Ness,” Wapengo, NSW in 1989.

I’ve always loved the history writing of Manning Clark; Australian history came alive for me when I read his History of Australia. I felt the presence of real people in his accounts, whereas in other histories I’d been made to study at school and at university, there was something bloodless about the way the past was described. (I’m reading War and Peace at the moment, and am similarly thrilled by the way Tolstoy helps us understand that what happened in the past was experienced and shaped by people just like us.)

So I’ve never had much sympathy for Clark’s critics who have taken him to task for not having all his ‘facts’ right. It has seemed to me, as it apparently seemed to Foucault, that ‘everything is already a secondary source, an interpretation’. Clark’s history didn’t have to be always literally ‘true’ in order to be stimulating and important.

But when I got to Melbourne, I went online and read ‘On reading Mark McKenna’s biography of Manning Clark’, by Nick Gruen. Gruen makes the following claim:

 But the ultimate shame is not that Manning got some facts wrong about his characters. Rather, the problem is that his archetypes – whether it is Alfred Deakin, John Curtin or Henry Lawson – never really expand into well-rounded characters who are uniquely themselves. The archetypes are a side of Manning in fancy dress. Hell in the heart, uproar in the trousers, wondering what went on in the mind of a woman, wondering what it was all for. Clark cannibalised the material for scenes that he could transform into stories he wanted to tell.

Gruen suggests that Clark’s characters are just versions of Clark himself, ‘Manning in fancy dress’.

Is this what I do in some of my writing?

Last year I had an article published which began with a piece of fiction (based, I claimed, on a student and teacher I knew). Here are the opening paragraphs:

Alison sat in the pale green vinyl-covered 1970s armchair outside her lecturer’s office, drumming her fingers impatiently on the thin wooden arm rest. ‘This was such a stupid idea,’ she thought bitterly to herself. Everything about this was stupid. The decision to email Alec to ask for an appointment. The risky admission that she found the idea of having to write an essay terrifying. Allowing herself to feel vulnerable.

The door opened and Alec invited her in.

He was a portly man in his sixties, squinting, but not coldly, from behind thick glasses. The word around the campus was that he had an eye disease and was going blind. Certainly, in the one lecture they’d already had, it was clear that he couldn’t read the screen easily, and held his notes so close they almost touched his nose. Alison murmured an awkward ‘thanks for agreeing to see me’, then sat at the small round table opposite Alec.

‘How can I help?’ he asked.

I’m wanting to use this kind of fiction-based-on-what-I’ve-experienced-and-known more in my academic writing.

But are these characters just Steve in fancy dress?

Ethnographic opera

Deborah Britzman

In Chapter 7 of the 2003 edition of Practice Makes Practice, Deborah Britzman asks questions of her own ethnographic studies.

… the ethnographic promise of a holistic account  is betrayed by the slippage born from the partiality of language .. .From the unruly perspective of poststructuralism, ethnography can only summon, in James Clifford’s terms, ‘partial truths and ‘fictions.’ …These positions undermine the ethnographic belief that reality is somehow out there waiting to be captured by language. (244)

Her solution is to

borrow discourses and tack them onto other discourses …  my narrative was to write a Rashomon of student teaching, an ethnographic opera where voices argued, disrupted, and pleaded with one another; where the high drama of misunderstanding, deceit, and the conflicting desires made present and absent through language and through practice confound what is typically taken as the familiar story of learning to teach. I tried to write against the discourses that bind the disagreements, the embarrassments, the unsaid, and the odd moments of uncertainty in contexts overburdened with certain imperatives. I tried to do this by provoking and contradicting multiple voices: the ethnographic voice that promises to narrate experience as it unfolds, the hesitant voices of participants who kept refashioning their identities and investments as they were lived and rearranged in language, and the poststructuralist voices that challenge a unitary and coherent narrative about experience. 247

And her rationale for this approach is to remind us of the purpose of this kind of research, which is not to authenticate a particular truth but to trace ‘but not without argument, the circulation of competing truths’ (251).

The reason we might read and do ethnography, then, is to think the unthought in more complex ways, to trouble confidence in being able to observe behavior, apply the correct technique, and correct what is taken as a mistake. Ethnographic narratives should trace how power circulates and surprises, theorize how subjects spring from the discourses that incite them, and question the belief in representation even as one must practice representation as a way to intervene critically in the constitutive constraints of discourses. 253

Writing ethnography as a practice of narration is not about capturing the real already out there. It is about constructing particular versions of truth, questioning how regimes of truth become neutralized as knowledge, and thus pushing the sensibilities of readers in new directions. 254


I find this both reassuring and unsettling.

It’s reassuring because I think this is what I’ve done in my own writing, though without the sharp self-awareness and introspection that Britzman is so good at. I’ve written case studies with competing viewpoints from different perspectives, ethnographic opera.

But it’s also unsettling. Isn’t there something in all of this that is unsaid? When we write this kind of ‘ethnographic opera’, we make decisions about which voices to include, how to present them, and we make judgments about structure and balance and tone. Britzman says all this; ‘It is about constructing particular versions of truth’.

But what she doesn’t say is how this differs from writing fiction. Presumably she is using her records of actual conversations and actual observations, and she is not consciously editing these to present a particular point of view … yet she must be. I do. I can’t see how you can do a piece of ethnographic research without doing this.

And once you’ve started down that (very useful) track, where is the line between, on the one hand,  making decisions about (say) form and, on the other,  inventing dialogue, especially when in the end one’s purpose is to ‘think the unthought in more complex ways’ or ‘push the sensibilities of the readers in new directions’?

I think in all this I’m wanting to make the case for fiction, rather than wanting to cast doubt on Britzman’s approach, which I find stimulating and liberating. Perhaps I’m just wanting to go a bit further than she seems to be wanting to go. If all poststructuralist ethnographic research can be seen as ‘degrees of fiction’, what stops us from creating composite characters and inventing scenes?


I’d welcome comments from researchers or writers more experienced than I.

Bleak House with footnotes: fiction and academic writing

I’ve recently returned from two weeks in America, and spent some of that time at places like the Arts Institute in Chicago and the Piermont Morgan Library and Museum in New York. I’ve seen lots of very, very beautiful things.

One of the effects of all of this has been to prod my thinking about the arts, and their relationship to research. I keep seeing things that move the viewer or listener, and I keep thinking about the limited readership and impact of the world of academic writing. It’s not true for the established academics, of course – the Britzmans, Shulmans, Darling-Hammonds – but for people like me, it can be a bit of a game, where you get published to rack up the points but it doesn’t have much impact on anything real.

Perhaps the moment that made the biggest impression on me in America was when I visited an exhibition dedicated to my favourite author, Charles Dickens. At the entrance there was a large poster with an introductory overview, part of which quoted T. S. Eliot roughly along the following lines:

Dickens created characters of greater intensity than human beings, characters who belong to poetry like figures of Dante or Shakespeare.

As I read these words, shivers started to run along my spine. I had to sit down for while, before going through the door.

Why such a strong reaction, I wondered? What was it about those specific words? I think I located at least one part of the explanation.

Dickens created characters ‘of greater intensity than human beings’. He exaggerated virtues and foibles, traits and mannerisms, in order to explore and expose tensions and issues that were not seen clearly by Victorian England. He created vivid, complex worlds. His readers were moved. His novels had an immediate and powerful effect.

The contrast with the much of the academic writing that researchers publish in journals is stark.

Is there, I’ve been wondering, any chance of a researcher writing a piece of fiction – a short story or even a novel, or some poetry, or a film, or a photo story – which is footnoted and has an extensive annotated bibliography? A kind of Bleak House with footnotes? Is this kind of thing being done anywhere within academic circles?

I think this is where this American experience has been leading me, to thinking about the possibilities of an academic fiction, different from New Journalism (in that it requires a kind of explicit academic rigour not expected of a Truman Capote or Norman Mailer) but also different from more traditional narrative inquiry (because it’s wanting to go beyond using narrative techniques in reporting real events; it’s wanting to write fiction with composite characters and invented dialogues and scenes).