The Power of Anecdotes

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An early career researcher complained to me recently that much of what we know about learning and teaching in higher education is “merely anecdotal.” A senior colleague often prefaces the telling of funny and insightful stories with the apology that he might be “slipping into his anecdotage.”

Why are we so disparaging of anecdotes? The word comes from the Greek [a-necdote] meaning “unpublished.” It doesn’t mean “inherently unreliable” “trivial” or “unfit for publication.” In fact anecdotes can be a valuable way of communicating insight and wisdom. I once heard a keynote by Professor Graham Gibbs which consisted entirely of anecdotes: a lifetime of practice, research and scholarship in learning and teaching laid out in a string of small polished pieces, each prefaced with “Let me tell you a story…..” It was inspirational. So here are 7 reasons why I love anecdotes:

 

  • They’re short And that’s welcome when we’re all drowning in information.

 

  • They’re often funny When did you last laugh with delight at an academic paper?

 

  • They’re particular But touch on the universal.

 

  • They’re personal They’re told from one person’s perspective and can be interpreted from another.

 

  • They’re memorableThey often turn on a striking word or phrase or a surprising juxtaposition.

 

  • They distil insightsThe best anecdotes replicate a moment of understanding or recognition with every retelling.

 

  • They don’t even have to be true But the best anecdotes have the ring of truth about them, in the way that novels do

 

My dad used to tell the story of a verger (a church caretaker) in the village where he grew up, who had been sacked by the ruthless new vicar because he was illiterate. The poor man had no other source of income and was forced to sell small items door-to-door from a wheelbarrow. He did well, and saved enough to buy a van and then a shop. Ten years later, by then a successful businessman, he was interviewed for the local newspaper. “You’ve achieved so much!” gushed the reporter “Just think where you’d be now if you could read and write!”

“I know exactly where I’d be,” came the quick response. “I’d still be a verger in the village church.”

Dad’s anecdotes, like this one, often spoke of the value and the limitations of what he called “book-learning.” Delivered slowly in his rich Norfolk accent, they revealed his quizzical take on a topsy-turvy world.

They got me thinking and questioning and set me off on a track of learning and scholarship.

And today I still rely on anecdotes in my teaching. Let me tell you a story…