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 The word comes from the Greek [a-necdote] meaning “unpublished.”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…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A stupid way to eat a peach

peach-219845_960_720One of my favourite academic writers is Stephen Rowland. Here he is demonstrating how the reading of poetry can help us to think deeply about learning. Reading his delicious prose is like eating peaches.

 

“Take the following line from Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850 text line

360/1) in which he describes his feelings when, as a child, he took a rowing

boat out at night and rowed across Lake Windermere towards the mountains

on the opposite side of the lake:

 

It was an act of stealth

And troubled pleasure…

 

Viewing the young Wordsworth as a learner, this line captures the quality of

his absorption in the learning experience – his own sense of agency in the

face of uncertainty, and pleasure in the face of danger – which is beyond the

scope of positivist language. It is a precise rendering of experience: rigorous

in a sense which suggests possibilities for action research writing. To talk of

active learning, study skills, student-centredness or other such technical

‘educational’ terms in relation to this kind of experience misses the point. It

misses the point because such terms cannot contain within them the

ambiguity and contradictoriness which is captured in this line of poetry, and

which is at the heart of the learning experience. … To cast Wordsworth’s “act of stealth

and troubled pleasure” as an educational objective simply makes no sense: it won’t

submit.”

 

Admittedly, not all writing about university teaching is as accomplished as this. Some academic papers taste like a mouthful of old socks. And some are very tough indeed.

Sometimes, when I ask my colleagues on the Postgraduate Course in Academic Practice to read books and articles about university teaching, they get frustrated.

-What’s the point of all this verbiage?

-What she took three pages to say could have been said in a sentence.

-Why doesn’t he write in plain English?

I watch some of them struggling to break through layers of language to reach the ideas inside. For them, words are a husk to be discarded; it is meaning that is the nutritious kernel.

Well, I suppose that’s a good way to tackle almonds: with a strong nutcracker and gritted teeth. But it’s a stupid way to eat a peach.

 

Rowland, S. (2000) The Enquiring University Teacher Buckingham : Open University Press

Innovation! Innovation! Innovation!

One of my favourite New Yorker cartoons shows two disgruntled-looking dogs walking along the road. One says to the other “It’s always, ‘Sit!’ ‘Stay!’ ‘Heel!’ – Never ‘think’, ‘innovate,’ ‘be yourself.’”

Unlike the New Yorker dogs, university teachers are constantly being urged to innovate, innovate, innovate, but this often makes us feel equally disgruntled. We are urged to flip our classrooms, to embrace technology, to make our lectures more interactive, to encourage authenticity in our teaching….the list goes on and on. Yes, we need new ideas, different ways of doing things, fresh perspectives. But what about the things we already do well, and the things that worked well in the past? Shouldn’t we also be conserving, restoring and maintaining, as well as this constant striving for innovation, innovation, innovation?

Quite apart from the risk of overlooking the value of teaching practices and ideas that have stood the test of time, this thoughtless reaching after novelty carries a heavy personal cost. I recently read one colleague’s golden rules of teaching, and the first was “never be satisfied.” I understand and respect this desire for constant striving for improvement. But there’s a recipe for poor mental health if ever I heard one. There’s nothing wrong with feeling satisfied with a job well done. When I ask colleagues taking part in professional development activities to reflect on their teaching practice, I make a point of asking them not only what they want to do differently, but also what they want to continue doing. I encourage them to read the educational literatures, not only for new ideas, but also for affirmations of what they already know and understand about what is working well with their teaching.

Kintsugi (1)

Kintsugi pot : Creative Commons

 

My good friend Annie recently introduced me to the concept of Kintsugi. This is the Japanese practice of repairing broken ceramic items using gold and other precious materials, so that the mended parts are displayed and celebrated. This strikes me as a fitting metaphor for academic development and it reminds me of my colleague Heather McQueen from the School of Biological Sciences and her recent work with quectures.  Quectures consist of a mix of traditional lecturing and peer instruction based around students’ own questions.  Following a sequence of “Think! Type! Talk!” students pause to reflect on lecture input and then submit and discuss their own questions using the Top Hat audience response system. Importantly, their questions are then re-visited in a future lecture, extending their reflection on the material.

The traditional lecture might seem to be broken, but Heather and others are working hard to hold on to what’s good while putting it back together in new ways and making their “mending” public. And, importantly, enjoying their successes.

This blogpost was previously published here: https://iad4learnteach.wordpress.com/

Artefact

What image comes to mind as you read the word “artefact”?

bowl

Intact Roman glass cup from Sanitja (en.wikipedia.org)

 

Perhaps you imagine a beautiful bowl recovered from an ancient site. To the archaeologist’s eye, it reveals its secrets : who made and used it, how they lived and even how they saw the world.

xray
Hairbraid artefact on normal chest x-ray (mypacs.net)

Or maybe you picture an unexpected mass on an X-ray image.The informed radiographer sees it for what it is – a potentially misleading anomaly and a reminder that human beings and their technologies are fallible.

photo

Of course you may think of  “just a thing.”

I like to invite colleagues to create artefacts as a way of exploring ideas and experiences.

cthe_a_456480_o_f0001g

What does teaching mean to you? I’m a dancer

Together we make magazine collages, drawings, sculptures or collections of found items that represent our responses to questions : Who am I as a teacher? What am I like as a learner? What does my discipline mean to me?

 leaf

Science-all.com

Here’s an idea. Go outside for a few minutes. Pick up 2 or 3 objects, for example stones, or leaves. Bring them indoors and arrange them on your desk. Look carefully. In what ways does your arrangement resemble you? In what ways is it different from you? What, if anything, have you discovered?

I wonder how you viewed your arrangement? As a thing of beauty, revealing something of the unique human being who chose and arranged the different parts? As a spurious result? As a random selection of things?

Or perhaps you have another way of looking?

 

 

I often do random things…

I often do random things. I don’t mean leaving my keys in the ’fridge or flushing my phone down the toilet (although both of these have been known to happen). I’m talking about those times when I purposefully make room for randomness in my teaching and development work.
When I want students or colleagues to engage in new ways with a familiar concept: for example learning or teacher, I present them with a random collection of postcard images and invite them to “pick a card, any card.” Then I encourage them to make connections. “What does this image say to you about learning?” “In what ways do you as a teacher resemble this image? In what ways are you different from it?” Time and again I am surprised and delighted by the richness and diversity of their responses. The random images seem to stimulate their meaning making and encourage them to break out of familiar ways of thinking. When one lecturer looked at the picture of Elvis that she had chosen, she became painfully aware of her deep needs for recognition that had been put aside in her cultivation of the “facilitator” persona who fades into the background to allow the student centre-stage (Loads, 2009).


Another favourite activity is collage. I pose a question, such as “What does teaching mean to you?” and invite participants to represent their responses by sticking together pictures torn from magazines. Having reflected on their artwork and following feedback from other members of the group, they often notice unexpected juxtapositions or telling details that they had previously overlooked. One colleague was taken aback when it was pointed out to her that the image she had chosen to represent her way up to the mountains of her teaching aspirations was a tiny, rickety step-ladder; there was a long pause while she sat in contemplation of the implications. (Loads, 2009) Again, it is the seemingly random elements that give rise to insight.


What is happening here is the opposite of the randomised control trial, where research participants are chosen by a computer programme so as to rule out human biases, conscious or unconscious. Here, the randomisation makes room for human creativity and meaning making.
As academics we are trained to find pattern and create order in a chaotic world. This is as it should be, but just sometimes it’s good to let a little randomness into the mix. In the words of Bateson (1979),
“Without the random there can be no new thing.”

 

References:
Bateson, G.(1979:147) Mind and Nature: a necessary unity
Loads,D. (2009) Putting Ourselves in the Picture: Art workshops in the professional development of university educators International Journal for Academic Development 14 (1) pp 59–67
Images:
Random words 4 by Scrabblicious http://fav.me/d3fefix Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0
“YoungElvisPresley”Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:YoungElvisPresley.jpg#/media/File:YoungElvisPresley.jpg

What do academic developers do?

 

 

Schachspielende_Hand_(CloseUp)_001

commons.wikimedia.org

 

I’ve been an academic developer for several years now and friends and family still ask

What is it you do again?

I usually say that I help university lecturers to improve their learning and teaching. But “develop” is such a slippery word. What exactly does it mean?

A colleague and I recently posed that question to a room full of academic developers (yes, there are a lot of us about). To help them get started we suggested a few analogies.

Are you like property developers, knocking things down and putting up new constructions?

Perhaps you’re more like chess players, developing pieces by moving them into powerful positions?

The academic developers weren’t very keen on these commercial and managerial images for what they do. They preferred humanistic metaphors, seeing themselves as photographers bringing out latent qualities or gardeners coaxing a barren or overgrown area to fruition. One lively group chose the image of bacteria in a Petri dish. You can’t make colleagues develop, but you can create an environment where they thrive.

Looking afresh at our job titles was fun, but I had a serious purpose in mind. I wanted to show that the metaphors we choose influence how we think and what we do (Sfard, 1998). An academic developer who thinks of colleagues as chess pieces to be controlled will have a very different approach from one who sees them as diverse plants to be nurtured. And when we stop noticing these metaphors we may unthinkingly perpetuate old beliefs and unquestioned assumptions, making it difficult to introduce fresh insights and critiques of our thinking and practices (Sfard, 1998).

Hidden metaphors can be subtle as well as powerful. By digging into the layers of meaning under the word “development” Webb(1996) unearths the embryo metaphor:

 the idea of development as directed towards a given end and passing through a number of predetermined stages (p64)

that underlies much of our thinking about learning and teaching. This is an impoverished way of making sense of university lecturers’ continuing professional development.

Here are three words that I predict may get a bit slippery over the coming months:

 

Teaching * Excellence * Framework (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2015).

 

What are the metaphors behind them? What new ones will be brought into play?

And what do they mean for everyone’s development?

 

 

With thanks to Sam Ellis and colleagues at SHED (Scottish Higher Education Developers) https://scottishhedevelopers.wordpress.com/

 

 

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2015). Fulfilling Our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474266/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice-accessible.pdf [accessed 16.11.2015]

Sfard, A. (1998) On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One Educational Researcher 27(2)pp 4-13

Times Higher Education Supplement (2015) Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF): everything you need to know available at: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/teaching-excellence-framework-tef-everything-you-need-to-know [accessed 16.11.2015]

Webb, G (1996) Theories of staff development: Development and understanding International Journal for Academic Development 1(1)pp 63-9

 

 

 

Slow Reading

This blog post previously appeared as “The Power of Patience” here: https://iad4learnteach.wordpress.com/

In my job as an academic developer, I encourage university lecturers to read widely about learning and teaching.  These days I’m also urging them to read slowly.  I want them to pay careful attention to a text, word by word, in order to work out what it really means for them.  I try to get them to engage deeply with short ‘teaching texts,’ both academic and non-academic, in order to gain insight into their practice as teachers (Loads 2013).  By ‘teaching texts’ I mean any writings that repay close scrutiny and that can tell us something about our teaching.  I encourage colleagues to read excerpts from academic papers, policy documents, poems and other writings.  I ask them questions about their individual responses:

  • What strikes you as surprising or significant about this text/line/word?
  • What questions does it raise for you?
  • What ambiguities and contradictions are you aware of?
  • What resonates with you?

These discussions open up the possibility of spontaneous readings that capture nuances and associations.  We then turn to a deeper level of contemplation when I invite them to make judgements about the relevance of their readings.  I help participants to make creative connections with their practice:

  • So what does this mean for you?
  • How can you relate this to something you already understand about your teaching?
  • Is there an important idea here that you can use in your thinking?
  • Have you ever experienced a situation that sheds light on this idea? (Kain1998)

Useful for lecturers, slow reading is also valuable for students.  In a series of videos that are at the heart of the Massive Online Open Course, “Modern and Contemporary American poetry,” Professor  Al Filreis (2013) facilitates a group of students in collaborative close readings of US poets including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein.  Many of the poems are considered “difficult” but Filreis coaxes his students to work together, teasing out a range of meanings, word by word.  He likens this slow reading to the slow food movement, and suggests that both can improve our health by aiding our respiration, digestion, sociality and mindfulness.

Students in Professor Jennifer Roberts’ (2013) art history classes at Harvard are also encouraged to slow down.  She insists that they go to an art gallery and spend three solid hours observing a single painting and noting their own observations before they consult any books or online resources.  Although they find the assignment bewildering and even painful, this gives her students insight into the experience of “deceleration, patience and immersive attention.”  Roberts claims that in a world where everything else is pushing us to speed up and to react to multiple distractions, such contemplative practices teach the value of patience and slowing down.  Deceleration is as important for the trained eye as for the novice; she tells how it took her 45 minutes to notice a tiny detail of a painting that contributed to her understanding of its meaning.  Nor is a contemplative approach confined to art history: she claims that other disciplines repay patient attention, whether the object is “a star, a sonnet (or) a chromosome.”

In her talk, the “Power of Patience,” Professor Roberts leaves us with a challenge: if we are to ask our students to make time for “concentrated, slow, non-distracted experiences of learning” how can we find ways to create these experiences in our own lives as educators?

References

Filreis, A. (2013) ‘‘Modern and Contemporary American Poetry’’ Accessed Nov  6 2015 https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpoetry

Kain, P. (1998) ‘‘How to do a Close Reading’’ Accessed Nov 6 2015

http://writingcenter.fas.harvard.edu/pages/how-do-close-reading

Loads,D. (2013) Collaborative close reading of teaching texts: one way of helping academics to make sense of their practice Teaching in Higher Education 18(8): 950-957

Roberts, J. (2013)   The Power of Patience : Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention Accessed November 19  http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/11/the-power-of-patience