Friday, March 18, 2011

Storytelling: writing a thesis

Once upon a time is a much more interesting narrative than thesis writing, where typically the format follows: this is the problem, this is how it is addressed, and here's what was found, and therefore this is recommended.
As an example:
This study into what went wrong found little red riding hood set up by her mother, duped by a wolf, saved by the woodchopper, and at the end the wolf is dead, but so is her grandmother....but lets not dwell on the negative. Although we may also have some recommendations about childcare that could be the subject of another thesis.

*sigh* The only reason that would work as a bedtime story is because it would induce sleep.

The absence of thrill in academic writing is the subject of a blogpostand a twitter link by @andycoverdale who cites Jonathon Wolff's article titled Literary boredom
Rather than fostering excitement, academic writing styles give the plot away on page 1.
A peculiar attribute for avid readers, is it that academics have to read so much they need the last page first?

Could a more engaging narrative be written as a thesis?
This could be serious, if its to change something, and don't all thesis writers set out to make a difference, then it cant do that if no-one reads it.

Option 2, turn it into something more thrilling in your post-doc life.

In considering the story rather than the plot... it is possible for a thesis to engage otherwise, it does not have to be situated in a netherworld of absent authors and distanced readers, cancelling the distance between reader writer and subject matter is what Patti Lather writes of in academic speak.

In their 2004 book, Storytelling in Organizations, John Seely Brown, Stephen Denning, Katalina Groh and Laurence Prusak explore how narrative can be used for transferring knowledge, nurturing community, stimulating innovation and preserving values. These are things I want my thesis to do. Surely it is possible to get there without being dull?

For Latour also, it is in the story telling that uncertainty resides. If the story doesnt engage, an ANT analysis fails.

But if a thesis doesnt follow conventional wisdom, might it fail also?
A point of tension: do I take the risky exciting path that might have wolves?
Or the path where the wolves are dealt to in advance?
The latter is obviously the safer option, these academic types dont seem to want surprizes...we save those for our children, ironically to help them sleep at night.
How strange is that?

"This dark telling is of a young girl with a mother whose stretched too thin, sandwiched between providing care of children, care of aging parents, and wriitng a thesis,but soon the daughter finds she has far more important things to worry about than lack of dinners on the table and having to take sandwiches to her granny. When people start turning up dead with their throats ripped out, she begins to suspect her Granny may be to blame."

Now to write my own thesis review: A great story bought back to life by interruptions to the thesis narrative.

This leaves openings for further study, perhaps a gendered telling...where's the father in all of this?
Or a feminist marxist one...exploitation and inequality in the divisions of labour
Perhaps an empowerment narrative might leave less bitterness? But heh, just whose reality do we work with here? This is not a happy telling for any of those involved, wolves have to live and eat too, and are probably an endangered species, the mother's worn out, the young and old neglected, and the woodchopper- please tell me he doesnt get to carry off the child or Im going to have to get concerned about further dubious and exploitive relationships...

Perhaps, having written out my angst I should now return to the endeavour of writing for the staid audience of thesis markers.

Lather, P. (1997). Creating a multilayered text: Women, AIDS, and Angels. In W. G. Tierney & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Representation and the text: re-framing the narrative voice (pp. 233-258). New York, NY: State Univeristy of New York Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.


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  2. I can so relate to this. In fact, I sent the link to the post to my adviser as you bring up a point that I think anyone who writes thinks about.

  3. Annette3:58 AM

    If you haven't already, you might really enjoy perusing the journal Qualitative Inquiry, which sponsors a lot of evocative ethnography, narrative, layered accounts, etc. There's actually a lot of precedence for resisting the more staid scientific report formats. Of course, it depends on who your audience is as to how much they might accept or reject the premises for rethinking representation.

  4. Thanks Annette, yes I do enjoy qualitative inquiry. It is thesis markers i need who are similarly sympathetic and i am confidant there are quite a few :)

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  8. You’re right that writing a thesis should be like story telling. It would certainly attract the attention of the reader. And not only that, it would also make you write easier as the thesis would not look to technical. Anyway, thesis writing can really be hard and tough, but it shouldn’t be boring at all.