Stories and models

And the pieces came to life...

I like the posts Sheila and Audrey do which are a round up of their weeks. I’m not sure I’ll do it every week but I thought I’d give it a go, and try to weave together some of the personal and professional things I’ve done this week.

I’m actually on leave this week, but have spent most of it working. This raises the whole work-life balance issue of course, but I don’t mind it. I have a generous leave allowance, and being what I suppose is called a knowledge worker, it’s often difficult to exactly allocate work. Also, if I’m honest, there are days when I am officially working, where I’m not very productive – my writing mojo is lacking, I’m distracted, or whatever. So I feel less guilty about these knowing that I worked during some of my holiday. But it is important to ensure you have some breaks where you really do switch off, and I was much stricter about that over the Christmas period than I am usually.

The two things that came up this week which meant that I had to work partly during leave were a meeting on a research project and putting together my HEA fellowship application. The first arose because the other partner was in the UK visiting parents, so we got together for a productive day. We are looking at models of online education, and in doing so the problem with models came to the fore. A model is necessarily a generalisation, and for any generalisation you can immediately think of specific examples that don’t sit well within the model. I prefer to think of it as stereotypes (in a cognitive, not social, sense). For instance, we have a stereotype of a ‘dog’ in our mind, and any particular instance of ‘dog’ is measured by its similarity to the mental stereotype we develop.

The second involved working with an OU colleague, because we have both postponed it for ages and decided to crack on with it in the New Year. It’s an interesting process as you reflect on your career and construct a narrative around it. I’m very aware that a narrative imposes order and logic to a sequence that was often haphazard and driven by chance. But we are story telling animals and the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are how we construct our identity. The pitch I’ve started to make is the philosophy (which is definitely imposing more on my approach than actually exists) I’ve adopted is iterate practice and research, and to do this in the open. So, I have used teaching opportunities as chances to experiment with technology or pedagogy, and this as the basis for research, or researched application of technology and then drawn that into practice. Since the mid-2000s I’ve done this in the open as well, often through this blog. Sounds convincing enough?

I’ve watched a ton of films this week, including Argentinian rainforest Western Ardor. In this tobacco farmers are besieged by bandits burning their crops. “We’ve had this before, but not like this” one character says. “They want it all” the hero observes. That struck me as the philosophy of Trump, Putin and the rampant capitalism now – we had it before, but now they want it all. I read Carrie Fisher’s autobiography Wishful Drinking and her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge also this week. In both of these you can see Fisher using the books as a means to construct a narrative about herself that she can live with. Here she talks about being bipolar: “Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like the weather – independently of whatever’s going on in your life”

Lastly, it was my birthday this week, and that is a time when you definitely reflect and consider the story of your life. So stories and models has been the theme of my week. McCloskey suggests that these are the two methods by which people come to understand a topic – by metaphor or narrative (or models and histories) and that different fields tend to be dominated by one mode, for instance metaphors dominate physics whilst narrative dominates biology. So I guess that’s a decent thing for someone in education to spend their week doing.


  1. Culture theory has something to offer here. I draw on it as a “reflective practitioner” to help me understand better different perspectives and why and how conflict can stimulate progress. Underpinning narratives and metaphors are models of the world based on beliefs that are more difficult to shift than opinions or theories. An example is climate change: whatever the evidence, some presume the earth’s resources are less finite than others. I am getting more involved with Earthwatch Europe because I just don’t think.we can continue with the worsening threat to species and their environments and habitats.

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