There is often discussion between researchers about the best approach to take and the amount of data required to make a useful contribution to a debate. A number of colleagues are convinced by the value of big data sets, and I agree that these have a valuable role to play in establishing the big picture. However, I am often concerned that personal stories are lost within the number-crunching and generalisations that follow. I am not trying to argue against the value of big data sets here, but am trying to argue for the value of small data sets – personal stories.
Academic experiences are ‘more richly complex at the level of the individual‘ (Clegg, 2008: 332), and it would be a shame to lose this richness in the pursuit of generalisations. Even where diversity does not appear to exist within a group, it always seems to be there once you scratch below the surface and engage in personal dialogues. Large data sets often infer that differences have been accounted for (e.g. “all the respondents were males aged 35 with a first degree in applied linguistics from the University of Budleigh Salterton“) as if any other difference would be insignificant. But sometimes this is to assume too much.
When we are talking about the development of teaching, the same thing is true. Whilst there are many good studies that look at trends and generalisations from large data sets, there seem to be relatively few personal stories in the literature, and yet it was personal stories that I found most intriguing when I was new to teaching. Douglas (2014: 77), in the summary of his personal journey, states that, “stories that are selectively integrated and serve to enhance the understanding of the subject matter can be of value and are frequently a way of personalizing the learning process“. So much of the material that is disseminated in official reports seems to try to “de-personalize” the teaching process. I would argue that when it stops being personal, it stops being teaching and becomes the sterile dissemination of information.
Whilst reports that refer to large data sets often appear to make authoritative pronouncements about ‘the way it is’, personal stories often just offer a point of view. In either case, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not the comments resonate with their own experience. But I find that personal stories are more likely to invite discussion and allow people to feel that they can say, “yes, that how I feel as well”, or “my experience is completely different because ………”.
The other thing that comes out of personal stories (often absent in large scale studies), is the emotion that is often a part of the teaching process. To deny that is to deny a large part of teaching. So often we have all talked to colleagues who are elated about a particular class that went so well, or depressed that another class has gone so badly. We can try to bracket that out of our research, but if we do then what are we left with?
Maybe there’s a good book for someone to edit, “Personal stories of teaching: what really makes higher education work.”
Clegg, S. (2008) Academic identities under threat? British Educational Research Journal, 34 (3): 329 – 345.
Douglas, M.E. (2014) Revisiting the art of undergraduate teaching in higher education: One person’s journey towards enlightenment. The Journal of Effective Teaching, 14 (2): 69 – 82.