Telling the story of ME recovery

I’m trying something new here. I recently found out, having been feeling ill for the best part of a year, that I have ME. It’s not something I’ve come to terms with yet and I’m looking for ways to take back a bit of the control of my life and body that I feel I’ve lost.

This week I tried out doing a video diary. That’s nothing new. YouTube is full off people talking about their illnesses so I’m adding to already crowded field. The point is not that I think I’ve got anything useful or new to say or that I’m uniquely ill; I’m doing this mostly for me. In workshops I often refer to a quote about storytellers ruling the world which can be interpreted a gazillion different ways. In this case I’m trying to assert a sense of agency over my symptoms rather than feeling I’m at the mercy of them. The world I’m trying to rule over is me.

There’s an ulterior motive as I talk about in the first video, about making people I know and work with aware that I’m not at my best. That takes a bit of the pressure off me and lessens the feelings of guilt that I might be letting people down from time to time. It’s easier to do it like this than go round explaining to people individually – something which would feel like a demand for sympathy which is not what I’m trying to do. I’m happy to talk about it face to face with people if they want to but I won’t be shoving it down anyone’s throats.

Unlike some of the other storytelling stuff I do, I’m not bothered too much about technical or content quality. I’m trying stuff out. It’s unscripted, unpolished and for the moment, unedited. Much of what I plan to say gets forgotten. I’ve never been great at speaking off the cuff so maybe this is good practice for me.

I’m not fussed how many people follow this. I don’t know how long I’ll keep it up – there are a few things I think it’ll be interesting to talk about but whether the ongoing treatment stuff is just too tedious, I suppose I’ll find out.

But I think there will be benefits for me by being open, and who knows? Maybe it’ll be useful for people who are going through something similar.

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Taming the darker dragons of student experience

Today I’m travelling to Birmingham for Jisc’s annual Digifest event. I’ll be running a workshop with Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam Uni on enhancing the student experience through digital storytelling.
On the BBC news site this morning is a story by Hannah Price, a graduate of Bristol University and now a journalist. Hannah was the victim of a horrific sexual assault whilst at university, a much too common aspect of the student experience.
Her story stands on it’s own but while I feel uneasy using Hannah’s story to make some abstract points about storytelling it has forced me to reflect in the run up to Liz and my workshop.

Digital storytelling is NOT therapy

Let’s acknowledge a limitation. Digital storytelling is not a form of therapy. Good therapists may use storytelling as part of their toolkit but always within the context of support that requires specialist training. What I’m talking about here is no substitute for serious pastoral care and safeguarding.

If you are undertaking storytelling activities with people who are vulnerable for any reason you need to establish, probably with expert help, how best to support them realising that problems may manifest themselves in ways that are not always easy to detect.

Rebalancing power relationships

One of the most powerful aspects of storytelling is that it gives a voice to people who are disenfranchised for one reason or another. In Hannah’s case she had her voice taken away by her rapist as well as the social structures around her. Here she is using the tools at her disposal (journalistic skill, digital platforms, our attention) to challenge that power imbalance.

Vulnerability in storytelling

Rape is weaponised shame among other things. Telling this story has taken courage to overcome that but that is not something that society should demand of victims of violence. That in itself perpetuates the power imbalance. Hannah has chosen to do this herself but she also used digital tools like Snapchat to help people to tell their own stories whilst protecting themselves. As Donna Lanclos says, you owe nobody your story. It’s yours to do with what you like.

Process and product

Related to that is the point about what the process of storytelling is for. Hannah has created a product that we can engage with but I suspect the act of telling this story has been an empowering one for her. Even if a story remains private or shared with a small, trusted group the process of turning experience into narrative is what storytelling is for. Seeing digital storytelling as simply a mode of production ignores this.

The worst thing I had to deal with during my time as a student was navigating my parents’ divorce and acknowledging my mental health was not as good as it should have been. For the most part, though, I enjoyed my time at university.

Sadly, we need to acknowledge that people’s student lives are not immune from challenge and trauma. Using storytelling carefully and sensitively can be a powerful way of helping students to overcome difficulties and institutions to learn how they need to change.

Voltage: thinking about the power and peril of stories

Last week’s Point of View on Radio 4 was from the academic Tom Shakespeare talking about “the power and peril of stories”.

In a nutshell he’s saying that the persuasive power of stories has real social consequences and this can be used for good or ill.

I’ve been trying to understand this more recently as it is something that come up from time to time when I’m talking to people about stories and leadership.

Stories and Voltage

What Tom Shakespeare’s podcast made me think about was voltage. Stories are a bit like electricity. Electricity’s a good thing, but it has to be handled with care, especially when the voltage is high.

Some stories are low voltage, like a triple A battery, an anecdote about my journey to work this morning, for instance. It might be entertaining or funny but in terms of personal or social consequences it’s probably neither here nor there.

But what about high voltage?

Some stories strongly influence how people behave, the choices they make, the way they vote. And it affects the storyteller too. Any form of storytelling includes a measure of vulnerability so it should be done with awareness and support and be an explicit choice on the part of the storyteller.

Without that level of care we’re inviting unintended consequences a bit like leaving live wires exposed.

Narrative awareness

Going back to some of the points Tom Shakespeare makes, narrative is an extremely powerful thing, especially in the face of facts. Quite often the compelling story will win out over a rational argument.

If we’re engaged in storytelling we need to be aware of our responsibilities and develop an understanding of how narrative and “truth” are related and what happens when the two diverge.

And for me, this is one of the core purposes of education. Do we equip learners to use stories effectively and do help them see where narrative begins and ends and to challenge it when needed?

 

Getting back into blog reading

One early upshot of my temporary Twitter hiatus was to realise how much I was missing picking up on other people’s blog posts. Twitter had become my single notification channel for new posts from people I know as well as discovering new ones.

Having said that I’ve been aware that I have been reading blogs less and relying on the Twitter stream more and I miss spending longer reading what other people are thinking.

So, yesterday I resolved to get back into reading blogs on a regular basis.

Up until about 3 years ago I had a routine based around Google Reader which helped me to subscribe and follow various RSS fields. Most mornings  I would spend 20-30 mins scanning my feeds and picking out the ones that looked more promising. Mostly it was just consuming but occasionally I’d build a blog post of my own around what I’d read.

Google Reader is no more but there is a handy equivalent aptly called Old Reader, basically a clone of the latter.

The changing blogging landscape

I’d imported my feeds into Old Reader ages ago before I got out of the blog reading habit so my first job was to go through and unsubscribe from blogs that were no longer relevant to me (lots of specialist ones about eportfolios for example) or were obviously inactive.

What surprised me was how many blogs that had once been very active hadn’t been posted to in years. Some had even let their domain subscriptions expire. This in itself shouldn’t be that surprising. I’m doing a very different job to what I was doing at Netskills (when I’d last been in the blog-reading habit) and that will be true of most people.

But you could also read it as a result of the way that our use of the social web has changed over the last few years, away from longer form writing to updates on more closed platforms.

People still blog but there seems to be less of culture around the practice, or rather that I’ve let myself lose track of it. Maybe there’s something about the rise of “thread” posting on Twitter indicates that there’s still an appetite for articulating more extended thinking. I have a problem with “threads” as an alternative to blogging but that’ll have to wait for another post.

Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older but I find that I want to take my time over things more these days and engage more deeply. Rekindling my interest in blogs might be a way of doing that. I’ll try it out for a bit and see if I get back into the habit.

So, help me out here. Which blogs do you read on a regular basis? Who’s writing good stuff about TEL?

Please RT. 😉

 

 

Digital stories about objects – “Spruce, ebony and horsehair”

I had the chance to make another digital story recently. It was for Curiosity Creative, an organisation I’m a trustee of. Alex, who runs the company, is collecting stories of people talking about objects that mean something to them for a project called The Story Box.

This is mine

The Story Box collection is steadily growing and if you’re in the Newcastle area you might see the “screening room”, a full size replica telephone box, doing the rounds at various locations and events.

Have a look at the other stories in the collection. One of my favourites is “Mourning Earrings” which is a very frank account of family disunity. A prize for the best (if slightly misleading) title goes to Michy’s Porn Bear.

Stories in your pocket

One of the activities I do regularly on storytelling workshops is to get people to look in their pockets, bags, wallets etc and find an object that they could tell a story about, something that reveals a bit of themselves. I’m always surprised at how much you can learn about someone from an old rail ticket or a set of keys!

I’m reminded a bit of JK Rowling’s Horcruxes, objects in the Harry Potter books where parts of someone’s soul can be placed inside everyday objects for protection.

These stories about objects are obviously a lot less malevolent, but we go through life, interacting with the objects and people around us, leaving little traces of our identity behind to be recalled later.

A little while back I reviewed a book called The Chimes which used a similar device as a way of a society fighting amnesia using small objects they carried around with them which, if lost, meant the person lost all sense of self and slipped into a sort of waking coma.

So, have a look around you. See if you can conjure a story from a seemingly innocuous object.

More about The Story Box

You can find out more about The Story Box here. Watch out for the public screenings of The Story Box around Newcastle in the coming months. Keep up to date with Curiosity Creative on Twitter and Facebook.

 

 

Quick reaction to Logan

Went to see Logan last night. I was dreading it slightly as I’ve got a bit battle-weary of superhero films but this is a different proposition from the usual CGI-laden stuff. It’s the answer to the question “what would Johnny Cash be like with adamantium claws, looking after a psycho-kinetic Willie Nelson on a road trip to North Dakota?”. If graphic violence isn’t your thing then approach with caution and I have to admit I get a bit queasy about kids being involved in portraying this level of violence (Looper was similar in this regard but also a great film). Having said that, the girl playing [SPOILER*******] is a really good find. And it’s fun seeing Patrick Stewart going all potty-mouth.

So, in summary, very good – probably up there with The Dark Knight.

What I think about when I think about maps

Back in January I gave a short presentation to some of my Jisc colleagues on maps and map making. The format of the event meant we could choose anything to talk about and I tried to not make it about storytelling, I really did but… well, you’ll see. Best laid plans and that.

You can have a good laugh at me struggling to work out how to get the Mac to play video about halfway through.

The headlines

  • I’m a big fan of maps because I did geography at university. Or maybe I did geography because I’m a big fan of maps. Who knows?
  • For me, maps are as important for understanding the world as stories are. If Stories make sense of experiences, maps make sense of places.
  • We’re mentally making maps all the time, even when we’re lost. That’s part of the fun of being lost.
  • Showing things spatially, particularly data, allows a deeper understanding of something and can help make data easier to relate to.

But my conclusion went a bit meta. Maps are still important to me, not just because of their usefulness and appearance, but because they’re a thread that connects me to m time studying at university. That was where I started my life as a learning professional and forms a big part of my identity.

And having a strong sense of identity and purpose is important when going through periods of change and upheaval as we’ve been experiencing in Jisc for the last year or thereabouts.

So, I could have said all that in 30 seconds rather then 10 mins. Never mind. It was a good exercise in planning and delivering a tight presentation and I learnt a lot from watching my colleagues deliver theirs. It’s one of the best aspects of working at Jisc, that we get these opportunities to be a bit more creative and spend time learning for the sake of it.

Rembrandt and the fall of Western Society (probably)

Look at this picture below for a moment. It’s taken by Gijsbert van der Wal. It’s from 2014 but pops up like whack-a-mole on social media from time to time.

What do you see?

A masterpiece hangs on a wall while a small group of young people huddle round their screens.

That’s what’s in the picture, but what do you SEE?

The caption that accompanied this on my Facebook timeline recently said:
“This picture was taken by the security guard of the museum. He just realized that this world was lost.”

Kids, eh?

The conclusion we’re supposed to draw is that these millennials are so absorbed in their screens (probably Snapchatting or playing Angry Birds or something), that they are ignoring the priceless Rembrandt 10 feet away from them. It’s a damning conclusion. Young people no longer value the cornerstones of our culture. We’re probably doomed.

Now look again

This is a trip to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The children seem to be huddled in pairs or small groups. The two boys look like they’re talking to each other. The girls have a piece of paper balanced on their knee. Perhaps it’s a worksheet.

Let’s say that they’re using their phones to access an app created by the museum that explains the pictures they are seeing in much greater detail. Maybe they’re being asked a set of challenging questions in the app that means in a few moments, they’ll all stand up again and spend 10 minutes trying to decide why the woman in the background has the claws of a dead chicken strapped to her belt (I googled it).

Or maybe they’ll move on to the next one and not think about it again for a few years.

Or maybe they’ll go the giftshop next. Who knows?

The fact is, this is old news. Check out this Telegraph article for the back story.

But the real irony of this image is that, if you look at the comments on some of the tweets in the article, we’re bemoaning the fact that the children aren’t using their critical faculties to appreciate the meanings in this artwork while we do exactly the same thing.

Digital literacy in the era of “fake news”

So what’s this got to do with the “fall of Western Society”?

It’s easy to believe at the moment that we on the West live in a society where truth is more and more fluid and “fake news” abounds. Before Trump adopted the phrase as his all-purpose come back for journalists critical of his ineptitude “fake news” was the shadowy web of misinformation on questionable websites and some reputable ones that aimed to shape the outcome of the democratic process by dubious means. (It’s amazing how quickly meanings change these days!).

I tried a while back to to explain why I thought false news stories circulated so widely and quickly. My conclusion was a bit like stating the obvious but I was interested in how we find comfort in narratives that confirm our view of the world rather than truly shock and challenge us.

For me this is a major plank of digital literacy; the ability to question the meaning behind images and other information on the web, the narratives associated with them and their impact on behaviour and society.

We’re starting to see how society’s inability or unwillingness to grasp this nettle can have dire consequences particularly for vulnerable groups far from the seat of power but potentially for all of us. Misinformation and misinterpretation in the digital realm isn’t the only reason for the rise of the far right but it’s certainly helped.

And no, I’m not saying that this picture of some kids on their phones is responsible for or even emblematic of the fall of Western society, but using it as a tool to help us talk round these fundamental issues isn’t a bad place to start for us as educators.

And maybe pictures like this one suggest that hope is not lost…

… but maybe that’s just my interpretation.