This particular brainramble is edited from an IRC log with Seb Benthall, an old buddy of mine from the hacker world who's now pursuing his own PhD in Informatics at UC Berkeley. Once again, half-baked thoughts that are scrambling rapidly as I make sense of this by throwing it into what hopefully will be my final(ish) prelim document.

I'm doing a poststructural narrative analysis dissertation on engineering/technology faculty storytelling. It's poststructural because it destabilizes the centrality of the author (or in this case, the main researcher) and focuses on the sensemaking of the readers (in this case, primarily the narrators), and doesn't expect their perspectives to converge or triangulate on an absolute truth or meaning.

The narrative analysis part means I work with stories. Specifically, I look at narrators retelling the same story over and over again in about 6 dialogic narrative episodes per narrator. I'm using Bruner's work to say, "Hey stories are a thing, we can't dismantle them, we need to treat them as stories."

I'm also pulling in Bruner's notions of how communities interact with their story corpus. As individuals, we make sense of our own narratives by shaping them with, against, within, <insert preposition here> a community's story corpus (which is itself malleable). This means that there's this whole community socializing, community-of-practice entry, apprenticeship-style dynamic to stories. I'm using narrative analysis to start poking at the edge of it. You can think of communities as narratively constructed, and their story corpus as socially constructed -- they mutually co-construct each other.

Because of this sensemaking process, Bruner talks about all texts being hermeneutic. An author works to put meaning in; it's an active process. A reader also works to draw meaning out; interpretation happens on both ends and is shaped by the context surrounding the interpretation. This thought -- "all texts are hermeneutic" -- comes from narrative analysis, but has a parallel in poststructuralism: "all texts are writerly." The idea of "writerly" texts comes from Barthes, who contrasted them with "readerly" texts; the two terms refer to what role the text assigns its reader. A "readerly" text treats the reader as a passive consumer. In constrast, a "writerly" text demands the reader become actively engaged in wrestling with and coauthoring its material, bringing their own contexts and interpretations into play.

Another way of thinking about it that you'll get, Seb, because we've worked together in the open source space: the hacker mindset is effectively to see the world in a writerly way. The writerly hacker.

You can see readerly/writerly as an epistemological view, in some sense. Readerly epistemology is the sort of epistemology that we think of for "stereotypical" school -- what's the role of the student? Brain-as-empty-bucket. What's the role of the teacher? Garden hose that fills the bucket. Now, next step: if you don't see your community's stories as writerly -- and your own story in that field as writerly -- your future in that discipline looks like... it's not much of a future.

("How is this different from Constructivism?" Seb asked. "Or is it like a translating of that into poststructuralist language?" I had to think about this for a bit.) Constructivism is all about hands-on learning, and that hands-on learning is in order to support meaning-making. Whereas I'm concerned with meaning-making, whether or not the activities are hands-on. It's a different angle.

Instead of focusing on students, I've decided I wanted to work with professors. Because the thing is, we keep telling professors "hey, you should teach your students with this hackerly/writerly epistemology," but the professors themselves have to experience it first. If you look at a lot of the faculty development resources for STEM profs, they're all like, "hey, we're going to lecture you on why you shouldn't lecture your students." Which is to me sort of hypocritical and incredibly ironic. But because we're used to efficiently converging on an answer in the STEM fields -- converging on an answer and then transmitting it -- we accept that and we think, "oh, okay, lecture on not-lecturing, cool, gotcha."

That convergence is the sort of thing I challenge with a poststructuralist stance. Taking that stance means I'm refusing to converge on a single "we have the answer of the truth, we're done done done!" point, and pointing out that the refusal to converge is a big part of what... I'm trying to say. For lack of a better way to say it.

I want to get professors out of their stuck narratives by having them tell their stories about designing technical curricula over and over and over and over. And every time they do a storytelling session -- on the same story -- the prompt isn't from me. The prompt is either "here's some verbatim phrases you said last time, let's analyze your own story by retelling the story" -- or those same sorts of phrases, but from another professor's story. Maybe the prof down the hall you hardly speak to, or a prof from the same dept at a different uni who teaches the same class there. The narrators seem to think this is pretty cool. So far, anyway. They say things like -- paraphrasing here -- "zomg, did I say XYZ? that I meant ABC instead." Or "Wait, actually, I really like how Dr. Foobar phrased it better than the way I said this before."

I can pull this off in a single session because I use realtime transcription, so halfway through the "interview session" I stop the storytelling and flip the laptop screen around and say "here's what you said, let's read it and talk about it." It's an integrated member check. Also, part of the IRB is that they agree to release their transcripts with their name on it under an open license (CC-BY-SA right now), so the member check is also an editing session to make sure they're ok with whatever is in there going public. It's "Oh gosh take out what I said about my dean" time, just in case, but nobody's really used that capability yet.

So we end up with: (1) an open dataset of (2) repeatedly told narratives that (3) intertwine and reference/edit/critique each other.

Seb pointed out that I'm "studying up," meaning that I'm studying people of a higher status, which makes for an easier IRB proposal. He made me realize how important the deliberate lack of convergence was, and that I ought to point that out more. ("Hypothetically," I said, "you could continue the process forever; there's no 'perfect' version of the story, we keep rewriting our stories of the past based on what we think in the present anyway.")

Seb said that I was designing a tool (the "interview" method -- or to use Ileana's term, the "dialogical narrative episode") for exposing the messy hermenutical psychological underbelly of the engineering curriculum; emancipatory-reflexive work, but aimed at the people teaching the technical material. Since we're both hackers ourselves, we like the idea that this may help create more writerly engineers ("All the engineers will then get trained as hackers," Seb said, "because you've planted a poststructuralist idea into the minds of the STEM faculty." "I'm not telling them it's poststructuralist," I countered. "I'm just saying hey, isn't this interesting?")