Monday, 31 July 2017

Reflections after the dust has settled

In April, I underwent my viva voce examination, and that same day my examiners Prof Mike Wilson and Prof Julian Stern awarded me a PhD for the research that is assembled within these pages. Three months on, there is a final chapter to write in this research project – a reflection on the examination process, and by extension on the whole PhD. 

The question arose during my viva of how original the practice I developed really was. In this respect, a significant omission from my practice review was highlighted, Zipes’ 2004 book ‘Speaking Out’.  On reading this subsequently, Zipes does in fact talk of something akin to a dialogic approach to storytelling in this volume.  He describes his approach as ‘genuine storytelling’ – perhaps a problematic term, but one I feel is justified by his transparent laying out of the values on which this rests.  As in his other writings, he is most concerned that storytellers should be honest, critical, committed visitors; artists who are at the service to communities, cutting byways past the highroads of corrupt commercial media, and helping young people to find, inform and hone their voices.  In short, reading this book should make any storyteller grateful that he has gone before, and blasted a lot of hokum out of the water. 

Zipes and I are, however, working in very different territory. Although he like me is one of Benjamin’s (1973) ‘sailor-storytellers’, working in an education system often hostile to narrative, criticality and the arts, he is an honoured guest in the way that I will never be.  He describes arriving at the door of a cluster of elementary schools every year with an amply funded, year-long programme designed by himself in advance, shaped by his own stated goal of ‘genuine storytelling’.  My experience of carving out spaces in which to work with teenagers, in contrast, is that it is a constant below-the-radar process of negotiation – with them, and with the institutions which define their days.  This work is ‘dialogic’ not by establishing overt dialogue, but by letting each session shape the next, and indeed each moment shape the next – by continually moving across shifting sands, feeling one’s way to which stories might be told and how.  And indeed, why.  It cannot really be for the storyteller working with adolescents to decide in advance what genuine storytelling should look like, or which of their needs it may meet.

It is certainly true that other storytellers work in a way I would recognise as dialogic – a fact which helped me to define a dialogic mode of practice in the PhD.  I hope that my discussion of it helps others to clarify their own approach to storytelling, but thorough investigation into the practice of others is undoubtedly lacking from the work.  Perhaps more significantly, there is a hole in my exegesis, the omission of a serious consideration of adolescents’ own storytelling practice, and how they intersect with the practice of a visiting storyteller. 

This absence seemed to relate to my difficulty in ensuring that young people involved in the Storyknowing symposium were fully included in the discussions being held.  This occurred despite my firm intention to make them equal and valued participants in dialogue.  On reflection, I think the problem was one defined by Alison Jeffers (2016) in relation to her collaborative research: the question of ‘who is holding the umbrella?’  Whenever we collaborate with participants or practitioners, there is always an ‘umbrella’ – a lens through which we are understanding a situation, a set of questions that define it and certain languages for talking about it.  In ‘Storyknowing’, it was not the young people who got to make any of these decisions, and the result was that they were  disadvantaged in discussion and somewhat sidelined.  Having learned from this experience, in my current, explicitly collaborative research project, ‘Things As They Are’, we are taking a very different approach.  Young people aged 14-25, defined not as participants but as potential co-leaders of the project, are very much holding the umbrella, involved in naming the research enquiry and approach from the very start.

Another area my PhD was not able to get to grips with was the challenge of communicating itself to an education audience.  Both the potential and the obstacles to storytelling in ‘City School’ were beyond the scope of the school, stretched to breaking point by external pressures, to appreciate or address – leaving me feeling unable to find the right language to communicate them to a wider educational public.  I also lacked in-depth knowledge of the role of narrative in different approaches to teaching and learning that have predominated at different times in UK schools.  Immediately after my PhD, I began to investigate this, and found a more complex picture than I imagined.  Narrative and storytelling have, it seems, been challenging not only to compliance-focused educational regimes such as the post-National Curriculum UK scene, but almost as much to the progressive tradition.  I have currently a paper in submission to an education journal which grapples with these issues. 

Issues like this bring home the inevitable reality that a storyteller can only work where they can find a space in which their artform fits and is welcomed (or at least tolerated).  Thus, reviewing the settings where my practice flourished, they were all somewhat similar: they were all within ‘protected settings’ – either small-scale groups for vulnerable young people, or enclaves within larger institutions.  I could not make a long-term success of a storytelling lunch club in a big comprehensive, nor in a youth club, nor in a school’s mainstream classes.  It becomes difficult to separate out the external constraints from my individual ‘comfort zone’.  Do I simply prefer to work in a cosy environment, where I can control at least some of the surroundings?  Or is it simply that mainstream youth settings allow no space for non-instrumental dialogue and artmaking?  

Looking back over my practice, in some cases I hold up my hands to the former charge.  It is a relief to be able to plan at least a little in advance, and put some kind of holding structure onto a session.  In others, however, I was ready to help young people invent their own informal practices of social storytelling, and they were ready to join in – but there was no interstice big enough for us to fit into.  The main challenge to the storyteller working with adolescents is this: How to recapture the fluidity of social storytelling and harness all its potential, without the social institutions that make it accessible? 

My examiners observed, very perceptively, that I seem to struggle with endings.  Every time I tell a story, whether to a big audience or a few reticent teenagers, I find it very difficult to tie it up with a flourish.  I feel the awkward moment of transition to ‘normal’ conversation far too keenly, and perhaps I also don’t want to tell them what to think by giving the story a particular spin.  And yet, it is absolutely part of my job to give them a satisfying conclusion.  Endings of a residency in a setting, and endings to a PhD exegesis, seem to suffer from a similar inconclusiveness.

This project, my PhD, is in itself only the first ‘volume’ in a longer ‘series’ – the further practice research I hope to undertake during the coming years into the potential of storytelling to meet the needs of the current moment.  In allowing me to move forward from Volume 1 without corrections, Mike and Julian seemed to acknowledge that what we write is never our last word; in fact is always the plateau from which we can start to see the next peak to climb.  I am grateful for their collegiate, respectful and thorough examination of what I offered.


Benjamin, Walter (1973(1955)) The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov. In Hannah Arendt (ed) Illuminations. London: Fontana.
Jeffers, Alison (2016) Voices and sources: who gets to hold the umbrella? University of Manchester.

Zipes, Jack (2004) Speaking Out: Storytelling and Creative Drama for Children. New York/London: Routledge.