Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Seeing the World Like a Corporation

Dan Meyer:

I’ve lost my mind a bit lately, and I’m certainly losing sleep, sensing some grand unifying theory creeping behind me, creeping behind every high school discipline, behind everything I’ve ever learned or taught.

It isn’t design.

This design thing is just too abstract, I think. It’s awesome but too easy for me to toss out there on my blog and retreat behind, simply because I own a copy of Photoshop and know how to use grids. But what do the teachers who don’t have any training, amateur or otherwise, or own functional software do?

I’ve realized now that more important than design — what, in fact, consumes design — is storytelling.

I think the word Dan may be reaching for here is actually "marketing". "Storytelling" is a tricky word. Like many words popular with bloggers, it doesn't mean much. It evokes archetypes: the campfire, the wandering bard, Homer, your grandmother. There is certainly a lot of good work done around "storytelling" in schools, which emphasizes connecting with the oral tradition, students making meaning from their own personal experiences, and direct connections with history and others in one's community.

In a much broader sense, our discourse is suffused with and dominated by storytelling -- narrative -- which shapes the way we see ourselves and the world in commercial terms. In America circa 2008, when someone is trying to write a story, more often than not, they're trying to figure out how to market something. And if the author isn't trying to sell, someone else trying to figure out how to use the author's work to sell something. When David says he needs to find "the new story," he really means "the new pitch." This is no sin; he's rather explicitly in the business of selling ideas, in fact, that we're moving to an economy based on ideas is part of his pitch, isn't it?

In this context, Dan's "Annual Report" contest, creeps me out. Do we need to be encouraged to evaluate our lives as if we were corporations? Do we benefit from identifying with corporations, of thinking of ourselves as a kind of corporation? Do we need further encouragement to define ourselves in terms of quantified income and a mass of consumption habits? I think not.

This piece by John Hockenberry in Technoloy Review, You Don't Understand our Audience, does a good job of illustrating how the emphasis on narrative, to suit commercial ends, has undermined television journalism:

At the moment Zucker blew in and interrupted, I had been in Corvo's office to propose a series of stories about al-Qaeda, which was just emerging as a suspect in the attacks. While well known in security circles and among journalists who tried to cover international Islamist movements, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and a story line was still obscure in the early days after September 11. It had occurred to me and a number of other journalists that a core mission of NBC News would now be to explain, even belatedly, the origins and significance of these organizations. But Zucker insisted that Dateline stay focused on the firefighters. The story of firefighters trapped in the crumbling towers, Zucker said, was the emotional center of this whole event. Corvo enthusiastically agreed. "Maybe," said Zucker, "we ought to do a series of specials on firehouses where we just ride along with our cameras. Like the show Cops, only with firefighters." He told Corvo he could make room in the prime-time lineup for firefighters, but then smiled at me and said, in effect, that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine.

If, as teachers, we're digging down to get in touch with core principles, we need to be looking for truth-telling, not story-telling.


Mathew said...

While the idea of an annual report does come from business (see Alice's post, the idea of storytelling comes from a long tradition that is not necessarily about marketing though marketing might inform storytelling and vice versa.

I guess you might call engaging an audience good marketing but when you're working with second graders it's not so much about teaching them to sell themselves as it is teaching them to find their voice and stories. See digital storytelling carnival:

Bill Kerr said...

The point you make Tom is also made very strongly by alan kay - that story telling is a pre Enlightenment universal. One point about stories is are they good stories, not whether they are correct or internally consistent

Science is harder, less intuitive, more useful

Dan Meyer said...

Baffling. I guess the rhetoric could use a polish (I may have invoked the term "shareholder" at one point) but I'm not flying the corporate flag in any form here.

I'm advocating mathematics as a means for personal expression — represent your year in numbers, facts, figures, and charts — which proved an engaging assignment with adults and is gonna show my algebra kids a lot more fun this winter semester.

So I'm not sure how to cherrypick my recent posts in such a way that promotes your interpretation.

r. r. vlorbik said...

well said; thanks.
mentioned here.