classroom I am told of this child or that who has never before sat so still, listening; and
2.2 Core Methodology: reflective practice reshaping storytelling in the encounter with adolescents
2.2.4 Writing: the two faces of counsel
No less than reading, writing has had a crucial and all-pervasive role as a method within my praxis. A progressive crystallisation of concepts and their interrelationships occurred through the sequence of writing:
A. Extensive fieldnotes;
B. Edited compilations and memoranda comparing observations across different workshops with the same group (or occasionally across groups);
C. Blog posts which sought to articulate, as far as possible, a single point or concept-in- development;
D. Conference papers and articles, which challenged me to articulate my research to diverse audiences;
E. This exegesis, which brings these concepts back together into a conceptual framework around a model of practice.
It is possible to track a funnelling inward and then outward in this schematic trajectory: an abstraction of isolated concepts from multifarious practice in A to C, and then in D and E an experimentation with returning these back to the world of practice as understandings that might be applied. Simultaneously, there is a complex interplay between the narrative and propositional tracks of knowledge (see table 1.1), as concepts arising in concrete experience took on propositional form in blog posts but, as their interrelations with other concepts developed, were often more fully communicable through narratives of practice in papers and articles. This trajectory can therefore be expressed as a helix of praxis:
Figure 2.1 Progressive conceptualisation and reshaping of practice
Blog posts thus represent the ‘hinge’ between the moments of abstraction and dissemination. They often encapsulate a particular concept just at the moment when it acquired clarity for me, and thus they are quoted throughout this exegesis. The corpus of blog posts, along with
memoranda and papers, also served as an aide memoire and a rigorous corrective to the shifting moods of practice; to write this exegesis I ‘mined’ them systematically, to ensure my conceptual framework was indeed addressing the questions and drawing on the ideas which had arisen at all phases of the research. In the interests of transparency, they remain publicly available.
188.8.131.52 The ethics of counsel
The above helix suggests both the main motivations for writing: the intellectual (the fact that, as Orr et al say of reflective arts practice, ‘we find things out through the act of writing’ (2010:4)) and the ethical imperative to disseminate findings, so that the research fulfils the ‘standard […] of usefulness to others’ proposed by Shaun McNiff (2010:4) as a defining criterion. I would like to explore both these functions of writing in PaR, and tie them together using Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘counsel’ provided by the storyteller, from his influential essay ‘The Storyteller’ (1973).
Benjamin uses ‘counsel’ to discuss the use value he saw in all storytelling. The experiential knowledge conveyed by storytellers to listeners is, for Benjamin, a form of guidance or wisdom, but crucially it does not purport to be an exhaustive explanation of reality. Indeed, counsel is
‘less an answer to a question than a proposal concerning the continuation of a story which is just unfolding’ (1973:86). It resembles Aristotle’s phronesis, ‘a form of practical wisdom capable of respecting the singularity of situations as well as the nascent universality of values aimed at by human actions’ (Kearney 2002:143). The claim that is being made by a storyteller to her listeners is something like the following: I have been this way before, and the experience
has brought me to some understandings which may be useful to you in your own onward journey and search for understanding.
Notably, debates about PaR in the arts have often focused around the need for its findings to be ‘abstractable, not simply locked into the experience of performing it’ (Piccini 2002:12). Some of the strongest mistrust of artistic methods in research has been ‘tied to our inability to appreciate how personal enquiry can serve others and transcend introspection for its own sake’ (McNiff, 2013:6). For Daichendt, for example, while reflective arts practice has much in
common with research enquiry and may generate new knowledge, the term ‘research’ and its associated expectations of producing knowledge of public value may be burdensome and even detrimental to it (2012). Perhaps importantly, Daichendt (along with more strident critics of practice research such as James Elkins, 2009) speaks primarily from a visual arts perspective, from which verbal articulation may indeed be a poor medium for artistic thought processes. Storytelling, however, is a profoundly verbal artform. It is a vessel shaped to convey its learning to others in easily comprehensible words and, ethically, should seek to do so, so as to meet the hunger from practitioners in many fields for artistic languages that might enrich their communication with young people. Here bell hooks’ (1994) defence of theory as a public, ‘social practice’, as legitimate in oral as in written form, is particularly apposite. For hooks, ‘creating theory that speaks to the widest audience of people’ is an ethical imperative arising from a political choice to use theory to heal individuals and society rather than to reinforce hierarchies (1994:71). We might see resonances between hooks’ summons and recent calls for a ‘second wave’ of practice research, focused on making its findings available and useful to the research community, and leaving behind ‘unsustainable or inaccessible documentation strategies’ (Hann and Ladron de Guevara 2015:5-6) aimed primarily at gaining acceptance within the administrative structures of the academy (Hann 2015). Indeed, I would argue that heeding hooks might require us to reach beyond research communities to share counsel with practitioners and other audiences.
Moreover, it is this dialogue with other perspectives that helps to constitute and generalise my findings. Giving counsel and receiving responses to it enables the research to aspire, not to
objective ‘abstractability’, but to the level of ‘maximum intersubjectivity’ identified by Nelson (2013) as a goal.