Ethno-thingy stuff: stories or stats?

lego at teaathtreeThis will be pretty brief, because while thinking of what to write, I back-tracked to a blog post of mine of six months ago and I see that I have already stolen my own thunder. Hey ho!

But a word or two in any case about stories and the whole qualitative thing whilst I’m here. On the one hand I adore statistics especially the ones that improve year on year, and yet I actually thrive, and probably implement most change, based on qualitative ‘stories’.

If I’m worried about declining or low stats, when I think they should be higher, I usually call to mind that wonderful book doing the rounds when I was taking my Geography Stats exam paper back in the days of yore, called very simply ‘How to lie with statistics’, (Darrell Huff, 1954), and I can probably think of several jolly good reasons why that statistic is worryingly low; before you know it I have rationalised myself out of it being a problem. Conversely, high statistics simply show everyone how brilliant our service is and they will be promoted out of all proportion to anyone who will listen, whilst we bask in the glory. For shame, I cry!

So is qualitative stuff better? Or just different? Are there just as many biases – or even more? Let me briefly revert to talking about tea@three, so bear with me even if you have already read my other post, or perhaps have heard me mention it before somewhere. Incidentally, my colleague, Helen Murphy, in a recent uklibchat post, also mentions tea@three and, alongside that, debates the ethical issues of the knowledge that we gain about students through qualitative work – it’s definitely worth a read.

The lovely thing about tea@three (assuming that you have read my other post now), is that I put myself under no pressure whatsoever to glean information, or stories, from students. I just let them be, milling around, scoffing cake (nice lemon sponge last week) and drinking gallons of tea. I’m the silent witness, if you like, to their lives, and this provides the best ethno-whatty stuff that I can think of. They will frequently come and talk to me in any case, they are amazingly appreciative of the calories and sympathy I offer, but often when I just quietly get on with my own work in the background, they reveal the most hilarious, and useful, stories about their lives. What I love about this relationship-building activity is that they now often drop by at other times, popping their heads around the door for a quick chat, or a wave of the hand in passing. Loughborough Student Union has a policy that all their staff offices should have a sofa for students to collapse onto for a natter whenever they want to. I’m all for that.

The absolute key thing for me is that I find out during tea@three what they think about life, what they ‘really really want’, to quote the well-known song. ‘Want’ is what will work for students and make them receptive to learning. ‘Need’ is what we, as older, wiser, more mature adults (but be careful, we start to sound like their parents, and who wants their parent hovering at their left elbow every minute of the day?) believe will make our students lives better and richer. How often do we find ourselves saying of our students – ‘they need to know x or y’? Think about that for a moment. Hand on heart, how many times did you go to a Library session when you were at University? How many times did you ask your librarian a question? I know what you’ll argue – ‘librarians didn’t do that in my day’. Personally, I suspect that’s just us looking at our own student experiences with rose-tinted spectacles. My experience is our students will vote with their feet and opt out if you tell them they ‘need’ something. If, however, I and the rest of the EFL staff can help them with their day to day ‘life wants’, and we get to know them and what their lives are about, then of their own accord they will come to us for their serious work-related needs.

Where does that get me on the ethno-thingy stuff? Well, it’s all good, innit?

Libby 1 photo1 - ROTATEDLibby Tilley
Faculty of English, University of Cambridge
eat21@cam.ac.uk
@LibTil

 

Image credit: From author's personal collection
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