Sinister Storytelling

See what I did there?

Tom Hoffman connects the storytelling buzz I’m holding down to the recently closed Annual Report Contest and worries that their sum will create a generation of PR flacks.

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.

I don’t disagree with any of that but it simply isn’t true that by creating a summary of your year (whether that’s a two-page double-spaced narrative or an assemblage of facts, charts, and figures like we have here) you’re aligning yourself with corporate interests or engaging in their sort of truth-obfuscation.

Tom’s call for vigilance is warranted, but misplaced at my doorstep.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Reflection is good. Reflection is good.

    If Hoffman looked at what people chose to analyze I doubt he’d see any frightening parallels to corporations. I didn’t see anything about “quantified income” in any of the projects.

    As for “mass consumption” habits, I don’t see any issue with really looking at what you’re putting in your mind and/or body. It helped me decide to weed a few feeds (way too much noise, not enough value).

    Any time you can be introspective regarding what’s informing you and what you’re doing with your time and energy I think you’ll make improvements. Why do people feel overwhelmed? Often it’s because they aren’t thinking about how they spend their time. Can’t trim the fat if you don’t know what the fat is.

    You can’t have useful action without information.

    Knowing is half the battle. Yo Joe!

  2. The annual report contest is not the main thrust of my post. It is a supporting detail. It is also possible that I’m making too much of a connection between your philosophical blogging and pedagogical philosophy and practice. That is, I don’t care what you and your peers do for fun, but I’m interested in teaching and learning, and I’m an English teacher.

    So when a math teacher starts talking about teaching “storytelling,” he’s coming into the English teacher’s wheelhouse, and if his definition of “storytelling” is very different than what is used in humanities education, well, that deserves some analysis.

    So you say: “My point is that, if you know how to tell a precise, articulate, and moving story, if you know how to build intrigue about a character in the first act, how to lull your audience into a happy, contented place in the second act, only to punch them precisely in the gut in the third, you have this fantastic skill which applies absolutely EVERYwhere.”

    This is explicitly and intentionally about a manipulative author using narrative as a persuasive technique. There is a place for this, but I would argue that it is not central. Students should understand this approach, but it is dangerous, because ultimately it is not about truth or, at least, accuracy.

    The more common usage of “storytelling” in education is similar to this one: “What best describes our approach is its emphasis on personal voice and facilitative teaching methods. Many of the stories made in our workshops are directly connected to the images collected in life’s journey. But our primary concern is encouraging thoughtful and emotionally direct writing.”

  3. If your point is that I shouldn’t elevate persuasive writing above expository writing as a grand unifying theory then I’m alright with that. I simply can’t find (or haven’t found) a compelling analog for expository writing within mathematics. (Paragraph proofs are close but my students find those decidedly un-compelling.)

    The goal here is compelling self-expression across multiple subjects, which I guess isn’t too far off the field from compelling manipulation. I’ll keep an eye on it.

  4. While I understand the “narrative as persuasive technique” point, I’m unsure on your storytelling definition. “Encouraging thoughtful and emotionally direct writing” is very broad and reads to me as “good writing”. If that’s all storytelling is, why are we bothering to use the word there in the first place?

  5. Hello, Dan,

    As with just about everything, it’s a matter of having a wide-ranging toolkit, and using the best approach, or having multiple approaches ready to hand.

    At times, persuasive writing/storytelling works. At other times, expository writing works best.

    The “storytelling” element of teaching is a good comparison, but while, in a good story, the story itself can be part of the point, the overall effect of the story falls down if the ending is weak.

    Perhaps the weakness of an expository approach in the math classroom is the difficulty of creating the context where the truth of the ending (ie, the point demonstrated) is not seen as something of inherent value. This is less a storytelling issue than it is an issue with creating the connections between math and everyday life. These connections exist, but they are often difficult to elucidate.

    For more on storytelling, I always go to Twains “Jumping Frog” and Tim O’Brien’s _The Things They Carried_ —

    O’Briens novel obviously covers a lot more ground than simply storytelling, but there are gems in their about the power of stories —



  6. What I’m trying to say is that what you describe as “storytelling” is not the way one would teach argument, nor the way one teaches kids to make art. What it looks like to me is the description of a pitch.

  7. Once again both you and Tom are satisfy my desire to uncover ideas and perspectives. I’m not sure exactly where I weigh in but I’m certainly considering ideas I hadn’t thought of and that’s what these spaces are for. Good on you both.

  8. I’d just like to point out that each household can be seen as a “corporation”… you have income/expenses, you have marketing/publicity to do if you want to advance your career, and you have to know management especially if you have kids. I think making the annual report is a great way to see where you’re spending your inputs and outputs.

    To continue with the analogy, I’m my own family’s co-chairman of the board and CFO. :)

  9. Nick,

    Who are the shareholders? Where are the laws that force your family to pursue profit over people despite any externalities foisted upon the rest of society? Who will fire you as “CFO” if you don’t pursue the maximization of profit and instead live a balanced and moderate lifestyle?

    Though I see your notion to a degree, the analogy between family and corporation fails in several essential ways.

  10. I get what Dan’s saying: Effective communication is a massively important skill, and in the modern world that means visual communication. Might as well bring that into the classroom. I get what Tom’s saying: Don’t limit communication to mere persuasion. Somewhere there’s got to be space for seeking the truth and expressing it. Tufte writes pretty well about this, and can back his theories with solid design work.

    What I really like about the annual report thing (and I’m sorry I didn’t participate) is that it looks more like self-reflection than anything else. But doing it visually and quantitatively gives you another angle, aside from your memories and emotions. Combine those together and you’ve got the powerful style of personal communication that Felton first explored. By the way, the Google Zeitgeist report is another example of the power of these visual representations — not as persuasive evidence, but as a lens through which to observe and think about ourselves:

  11. Yeah, thanks for this summary, Ben. Beats me if Tom would agree but this does speak to how I’ve interpreted his concerns.

    Frankly, I’m really surprised by the heat this idea has taken recently, not just from Tom but from other sources whose concerns are so ad hominem and pedantic they aren’t worth a link.

    To clarify then. This is about:

    a) linking up math & English, the qualitative and the quantitative, like it just isn’t, and

    b) assigning a year-long project that isn’t some bullshit perfunctory portfolio but instead draws from dozens of skills, concepts and, most importantly, my students’ own lives.

    This isn’t about:

    a) anything else.

  12. I hear both sides of this because I’ve had some of my own critique about the (lack of) narrative in some of the reports, which made it more design and less information, BUT, I really dislike this argument about “marketing” being bad, or only belonging to corporations. I believe in good, well done propaganda; I’ve engaged in it myself. I think this contest could be seen as part of an effort to improve our ability to communicate both narratively and persuasively.
    I’ve written more about this here:

    Whatever nit-picking I’ve done, this has been a marvelous and useful experience for me, and there’s nothing creepy about that.