I’ve just finished reading ‘What use is a degree? Life-stories of University Graduates’ by Ward, Jones and Jenkins. This book collects eighteen different life stories of graduates from the Oxford Brookes Geography degree from six cohorts: 1979, 1982, 1985, 1988, 1991 and 1994. The stories in the book are concise, interesting and occasionally moving accounts of graduates about their experiences at University and after.
What interested me in this book was the importance given to the graduates’ stories as stories. So there was very little introduction to the stories (less than a page), and the methodology chapter was positioned at the end of the book. About half way through reading the book I flicked to the end to check what was coming – I couldn’t quite believe that there would be no comment or interpretation of the stories, but indeed there was none. I found this frustrating (as if the researchers were withholding something), but in a way what this did was to give absolute primacy to the words and the stories of the participants themselves and ultimately it probably meant that their stories stayed with me more.
The brevity and coherence of the stories was also striking and added to the impact they had. I was struck by this because I know that this is not how we present our experiences naturally in conversation – in my last piece of research the interview transcripts were lengthy, scattered, full of unformed thoughts. In this book the researchers had gone beyond just interview transcripts and had worked with the graduates to edit their stories ready for publication. This left me wondering about if and how the process of editing and re-writing their own words had impacted on the graduates and how they understood their experiences. I thought there was a missed opportunity in the book to explore how the process of the research had affected the participants.
In terms of the stories themselves I found them very affecting, which I guess is one of the characteristics of a good story – the impact on the reader. I was particularly moved by the young man who had been sent to prison shortly after graduating and yet had still managed to forge a good career. Snippets of the stories brought back acute memories of my own journey post-graduation, and I found this oddly reassuring (that I wasn’t the only person who experienced this). I wondered then how stories like this could be used in guidance settings. For me, I recognised some experiences from my past, and found the stories thought provoking, but how would reading stories like this influence the way I or other people thought about the future and would they impact on how we manage our career journeys? I wondered what kinds of exercises a guidance professional could use around the reading of stories to assist career development?
Overall I was left wondering what the impact of the book might be, beyond being an interesting read. In particular I wondered about how possible it is to draw themes from such a wide time span. The context of the 70s was quite different from the 90s and although this was anecdotally interesting, I thought I might have preferred an in-depth case study of one cohort. This may have limited the wide scope of the research and made it less transferrable between time settings but it might have been easier in terms of data collection (generating more interest in the student cohort) and would have made the final text much more intertextual (with participants talking about each other). This may have allowed more in-depth analysis and comparison between different individuals and their approach to learning and career routes. I found this particularly interesting as a ‘saturation sample’ of one or two cohorts of Orcadian students is what I am intending to look at in my PhD.