Structuring an academic problem : the long road

Part II/II: Analysing the narrative tools and structural elements that go into longform with academic inbreeding as the lab rat

Courtesy: Times Higher Education

I have always associated myself with the word ‘prosaic’, in trait and liking. Brevity was something I never understood, or rather, I understand but never preferred. Why mince words when you can take the liberty to tell things the way they are to be told? The art of long form espouses just that. Part of the world’s narrative portfolio since the 13th century, today it has become a tool that is not just used to understand the issue at hand but also the art of storytelling itself.

“You know how doctors used to think that bleeding you out would resolve your health problems? Sometimes cutting a piece of writing is just like that. You’re not helping, you’re weakening”
- Jane Friedman, writer and publisher

In my previous post, I attempted to decode telling a story within 140 characters (now 280 if you’ve figured how to get there). I am now back in familiar turf with the long form. This kind of narrative form, if and when done right, helps new and readers who are aware of the agenda a number of benefits:

· Context

· Timeline

· Space for a multitude of perspectives… among other things

Academic inbreeding is something I have seen myself. Many of my teachers across several spheres of my life have been former alumni of the same institution. I have had seniors and fellow college mates become professors, switching between their kurtas and neatly pressed and tucked in shirts, a sharp contrast to the matted hair and death metal tees you’d associated them with since the beginning of time. This issue is a double-edged sword, threatening to not only rip the institution and students of a genuinely all-round source of teaching, but also hinting at the fact that often-heard ‘who’ll take care of our own’ argument is only an excuse to favour the less-competent applicants from the home institution, says the author of the piece from The Wire.

This, however, is not what we are concerning ourselves with here. The task at hand is to look at how one story has been dealt with and told so differently by two news organisations in India — one conventionally print-based and another purely digital.


CASE 1: HINDUSTAN TIMES

One of the main points of difference that set this piece apart from the one from The Wire is the fact that this was meant as a news piece, seeking to report a recent development. It is definitely longer than a short Twitter update but not long enough to fit the conventional brackets of a long form narrative. The story is typically written in an inverted pyramid style. We find ourselves being introduced to the most important information from the story first — the findings of the panel. This is followed by next most important detail of the story — the WHY, followed by the rest of story.

What can also be seen through the story is Martin Cortezzi’s version of a typical narrative— a five-structure guide to a text to answer basic questions that provide a complete picture on the subject.

The headline reads: ‘Inbreeding’ at Aligarh Muslim University affecting diversity: Central panel. I won’t dwell into this as we have the bulk of text to do the talking here.

The phrase ‘Central panel’ appears without context here, something the strap identifies and addresses immediately, functioning as an abstract of sorts to start putting things into perspective.

The piece starts with the orientation or setting– easing into the pivotal W’s of the case at hand. We are given answers to what ‘inbreeding’ is, where this is happening, who is indulging in it and why it has become news.

We are then introduced to the complication i.e. the sequence of events — why the need to constitute a committee actually came about and the link between inbreeding and its repercussions on diversity is discussed here.

Evaluation is what the entire piece is basically about. Nevertheless, we see it specifically making an appearance as a structure before the piece ends with a quote — coda in narrative jargon.

Narrative elements:

The text is largely diegetic. The information relayed here seems to be reported by a third person rather than any person directly involved (aka subject).

Temporality is quite simple in this piece. We largely stick to developments of the immediate past. We see a quick summary of events here and the piece doesn’t dwell too much on any given point.

Talking about focalisation, the entire piece is told in third person. We aren’t seeing shades of any one side’s perceptions in the narrative. However, if one looks at the content, we see only a reportage of the events happening from the side that is against academic inbreeding. We don’t find a statement or quote from any authority belonging to the university in question.

We see two primary characters here — Aligarh Muslim University and University Grant Commission that stand on opposing sides in this matter. The story revolves entirely around these two and their respective actions.

There is no physical space referred to in this story, so we don’t essentially see a form for Umwelt here. However, the political and administrative setting that underlines this piece points towards the environment the developments are unfolding in.

The movement in this piece is the recommendation made by the panel to the government body — that the vice chancellor’s quota in admission be done away with.

The piece is concise and sums up recent events.


CASE 2: THE WIRE

For someone sitting down the analyse the piece in The Wire, zeroing in on a particular narrative structure can be quite challenging. The differentiating element between these two pieces is the fact that Hindustan Times did a news piece while The Wire seeks to analyse. The piece begins similarly, mentioning the report and giving context to the entire inbreeding saga. Following this, for the next few paragraphs, we see an attempt at the inverted pyramid style but the pieces stray from the narrative structure by bringing information that can be relegated to a later point in the story.

A subheading breaks the flow and temporality of the narrative. From a focus on recent events and the need to give out the facts, we now see the focus shifting to a need to provide context.

The way I saw it, there’s an interplay of the inverted pyramid and martini glass style of narrative structuring.

The concept of a martini glass is simple. We start with the lead, follow an inverted pyramid-based structuring of information, go into the chronology of the event in question and then end with a kicker- something that takes you back to what the story is about. This is a structure we find this strongly exuding from the text of this piece. We see the first paragraph giving us the abstract — a summary of the events happening and why they are relevant. We then move onto details about the latest developments in a descending order of importance. We then find ourselves, as readers, being introduced to the history and other related information about the problem at hand — context for the complication and discussions around a solution. We then see a statement that aids in snapping readers out of the story being told and back to the current status quo.

The Wire doesn’t fail Cortazzi’s ideas and we find them obviously embedded in the story. However, in this piece, we have two segments to analyse. The current section, that follows the quintessential inverted pyramid has structure and elements similar to if not the same as the piece by the Hindustan Times. Post the subheading, we find the story developing in several angles — history, opinion of experts in the field, advantages and disadvantages of the phenomenon in question — first relating to a global and then a more localised Indian Umwelt. The education system (University education in particularly) is the main character or subject. Academic inbreeding and its consequences mark movement in this context. We have secondary characters like the many examples referred to, government bodies and other stakeholders.


Conclusion and inference: I like long reads so this one was interesting for me. Considering my University faced this problem too, reading a lengthy piece of narrative on this wasn’t too hard as it was easy to connect to the circumstances. However, for someone for whom this isn’t a common experience, this piece by The Wire may prove to be long and a little out of context, despite considerable background information about the said phenomenon. Hindustan Times has brevity on its side, however it is not what you should be picking up if you’re searching for depth. I find myself liking the Martini Glass structure more and trust me this has nothing to do with my love for a good glass of alcohol. However, this exercise also underlines that, the same topic or subject can be handled differently when being written in a timely manner and when its being drafted as an opinion piece a few days/weeks later and how different narrative structures come in to weave our texts together to make it a great final read!