The Teacher Who Mistook His Students for a Spreadsheet


Truman’s story by numbers


In his preface to ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ – the narrative study of a series of patients who exhibited a range of perceptual disorders – Oliver Sacks wrote:
“To restore the human subject at the centre – the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject – we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale.”
His argument, advanced in support of his approach to documenting the tribulations of his subjects, was that without as deep an understanding of the person as possible, it was not possible to understand the nature of his or her condition.
How could telling stories about people help us to understand them? Well, in order to tell a story (a biography) one would need to know as much as possible about our subject (let’s call him ‘Truman’): something of his past and present that might inform both his present and his future.
In order to collect this information about Truman, might it be prudent and economical to find some shorthand by which to keep records?
Perhaps one could take advantage of various technological repositories to store this shorthand information.
This shorthand information (let’s call it data) could be stored in such a way that we might be able to extrapolate it. After all, we want to understand Truman more deeply; we want to know about his past and present, and we have the technological tools to extrapolate his data into the future. Perhaps, this might result in the generation of more data. All the better to flesh out Truman’s story.
But why stop there? If I hold data that enables me to understand and serve my subject, it might be beneficial to determine whether my “storytelling” is having any beneficial effect upon Truman. I could go back to him again and again in order to track his progress against the indicators defined during my initial phase of data collection.
He’s dead.

He had a good life. Eyes azure and a spring in his step. Talked of his wife’s ruddy cheeks, straw hair and the beautiful gap in her teeth. In his creaking years, he ate Frey Bentos pies from the tin and hoarded boxes of Lipton’s tea.
The bags were mouldy when we found him.
Nothing in my spreadsheet prepared me for that.
The data I’d collected had not placed him at its centre, and had in fact told my story. And it did not portray me in a favorable light.
I should have simply told his story.


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