TITLE: Weinberg on Writing AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: May 30, 2007 7:01 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Whenever asked to recommend "must read" books, especially on computing, I always end up listing at least one book by Gerald Weinberg -- usually his The Psychology of Computer Programming. He has written a number of other classic books, on topics ranging from problem solving and consulting to teamwork and leadership. Now in a new stage of his career, Weinberg has moved from technical consulting to more general writing, including science fiction novels. He's also blogging, both on writing and on consulting. I feel a connection to his blogs these days because they match a theme in my own reading and writing lately: telling stories as a way to teach. Even when Weinberg was writing his great non-fiction books -- The Psychology of Computer Programming, of course, but also An Introduction to General Systems Thinking, The Secrets of Consulting, and Becoming a Technical Leader -- he was telling stories. He claims that didn't realize that right away (emphasis added):
I'd like to say that I immediately recognized that reading fiction is another kind of simulation, but I'm not that insightful. Only gradually did I come to realize that a great deal of the popularity of my non-fiction books (and the books of a few others, like Tom DeMarco) is in the stories. They make for lighter reading, and some people object to them, but overall, those of us who use stories manage to communicate lots of hard stuff. Why? Because a good story takes the reader into a trance where s/he can "experience" events just as they can in a teaching simulation.
One of my favorite undergraduate textbooks was DeMarco's Structured Analysis and System Specification, and one of the reasons I liked it so was that it was a great book to read: no wasted words, no flashy graphics, just a well told technical story with simple, incisive drawings. Like Weinberg, I'm not sure I appreciated why I liked the book so much then, but when I kept wanting to re-read it in later years I knew that there was something different going on. But "just" telling stories is different from teaching in an important way. Fiction and creative writers are usually told not to "have a point". Having one generally leads to stories that seem trite or forced. A story with a point can feel like a bludgeon to the reader's sensibility. A point can come out of a good story -- indeed I think that this is unavoidable with the best stories and the best story-tellers -- but it should rarely be put in. Teachers differ from other story tellers in this regard. They are telling stories precisely because they have a point. Usually, there is something specific that we want others to learn! (This isn't always true. For example, when I teach upper-division project courses, I want students to learn how to design big systems. In those courses, much of what students learn isn't specific content but habits of thought. For this purpose, "stories without a point" are important, because they leave the learner more freedom to make sense of their own experiences.) But most of the time, teachers do have a point to make. How should the teacher as story-teller deal with this difference? Weinberg faces it, too, because even with his fiction, he is writing to teach. Here is what he says:
"If you want to send a message, go to Western Union." ...

It was good advice for novelists, script writers, children's writers, and actors, but not for me. My whole purpose in writing is to send messages.... I would have to take this advice as a caution, rather than a prohibition. I would have to make my messages interesting, embedding them in compelling incidents that would be worth reading even if you didn't care about the messages they contained.

For teachers, I think that the key to the effective story is context: placing the point to be learned into a web of ideas that the student understands. A good story helps the student see why the idea matters and why the student should change how she thinks or behaves. In effect, the teacher plays the role of a motivational speaker, but not the cheerleading, rah-rah sort. Students know when they are being manipulated. They appreciate authenticity even in their stories. Weinberg's blogs make for light but valuable reading. Having learned so much from his books over the years, I enjoy following his thinking in this conversational medium, and I find myself still learning.
But, in the end, why tell stories at all? I believe the Hopi deserve the last word: "The one who tells the stories rules the world."
Well, at least they have a better chance of reaching their students, and maybe improving their student evaluations. -----