Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | October 21, 2009

The “Back Story”

At a workshop I attended recently, I came across the concept of the “Back Story”. The speaker was talking about how authors develop characters in works of fiction and said that the Back Story is everything about a particular character that the writer knows but the reader does not see unless the writer puts it out there. Like an iceberg- the tip we see (i.e. the story), the rest we don’t (i.e. the Back Story).

What is the point of having a Back Story? First, that it provides depth to the character or the topic. Shift away from the fictional character and think of the classroom. The Back Story you have when you walk into a class is everything that you have assimilated and can remember, about what you are planning and not planning to teach. Think of the case class. You have analyzed all possible questions from myriad angles, but you still cannot possibly anticipate all directions in which the class will go, or what contexts it will unleash. The Back Story is responsible for the sudden and unexpected flashes of connection that you can make between what the class is saying and what you know, and that will create those moments when all of you “see” something that you always knew existed but could not quite explicate. Or when the class asks a question, the Back Story can get you to a point where you not only answer the question, but ask other questions and create new view points, because while the class was thinking of question “A”, you are thinking of questions “B” and “C” and how the answers overlap and to what extent they do not, and what that means for how A, B and C should be analyzed. Or, the academic paper. The Back Story there consists of all the theories and concepts and their relationships that you know about, that has a bearing on the research question, but that you have not necessarily written about. A good Back Story means that the paper knows what it is about, how the topics in it relate to one another, and how those relationships make sense for the questions under study. It makes for a strong paper because it helps to write boldly, confidently and firmly, and makes it easier to answer peer reviewers’ questions because they don’t know what all you know. Doctoral students- when your adviser says of your proposal or paper – “Where is the theory?” – what they mean is you don’t have a good enough Back Story and hence not enough depth. Second, the Back Story helps the writer or speaker to think through their topic from different points of view and make connections with other topics, leading to richer understanding and more interesting analysis. A case teacher who, for example, discusses Dell in a supply chain case does not have as good a Back Story as one who discusses Dell and shows how it is the same as or different from Compaq (same industry), and discusses what Ford or GM (not in the same industry) can or cannot learn from Dell. The first one makes for a linear and “correct” discussion, the second for a turbulent, spiraling, and rich one.

So then, how to create good Back Stories when we teach and write? First, try to synergize research and teaching. Not always possible. This goes back to my earlier post on Force Multipliers. Teaching and researching on the same topic creates reinforcing circles of sense-making and churning, and generates depth in the subject. Second, connect things you see everyday. Nature has great symmetries and many seemingly different phenomenon have natural connections among them. Seeing these connections can build successive layers of understanding. My undergraduate mathematical physics teacher had a great Back Story for explaining the wave equation and its peaks-and-troughs solution. His example – think of a sine-curve wave as a fashion wave. If you stand at the same point in time and observe each, the intensity of the sine-curve will go up and down just as the intensity of the desire for a particular style of fashion. So if you want to predict which way a particular fashion will go, model it as a wave equation. Now see what a wave equation does? The 18 year old’s mind finds it easy to understand that. Third, allow yourself to meander. Of course doing so is not always efficient or productive, but upto a point, wandering into conceptually adjacent or even unrelated territory can reveal surprising and sometimes absolutely delightful relationships and coherence.

Come to think of it then, in writing and in teaching, the Back Story is a very useful thing indeed!


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