Cases and Stories

Cases and Stories | By Dushasana Mahanta, Kunj Bihari Pratap, and Akhileshwar Singh | Edited by Ananda Mahto | Illustrated by Seema Shastri

One of the elective courses sometimes offered to students at the Tata-Dhan Academy is “Specialized Writing”. In this course, students explore some of the different forms of written expression beyond the typical report, and one of the specific topics we usually cover is the overlap and differences between cases and stories.

This booklet compiles “cases” and “stories” from three students from PDM 10 (Dushasana Mahanta, Kunj Bihari Pratap, and Akhileshwar Singh),¬†and includes illustrations by Seema Shastri of PDM 12.

Following is the introduction that I wrote for the booklet.

Download the PDF to enjoy the cases, stories, and illustrations in their entirety.

Introduction

The case method of teaching and learning has become a very common feature in schools of higher education throughout the world–and for good reason. Case demonstrations and analysis can engage the thought process of learners in ways that traditional teaching methods cannot.

Cases are popular for several reasons:

  • A well-written case is the ideal foundation for integrated learning: a single case can be used for multiple courses, allowing learners to understand how to look at realistic situations from multiple dimensions to increase their understanding or to improve the decisions they take.
  • Many cases are centered around “dilemmas” or “problems”. Resolving the dilemmas and problems, through discussions in and out of the classroom, is an active learning process. As such, the lessons learned through this method are more likely to be recalled than something read in a textbook or heard in a lecture.
  • A non-fictitious or real-world case can serve as evidence of the efficacy of a particular tool or approach. Typically, these cases come in the form of success stories, vignettes, or character or institution profiles.
  • Cases are useful in demonstrating real-world problems either through recounting real-world information and data (often made anonymous to protect the privacy of the subject) or by presenting realistic details. This makes cases as a tool very flexible: if a real-world case is not available or does not fully meet a lesson’s requirement, a creative teacher can write their own case or integrate hypothetical scenarios into existing cases–perhaps even an alternative ending–to better achieve their objectives.
  • A series of related cases can be used to illustrate nuanced differences in possible approaches that are often only otherwise available through years of experience. For instance, a series of cases might be used to show how a problem was successfully solved in different locations, but with different degrees of success.
  • Cases engage the reader’s emotions; as such, they also help learners understand–either directly or indirectly–some of the psychology behind the choices that we make, even if those choices are not the best ones from a theoretical perspective.

At the Tata-Dhan Academy, there is a two-part series of writing classes in the Communication for Development discipline called “Academic and Professional Writing” which takes place in the first two terms. Broadly summarizing, the first term introduces students to the typical writing forms that might be expected of them as products of academia, while the second term introduces them to the broader range of writing formats they might be required to use as professionals in development organizations.

During the second half of “Academic and Professional Writing”, students are introduced to the “human interest” story, and with each batch, we always have a very interesting discussion on the topic “What is the difference between a report, a story, and a case?” (inspired by Clark, 2006). For a few students, the discussion continues, but in a more practical sense, if they opt for the “Specialized Writing” elective course offered later in the course. Here, we often start by observing the general purposes of these three types of writing, and usually end up with something along the lines of:

  • Reports serve to deliver information to the reader. They may be detailed or concise, depending on the needs of the targeted reader. They use a range of different presentation formats to help build the reader’s knowledge about a given topic. A well-written report provides the reader with a suitable overview of the topic.
  • Stories try to recreate an experience for the reader–usually by building an emotional connection between the reader and one of the characters in the story–and may sometimes include messages that can inspire the reader or help influence their world-view. The messages, however, are often up to interpretation, and while all readers might all learn something from stories, what one individual reader learns might be different from another. A well-written story “transports” the reader into the story itself.
  • Cases are designed to teach something specific to the reader and ultimately promote wisdom (as opposed to knowledge). Many cases combine aspects of reporting and storytelling. For instance, whereas in reporting, the emotional voice of the writer is subdued, in storytelling, it might be overt; a case might try to strike a balance between these two extremes to help make the reader aware that emotions do influence our decisions, sometimes even more than information. Nevertheless, since a case is designed as a teaching tool, a certain amount of objectivity and systematic presentation of facts is required (neither of which is required when telling stories).

Following our discussions, the students in “Specialized Writing” try to write some stories and cases of their own. Although I prefer encouraging students to write “real” cases whenever possible, as an experiment for one assignment in this class, the students have to write a fictional case–and an accompanying story–based on a writing prompt that I provide. In doing so, they discover something interesting: there’s a little bit of a paradox between the amount of details you can provide when fabricating a believable case–the so called “conjunction fallacy” (see Paulos, 2010). Briefly put, when the “conjunction fallacy” comes into play, we might be telling a good story, but the probability that all the events or details in our story actually occurring reduces as we add each new event or detail. In other words, if our details about a “character” in our case are (A) they have brown hair, (B) they are an alcoholic, and (C) they have two sons, the probability of “A” alone being true is higher than “A and B” being true, which is in turn, higher than “A and B and C” being true.

This is an important lesson for case writing, because cases are ultimately tools for learning meant to be applied. Even when we are writing a real-life case, we may be tempted to include many details. But whenever we do so, we should pause and review our work for a few reasons:

  • Are we including this level of detail to demonstrate that the situation is unique or an anomaly? If so, then the details might be useful to the reader.
  • Are we including these details because they are common? If so, we should try to first identify the lowest level of detail that would be common across a range of cases and build from there if necessary. The idea here is that too many details might actually lower the “applicable learning potential” of the case. If, in the end, the learners decide that “Given A, and given B, and given…, the course of action we recommend is…“, that might actually limit the learner’s ability to apply related solutions to similar (but not identical) situations. To reiterate, too many details or events happening concurrently reduce the likelihood of that scenario being repeated elsewhere.
  • Are all the details relevant to the concept being taught or demonstrated? Sometimes, authors are tempted to add as much information as possible with the argument being that “it makes the writing more interesting, because you get a full picture”, or “it makes analyzing the case more interesting because in real life, you have to filter out what is relevant before you can begin your analysis”, or even “this is intentionally there to confuse the reader.” Pedagogically, as a case author, you should ask yourself if that truly promotes learning, and if you decide it does, you should be able to specify what type of learning will occur.

This third consideration brings us to another important point about case writing: all case writers should develop one or more “teaching notes” that highlight how they anticipate the case being used in a classroom. Again, as cases sometimes venture into the realm of storytelling, and people “connect” with stories in varied ways, a systematic teaching note can help reduce any ambiguity that may be present for the case facilitator, thus making the case a more useful learning tool.

With these opening remarks, I invite you to read a short selection of cases and stories written by Dushasana Mahanta, Kunj Bihari Pratap, and Akhileshwar Singh, participants in the “Specialized Writing” elective course offered to the tenth batch of students in Tata-Dhan Academy’s Programme in Development Management (PDM). I would like to thank the students for their contributions. I would also like to thank Seema Shastri, from the twelfth PDM batch, for her illustrations found throughout this document.

Cross posted at the Tata-Dhan Academy PDM blog.

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