Volume 16 Numbers 3 & 4, 2006
STORIED LEARNING AT THE CROSSROADS OF THE PERSONAL AND THE PUBLIC
Lynn M. Harter
Abstract: In responding to the editor’s invitation to “consider the inherent difficulty of communicating about our differing life-realms of experience (e.g., public-private, work-family, work-life, personal-professional, etc.),” I look at issues of the personal and the professional by reflecting on my own life as a teacher-scholar through a lens of storied learning. I explore three concerns of intertextuality, identity construction, and indeterminancy that emerge in teaching and learning with narrative sensibilities. I conclude with cautions and questions for individuals who construct their scholarly lives in this way since learning at the crossroads of the personal and public can be a risky, and even fragile, endeavor.
“Teaching always takes place at the crossroads of the personal and the public, and if I want to teach well, I must learn to stand where these opposites intersect.” (Palmer, 1998, p. 63)
Erika Kirby’s invitation to participate in this forum arrived as I was preparing my promotion and tenure dossier, a process that summons participants to be answerable for how they have entered into and enriched scholarly conversations. As I retrospectively made sense of my calling as a scholar and teacher, narrative theory and practice emerged as a connective thread deeply woven in the fabric of my life. A narrative standpoint, in so far as it seeks to connect the personal with the political (and professional), reveals the heuristic potential and inherent difficulty in communicating about our differing life-realms of experience. In particular, I experience teaching and learning as storied performances that unfold in myriad settings and whose meanings shift across time and space. Some characters I’ve met only through their writings or research texts, distant yet kindred spirits who have inspired both my students and me to pay closer attention to our taken-for-granted worlds. Other characters, students and colleagues alike, have participated in the co-creation of textured and multi-layered spaces of knowing and being—spaces that defy the persistent binary logic of public versus personal in Western capitalistic societies (see critiques by Fletcher, 1999; Schiappa, 2003).
Three concerns that reveal the heuristic value of narrative theory also reveal the edifying potential of teaching and learning, and thus form the foundation of how I perform my craft: intertextuality, identity construction, and indeterminancy. I discuss each of these concerns below and in doing so illustrate how I seek to connect the “personal” with the “public” and provide students with opportunities to do the same. I conclude with a few cautions and questions for those of us who desire to teach and learn with narrative sensibilities.
Storied Learning as Embodying Intertextuality, Identity Construction, and Indeterminacy
So what does a teaching/learning philosophy embracing the power of narrative entail? One central characteristic is intertextuality; this approach views the classroom as webs of interlacing stories: (a) the cherished stories or theories of a discipline, (b) the autobiographical stories of participants, and (c) institutional and societal scripts. It is a privilege to stand amidst the interwoven stories of a discipline and people’s lived stories, and therein rests the power of narrative knowledge. Each story, of course, derives its meaning in part from its relation to other stories (Bakhtin, 1990), which requires that teachers provide students with opportunities to wrestle with the intertextual nature of knowledge construction. The intertextual nature of storied learning knits together “complex social life spaces” (Lopata, 1993, p. 185) just as persons interweave personal and public concerns, contexts, and relationships in living their social lives (Rawlins, 1998). The public and the personal intermingle as disciplinary stories (re)frame participants’ lived experiences even as their experiences might stretch, question, or reject the canons of a discipline or hegemonic societal scripts. And if these (personal and disciplinary) stories are truly valued, then students become co-constructors of knowledge. Truth, then, is co-constructed and situated, emerging in moments of performance among individuals who possess different expertise and sources of knowledge.
How do I embody the value of “storied learning” and its tendency toward intertextuality in my own teaching? To begin, I challenge students to trace connections between socio-historical forces and theory development even as I encourage them to connect communication theories with their own experiences. While it is my responsibility to provide the initial organizing framework for any given course, I often begin courses by asking students to articulate their own objectives and goals and to read beyond the syllabus in order to explore questions and issues of importance to them. In other words, I want their learning to be personal. I expect students to discern primary contentions of readings, articulate defensible arguments of their own, ask questions, identify characters and points of view that are privileged or missing, and engage in dialogue with others. Sometimes, I begin with lived problems or current events and then work with students to understand those issues from disciplinary standpoints (e.g., service-learning). Alternatively, I might begin with a theoretical concept, or what Somers (1994) termed a “conceptual narrative,” and create space for students to connect subject matter with self (e.g., fragment assignments that require students to connect theory with personal experience). In our finest moments, students and I model a reflexive relationship between theory and practice and recognize that all knowledge arises out of the standpoints we assume (see also Collins, 1991). As argued by Madison (1999), “The theory that gets in my head and sticks—the good parts or the parts relevant to what I must become and do in my life—performs. That this theory performs is an existential fact. That I choose to perform it is my craft” (p. 109).
Second, we are all poets, storytellers who act, account, and recount, and in so doing create social worlds and our sense of self (Burke, 1954/1984). One of our primary roles as educators is to provide students with opportunities to explore self and identify their passions. Passion speaks to us in voices that inspire our intellects and stimulate our imaginations. Every day when educators walk into classrooms we are faced with individuals who have callings—some not yet identified. Classrooms are arenas in which students can discover, claim, and develop their gifts and aspirations. Sometimes, this recognition emerges from good theory—representations of the world that allow people to rethink their lives. For those students who pursue communication as a field of study, we can challenge students to articulate how their disciplinary roots uniquely position them to understand organizational life, health and healing, interpersonal relationships, and even popular culture from a symbolic perspective.
How do I help students connect self with subject matter? From the crafting of resumes or vitas to the development of a research proposal, I encourage students to reflect on how they perform and account for self. Bakhtin (1990) perceptively reminded us that we have “no alibi in existence,” no right to evade the answerability demanded by our unique being. I remind myself of this when I walk in a classroom, and I strive to create safe spaces for students to account for self and their encounters with disciplinary knowledge. I have succeeded as an educator when students leave my classes with a deeper understanding of self and how their unique callings and talents can enrich the communities in which they live—a deeply personal outcome of a professional relationship.
Third, personal identities are not static accomplishments; they are provisional living truths, ever-emergent and unfolding. Meanings and ideas are as indeterminate as the social and material exigencies of our lives. Who we are, how we create, what we think, and how we narrate our lives hopefully become more intelligible, and at the very least shift, as we encounter difference and learn through experience (Dewey, 1916/1944). Likewise, stories of any sort are partial representations of acts (Harter, Japp, & Beck, 2005). As such, students and teachers alike can view both public and personal stories as discursively constructed and contested spaces, constantly open to refinement and change.
I challenge myself and students to enter a classroom willing to transform or enlarge our standpoints even as we question the limits and partiality of any perspective. I often allow students to re-write assignments in order to fine-tune their thinking. I also rely on “flashback assignments” in which students begin and end a quarter or semester with the same assignment (e.g., a journal article critique in a research methods class) in order for them to demonstrate how their own thinking has shifted through the course of a term. I believe that theory can be transformative if it helps us re-narrate the personal, resist hegemonic constructions of reality or re-envision possibilities. I sometimes ask students to keep journals, trace artifacts of their encounters with the course materials, fresh insights or emergent perspectives. I hope students leave our class dialogues with more questions than answers, and a hunger to learn more.
Storied Learning: A Risky and Fragile Endeavor
By drawing attention to the intertextual and indeterminate nature of identity construction, narrative theory offers a useful way of understanding learning as storied experience. These same narrative sensibilities, however, assume a willingness among participants to connect the personal and the public. The classroom by nature is a public context for learning together. Yet, classrooms also provide space for crafting and performing personal identities. As Palmer (1998) suggested, such connected knowing is not without risk.
A good teacher must stand where personal and public meet, dealing with the thundering flow of traffic at an intersection where “weaving a web of connectedness” feels more like crossing a freeway on foot. As we try to connect ourselves and our subjects with our students, we make ourselves, as well as our subjects, vulnerable to indifference, judgment, ridicule. (p. 17)
Teachers and students face ongoing challenges which make learning at the crossroads of the personal and public a risky, and even fragile, endeavor.
The connection of the (personal) self with (disciplinary) subject matter requires readiness and responsibility on the part of both students and teachers. Education in general can be a fearful enterprise (Palmer, 1998). Students and teachers alike can be fearful of otherness or difference, of failing, of not being understood or understanding, of having their prejudices or limitations exposed, of conflict or being drawn into issues they would rather avoid, and of losing identity. In light of this fearfulness, how can we bring the personal/private into the professional/public? How do we help students leave an encounter with an enlarged sense of self, in which they learn that “the self is not a scrap of turf to be defended but a capacity to be enlarged” (Palmer, 1998, p. 38)? How can we prepare participants, ourselves included, to manage the emotion work that sometimes accompanies politicizing the personal and bearing witness to others’ experiences? How vulnerable can we as teachers become in sharing our personal stories without risking students’ confidence in our grasp of the key conceptual narratives at stake? How do we provide students with guidance and direction without overly restricting their choices or demanding their self-disclosures? There can be considerable risk and vulnerability when one is asked to trace connections between subject matter and societal scripts (i.e., the public) and personal experiences. As such, it is imperative that we as teachers be respectful and discreet about matters that might hurt others or lead students to feel threatened (Palmer (1998). A balance between candor and discretion, or what Rawlins (2000) aptly termed a dialectic of expressiveness and protectiveness, must be communicatively accomplished.
Moreover, how do we reconcile our attempts to communicate acceptance of students as individuals with our responsibility to render judgments of their work? Teacher-student relationships remain embedded in institutional conditions of power inequality and scrutiny, and characterized by competing forces of acceptance and judgment (Rawlins, 2000). Administrators, and even parents, demand that teachers evaluate students’ performance. I am charged with the task of evaluating students’ grasp of a conceptual narrative and its explanatory potential without judging students as individuals. Even so, the best of teachers’ intentions can be misunderstood by students. The accomplishment of my ethos as a person who accepts and appreciates students but sometimes finds limitations in their work represents an ongoing communicative challenge made even more salient in that I choose to teach at the crossroads of the personal and the public. When I ask students to connect self with subject matter, I bear the burden of witnessing their personal stories and evaluating their ability to connect such stories to the theories at hand. Students easily get lost in the particulars of their own or others’ stories and fail to develop connections to conceptual narratives.
We live most of our lives in worlds constructed by narratives, and the enterprise of education is no exception (Bruner, 1996). I remain committed to the academy because I believe that through its storied activities individuals can nurture intellectual curiosity: the desire to ask and answer questions, the recognition that meanings always slide and lurch, and the ability to connect the personal with a world beyond self. The narrative sensibilities I offer provide one framework for positioning learning at the crossroads of the personal and the public. Like any aspiration, it is fraught with difficulties. It is a risky and potentially ambiguous set of practices for learning. Yet, in the end, it offers a hopeful vision for exploring how social context and culture shape and are shaped by personal knowing in less bounded, less restricted, and less rigid ways.
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