Our lives, our cultures are made up of many overlapping stories and experiences. If we listen to the media we may hear all the negative stories being pushed on us and may begin to believe that everything is bad. Everything. The New York Times reports August 28th, 2012: “Churning Storm Nears Hurricane Strength” “Court Rules Israel Wasn’t at Fault in US Activist’s Death” “Afghan Beheadings Could Singal Confusion in Taliban Ranks”. However, as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (click here to see a TED Talk she gave in 2009 on this topic), a Nigerian internationally known storyteller and author states, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” So, SPN friend and student, we ask you in this course to do perhaps what could be the most courageous act – we ask you to write and specifically we are asking you to write your own story. And not just one. We ask you to write as many stories as you can muster. In addition, we, your instructors, are here, to teach, guide, and to support you in your individual writing endeavors. We are here to give you the freedom to wrench the stories from your gut and your intellect, and to encourage you to grow into an understanding that your stories are important both for you and for others. We will help you the best we can, while maintaining that ultimately it is all up to you to start, sustain, and finish your writing project.
We are both looking forward to a semester of vibrant conversation, respectful dialogue, and many fresh and wonderful insights about college life. As co-instructors, we come at the world, not only as practitioners but also as thinkers.
For those of you who might initially be suspicious of a philosophically oriented course, we ask that you set aside your disbelief for a while. We will work very hard to help you to make connections between the readings, seminar conversations, and your personal lives here at UVM (no guarantee). We ask you to make a personal commitment, even if you are skeptical about the value of this type of material, to plunge enthusiastically into a semester-long study of some vital issues facing students in college everywhere. You may or may not change your minds at semester’s end. We will take nothing personally. We will let the chips fall where they may.
To be a good writer requires that in addition to living, you also need to do much sitting. Richard Rhodes, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his books, says that the most important part of the anatomy for a writer is not the hand, head, heart, or eyes…it is the butt. Without putting “butt to chair” on a regular basis, writing will not get done. Butt to chair is the basic posture for all writers. So, if you think that your activities for this upcoming semester are likely to take away all your time for writing/reading, then please drop the course. We will not ask you any questions or hold anything against you. In fact, we will respect and admire you for your good sense, honesty, and self-insight.
We will be focusing the course this semester of a special type of personal writing. We call this type of writing, Scholarly Personal Narrative Writing (SPN) and we will be teaching you the art and craft of this type of writing. Among its many possibilities, SPN will help you to make sense of, and convey, your personal stories of meaning. SPN is the creation of one of your instructors, Robert J. Nash. What follows is a brief description of SPN writing.
The denial of the value of the self’s stories in an academic setting is born in the command all of us have heard in school at some time: never use the “I” in formal writing. The “I,” we have been told, is incapable of discovering and dispensing wisdom without the support of the “Them,” the certified experts. Messages like these leech the fascinating, storied self out of the budding writer, leaving only the clichéd, and often pinched, stories of experts to recirculate over and over again. Our first order of business this semester in encouraging personal narrative writing is to let all of you know that the search for meaning is very difficult unless you can write personally about your quests for meaning. We need to let our students know that their personal stories count.
Vivian Gornick says: “A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to. The age is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to write their personal stories out of the now commonly held belief that one’s own life signifies” (p. 91). For Gornick, personal narrative writing starts with the writer’s life rather than with the lives, thoughts, and activities of others. SPN writing encourages our students to make sense of the raw material of meaning-making first from the inside-out before going from the outside-in. What matters most in personal narrative writing is the conviction that the writer’s own life actually testifies. It matters. In the end, what truly matters is the sense of meaning that the writer is able to create, and then to convey, both to self and to others.
Many are confident that you can write a term paper, a research paper, or a literature review with your “eyes closed.” You know the templates for these conventional types of manuscripts by heart, because you have done so many of them throughout your years in formal education. You know from practice that it is mostly just a matter of understanding how to fit some new pieces of the knowledge puzzle into the old research templates. But telling a personal story in a classroom setting, with the professor present, is hard for most students. Writing one’s personal story in a creative way is even more difficult.
In order to prepare each of you for personal narrative writing about meaning this term, we will challenge you to dare to stand for something in your writing. Try to take a position on something with strong conviction. We will give you permission to allow your authorial voices to be clear, distinct, and strong, and, above all, personal. We will ask you to resist the conventional academic temptation to be “objective”: stoical, qualified, subdued, abstract, and distant. At times, it is okay, even desirable, to try to be detached or dispassionate, and, at other times, even scientific and objective. But it is also okay, particularly when writing about meaning, to be fully engaged and excitable, to be transparent and vulnerable. What follows is a true story.
An undergraduate student, “Sarah,” came to Robert’s office one day to report the following: “You know, all this stuff about postmodernism and existentialism that you’ve been talking about lately. Well, I tried a little bit of it with my own writing. I was getting stuck in writing my honors thesis for another professor, and I couldn’t understand why—that is until I listened to you talk about personal narrative writing and its rightful place in the scholarship of higher education.
“My original intention was to write a kind of literary reflection for my thesis by telling a powerful story of loss and survival, with my extended Jewish family as the central protagonists. I wanted this reflection to focus especially on my grandparents who were prisoners at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, and who I consider to be courageous, noble survivors. Moreover, I wanted to write this kind of reflection in order to understand why I identify so readily with being a ‘cultural’ Jew but balk at being called a ‘religious’ Jew. In the most important sense, then, I wanted the study of my grandparents to really be a study of myself.
“In contrast, my honors thesis advisor wanted me to conduct formal interviews with my grandparents, leave myself out of the study as much as I could, and then test for validity by doing proof checks of inconsistencies when I analyzed the data coming out of the interviews. I could only react, ‘huh’? This all seemed so bloodless and contrived to me. After all, I love my grandparents, and I have listened to their stories for years. I also know what I need from these interviews, and what I would like others to learn from them about their own ethnic heritages. Whether or not my grandparents’ stories are inconsistent or even exaggerated, is irrelevant to me. I only know that they have suffered beyond my worst nightmares.
“So, I decided to write my thesis as a scholarly personal narrative manuscript, and I placed myself at the center of my writing. I started with something that my grandfather once said to me and I’ve never forgotten: ‘If there is a God, then he is a butcher. He is the Gestapo officer who burned my brothers and sisters. He is the camp commander who spit on my mother’s grave. This cowardly God stood idly by, as the smoke from the ovens, baking all those innocent children and adults, curled to his damned heavens. I lost my faith in God finally in those death camps, but I found something better there: a more enduring faith in the people I love, like you, Sarah. When I saw how fragile life is, and how it can be so easily destroyed by a handful of monsters, I realized that cherishing one another is all there is. There is nothing more than this, and it’s up to each one of us to love intensely and compassionately. Everything else is a pathetic fairytale.’”
“I decided to write about how my grandfather’s account of his terrible death-camp experiences really frames everything that I believe today about life’s purpose and meaning. His account has helped me to create a meaning in my life that gets me through my own periodic bouts with depression, hopelessness, and angst. Like him, I believe that there is nothing more to be achieved in life than living genuinely, loving passionately, connecting frequently with others, and doing my best at all times to make my world a more humane and caring place. In my thesis, I tell many stories about my relatives, and I pull no punches. And, guess what? My advisor loved my stories. In fact, she told me that she, herself, was a Jew, and the relative of two concentration camp victims, but she never got to know them because they died at Auschwitz. She and I would have never known this about one another if I hadn’t taken the risk to write personally from my heart and soul.”
“Oh, and just one more thing: like Eli Weisel after writing Night, I reclaimed my own religious faith after writing about my grandfather’s loss of his faith. I realized that, in my case, I need a God, especially during those times that are bleakest and most horrible for me. Although I’ve never been in a death camp, I have “died” lots of small deaths, particularly when I lost my dearest friend who committed suicide two years ago. Without a God to believe in during those worst of times, my life would be totally without meaning. Thank you for inspiring me to write so personally, and, along the way, to discover what’s really important to me.”
Life, as every writer knows, is incongruous, complex, and paradoxical. It can bore us, soothe us, upset us, confound us, sadden us, inspire us, and anger us, sometimes all at once. Therefore, we will ask each and every one of you, just as Robert asked Sarah, to try always to be honest. Say what you mean and believe what you say. But always make it a point to leave room for the ellipsis dots that, in theory, can end every sentence you write, and every story you tell, and every truth you proclaim. Why? Because personal narrative writing never ends; it only stops, for the time being. There will always be something else to add. All meaning evolves—given the passage of time, the changing of life’s conditions, and the natural growth of each and every meaning-maker. What gives our lives meaning in the here-and-now will inevitably change in the who-knows where-and-when.
The best writing partner is the one who listens, and encourages, and affirms, and only afterwards talks about what works and what doesn’t. A good writing partner feels no moral or aesthetic compulsion to rip your writing to shreds. When you are having a bad day of writing, you don’t need a lot of advice. You just need a little love. If your critic is too strident or adamant, ditch the sucker. Look around, take your time, and you will find that person who can fill you up when you are empty.
Here are some friendly recommendations from your instructors regarding how we can give one another respectful and useful feedback on our writing. We promise not to rip your writing to shreds. Please return the favor. If we fail to follow through, ditch us. We will understand.
How Do We Give One Another Feedback on Our Writing?
• Whenever you choose to share your writing with the rest of us, all feedback should begin with specific requests by you, the writer, telling us what you need from us. We, the feedbackers, will not presume to tell you what you don’t need to hear from us. Is there anything more useless, and presumptuous, than advice not solicited?
• Each one of us deserves to be shown the utmost respect for what we write. We’re all trying damned hard to put personal and scholarly ideas to paper in an effective way. Here is our bias: most, but not all, negative and positive reactions to someone’s writing are aesthetic. As far as we are concerned, aesthetics are primarily a matter of personal taste. In other words, most standards are relative and made up. David Hume said de gustibus, non disputandum est (matters of taste are not to be disputed). It might help if you find a way to give both positive and negative feedback that starts with something like this: “It’s only my taste speaking here, but….” No aesthetic high grounds here.
• “Give feedback to others as you would have others give feedback to you.” This sounds like a kind feedback strategy, right? But, as George Bernard Shaw once noted: what if some of us are masochists—gluttons for punishment, and, therefore, we expect others to enjoy cruelty as much as we do when others are cruel to us? In contrast, we prefer a reworked version of the Golden Rule that we call the Platinum Rule: give feedback to others in the ways they want to hear it, not necessarily in the way you might want to hear it. We call this the Platinum Rule because it puts the needs of the other first, and doesn’t presume that our needs are identical with the other’s needs. Does the Platinum Rule necessarily preclude constructive response? Of course not. It is just a reminder that the best feedback starts with positives rather than negatives. If the writer solicits critical feedback only, find a way to give it that is a blend of commendation and advice. We don’t care how tough a writer is: the feedback the writer remembers most comes out of a context of what works more than what doesn’t.
• Our favorite metaphor for compassionate conversation in a writing seminar is this: it’s akin to a barn-raising rather than a boxing match. We’re not here this semester to score points at others’ expense. If this is your goal, count us out. The best way for you to score points in our eyes, if this is what’s important to you (and we hope it isn’t your primary motivator) is to make the writer look good. This takes ingenuity, generosity, empathy, kindness, a keen sense of mutual aid, and a shared work ethic. These skills, by the way, are exactly what’s needed for a good, old-fashioned, New England barn-raising.
• Before you leap to conclusions about strengths and weaknesses whenever you hear a reading, first ask these questions: What is the author trying to say? Where is it coming from? Why does it matter to the author? Who is the author speaking to? What is the author saying to me, personally? What is the author saying that might be relevant to a larger audience beyond the author and me? What do I especially like about what I hear? What doesn’t work for me? Notice the question that we placed last? It’s there for a reason.
What Are Technical SPN Points to Keep in Mind as We Listen to One Another’s Writings?
• What idea, value, theme, or truth stood out for you as you listened to the author read? How did the author make this happen? These are called constructs or structs.
• Was the theme/construct/through line clear? Consistent? Identifiable? If so, how so?
• Was the author’s personal point of view clearly rendered? How so?
• To what extent was the author’s personal story effective in conveying the value, idea, theme, or truth? Are there any ways that you think the author’s S, P, and N, might come together even more effectively?
• Can you identify some effective hooks in the author’s writing that caught, and kept, your attention?
• At this particular point in the author’s manuscript, were you able to identify some helpful background information/knowledge, proof-texts, epigraphs, and lit embeds? Do you have any suggestions for adding some relevant scholarship?
• Could you find any universalizability in the author’s writing? Can you suggest additional universals?
• What did you think was most controversial (if anything) in the author’s writing?
• Where do you think questions might be raised by other readers?
• What do you think was most convincing in the author’s writing? What in the writing might actually change readers’ minds, or at least, get them to take notice?
Our Conversational Approach to Studying Pluralism and Meaning-Making As a Community of Scholars
We are advocates of something called “moral conversation” in a seminar. This, in a few words, is nothing more than mutually respectful, generous, and lively dialogue about controversial issues. Moral conversation is predicated on the research-based assumption that more people tend to speak their mind in a group whenever they feel safe and supported. They respond less defensively when they are affirmed rather than when they are attacked. They listen more carefully to alternative points of view. Conversations are livelier. This type of dialogue is unbounded in the sense that everything is up for grabs. There is no a priori prohibition against talking about particular issues or taking particular philosophical, educational, political, or religious positions that might at first appear politically incorrect or heretical. In our ideal seminar, there are no political conversation-stoppers, and no ideological “genies” that must remain in the bottle. We will encourage you always to release your genies. No genie will ever be considered too unpopular, controversial, or provocative, as long as you sincerely believe in what you are saying, and so long as you encourage others to release their “genies.”
We hope that we can go hard on ideas in this seminar, whenever we feel that we must, but soft on the people (including the authors) who hold these ideas. While it is true that all ideas need to be challenged, critiqued, and dissected, they also have a right to be respected, at least initially (notice that we did not use the word accepted). Moreover, the people who hold these ideas have a right, at all times, to be listened to, drawn out, and treated with the utmost kindness and generosity.
Please note that moral conversation is one of the most difficult forms of seminar dialogue to achieve. Each one of us must work at it every single week. We will need to discuss our process as a group frequently. Moral conversation takes time to develop. Some groups do it easily and quickly. Some groups never achieve it. Some groups arrive at a conversational modus vivendi (way of living together in a seminar) only gradually and after much hard work. We are confident, however, that, in time, all of us will arrive at a place where we can live with each other productively, honestly, and courageously. But we must add that there are no money-back guarantees that this will happen in a way that will make everyone exquisitely happy.
The first “rule” of moral conversation is to find the truth in what you oppose, and the error in what you espouse, before you proclaim the truth in what you espouse and the error in what you oppose. The second “rule” is this: Make the other person look good by resisting the ever-present temptation in graduate school to make yourself look good. We hope to be a living example of these two basic rules, although, like you, we will too frequently fail to exemplify them as often as we would like.
Please know that we intend to be the “best friends” of each of the authors whom we will be discussing this term. While, obviously, we will have serious disagreements with some of what these authors are saying, we will, nevertheless, keep our reservations to ourselves, unless, of course, you ask us directly. Or unless we are so exercised by some of their views that we simply cannot contain ourselves (we hope this is rare). We will try to be as evenhanded and as fair as we can. Of course, this does not mean that you need always to be evenhanded in your reactions. We ask only that you be respectful of each of the authors, and that you treat them the way you would like us to treat you, both in seminar conversations and while reading your papers. The “Golden Rule” of moral conversation is to do unto all others, and this includes the authors, what you would have all others do unto you.
Here is a truth-in-packaging statement about our teaching and us:
We are firmly committed to the value of pluralism in all shapes and forms. We deeply appreciate diversity of opinion as well as diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, social class, politics, and religion. We will do our best to respect all points of view, to inquire about them (and this includes our own as well as yours) with compassion and consideration whenever appropriate, and to modify our opinions when opposing views are presented in a salient and convincing manner. Civility is our overall goal. Vibrant, even robust conversation, personal and professional disclosure, and critical thinking are what we hope civility will produce; behavior and attitude change, if any, are solely up to you. We are far more interested in uncovering and understanding your different perspectives than in changing them. We trust that you will have patience with us, and help us to become effective seminar co-instructors as the semester unfolds.
One final note on our teaching:
We do not intend to lecture. We will not be using overheads or power point presentations. We will not be testing you. We will not be telling you what you need to know, how you need to know it, and what we will be looking for in grading you. In this course, you, and you alone, will be responsible for your own learning. Everything you get out of this course will be your personal choice. We will enable, facilitate, and evoke your learnings as much as possible, but your choice will be to learn. Period. In order to get the most out of a course like ours, you will need to be self-disciplined, focused, self-motivated, and intellectually curious. You will need to have a work ethic. You will need to be organized and know how to manage your time. You will need to be in love with ideas and with the learning process. Lacking some, or all, of these qualities, you will probably find our course not to your liking. You might not even want to show up each week. You will be tempted to complain, either to us or behind our backs. The option to opt out or drop out, by the way, will be your choice, and it will be respected. Both of us would rather have self-motivated learners show up in our seminar each week than students who need constant hand-holding, pushing, cajoling, and motivating.
Let us be candid here about our own abilities. No more than any of you, we do not know what the “right” message is in any of these readings or discussions. Who, pray tell, is qualified to proclaim this truth for all the rest of us? Therefore, be forewarned: Much of our time together this semester will be spent publicly exploring, and reflecting upon, the personal and social, and only secondarily, the so-called objective, meanings that each and every text has for each and every one of you. We will be frequently asking you these types of questions: What does the text mean for you right now as you struggle with constructing your own sense of personal meaning and purpose? What is your personal take on the reading given your unique belief system? What sense do you make of the reading for your own life and for that of others? What are the personal and social perspectives out of which you are reading, and trying to understand, the material? What set of particular background meanings are you imposing upon the material? What are some of the implications of what you are getting from the readings for your evolving philosophy of life, school, work, relationships, and professional identity?
We will assign relevant readings, and very brief writing assignments, throughout the course and at strategic intervals—one week before they are due. These reading assignments will emerge organically during the semester.
Our Preliminary Gift to You
—Some Inspiring Writing Maxims—
Every writer I know has trouble writing. ~Joseph Heller, satirical novelist, short story writer, and playwright. Author of Catch-22
You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And you edit to let the fire show through the smoke. ~Arthur Polotnik, editor
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. ~Maya Angelou, American author and poet. Author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Personal narrative writers must manufacture a text, imposing narrative order on a jumble of
half-remembered events. With that feat of manipulation they arrive at a truth that is theirs alone,
not quite like that of anybody else who was present at the same events. ~William Zinsser, American writer, editor, literary critic. Author of On Writing Well.
Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for. ~Alice Walker, American author, poet, and activist. Author of Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Color Purple.
And, so, dear SPN writers-to-be, we come to the end of our letter-syllabus to you, here at the beginning of our course together. We promise (to the best of our ability) to be here for you throughout the semester. Just email us when and if you might need us for one thing or another. Remember that we are here to help you to become the best writers you can be during this course. And we will be writing, right along with you ☺
Robert J. Nash & Sydnee Viray