Archive for December, 2012

Ten (Non)Principles for Teaching (Poststructural) (Auto)Biography: or, How to Avoid Malefic Generosity in the Classroom

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , on December 22, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies (Although this One is Rather Large): December 21

There is the infinity in which you keep going and going and going, adding on and adding on and adding on, like with numbers. And then there is the infinity between whole numbers. (I had to think about that a bit, but it’s there, and it’s rather intriguing, although alas not our subject today.) And then there is the infinity of the possible between breaking a narrative toward creating agency, and breaking a narrative and causing harm. Where could/should you stand? Here are a few spots, shaky ground though they may be on themselves:

  1.  Be aware of whether by breaking a narrative, you are about to help your students achieve agency, to change a story they tell about their lives for the better, or whether you are about to push a student toward an endeavor that might be ultimately harmful. There’s a thin line. You can determine on which side of that line you are standing by magic, perhaps, or even ESP. Either way, just like a physician, the teacher’s oath should begin with “First do no harm.”
  2. Do not begin by telling your students all about Roland Barthes and how he calls all of their basic values and beliefs “myths.” You WILL spend countless hours backtracking, explaining that you don’t, and Barthes didn’t, necessarily or exactly mean “myth” in the Zeus and Apollo, or even, my personal favorite, Poseidon, kind of way.  (Personally, though, I think the Norse Gods have better names: Odin and Njord and Saga. Much cooler.) You WILL cause a returning, adult student to write a letter to the Vice President for Academic Affairs at your school explaining that you are a Communist who is trying to indoctrinate the young, impressionable 18-year-old children in your writing class. It WILL be the semester that you are up for promotion to Full Professor;  when the VP for Academic Affairs passes this letter along to the Dean of Faculty to handle, this WILL be your very first introduction to said Dean of Faculty, who WILL be brand-new to your college. Beware: your Dean of Faculty MAY NOT handle this as well as mine did.
  3. Be aware that some students may not be emotionally/psychologically/intellectually ready to change the stories they are telling about their lives. They may be ready, only, to recognize these narratives. They may be ready, only, to recognize these narratives at work on other people in other situations. Decide early on what will count, for you, as success in this endeavor.
  4. Use this idea, perhaps, of varying stages of readiness/needing to change the stories we tell about our lives, to scaffold, slowly, gently, your introduction to this idea at all, should you choose to take this path. Be prepared for resistance, which may come in the form of name-calling (see #2 above), or in the form of an“I have nothing to write about” (see blog post, “My 18-Year-Old Self Writes Autobiography”) teacher-student conference, or any form that might exist in the infinite spaces between and around these two examples.
  5. Remember that you are the English teacher, and as such neither the parole officer, nor mother, not therapist of these students, and that as much as you might think they need to change the stories they are telling about their lives, from the ways they define themselves as developmental writers, or are defined, institutionally, as developmental students, all the way to their discourses about higher education as a means to make more money, from their Disney Princess narratives to their very real domestic abuse stories–you don’t get to choose who changes and what they change into, and if you think you do, you are right back there with Quintilian awarding grades of A to the “good man writing well.”
  6. Try not to engage in acts malefic generosity here. (Actually, this is true for any classroom activity, assignment sequence, or philosophy.) Who said “There are none so holy as the recently converted?” Just because you recently engaged in a project in which you changed, or broke, some of the narratives that were writing your life, in ways that sometimes opened up new ways of seeing for you, in ways that gave voice where voices were previously silenced, and you’re feeling pretty cool,  take as a lesson that you, ultimately, DID NOT break the metanarrative of Your Own Adoption Story, no matter how flawed, fragmented, gap-toothed, holey, contingent upon the discourses of its time, place, community, ideologically reifying (need I go on?) you realized it is. You are not in the business of creating mini-me’s.
  7. Do not create, of the words, “Breaking the Narrative,” a brand-new metanarrative for teaching/learning/living that simply replaces all the metanarratives and local narratives you are working to help students think about critically. Because then you’ll just have to break THAT narrative. Again.
  8. Walk carefully the tightrope (I know, another thin line) between teaching students to recognize and analyze and critique the ideologies, the narratives, that are writing their lives, that are inscribing their subjectivities, and teaching students the language of power, by which I mean  Lisa  Delpit, “Secret Basketball,” et al. “There are codes or rules for participating in power,” Delpit tells us in “The Silenced Dialogue;” “The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.” It occurs to me, as I struggle to make my dissertation conform within the narrow confines of the Teachers College Columbia University Office of Doctoral Studies General Instructions for Preparing Doctor of Education Dissertations: A Manual of Style, that I can break all the narratives I want, disrupt all the genres I want, play havoc with the dissertation structure itself, all to show the arbitrariness, the  constructedness, the ideological-ness, the myth of what counts as appropriately created and presented knowledge–
  9. But I still have to graduate.
  10. Damn the gatekeepers.

The Brick. The Wall. My Head.

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 21, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 20

I am writing an AWESOME double post for tomorrow. So, go to bed, get some rest, and come back ready to read, read, read.

The thing is, I hit the wall today. And I now I have first-hand knowledge of how that phrase came about. Because I feel as though I literally slammed my head into a wall when I got out of bed this morning and have spent the entire day just trying to maintain consciousness. My eyelids haven’t been this heavy since they made me sit through physics lectures in high school.

Must go to bed. Now.

Parties, and Catalysts

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 20, 2012 by chateaucone

This posting every day thing is killing me. Killing. Me.

I guess if I didn’t wait until nearly midnight every night to do it, it would be better.

Tonight I hosted the Writing Center Party here at my apartment, and it was great. The writing center staff did absolutely everything–all I did was buy a few plates and napkins. And I think they had fun. I had fun having them, and I have to thank them all for being such great guests, and such great conversationalists, and, as well, for being the catalysts behind me getting my stuff unpacked and my apartment put back together and decorated. I am happy to say that the apartment is in relatively good shape, and we had a good party.

And I am happy to report that Suffolk’s Writing Center has an amazing staff–so many fun and interesting people to talk to–and a fabulous coordinator. (I already knew about the coordinator.)

And I am exhausted, and going to bed.

Tomorrow: poststructuralism, annihilation, and truthiness. And a little L’Engle. Just because.

I am (not)

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 19, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 18

Back to the DNA for a just a moment:

I think the ways in which the discourses surrounding the idea of being of Native American descent have affected me in ways far more subtle than the idea of being Italian or German,because I wasn’t raised in any sort of Native American culture. This, at one and the same time, created in me, wrote on me, an awareness of being other–other than of some sort of Western European descent, like the rest of my family, other in the sense that we so often write Native Americans, culturally, ethnically, as other, and other in a third sense–other from very own my Native American descent, if that makes any sense at all.

I was Native American without ever really being Native American. And now I am not Native American at all.

But I think that doesn’t change the ways in which those discourses nudged and jostled and prodded my various subjectivities into certain shapes.

Happy Birthday, Adge!

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 18, 2012 by chateaucone

The other night I wrote about bringing my Native American headdress to kindergarten show and tell. The only other memory I have of kindergarten show and tell is a tell–telling the class about my new cousin Adrienne the day after she was born. That was thirty-nine years ago.  Adrienne is no longer a baby. I no longer participate in show and tell*, and I am no longer of Native  American descent.

The times, they are a-changin’.

Tomorrow, when I am less tired than I am now, we will talk about truth–small t, p/s, local, contingent truth.

*Who am I kidding?

Wounds, Agency and Ethics

Posted in Small Epiphanies on December 17, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 16

One of the small things the dissertation committee wanted me to do to revise was to talk a bit about what, exactly, I mean by “breaking the narrative.”

The need for this part of the revisions is all my fault.  I wrote this paragraph:

But I think it’s not until you need the freedom that you can break the narrative. I didn’t break the narrative until years after I wrote that first essay, until I needed to break it. Living within a comfortable narrative is easier, sometimes, than breaking out of one.

And underneath it I wrote myself a note that said, “MORE ANALYSIS HERE.”

And although I have a distinct memory of deleting that note in the final draft I sent to the committee, somehow, it was still there, staring us all in the face, during the defense.

My committee members thought it was meant to be there–part of the dissertation disrupting itself. My face of course gave it away, and then it was decided that clever although that might have been, more analysis was indeed needed.

So here I am. What do I mean by “breaking the narrative?”

Do I mean, simply, changing the stories we tell about our lives? Not all the stories, though–just the ones that are preventing us from moving forward, from making meaningful, positive change in our lives. I do mean that. But then, why “breaking” the narrative, and not simply “changing” the narrative?

I think “breaking” speaks to the power of narrative, to the hold that narratives, ideologically-bound stories, have on our lives, reinscribed as they constantly are by all the communities of which we are a part. For me, “breaking” evokes shattering, not just modifying or adjusting but becoming free of something. Burning a bridge, even. Seeing something in such a new way that you can’t even imagine how you used to see it differently–or how you didn’t see it before. An epiphany of sorts.

Re-seeing. Revising. Revising yourself, your life, your story. Writing a new story that changes how you think about who you are and what you can do. Agency. Freedom.

And I’m back to Pollyanna. But this is a nice segue to tomorrow, whcn I will write about whether this is ethical, desirable, in the classroom.

William H. Epstein, in Contesting the Subject, tells us, “Traditional biographical narrative habitually enacts the scene of an abduction because, in order to discursively repair the biologically irreparable fracture (the alterity, the otherness, the discontinuity) between any two human individuals (reified generically as biographer and biographical subject), biography recesses the broken parts and causes the gaping of a wound.”

My dissertation argues that breaking the narrative is exposing Epstein’s wound. There is discontinuity among our subjectivities; when we represent, even momentarily, a subjectivity in language, we recess all the others; we shove them aside, or push them down; we hide them. Our self-narratives recess the parts of our lives that don’t fit. When we break the narrative, we expose the wound. We expose the parts that don’t fit. We expose the 23-year-old single, pregnant woman who surrendered a child and who was subsequently silenced. We expose that being chosen implies that someone was left behind, or that your position, as a chosen baby, is/was precarious. We expose the chaos, and the possibilities, in stories that seem inevitable and natural.

Is it ethical to push students to expose the wound in their stories? When is it ethical? And if it is, how might it be done with the least amount of risk?

DNA vs. The Discursive Production of Identity; or, Holy Crap, Can That Be Right?

Posted in Small Epiphanies with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2012 by chateaucone

Small Epiphanies: December 15

(Although this is a rather large epiphany, as epiphanies go, and not so much an epiphany as a discovery.)

Since I was small, my parents have told me, having been told, themselves, by the adoption agency, that I am of Italian, German and Indian ethnicity. And while I guess we were never quite sure about the Indian part, we were sure enough that there was at least one Native American headdress in my childhood, which I brought to kindergarten show and tell.

Later, the adoption agency told me that my birth mother was Italian; her parents had emigrated from Italy to Canada to the US; I found her last name in the New York City birth records and it seemed to confirm her ethnicity. The alleged birth father, as the adoption agency called him, was Indian-German. Last year, I wrote to Angel Guardian to ask what they might have meant by “Indian” in 1967–because my parents assumed it was American Indian–but they never wrote back.

Meanwhile, I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, that primarily identified itself as Italian American, at least in terms of food.

Today, I got the results of an DNA ethnicity test I took recently. Turns out, my ethnicity is 83% British Isles, and 17% Middle Eastern.

My first thought was that it was a mistake–that Ancestry.com mixed up my saliva with someone else’s. But the whole thing was barcoded and registered and tagged and secure. I mean, sure, someone could have just mixed up the test tubes. Who knows?

My second thought was that I must have been, not only adopted, but switched in the nursery, because while I could see my birth mother reporting my alleged birth father’s ethnicity wrong, she seems pretty damn Italian. And how would she get that wrong? Unless she just lied. Again, who knows?

My third thought, in order both chronological and degree of outlandishness, was that it suddenly made sense that for the past nine years, ever since I first set foot in Edinburgh in 2003, I have been saying that Scotland is where I was meant to live. I must, therefore, be Scottish. My very blood was calling out to the land, my DNA recognizing itself in everyone around me.

The truth is, I have no idea what to do with this information. And before you say, “What does it matter? You are exactly the same person you were before you got this information, back when you were Italian and German and Native American,” I get that.

And that’s not what I’m talking about.

Nor am I having some sort of identity crisis.

But I am, I guess, sort of, like, “Hmm. . .”

I’ve just written 375 pages about the discursive production of subjectivity, and how we are written by narratives inscribed and reified by our nationalities, our ethnicities, our local communities, our religious beliefs, and so on and so forth.

What does it mean that I grew up believing I was Italian, in an Italian family? What does it mean that I am in fact English, Irish, Scottish or Welsh, instead? How would that have changed the stories I told about myself as I grew up? How does it change the stories I tell about myself now?

Maybe the Italian part is a bad example; being Italian in an Italian family, your various kinds of traits sort of disappear in the crowd, into naturalness. Being Native American in my family, though, was a difference, a difference that made a difference, that made me special, and interesting.

And now I’m not that anymore.

My dissertation doesn’t look specifically at ethnicity and adoption; perhaps that’s because it seemed like a non-issue. My father cheerfully called us the United Nations; of course, we were a United Nations made up entirely of European nations. How does someone of Middle Eastern descent fit into that family?

I am, though, of Middle Eastern descent much the way I was of Native American descent–in name only, in ways that I would never claim on a census form. Still, how will the discourses of the Middle East, the wide and varied discourses we Americans write and subscribe to about people of Middle Eastern descent, now begin to change my narratives?

Part of my story, the story I tell about who I am and where I come from, has shifted, if only because new historical and ethnic narratives have become relevant; new discourses have become available to me.   And that changes things.

I’m just not sure what.