Archive for autobiography

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 Adopted Girl Refuses

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , , on August 22, 2012 by chateaucone

Back on . . . I don’t know, August 7? I posted something along the lines of “First, let’s talk about my birth mother’s identity . . .” and never got to “Second . . .”

And then I talked about the biography of my birth mother that somehow got itself written in this project, and its failure/success. The success of its failure. Its success in illustrating the failure of biography as a genre. Something like that. But I haven’t yet gotten to my own.

So here is “Second . . .” as though I never left off, as though I stopped mid-thought, as though . . . whatever. (Where do you put the spaces when you use ellipses? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

My identity–and my autobiography–and how it is at stake feels more complicated or more layered, than my birth mother’s, perhaps only because it is mine. There are all these Is writing this project, and all these Is being created and being disrupted and being created to disrupt. And of course this creation is on purpose, by design, and yet somehow not created so much as uncovered, revealed, the wound opened.

Let me say this:

I too refuse to be written. Refuse to be fixed.

(Fixed. Hehe. I could maybe use some fixing. But that’s another blog.)

Does the inclusion of all the various and myriad and constantly changing and disrupting Is stop my subjectivity from being firmly, ideologically correctly, definitively represented, as it might be in a traditional, modern, liberal humanist biography?

Yes, I have disrupted the narrative of the Family, the two-parent, Conservative-Family-Values Family, within which there is no room for a 23-year-old single birth mother or her story. But is the disruption simply a new narrative to be proclaimed by some biographer the real and true goal of my life?

I feel as though my subjectivity refusing to be written, to be recovered, to be fixed, to be, is more difficult to articulate . . . and to enforce.

I can refuse to be written, but can I refuse to be read?

I don’t know. I can make myself very difficult to read, I think. I can make my narratives the kind that drive readers crazy. The kind where your book club friend says, “As I writer, I appreciate that the author leaves these hanging chards, but as a reader, I want closure.” Is that enough?

While I am the only intended reader of my birth mother’s biography, the letter from Angel Guardian, I have no such control over my own autobiography and I am beginning to think, more and more, that the success or failure of the genre (and depending on who you are, these could each mean opposing things) depends in large part on the reader. But I’ll come back to that. What I need to say here is that, I can refuse to be written, recovered, fixed, all I want, and a reader can come along and fix me anyway. The reader can recess the broken parts.

Of course, that person would not be a very good reader.

Maybe this is a St. Elmo’s Fire sort of problem. Let’s move on.

I think my autobiography needs to do more. Listen to this, from my favorite scholar of biography, William H. Epstein, writing in “(Post)Modern Lives: Abducting the Biographical Subject.” It’s long. But worthwhile.

If the oppositional agenda of (post)modern biography is to make a difference, then it will constitute itself and function as  difference. Improvising guerilla tactics that opportunistically take advantage of momentary gaps in the discursive surveillance of the proprietary powers, this emergent cultural project will disruptively mimic the indifference of traditional biographical recognition–and thus abduct it, lead it away from its historical alliance with dominant structures of authority by recessing its parts and revealing the hidden, but now signified, recurrent wound in the writing. Perhaps then biography will become what de Certeau claims it already is but can seldom be recognized as: “the self-critique of liberal, bourgeois society, based on the primary unit that society created[:] the individual–the central epistemological and historical figure of the modern Western world, the foundation of capitalist economy and democratic politics.” 

That’s a mouthful. Not only is it long, it’s huge. By which I mean rather ambitious.

In the beginning of this project, I asked (Have I mentioned this before? Maybe not.): What happens when I attempt to represent the post-structural subject autobiographically without fixing it in narrative, in discourse, as an ideology identity formation—to, as Epstein tells us, “expose the wound” created by traditional (auto)biography?

And now I need to talk about two things to address (never answer) that question. I have attempted. Was I successful in my attempt? And what do I mean by success?

Do I define success as Epstein defines it above? I think I do. Large scale success, anyway.

But maybe success isn’t what my original question is after. “What happens?” it asks. What has happened?

And I think I can say that (I think) I’ve done it with my essay about my birth mother, in which I’ve written alternate letters that the adoption agency could have sent, and–I didn’t tell you this last time–juxtaposed those with some of the (very nasty) things that social workers, sociologists, religious and other professionals believed about rehabilitating unwed mothers –“the discursive surveillance of the proprietary powers” embodied. I think I have signified the wound. And by doing so, opened up space for a million imaginary birth mothers–uncertainty, but possibility.

But then there’s my post from August 15, where I pretty much admit that for myself, for the Meant-to-Be-A-Family narrative, at least, nothing has happened. That the wound is imaginary. That I’m playing a grown up game of Operation and when I touch the edge, the broken part, a funny buzzer goes off and I laugh and lose my turn but nothing else happens. I never really touch our story, the story of how we became a family, that lives deep inside me.

Boy, will my aunts and cousins love to hear that. It’s what they’ve been saying all along. “It’s not a story. It’s what happened. You were meant to be ours.”

29 Birth Mothers

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , on August 21, 2012 by chateaucone

The dog hair is back. As is the anxiety. The panic. The terror.

Well, not so much the terror. It’s Monday morning, after all. Maybe it’s just the blues. Then again, what’s a Monday on sabbatical really?

Considering I just realized it’s actually Tuesday. Huh.

We will nonetheless begin with someone else’s writing.

–Excerpt from “Photo of the Author in Kangaroo Pajamas,” by Judith Baumel, which you can read here.

Judy Baumel manages to write my whole project neatly in one stanza. I am on page something-like-352. But.

My birthmother refuses to be written, recovered, to be. Both theoretically and literally. Theoretically I’ve explained. And literally. I know. I’ve tried. I’ve written 29 versions of her.  Yes, 29. Count ‘em. And they’re all in an essay that is written in the form of 29 possible letters the adoption agency could have sent me to tell me about her. Twenty-nine possible birth mothers. Twenty-nine possible subjects. Twenty-nine possible identities. And yet, I am not one word closer to knowing her.

The biography Angel Guardian sent me fails. It falls apart upon close examination. Oh, at first it seems like a sudden windfall of information. But when you look closely, there are gaps. There are silences. There are wounds. There are agendas.

And this letter, therefore, is a prime example of the failure of biography as a genre. It’s nice and short, too, which helps, because I can tell that no amount of additional “facts” added to it will lead it toward representing an actual complicated, flawed, outside-of-convention human being.

The letter feeds the system. It smooths over the broken narrative of the unwed, financially- and emotionally-unsupported mother. It repairs the narrative of American Family Values by returning, neatly, my birthmother to her previously unpregnant state, unharmed, her secret kept, protected; she is ready to reenter society, get properly married and have children of her own. And it hands me over, through God’s Will, to my poor childless parents. It makes the denatured, natured. Political, social, economic and cultural authority are reaffirmed.


I guess, depending on what side you’re on, the letter could be a prime example of the total success of biography as a genre, if, as genre, it’s job is to manage and contain our subjectivities within ideologically appropriate spaces. To present a nice, seemingly-coherent story. the gaps and silences abducted.

I, however, am sticking with failure.