The Strength of Storytelling:
In Defense of the ‘Selfie,’ Part One
January 16, 2014
“I hate reading the classics because they have too many boring details. I don’t give a rat’s ass about what color the carriage was in a Jane Austin novel,” the undergrad visual arts student complained at the beginning of the semester. He looked toward me and added, “The details in your essay work though because even your description of your family photo presents your older brother as a menacing, aggressive bird of prey ‘perched’ on the top step of the porch.”
My peer’s analysis served to be crucial. My instructor, well versed in Barthes' criticism, hated my style, rife with personal narrative and detail, but because she valued the input of others in the class, she became more lenient. My style had been well received to the point of imitation by the others in her class. Highest form of compliment.
Theoretically, we are all too familiar with Barthes' “Death of the author,” and by extension artist, which by default has spilled into the theory that even painting is dead.
When I first encountered his theory, in the margins of the text I scribbled, “I am an author. I am NOT dead.”
Yes, I am one of THOSE types of people who writes in my books, responding, reacting to what I read, actively engaging in the medieval scribe’s habit of adding personal glosses and illuminations to every manuscript I encounter.
I actively place myself onto the text with which I am engaged. Likewise, personal narrative in criticism, actively engaging in the critical endeavours, allows us to draw the details, the local color, of our everyday lives. Personal narrative: the style composing the crux of place-based education.
The art of creating a theoretical “Selfie.” Gregory Smith (2002) identifies place-based pedagogy as a curriculum built upon “cultural, natural, economic, and civic features and problems and opportunities encountered in [students’] own region” adding that by teaching from a student’s environment, “teachers can demonstrate the value of mastering knowledge and skills that might otherwise seem abstract or meaningless to students” (abstract). People engaged in their own surroundings and viewing them through the lens of their individual experiences will be more likely to assimilate newly learned concepts into everyday situations.
This adaptive skill set is essential to learning. Bigelow et al., (1994) points out that an academically rigorous democratic learning environment prepares students “not only to change the world but also to maneuver in the one that exists” (p. xi). Bigelow further notes that adapting skills acquired in the classroom to real-world situations is necessary because teachers ask students “to critique the world but then fail to encourage them to act, our classroom can degenerate into factories for cynicism” (p. xi). Personal, place-based narrative incorporated into a democratic setting in which each student feels his or her voice has value: a crucial element guarding against academic cynicism. Theory is impossible to apply unless it is assimilated through the lens of self-perception.
Why is it important to encourage readers or students to assimilate classroom lessons into their own narratives? David Stovall (2006) notes that a curriculum built upon critical pedagogy “includes a recognition and understanding of the world in which [we] live” (p. 249) He explains that those who have engaged with their world through experiential means will possess “the necessary foundation upon which to build the necessary strategies to address the issues at hand” (p. 249-50). As we explore our everyday surroundings and apply newly learned concepts by interpreting experiences through personal narrative, we will not only learn to appreciate our local neighborhoods, we also learn to evaluate ourselves and others, further developing our ability to become critical members of our community.
Incorporating our own narratives into both criticism and the classroom effectively engages students and readers alike. In his essay on learning styles, Abrahim Kazu (2009) notes, “…one of the most significant issues in learning to learn, or in becoming effective in the process of learning, is an individual’s taking the responsibility for his/her own learning” (p. 90). He adds that when “students take responsibility for their learning, they are at the center of the process and everything is under their control” (p. 90). When we incorporate our own narratives into our criticism or artistic self-expression, we begin to realize that we alone possess our individual experiences. We begin to control our own self-identities. Through the critical “Selfie,” we not only begin to realize how our own histories and cultures have not only shaped our own individuality, but we also begin to understand our integral place in the larger world around us.
As artists, teachers or critics who draw upon our own daily lives, we develop our narrative voices and record the local, national and global histories that shape our lives. Ferreira notes that students are empowered “through their own experience…becoming conscious of, and working to change their own social conditions” (p. 17). Likewise, as artists and critics, we must incorporate our own voices into our work.
Sorry Barthes. The author, artist - or painting, for that matter - will never die.
Self Portrait in Benjamin's Arcades
Ink on Paper