The Vulnerable Observer:
The Power of the Theoretical ‘Selfie,’ Pt. 5
Why must a place-based curriculum be accompanied by personal narrative? Place-based learning isn’t enough by itself. Yes, students may be engaging with their local surroundings, but without personal narrative incorporated into their studies, their learning experience may still potentially remain that of pure classification and division, a rote application of learned concepts applied to a particular setting, albeit one with which they may be quite familiar. This process alone, if applied without inclusion of personal narrative, may quickly descend into isolationism.
A colleague of mine recently explained his approach to place-based curriculum. His students embarked upon exploration of their place, but he limited their movement to only a one-mile radius from campus. His reasoning behind the assignment superficially met place-based theoretical expectations. Yes, students immersed themselves entirely within their community through his various exercises. Yet to a certain extent, by setting such strict geographical boundaries on his students, he didn’t engender full self-actualization by allowing students to insert their own ‘Selfie’ into their work.
Grand Island, NE
July 27, 2013
Since the school was located in the heart of a busy, concrete jungle, I argued that the rural student would not be able to fully incorporate her or his own cultural influence, whereas if the instructor had opened the parameters further, students would have been able to walk only a few miles before escaping into a space that was less populated and more akin to their own cultural experiences. Because he was unwilling to accommodate a student’s own narrative voice, he forced his students to participate in an activity that remained as foreign to them as perhaps trip to a museum to view European Renaissance art would have been.
The project simply did not allow for diversity of individual expression, and students potentially had relied upon mere detached observation and classification for their research.
Classification has been the obsession with modernists since Diderot began ordering a compendium of French knowledge in his Encyclopedi ou dictionnnaire raisonne des sciences, des arts, et des métiers in 1751. While compiling the first encyclopedia, Diderot strove to “assemble the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth; to explain its general plan to the men with whom we live and to transmit it to the men who come after us” (In Willinsky, J., 1998, p. 72). The compilation itself was a result of the French ruling class desire to divide, order, and classify their growing empire. Diderot sought to define, explain, and map the quickly expanding horizons of western civilization, narrating the world through the interpretive voice of French aristocracy. An effective approach to education must transcend mere observation, classification and division.
Rather than adding to the still expanding encyclopedia of knowledge, students and instructors who incorporate their own narrative voices into their learning processes defy the cynical, cold, trite analytical perspective that too often suffocates academia.
In addition to grounding themselves in place, students and instructors must also incorporate their own voices, their own interpretation of their histories, culture, and community into their work. Those who are encouraged to develop their own narrative voices while applying newly learned concepts will be engaged in a critical process similar to what Kevin Tavin and Stephen B. Carpenter (2010) have described as a reconceptualized education that shifts “from traditional modes of…thinking toward a profoundly critical, historical, political and self-reflexive understanding of visual culture and social responsibility” by exploring their own narratives and histories which have shaped their lives (p. 245). Their learning processes will be an assimilation of narrative into analytical and personally relevant projects which will be transformative learning with “a variety of forms and actions,” final expressions that reflect their own personal narratives and likewise apply formally learned concepts (p. 245). By incorporating their own narrative into their observations, students and instructors alike will better assimilate the material they are processing, internalizing it, transforming it, and pro-actively (de)constructing it.
The narrative voice of student and instructor embodies cultural and socioeconomic diversity. Ruth Behar (1996) stresses the importance of narrative within academia, discussing the interplay between anthropological observation and vulnerability, declaring that the difference between cold analysis of an object and vulnerability is contained within personal narrative. She concludes, “Vulnerability is here to stay” (p. 33). She observes that too often academia avoids personal perspective within analysis, adding that although personal narrative has “gotten a foot inside the academy,” educators “don’t know whether we want to give it a seminar room, a lecture hall, or just a closet we can air out now and then” (p. 16). How often, for example, are students and instructors chided for including the personal pronoun “I” into their writing rather than utilizing the third person perspective? Behar, by contrast, notes the power of personal narrative stating that when “you write vulnerably, others respond vulnerably” (p. 16). Personal narrative serves to tear down the demarcating walls of the Ivory Tower, drawing in all community members through interactive participation.
Behar adds that by incorporating personal narrative into her work, she “has come to know others by knowing herself and…has come to know herself by knowing others” (p. 33). Her interaction within the space and with the people she observes is an integral part of her work, the interplay of both discovering herself and the place she occupies, in much the same way that Joan Didion uses narrative: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means” (p. 92). Through personal narrative, the process of observation is transformed into integrating and assimilating newly learned material into the very fabric of one’s own life and by extension into one’s own community.
Place-based personal narrative places the student into their own location, where they tell a story in sequential form, whether expressed in image, performance, video or word and by extension becomes transformative action within the location. Jerome Seymour Bruner (1996) explains the nature of narrative, noting that it transforms “the raw Trouble into a manageable Problem that can be handled with procedural muscle” (p. 99). Students, as they encounter hegemonic systems that have previously dictated their conception of space, through interpreting their place through personal narrative, will be able to transform problems into tangible, manageable form. Life’s experiences become the plastic medium through which each student and instructor may shape his or her community.
Like place-based pedagogy that is inherently multi-disciplinary and multi-sensory, Bruner points out that narrative is “a means to bring together the study of society, of human nature, of history, of literature and drama, even of law” so that people can cope “with human problems: with human transactions” (p. 99). Place-based narrative brings the issues home, if you will, and students confront their own space, their own sense of community, from a first-person perspective. Place-based curriculum coupled with narrative voice: inherently interactive, vibrantly alive, vibrantly vulnerable, vibrantly transformative. Effective, life-long learning at its best.