Storyworlds in the Classroom

I may very well be a relic, or at least a square peg in an increasingly rounded hole. What do age and shape have to do with anything? Let me first tell you a story…

This past Wednesday, in the course on American folklore I am teaching this semester, we were discussing the way that contemporary legends manage to bridge the gap between what is narrated and the moment of narration so effectively. That is, we can imagine two individuals in conversation, A and B, who having proceeded through some sequence of genres — for example, the exchange of pleasantries followed by a few bits of news, then an anecdote or two, perhaps a joke or a bit of gossip, until one of them, let’s say A, suddenly, says, “Hey, that reminds me, did you hear that….” What follows is a legend. Perhaps it is, as we were discussing on Wednesday, a version of “the boyfriend’s death” or perhaps it is a more current-event-focused legend focused on some food contamination or something of that nature. No matter.

Narrated versus Narration

Narrated versus Narration

A tells B the story using a sequence of words, the narration, that conjures up a narrated world. What is narrated, whether it ever actually happened or not, is a representation of reality, not reality itself. Even if A has just come from running into an old friend at a coffee shop, B has no access to the event except through its representation. How the gap between what happened, or is said to have happened, is crossed from the saying of what happened is what is at stake here.

In the case of many contemporary legends, we can see the bridging/crossing taking place across multiple dimensions: first, legends of this nature tend to draw people into closer proximity, creating a kind of intimacy of narration that is different from other narratives. Let’s call that pragmatic intimacy or pragmatic bridging. Second, it is quite common that the events narrated are said to have happened either to someone the narrator knows, or to someone known by a mutual friend, *or*, as is the case with other legend genres, the events narrated are said to have happened nearby or just recently. In this semantic bridging, or intimacy, any of a number of permutations are possible: close by relationship, close by location, close by time.

The combined effect of pragmatic and semantic bridging is, of course, the erasure of the gap between the real world, the world in which the story is told, and the tale, or the world told or narrated. Such moments occur regularly in oral discourse, which is an amazing thing when you think about it, and their frequent occurrence plays some role, I believe, in the grip that legends can have on us: we are so used to the invocation of storyworlds as reality in everyday speech that we hardly notice a different kind of shift.

It was this careful distinction between reality and the representation of reality that momentarily confused my students. No one said anything, but every teacher or public speaker reading this knows the slight change in facial expressions that cue you to stop for a moment, to digress from the topic at hand into something that needs fleshing out.

And so I found myself given a mini-lecture on the nature of realism, how standards for realistic representation change over time, such that when we look at old movies, read older novels, or even watch television programming from two generations ago, we wonder how the consumers of those fictions could have ever found them believable. To us, they look at least dated if not downright “hokey.” Silly people of a previous time. What fools they were! Why would you think that a static camera with constant medium shots was at all realistic? Then again, I wonder what folks from previous eras would make of the constant motion of today’s cameras.

I’m happy to say that the mini-lecture on realism got them thinking, and allowed us to have the fuller conversation about legends that I wanted us to have. But, in looking back on the moment, I realized that that teachable moment was, to some degree, a function of the size of the class. English 432: American folklore is, by my university’s standards, under-enrolled with 12 or so students in it. (I had to make an argument to the administration that it would be really wrong for one of the two folklorists in the department not to be teaching a folklore course.) But with that many students, not only do I feel comfortable leaving aside the day’s agenda, I am driven to do so by looking at their faces. And with that number of students, I have already gotten to know their faces. With double that number, the course’s preferred enrollment, I know students less well. I read them less well. I teach them less well. (I can still teach them: it just won’t be as well fitted.)

I got tremendous kudos for the way I teach freshman honors English, but it was a class that I had to leave behind because our department head at the time, like our current dean, preferred quantity to quality.

And that is what makes me a relic. I am sorry for my students, who while they attend a regional public university, still hope for a quality education. I want them to know that many of their faculty still hope to give them such an education. But, increasingly, the odds are, ironically, stacked.

Of Rubrics and Helicopters

Steven Conn has stirred up quite conversation over at the _Chronicle of Higher Education_ with [“The Rise of the Helicopter Teacher”][sc]. I am sympathetic to his sense that we are awash in rubrics, but I think many of the commenters are correct that it is not an untoward moment in education when students are better aware of the criteria by which they will be judged. (If only life itself were like that, eh?) There is hope, I guess, that the pendulum will swing at some point toward a moderate middle within which students and teachers can have both more freedom to play but also have a sense of clarity about any grading coming out of the interaction.

It is, I should note, the tendency toward driving out play that rubrics, and their all too common accompanists, standardized testing, to which I object. Regular readers will know that I have complained before about the nature of education at my daughter’s school, which is so driven by students achieving certain competencies by a certain date in the spring semester that there seems like there is less room for fun than one might hope in what is considered a gifted and talented environment — hers is not a G&T school per se, but rather a private school that, I think, claims to be steeped in G&T approaches and ideas. (I can’t say for sure because the more I get to know about educational theories and rhetorics, the less I understand them.)

I don’t have much more to say on the subject, except to make note of a side comment by one of the commenters to Conn’s post. It got a hearty, “Tell it!” from me:

> Moreover, many students bring pre and misconceptions about their classes with them: eg: reading literature is an act of decoding or that science gives them right answers.


This is such a hard thing to teach, especially to people who are used to doing quite well — I include myself here on programming and my daughter on some things as well as any number of students I have encountered over the years: the importance of just trying and trying. And trying.

In response to a question about being “clever enough” to do higher math, two responses in particular caught my attention, one from a mathematician:

> I’m not very clever but have managed to end up doing a PhD in higher order PDEs. The way I’ve come to approach problems is by something akin to echolocation. Rather than using sound to see the shape of things, though, my preferred output is idiocy. If I throw enough idiocy at a problem from enough different directions, the way it bounces back will (eventually, with some luck and feelings of shame) guide me to what I can do to solve it.

and one from a software developer:

> I run into so many people who want to solve an entire problem in their head before they try anything. I tell them they have to start wiggling, and if that doesn’t work, try thrashing. I solve so many problems I have no business solving just by generating randomness to try. You probably aren’t going to break the computer, and you definitely aren’t going to break math.

The image of “breaking math” is worth the read alone: here’s the [thread on Reddit](

Uncommon Children

Knowing of the difficulties we have encountered with various educational institutions need to normalize practically everything, a friend sent along a link to a _Huffington Post_ essay that tries to stake out a reasonable middle ground between the mandated academic norms of the so-called Common Core and the increasing tendency for educational apparati to normalize just about everything else: e.g., emotions. I couldn’t agree more with Steve Nelson’s argument that [The World Needs Uncommon Children][uc]:

> I’m not interested in helping to create a homogeneous generation of common children, raised on the Common Core and marched through a regime of controls and conformity. And I certainly don’t care to see children’s complex and powerful emotions subdued by a program that takes authentic feelings and corrals them into a contrived box of “mood meters” and catch phrases. I cherish uncommon children who dye their hair purple, ask uncomfortable questions and solve problems in ways that I’d never considered. The world needs more artists, eccentrics, rebels and dreamers, not more cookie cutter adults who mindlessly follow all the rules.

(The “purple hair” refers to the opening scene of the essay where Nelson overhears school administrators discussing whether or not they should allow or forbid colored hair.)


UFO Crash

This UFO crash is cool. I want to do [this][] at my daughter’s school.


Next Steps in Teaching

I would like to invoke my Southern heritage to note that I have been tickled by the interest in my [recent post][] on the *Chronicle of Higher Education*’s [ProfHacker][]. One response was from my university’s own [Office of Distance Learning][odl], which tweeted me to ask: “How do we get you to teach online? We want you to translate the magic if we bring the technology!”

I take their request seriously, and I will give them credit because some of what I do now in the classroom has been the result of thinking about the changes in educational infrastructure that are happening all around us, one result of which is the development of robust distance learning (and teaching) opportunities. One of their founding maxims, it seems to me, is “begin with the end in mind” which is not as cliched as you might imagine: let’s face it, some tasks can get routinized, and when they do so, you begin to forget about beginnings and ends. For an university teacher, that might mean forgetting to answer questions like: *Why does a student enroll in my class?* and *What do I want a student to get out of the class?* (Or maybe you are one of those people who never lose their way. Good for you! And, I don’t believe you.)

So some of what I now do in all my courses has already been shaped by lessons learned from talking to the DL folks. And I want to be clear, having clear cut objectives and teaching to those objectives is not as easy as it seems, especially as you move up class levels in the humanities: complexity, in the form of human artifacts often created with multiple agendas and audiences in mind, is our topic and delineating precise outcomes is often precisely not the point.

No matter.I’m interested in teaching online. Why?

A first reason, and a reasonable one too, is that “it’s hot.” Leaving aside debates about MOOCs and the future of higher education, I’d like to note that I have done a fair amount of learning myself on-line: enrolling in courses on linear algebra and statistics among other topics. (And that doesn’t include the number of times I have relied upon [StackOverflow][] or someone’s blog post or blogs I regularly read — I’ll pull together a list for a follow-up.)[^1]

A second reason, then, is that distance learning provides an opportunity to reach different kinds of students, perhaps students that either learn like I do or in circumstances like my own that encourage me to learn in certain ways — a kind of “learn when you can” approach.

A third reason that I am interested in teaching on-line is that the preparation I do there might find itself into alternate output streams, like books and articles, in ways that more traditional classroom materials do not (I’d have to make sure all the IP matters are lined up correctly.)

These latter two reasons bring up reasons why I might resist teaching on-line, too:

First, I am very used to, and somewhat tied to, teaching in a face-to-face setting. That is, I both came of age as a student and later as a teacher within the era of face-to-face classrooms.

And, to some degree, my own discipline of folklore studies predisposes me to be most interested in face-to-face interaction. I am, in fact, finishing up work on a six-year ethnographic study of embodied cognition (and creativity). I believe that bodies matter and that our thinking is more than simply symbols being manipulated in our minds. I have gotten pretty good at capturing that dynamic, and channeling it, in the regular university classroom. I have a range of assignments that get students to move about the room, interact with each other, and deliver results in ways that harness the fact that our consciousness is always already embodied.

So, the challenge for me of distance education is can I still make some of that happen, and are their alternative assignments?

What this comes down to in many ways is the complex relationship that exists in any educational setting:

1. There are the students, each of whom has their own experiences and educations as well as their own particular learning styles. (And these learning styles themselves must be understood as dynamic and changing: modes of engagement and ingestion that worked last year may not be as effective for them this year.)
2. There is me, the teacher, with my own expertise as well as my own preferred teaching style.
3. Finally, there is the material itself, which often, yes, does have preferences for *how* it wants to get taught.

I don’t think education in general spends enough time thinking about the first two, and I know that most people will think I’m goofy about the third point, but I think it’s a factor as well.

I want to spend some more time thinking about this, but in answer to the tweet from the good folks at ODL: what would it take? It would take time, and I need some guidance. Finding the time is the hard part, I know.

[^1]: If you’re interested in what I do on StackOverflow, feel free to [look me up](

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