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California State University, Dominguez Hills
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Created: June 28, 1999
Latest Update: July 28, 2003
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Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, July 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.

Learning is a factor in our identity. For one thing, our identity is learned. So how we learn affects who we discover we are and who we become. But in an even more important sense learning, our tolerance of the ambiguity of knowledge, our tolerance of different percspectives, our choices to remain open or closed to other concepts, all are essential components of who we are. And we don't just happen to be who we are, we become who we are within a social context. So there is a narrative for each of us, a narrative that may fit the normative pattern or may not. Certainly there is a gendered narrative that differs from the normative pattern drawn from patriarchal societies, and certainly there is an ethnic narrative that differs from the privileged Western Civilization (Western Civ) normative pattern.

We, of the Dear Habermas project, must operate to share the skills of public discourse within a limited university support system, and within an educational environment largely hostile to complexity and the sophisticated methodology needed to describe that complexity. It is easier to give a test and have done with it. But that is not our project. On the other hand, we have worked on this project for years, and we have data to guide us. We have listened, carefully, and in good faith, to the narratives of learning our students have told. We believe that, at this point in our development, as a country, and as a discipline, and as participants in a realtively uncharted venture, that the collection of individual stories matters.

Several years ago Pat and I convinced our students to write, and they did, and we were inundated, and did not know what to do with the results. But our students were writing, and that was good. Our students have continued to write, but never as we predict. Always we respond, and always they shift once again. We try to focus, for if we are to develop testable hypotheses, we must limit the variables, we must move past the stories. Barney Glaser is right. Story talking is delightful, but we must solve some of the social issues we face, beyond the conceptualization that fascinates us.

Monday, July 28, 2003.

I know I said Barney Glaser was right and that we must get on with social science issues. But now I wonder. Now, right in the middle of welcoming Bahktin's concept of the "aesthetics of answerability," I wonder why I must go on to set that into the whole of theory as Greg Nielsen is doing. I get so lost in Norms of Answerability. So far away from where I want to be with my students. And yet I don't want to go back to Blaser's testing of hypotheses from grounded theory either. Story talking is where it began with me and Pat. And Susan, too. We story talk each year at national meetings. And maybe, just maybe, that's where we want to be. There is certainly a large measure of the "aesthetic" in story talking, of the shaman, too. And I'm thinking here of the shaman as the one who bridges the gap between the individual and the community, between the individual and Kant's transcendental God. There is an aspect of the shaman I need to preserve. And wouldn't it be all right if we just pondered these things deeply for a while?

As a teacher, I would be pleased to have my students see all these many theories, all these many stopping-off places, unafraid to stop for a while in each of them. For now, I'm content with story talking. jeanne

But story talking is where it must begin. Let us give you two examples:

  • A new logic:

    In 1990, in Amsterdam, at the International Sociology Meetings, we presented a paper on our students' learning. We spoke then of trying to explain this learning in terms of normative ordering, for first-in-college, non-traditional students did not relate to the academy in all the old patterns. They were not always respectful; they were angry, feeling that they were smarter than some of those who had better access, better grades. But they were self-deprecating at other times, recognizing the lacunae in their training. They learned a lot. But they could always be caught out by someone crafty enough to come at them from an unexpected angle.

    One of the stories from that period involved a young black man who complained that his white professor simply did not understand. There was no way he could explain his research study without the professor twisting his words. "You don't understand our logic," he said. "So you've got some new kind of logic I don't know about," countered the exhausted professor at ten p.m. one Saturday night. Not too long after that incident a feminist scholar published a work on the social construction of reality in which she dealt with this very conundrum: logic is not socially constructed, and we do not get to change logic for different social contexts. Odd, that I didn't see the connection then. I just thought the student misused my language and mis-spoke himself.

    Not so. He did see the patterns. He did see the logic. He was simply trying to escape all the attendant assumptions that got him into hot water. Assumptions like, if you've done your homework, you'll report to your research professor and get credit for it. Not when you know you're late, aren't quite sure of some definitions, and that you're going to be caught out at that. And not when you finally get up the courage to go to her office and discover that she isn't there. Now good straight logic says you've been had, even if she was in class at the time. So it's not illogical to accuse her of never being available. It fits the trap you feel.

    We would never have thought to write that scenario into the narrative of learning. We did not see it as a narrative of learnng identity when it played out. We needed his story to see this piece of learning. We still are not sure how to measure what he did learn, but that is a step along the way to conceptualization and categorization that will permit verifiable measurement of learning we have rarely measured.

    Monday, July 28, 2003.

    We still have to translate our stories into theory. The aesthetics of answerability helps tremendously to hear this kid's story with the understanding I only tried to have at the time. I knew he had a hard time getting up the courage to see me, and then finding me not there. It was rational to realize I was in class. So I was pissed. When it was the aesthetic process I should have been attending to. I missed the courage; I missed the learning identity. I knew all that stuff. Yet prior to Maria Pia Lara's work last year and Nielsen on Bakhtin's now, I still couldn't get a hold on it. That's what we're trying to tell you when we say that we learn as much from you as you learn from us.

    It's late in my career to worry about a literary theorist who ventured more towards anthro than towards soc. But my kid went into literature, and so her friends studied Bahktin. You gotta keep up with your kid and her friends. Pia Lara's not a sociologist either. Yet both of my ventures into these works are bound up with Habermas. Go figure. With August almost upon me, I just want to finish up my course work. Hah! Every day there's a new tidbit that adds to what we "know."

    It's OK, kids, if you don't follow everything through to major theory. But it's not OK not to search as far as you need to satisfy you own aesthetic process, so that it becomes impossible for the Other, with titular authority, to treat you with monologic non-answerability. That's how I was treating the young man. He could have answered. I would have listened. But he didn't know that. And I didn't try hard enough to reach him. There must be nothing worse than closing off answerability to one who really is struggling with the aesthetics of community.

  • The second story from long ago is that of the 15 minute block of study time. We would also not have ever invented a narrative with 15 minute study periods. Not our generation! Yet stories brought us those concepts. Someone nag me to find that paper. Maybe Susan has it. Susan can find anything. She's the good kid. I'm the messy one who loses everything.

    * * * * *

    Now that we're learning to be better at this story talking, here are some phrases that come to mind for us that might help get you started:

    • sounds like me

      Give a specific example. What was described that is like what you would do? Did that teach you anything? Make you think? Make you wonder or worry? Make you proud?

    • explained something to me

      Give a specific example. What did it explain? An event you had wondered about? The way someone reacted to you? The way you reacted to someone? A problem you had thought about?

    • wish I'd said it

      Give a specific example. Why? Was it smart? sensitive? a compliment? the remarks of a winner? Could you say it someday? Will you?

    • know someone like that

      Give a specific example. Someone like who? Give a few adjectives that would describe this person. Does it help to find people in your readings who are like someone you know? Does it help explain why someone you know may feel the way they do? Does it help explain why you may feel the way you do about them?

    • perplexed

      Give a specific example. Is there a word or concept that confuses you? Do you understand literally what the issue or concept is, and yet still feel that you don't quite understand it? Do you think you could identify the concept on a multiple choice test (convergent thinking)? Do you think you could explain the concept in your own words? Do you think you could find applications of the concept in the real world and in other disciplines? Would you be happier if you could find the concept re-explained in different words, another example?

    • raced ahead

      Give a specific example. Did you go quickly through a book? over a large site? Was it satisfying to have an overview? Did you already know enough that the overview suffices? Or will you go back to study in more depth? Or do you see that you need to study it in more depth, but will probably not get to go back over it unless you have to for some other reason? Or will you probably not go back because you are anxious to go further, see more?

    • went back to fill in

      Give a specific example. What exactly did you go back to? Was it clearer this time? Was it satisfying to get the concept down more thoroughly? Was it frustrating to have to spend the time? Are you likely to go back more often?

    • intense excitement

      Give a specific example. What was exciting? Confirming something you sort of knew, but had never thought through? Finding out that there are many sources that you feel comfortable with? Learning to locate sources, and judge them? Feeling more confident about your knowledge? Is this kind of learning something you would like to keep room for in your life? Can you?

    • scared to death to talk to me

      So bring a friend. Not a date. A friend. Sometimes it's easier talk with a friend along. Bring a talkative friend if you have one. We're skilled at helping you say what you'd like to say. Trust us. Try it. You'd could even try telling me in the halls that you're scared, so I'll be alerted to be gentler and kinder.

Draft for Text on the Identity Narrative of Learning
by jeanne curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright, June 1999