The Letting-of-Words-and-Thoughts-Hang-in-the-Air

Or, the Art of Storytelling…

I’m all over “fluff” lately. Some might call it “pulp.” Others, “crap.” My partner might describe it as “sh*t spray.” Although admittedly this last descriptor would likely arise more out of a commitment to seize any chance at scatological one-up-man-ship than out of any real feeling of judgement or criticism.

I am talking here about genre fiction. I’ve been asking myself these past few months: why genre fiction? Why am I suddenly so absorbed by fantasy, romantic fantasy, post-apocalyptic narratives and post-human science fictions? And why do I get so bloody riled up every time some “respected” author approaches the genre and ruins it entirely with postmodern disruptions of plot, conventions and credibility?

At the same time that I really started getting into these particular genres I was also thinking about why I liked listening to stories so much. A well-told story is pure magic. A well-told story just feels so good. It is sensational. I mean, I sense it; it is a bodily thing. Perhaps because it is intimate; listening to a good storyteller, you’re drawn right in.

Am I just tired of the novel–of the literary novel, that is? Of the internal monologues and endless recycling of narratives of personal growth and enlightenment? Yes yes yes yes, frick yes,I am tired of this perpetual telling of the inner life of the modern individual.

But that’s not the whole story. I have this feeling, this gut feeling, you see, that genre fiction is a lot like oral storytelling. Both are bound strictly, in many ways, by convention. This isn’t some surface or formal resemblance. Generic conventions set up a sort of covenant between speaker and listener, text and reader. The reader of genre fiction anticipates while she reads based on this generic covenant, or contract. This anticipation is a sort of foreknowledge. She is writing the story before and as it develops; she is participating in the articulation of knowledge before the text can even articulate it. And so it goes with listening. With listening we try to anticipate where a speaker will lead us; with oral storytelling, the storyteller uses devices with which we are familiar to allow us to attempt this anticipation, to feel as though we are a part of the meaning-making process as it unfolds.

Oral storytelling is often described as dialogic; that is, it is supposed to open up a sort of dialogue between storyteller and listener. Sometimes, this is because storytellers use devices that call on the listener to actively participate. These devices might be as simple as silence; or, to give this practice its proper due, we might better describe it as the letting of words and thoughts hang in the air. Silence tends to be taken to mean absence, end, closure or lack. The letting-of-words-and-thoughts-hang-in-the-air is something different all together; it denotes a fullness and a loitering of meaning. It allows the space and the time for listeners to respond, either inwardly to themselves or outwardly to the storyteller, via audible or visible gestures. Call-and-response is of course another, well-known oral storytelling, dialogic device.

The thing I never really got before about listening to oral stories is that this dialogic or participatory function is not merely geared toward entertainment. When you listen to a story and it feels like magic it is because you feel at once like worlds and meanings are appearing, like magic, out of the fabric of someone else’s voice, but also like you are there, somehow, part of that creative act. Yes, I get that this happens with written literature as well, and the big-L “Literature” I lambasted. But a well-told oral story has the power to make you feel intimately tied to its creator and to the act of its creation in a way that reading can’t. Except maybe for the Choose Your Own Adventure series.

Perhaps you can guess now why I’m rambling on about genre fiction, oral storytelling and generic conventions in a blog that’s supposed to be about teaching and learning: because bringing learners into the process of knowledge production is key to deep learning, authentic learning, or whatever it is you want to call it.

If this were a didactic story, I would leave you here with a few lessons. I would explain to you precisely how we can learn from oral storytelling as teachers and learners. And I’ve gotta yell you: I am a teacher (sort of), and I write about teaching (kind of), so the keen desire to tell you WHAT IT ALL MEANS is damn difficult to ignore.

But ignore it I will. I’ll let the words loiter, here, on the page … at least I will, once I say just one … or two … more things. Or, in fact, once I invite a few others to say a few things.

Kimberly M. Blaeser, in her work on contemporary Indigenous literatures in North America, writes that “Native authors… attempt to encourage a response-able way of reading” (qtd. in Neuhaus 12). J. Edward Chamberlin, in an essay on oral storytelling called “Boasting, Toasting and Truthtelling,” claims that “It is style that certifies truth–not the subject or the sincerity of the speaker, except insofar as that sincerity is an element of style, as spontaneity might also be” (39). And Chamberlin, when paraphrasing classicist Milman Perry, adds this: “style, not language, constitutes thought in oral performance” (39).

Is your teaching “response-able“?

Is performance a part of your pedagogical lexicon?

Does the spell of style disperse with the end of the performance?

Does performance obfuscate real meaning?

Do you like how I’ve included gaps between these questions as though giving you the opportunity to respond?

 

Do you?

 

Works Cited

Blaeser, Kimberly M. “Writing Voices Speaking: Native Authors and an Oral Aesthetic.” Talking on the Page: Editing Aboriginal Oral Texts. Eds. Laura J. Murray and Keren Rice. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1999. Print.

Chamberlin, J. Edward. “Boasting, Toasting, and Truthtelling.” Orality and Literacy: Reflections Across Disciplines. Eds. Keith Thor Carlson, Kristina Fagan, and Natalia Khanenko-Friesen. Toronto: U of T Press, 2011. 21-42. Print.

Neuhaus, Mereike. That’s Raven Talk: Holophrastic Readings of Contemporary Indigenous Literatures. Regina: CPRC Press, 2011. Print.

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radio… active learning

This Thursday, I’ll be giving a guest lecture on Thomas King’s Dead Dog Cafe (also available on YouTube). Dead Dog Cafe is a radio drama of sorts, or a radio comedy, I should say. To be precise, it’s a radio show about a radio show; in a way, it’s a CBC Radio One version of 30 Rock, with a few exceptions: it precedes the American network show by half a decade, it explicitly engages with First Nations culture and politics in Canada, and, of course, it’s about a radio comedy hour, rather than a t.v. sketch show. You could say Dead Dog Cafe is about First Nations issues; you could also say it’s about humour, and you would be right in both assertions. But I think it’s also trying to get at what listening is all about– and how the experience of listening to oral narratives and oral literatures differs from that of reading written literatures.

So that’s Thursday: lecturing about listening. Ha. On Tuesday, though, I’ll be handing in a short written  assignment that marks the culmination of a three-week project for the Education 750 class I’m taking here at Mac through the Centre for Leadership & Learning. I and a group of other students are supposed to submit a “reflection” on a research topic we’ve developed ourselves. Our chosen research topic is lecturing; specifically we’ve been interested in learning more about introducing active learning to the lecture hall. It just dawned on me today how intimately-related these two projects are–lecturing about listening, and writing about lecturing–and not simply because they both tackle lecturing in one way or another.

These two projects are fundamentally connected, in my mind, because ultimately, they are both about listening. To prepare for a lecture about a radio show one should not think about how to lecture effectively, or how to tell one’s students what they need to know about the topic. Instead, a lecturer needs to think about how people listen, and how to listen well; about how to be receptive, and how to be received; and, finally, about how to invite reception. Listening always involves a two-way interplay; lecturing, on the other hand, might be uni-directional; it can be solitary, lonely, and, ultimately rather self-centred.

So introducing active learning to the lecture hall means thinking about how you can get learners to not only listen, but to respond. How can a lecturer get her learners in on the conversation? How can a lecturer open up a dialogue with her learners? How can a lecturer listen?

Active Learning in the Lecture Hall

After researching this topic for the last few weeks, I’ve come across a  number of practical answers to these questions by the way of in-class exercises and activities. These include “think-pair-share,” “one-minute papers” and even establishing discussion groups akin to tutorial groups. Studies have overwhelmingly shown these practices work– students retain information better if these active practices are deployed in the classroom than if they are not (and yes, actual studies have been conducted in classroom settings that follow rigorous academic and scientific research standards; these studies offer quantitative proof of the efficacy of active learning–i.e. in terms of student performance on tests, etc).*

Pretty straight-forward, right? Just walk into a classroom, do A, B, and C, and BAM! you’ve got yourself some active learning. With some trial and error, you may even find yourself facilitating active learning in a classroom with some success.

But thinking about Tom King’s radio show has got me thinking about the problem of lecturing–of talking, and of listening–from a wholly different perspective. The research surrounding active learning in lectures is, not surprisingly, rather “scientific” in nature. Conducted by scientists and social scientists, the research necessarily betrays or displays a scientific approach to learning. It sets up trials, believes firmly in the measurability of results, and carefully breaks down active learning into mechanistic parts, where A causes B, which, in turn, results in C, of course! It’s all very logical, you see. Listening to Dead Dog Cafe, however, has not at all been a logical endeavour. Not only does King’s comedy persistently overturn “logic” to highly humourous ends, it is also a highly sensational experience, by which I mean that I found myself highly aware of my senses as I listened to his show. I found myself chuckling along whilst stitching the binding to a quilt, and straining to hear Jasper Friendly-Bear over the sound of the hot water running as I washed a sink full of dirty dishes. It was a positively  strange experience. I felt immersed in the sounds of the Cafe, sounds which somehow produced a sense of light, scent, and touch, all while I was simultaneously very much immersed in the physical world around me, in the smell of the dish soap, and the feel of the warm water running over my hands, and the sight of the bright early-spring sunshine streaming through the kitchen window. What a positively strange, and yet, too, positively pleasurable experience listening to talk radio, or narrative radio, can be.

Feeling like I was in two places at once, and yet not fully in either, got me thinking: there is something the literature on lecturing and active learning is overlooking. It is overlooking what types of listening a speaker can provoke. It neglects to recognize that listening involves multiple modalities. Really, it fails to engage with the fact that there are many different ways to listen, and, as a result, the literature on active learning in the lecture hall cannot see that different modes of listening have the potential to invoke wildly different responses.

As I sit down to formalize my lecture for the upcoming week, I’ll give you a sense of where I’m going with this: there is captive listening, where a listener cannot leave, and must listen; there is what might be termed “redemptive” listening, where a listener seeks the deeply private, the confession; there is passive listening, to be sure, and there is dialogic listening, where a listener is expected to respond, to answer; there is listening that is interpellative, listening that calls or hails you, and thereby in part forms how you might or can respond and even who or what you are in that moment; there is, too, listening where no one is addressing you, where you are not even recognized as the audience– this, of course, is eavesdropping.

Listen Up!

I want to consider what forms of listening occur in a lecture. What happens in a lecture? Are learners addressed directly, or do they eavesdrop, in a way, on a scholarly conversation with which they are neither entirely familiar nor comfortable? I also wonder how a lecturer might actively and purposely facilitate these different modes of listening in her classroom. Can we turn passive listeners into sly observers, eavesdropping on a secretive, unfamiliar or half-heard conversation; can we call on them to be non-judgmental receptors of heated confessions;  can we transform them into critics and judges, or, perhaps, detectives and analysts? In the Humanities, we seek critical thinking. In English, we specifically look for critical reading. But what about critical listening? And, perhaps more importantly, what about empathetic listening, non-judgmental listening, or imaginative listening?

These questions about listening bring me back to the experience that began this inquiry: listening to Dead Dog Cafe while busying my hands
with a piece of sewing, or some soapy dishes. This Thursday, I hope to explore how different forms of listening function in King’s radio show, and I’m particularly interested in Krista Ratcliffe’s thoughts on the subject in “Eavesdropping as Rhetorical Tactic: History, Whiteness, and Rhetoric.” Ratcliffe describes eavesdropping as that which situates a listener “outside, in an uncomfortable spot, on the border of knowing and not knowing, [thereby] granting others the inside position, listening to learn” (90). Was this the effect King was looking for, when he invites his listeners into the Dead Dog Cafe to eavesdrop on conversations, asides, and banter that do not officially comprise the show itself? I think so–when listening to Dead Dog Cafe, I was both inside and outside the fictional cafe of the show’s title; I was granted the insider’s position, and yet I most certainly was an outsider, vaguely and sometimes pointedly uncomfortable as I overheard conversations that I could not fully understand. Again, what a strange, and yet wonderful, experience.

*Selected Readings on Active Learning: 

Biggs, J. “Constructing Learning by Aligning Teaching: Constructive Alignment.” Teaching for Quality Learning at University: What the Student Does. First Ed. 2007. Print.

—. “What the Student Does: Teaching for Enhanced Learning.” Higher Education Research & Development 18.1 (1999): 57-75. Online.

Bleske-Rechek, April L. “Obedience, Conformity, and Social Roles: Active Learning in a Large Introductory Psychology Class.” Teaching of Psychology 28 (2001): 260. Online.

Huerta, Juan Carlos. “Getting Active in the Large Lecture.” Journal of Political Science Education 3 (2007): 237-249. Online.

Michael, Joel. “Where’s the Evidence that Active Learning Works?” Advances in Physiology Education 30 (2006): 159-167. Online. 

Smith, Veronica C. and LeeAnn Cardaciotto. “Is Active Learning like Broccoli? Student Perceptions of Active Learning in Large Lecture Classes.” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 11.1 (January 2011): 53-61. Online.

Stead,D.R. “A Review of the One-Minute Paper” Active Learning in Higher Education 6 (2005): 118-131. Online.