This is the first in a series of blogposts, running from January through April 2019, that will be documenting the real-time development of a new course, CI (Cultural Identities) 250: Truth - Reconciliation - Story. For an overview of the course, go to jamesmskidmore.com/ci250. All posts in this series will marked by the tag ci250.
Before I began planning this course over the Christmas break, I thought it would be natural to begin with the atrocities and human rights abuses that lie at the core of the novels we’re reading this term. That is, after all, the heavy part of the course, the topic that gives this course its special character. But instead, during this first week of the course, I’ve been focusing on the idea of story.
The opening sentence to Kearney’s well-known book has been quoted here and there, and usually at face value. I find it somewhat overwrought, even dramatic. And misleading - every time I eat ice cream, I realize my life is worth living.
So I’m not entirely willing to grant stories such lofty status. But they do do a wonderful job of helping us make sense of the human condition. Stories are able to crystallize and condense the many issues, ideas, emotions, concerns, joys, and pains that make up the human life and, by putting all of these things into some semblance of order, help us understand what it means to be human.
There are a couple of reasons why I wanted students to start the course thinking about the importance of story for human beings. One is simply to encourage students to reflect more on the larger concepts surrounding their courses. The “busyness” of studying doesn’t give students much time or reason to consider the larger questions surrounding their courses.
But it was also important to get students to start thinking about the role of story in human society because the novels we’ll be reading need to be approached with a certain amount of respect; even though we’re reading fiction, we’re dealing with very real human rights abuses of the worst kind. I’m not sure I could communicate all of that in the the couple of class sessions we’ve had so far, but it will be a topic to which I’ll be returning often during the course (much to the delight of the students, I’m sure . . . . ).
We also took some time this week to discuss how we should be approaching the stories analytically. I tend not to present students with a lot of theory in my courses because I want them to learn how to respond to fiction on their own terms, to see the text for what it is, both internally (the aspects of the narrative that are within the text) and externally (other information from outside the text that can be used to enhance one’s reading of a text). The students had an easier time coming up with the internal considerations; it took more prodding to have them enunciate external factors. Here’s our resulting list of analytical points of inquiry (a bit condensed and consolidated by me):
Internal to the text
External to the text
paratexts (e.g. cover)
secondary literature (academic literature, book reviews)
adaptations and translations
“Reader” might be near the top of the list of external points, but it’s the point that came last in our class discussion. That’s what I had expected would happen. We often forget that stories, even those that have become immutable on the page, change with every reader. I want students to understand how these narratives are constructed by writers, and that these constructions are often greatly influenced by the society in which the author lived and the discourses in which the author took part. But I also want students, or any readers for that matter, to make the stories they read their own, and to do that they have to think about what they’re bringing to the text.