NARRATIVE LESSONS; Teaching Epistemology and Difference through Narrative Methodology

By M, Leeray | Transformations, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

NARRATIVE LESSONS; Teaching Epistemology and Difference through Narrative Methodology


M, Leeray, Transformations


Challenging. Emotional. Intrusive. Impossible. Scary. Amazing. These are some of the words my students used to describe "Methods in Anthropology: Life Histories/Self Narratives." This was a course I longed to teach, particularly after using the narrative method during research in Thailand with community activists and villagers (Costa), and with transgendered Thai college students (Costa and Matzner). These experiences reinforced my belief that human connections can be made through the voluntary sharing of stories. As I have written elsewhere (Costa and Matzner), the universal nature of storytelling and its ability to provide both a discursive and embodied space in which listeners can connect with narrators make it a powerful pedagogical strategy for both students and instructors. This is especially true in situations where differences between listeners and narrators are marked, for example in encounters that cross boundaries of culture/nation, race/ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, and other identity positions.

Teaching narrative methodologies can also be a profound and powerful way to encourage students to think and consider their feelings about epistemology, difference, and social justice. In the context of anthropology, oral life histories have often been used in conjunction with ethnographic fieldwork to better understand the relationship between individuals and their cultures, or the dynamic process of structure and agency. While narrative methodology in anthropology has not always been unproblematic, contemporary scholars have employed it to illuminate relations of power and the politics of representation, resulting in a more humanistic approach to the study of difference. By participating in the oral life history process, students become personally responsible for the representation of others through their words. This opens the door for increased sensitivity to how knowledge is constructed and the relations of power that structure such representations. Students report having become more critical of representations of racial, ethnic, and sexual difference that they encounter in their everyday lives. Working through the narrative process also allows students to explore issues of power and representation, intersubjectivity, and positionality, from both their own experiences and those of their interviewees. The narrative encounter helps break down barriers between students and life history subjects (who are members of the larger community), and between students themselves. Hopefully, this process provides students with intellectual tools and perspectives to engage the world beyond the classroom. Students build meaningful relationships with their interviewees and come away with a new sense of self-one that is more curious, less judgmental, more open to difference and, in the words of Maria Lugones, more loving (394). As bell hooks explains, this engaged pedagogy is a practice of freedom, one that fosters "action and reflection upon the world in order to change it" (14).

In this article, I discuss how this engaged pedagogy developed in my "Life Histories" course. The student observations I include here are taken from anonymous course evaluations, student websites and papers, class discussions, and email correspondence. In preparing this essay, I sent a rough draft to students who had completed the course, inviting their comments. Hence, this essay is also a kind of intersubjective testimonial not unlike those generated in the "Life Histories" course. While my focus is on teaching a course in narrative methodology at the postsecondary level, a modified version could be taught successfully in other contexts. Moreover, though I teach this course within the discipline of anthropology-which brings with it a natural cross-cultural perspective and raises problems of linguistic and cultural translation, power, and access - it may be taught effectively from a wide range of social science and humanities perspectives, since the notion of difference can be examined through various disciplinary frames.

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