The Power-and Hope-of Narratives

by Sarah Davis

“Anthropocene is the proposed name for a geologic epoch in which humans have become the major force determining the continuing livability of the earth. The word tells a big story: living arrangements that took millions of years to put into place are being undone in the blink of an eye. The hubris of conquerors and corporations makes it uncertain what we can bequeath to our next generations, human and not human. The enormity of our dilemma leaves scientists, writers, artists, and scholars in shock. How can we best use our research to stem the tide of ruination?”– Anna Tsing, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet

What elements make up this big Anthropocentric story? Are there other big stories related to our current environmental moment? In the fall of 2018, my English 130 students and I attempted to find, analyze, and tell them. Our Literature, Science, and Technology course focused on the growing interdisciplinary field of environmental humanities and how narratives, specifically literary texts, might be able to help “stem the tide of ruination” Tsing discusses. Some of the questions we considered: Are narratives effective in creating empathy and desire for change? How can the environmental humanities work with STEM fields to encourage holistic and ethical narratives about global ecological issues? How do narratives portray or interact with science and technology? Who is allowed to tell stories, and why? How does genre or medium change the audience and purpose of a narrative?

Working through these queries together in our first unit (Environmental Humanities: Interdisciplinarity and Narratives in the Anthropocene Era), my students and I read or watched Sverker Sörlin’s “Environmental Humanities: Why Should Biologists Interested in the Environment Take the Humanities Seriously?;” the classic essay by C.P. Snow entitled, “The Two Cultures;” a TED Talk by Tshering Tobgay, “This country isn’t just carbon neutral – it’s carbon negative;” Paul J. Crutzen & Eugene F. Stoermer’s pivotal “The Anthropocene;” “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea” and excerpts on the writer-activist by Rob Nixon; chapters from Silent Spring, and Sandra Steingraber’s response in “The Fracking of Rachel Carson.” These texts gave my students a foundation from which to discuss global environmental issues in context, while also leading to stimulating conversations about purpose, audience, genre, medium, and rhetorical strategies. We interrogated the effectiveness of each text and considered how disciplines (might not or could) work together in crafting these and other narratives. Because the majority of my students study something outside of the humanities, their insight proved especially helpful as we navigated “the two cultures” in class. 

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Yet even as I watched my students wrestle productively with the literary and scientific stories others were telling, I also wanted to focus on how their academic passions (1) have been shaped by their experiences and (2) might affect our collective future. Conversations about climate change and pollution could not be more relevant to our everyday lives, but how might my students consider themselves and their stories as a piece within the global environmental puzzle? My answer: crafting their own narratives.

Seeking inspiration, we read several chapters of Marshall Gregory’s metanarrative, Shaped by Stories: The Ethical Power of Narratives. Weaving his own stories with theory, Gregory offers scholarly insight into the power of narratives, so I used his thoughts to introduce my students to their midterm multimodal project. Below are excerpts from the official assignment sheet.

In Shaped by Stories, Gregory claims, “Every story is a set of invitations” (20). For the midterm project, you will invite your classmates and instructor to learn more about your personal and professional goals by crafting your own narrative related to your background, intended major, and/or career aspirations. Through this assignment, you will explore some of the “small” but powerful influences in your life and tell (part of) the story of how your intellectual process relates to your ethical development, or the collaboration of interactions, identity, and agency that Gregory highlights in his text. In other words, how have personal experiences led to/shaped your academic & professional interests or dreams?

Because of the questions we are asking in our course, this project encourages you to consider how the form (genre/medium) of your narrative might best – most powerfully – reflect the content (story) of what you are sharing and how you want to present yourself. If you are a science major, consider presenting your story in the form of an adapted “lab report” with a hypothesis, procedure section, conclusion, etc. Do you enjoy audiovisual projects? Record yourself reading your narrative and edit your voice over pictures or other images related to your academic journey. Does your art somehow influence your educational pursuits or future plans? Create an artistic representation of your ethical and intellectual development.

Introduction/Reflection Letter: This letter (addressed to our class) will serve as an introduction to and reflection on your project. Consider some of the following questions: How did you choose to present your narrative, and why? What did you enjoy about the project? What did you struggle with? If you could change anything about your project, what would you change? What are you most proud of? What do you want me (and other readers/viewers) to understand or gain from your project? How does your project reflect your intellectual and/or ethical development? What aspects of your background did you focus on for your project, and why? Why did you choose to do what you did, in terms of the choices you made during the creative process?  

I cannot exaggerate the excitement I felt as my students began turning in their projects. Though some chose to stick with a more comfortable written mode (always an option), almost all of my students challenged themselves and created narrative pieces in which form reflected content and/or passion. Even the more “traditional” written stories often included some unusual or visual element, like the narrative of one mathematics major who included graphs and equations between paragraphs to capture the highs and lows he wanted to highlight along his intellectual journey.

Another student drew a comics evolution from childhood memories to present moment, as he applies to dental school.  

In an audio recording, a student rapped about religion and culture shaping his rebellion against then eventual acceptance of education.

One sociology major designed a book of poems, including five shape poems, to reflect the various influences on her decision to pursue law.

 

 

Another artistically-talented millennial sketched a beautiful self-portrait, complete with thought bubbles filled with ruminations above her head.

In a brilliant reflection of his own interests, a history student narrated a video about how video games shaped his love of worlds and teaching.

These represent only a small taste of the incredible projects we enjoyed! Through careful consideration of what story they wanted to tell and how they wanted to tell it, my students generated multimodal projects that addressed both the personal and the rhetorical. The introductory letters they wrote reflected on their choices and the process: frustrations, successes, key pieces to pay attention to, potentially vague sections in the project, reasons for different elements. Despite some initial confusion and pushback – undoubtedly because they often are not used to sharing individual or creative work in a classroom setting – most of my students gradually came to embrace and even enjoy their midterm, as this quote from one introduction letter shows:

“Drawing every piece was very time consuming, but it’s still my favorite part of the assignment. I really enjoyed this project as a whole because it’s very different from my usual english class assignments where an essay in a proper format is required.”

The combination of peer review workshops, one-on-one conferences with me, and metacognitive activities led to thoughtfully-conceived narratives that enabled my students to continue reading our course materials with a fresh perspective. Each writer, artist, activist brings the personal and ideological into their work; we must analyze those works carefully for purpose, audience, form, and occasion. And we must be willing to use our own research – in concert with other disciplines – to help stem the tide of environmental ruin through the reading and crafting of powerful, hopeful narratives.

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