Facts and Narratives: Teaching personal narrative to skeptical students (by April Passi)

This past week, I introduced my students to a new writing project: personal narrative. I’m replacing another teacher, and they have a “descriptive essay” on the syllabus, which to me to is another label for a personal narrative. Plus, I’ve taught personal narrative before, so I’m going with what I know to save some time and get the ball rolling for these students. The syllabus also stipulates that the essay is to explore the theme of tolerance: very timely, I thought.

The college where I teach is famous for having creative and forward-thinking students, and so I did not anticipate resistance to a creative writing project. One student, however, was brave enough to voice his opinion: a narrative doesn’t have facts, we can’t necessarily trust it, it doesn’t contain the truth. His question was so powerful and thought provoking! In that moment, I really wished that I had had several weeks to do a unit on narrative writing with these students, so that we could talk about what counts as truth, how even so-called facts can be framed in different ways, how truth can go deeper than numbers. But, I didn’t have time for that, so I referred to a recent New Yorker article by Elizabeth Kolbert called Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. I told my students that there was a recent article that examined the failure of the use of facts to persuade, and mentioned the recent election of a certain someone in a certain neighbouring country. I argued that perhaps personal narrative, and not fact, is how we can persuade, connect, and grow together. Another student raised her hand and said, yes miss, I tend to agree: narrative can really show something, make you feel something.

I asked my students to think of moments in their lives when they encountered tolerance, acceptance, ethical behaviour. We briefly discussed the power of writing from experience, and the way that narrative exposes the multiple interpretations of any moment. The first drafts that students handed in were lovely theoretical explorations of what tolerance is, about how it applies to our daily lives and works in our social spheres. They questioned the limits of tolerance – can we be tolerant towards intolerance? Is tolerance obligatory? Excellent questions. What I am asking them to do will hopefully push them out of sterile argument – it’s very easy to say you believe in tolerance from a theoretical place – and into a place where they can find the answers to those questions for themselves. In the process, maybe we will learn something as a group.

I was inspired by Alison Crump’s post last week on blogging as pedagogy, and I hope that my students will be on board with sharing some of their writing on a class blog. In sharing their narratives about tolerance, they may provoke readers to encounter a variety of truths, to see from someone else’s perspective. We’ll see – they are very busy, and uncomfortable with this type of writing. Even if we don’t create a blog, I hope that the writing of these personal narratives will do two things for students. First, I hope it will give the students space to explore, deeply, a topic that is so pertinent in our current world situation. Secondly, I hope that they will develop a skill that can help them communicate big ideas to the world, and learn to use narrative to overcome the onslaught of alternative facts.

Can you think of a time when a story changed your mind, or shifted your perspective? Tell us about it below!

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5 thoughts on “Facts and Narratives: Teaching personal narrative to skeptical students (by April Passi)

  1. Very nice, April. Your piece really reminds me of the quantitative vs qualitative paradigms of research. Is knowledge valid if it isn’t provable with numbers? Obviously I think it is, but it’s a new way of thinking for many new scholars! It would make for an interesting follow up conversation with your students: quantitative vs qualitative, objectivity vs insider perspective, emic vs etic, etc.

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      1. Hi Lauren,

        Yes! I was thinking that too. It is definitely a question about what kinds of knowledge are seen as valuable. And you’re right! I think I may get a chance to do some follow up after all because we are doing a research project.

        Thanks!
        April

        Like

  2. Very nice April, it must be such a different world for these writers as they have so much more information before them than I could have ever imagined. The social media available, in itself, must be full of tolerance and intolerance. Very interesting writing idea!

    Liked by 1 person

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