An anecdote or journal entry about events or people encountered along the way

Listening as placemaking

When we rehearse in our minds a conversation we think we might have tomorrow or remember an episode from yesterday, the quality of our thought depends to some extent on the quality of the audience that we imagine. If we imagine we will be with dull-witted thugs, the character of our thought is quite different than if we believe we will be in the company of attentive and thoughtful listeners.

Furthermore, the quality of the audience we imagine depends to a great extent on the quality of the audiences we have experienced. Seeing this we can see that better audiences make the world better--not in a mystical way but quite directly. They change the narrative environment in ways that improve our thinking.

Most of us, including our students, would become better thinkers if we had had better audiences, and becoming better thinkers is an important step on the way to becoming better people.

It’s safe to assume that our successes or failures as listeners may have a profound influence on the narrative environment--as much as the words we speak. We spend much of our time as audience for someone or for something, and how we listen is an important part of our narrative intelligence. What we attend to, what makes us smile, what we hear, what we ignore, what makes us linger, what we construe and what we don’t--these are not small matters. Good or bad audiences can change a person’s life.

Listening is also an important part of placemaking. A place is a geographic location associated with human meaning--a space in which people have made something--sometimes a city but sometimes only a memory. When some ancient fisherman in the Columbia Basin, pondering the fish he had burned his fingers trying to cook the night before, shared his idea of a stone fireplace and saw his friend’s raised eyebrows and approving nod, they were well on their way to transforming their piece of the world. They gathered the rocks and before the sun set they had created the memory of a shared dinner of grilled trout. They had made their spot along the river into a place.

It became a place by becoming a feature of the two characters’ story worlds. The built environment and most of history takes form first in story worlds we construct out of memory and imagination. If the friend had answered in such a way that made it clear he hadn’t really been listening at all but was instead caught up in his own worries, quite likely world history would have been one barbeque poorer. His listening was part of creation.

Interestingly, if he had listened to his friend carefully in the past, he may not have needed to be present at all to have done his part. His friend could have imagined him, based on memory.

Listening is so important that it has become a major preoccupation of the most powerful creatures on earth--vast mercantile creatures--business corporations are the most common form, but these are being joined by large universities and other cultural organizations, by mega-churches, by large-scale criminal gangs and by nations and former nations.

Oh do they listen. They conduct polls, they do market surveys, they find ingenious ways to track our movements and purchases, they organize focus groups, they test market--they do everything they can to keep us under their surveillance. They are obsessed with hearing from us.

They listen with passion but it’s a disciplined and focused passion that doesn’t include us, necessarily. Mostly they want to know just what it is that we, in turn, will listen to. Their listening is a strategy to find the ways to be sure we hear them. They have figured out the world of humans is, more than anything, a competition between stories. And it’s a competition they want to win.

They specialize in strange types of storytelling. One of these they call “branding.” Old-style advertisements tended to give information: buy our shaving lotion because it has lanolin and it will soothe your skin.

But brandmakers tend to provide images--visions of a world as, they hope, you want it. Their stories often give no information at all. Their plots are more like dreams than like arguments. If I argue with you, I wake up parts of your mind that might listen to other voices than mine. So I might offer you a vision of a Sunday afternoon in the summer, and you are free, driving fast along a highway that swoops along the edge of a vast ocean. You have nothing to worry about. Eagles soar overhead. Pulses of music pierce you, shafts of sun through white clouds. You go faster, a beautiful stranger beside you. Nothing can hurt you. And faster. The music pounds. And faster.

Are you listening?

If not, there are other stories, some far better and some far, far worse.

The ones that get listened to win, and out of them empires grow. They get larger and more powerful month by month, the managers deciding, by watching what works, what to make with their vast resources. On the Internet the pattern is already clear: computers never stop tabulating your mouse clicks and monitoring how long you look at which pages. What you ignore shuts down and goes away. What you look at gets replicated and developed. What you click on gets more powerful.

You are free to look at whatever you want. And as our choices multiply, we are more and more free not to look at or listen to what we do not want. And so, less and less are we all in the same empire. Some of us are so far away we can’t hear each other, really. Each of us moves farther and farther into story worlds built especially for people just like us. We are separating into empires that get stronger by our very listening.

Already we have branded housing developments such as retirement communities with just the amenities and architecture we dreamed of. It may not be long till whole towns are built and people move into cities that were imagined, designed, constructed, scripted and sold--people will move into them and they will be real. It may be our destiny to live in worlds whose qualities--ugliness or beauty, superficiality or depth, depravity or goodness--are precise renderings of the quality of our listening.

And the rest will be forgotten.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/26 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project

Understanding others is key to narrative intelligence

As we assimilate a story, our emotions are our own, not those of the characters. By means of the story our emotions may be transformed by having them deepened or understood better, and they may be extended toward people of kinds for whom we might previously have felt nothing.

Keith Oatley, “Emotions and the Story Worlds of Fiction,” in Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, Timothy C. Brock, Melanie C. Green, and Jeffrey J. Strange. editors.  (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), 2002. p. 43.

One of the more delightful forms of human intelligence is the quickness and accuracy with which some people sense what others are feeling. To do this, they must (in Jerome Bruner‘s phrase) “construe reality.” We cannot, after all, see into others’ minds. To a large extent, our understanding of others is a story we tell ourselves about what their intentions seem to be and what might be causing them to act and speak as they do. Our knowledge of other people always has a fictive element.

We are most keenly aware of this when others fail--when they badly misconstrue us, ascribing to us motives that we do not in fact have. A Separate Peace by John Knowles has been a perennial favorite of high school English teachers precisely because it explores in the story of two friends at a boarding school during World War II the horrific conseqences of just such a failure. It suggests that the most pressing problems on earth, such as the world war that goes on relentlessly in the background, at least sometimes spring from just such failures.

The only way to understand others is through stories. Young people develop their narrative intelligence by experiencing many stories involving many kinds of people. Stories from books, stories from films, stories from old guys in the coffee shop downtown, stories from parents, stories from teachers and stories from friends. One of the great values of literature in the classroom is that “reading” another person isn’t so different from reading a character in a book. What we learn in literature and criticism often has immediate application in the seemingly unexalted transactions of daily life.

Young people who are quite fortunate will also find mentors who will think things through with them. Mentors who can teach the critical faculty needed to live well in a world of stories--especially the stories we are living and not just those we are hearing and telling--mentors who know something about how badly quick conclusions can miss the mark; who know how to test theories about what others are feeling by watching and probing for confirming or disconfirming details; who know the importance of patience in the face of things we don’t yet have enough evidence to know; and who can demonstrate the power of kindness to open up the mysteries of other people.

When our hearts are soft, we sense better the hearts of others. We think more exactly and understand better (hard-hearted people seem “smart” more often than they seem “intelligent").

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/25 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project

What genre is your life?

A man is always a teller of tales; he lives surrounded by his stories and the stories of others; he sees everything that happens to him through them, and he tries to live his life as if he were recounting it.

----Jean-Paul Sartre

Last week I suggested that good teachers were heroes, even though I know many people are reluctant to apply that label to themselves. In describing teachers in the Heritage Project as “heroes” I was suggesting that we are caught up in a particular kind of story--a particular genre, if you will. In this story, people make gifts of their sacrifices to others, so that the world gets better.

The relationship between character type and genre is tight enough Hamlet couldn’t really be Hamlet if his story ended in a comic crescendo. The genre we think we’re in strongly influences the character we think we are. It matters a great deal what genre we think we’re in. Carol Pearson says that most of us are “slaves of the stories we unconciously tell about our lives,” and suggests most of us make our life stories fit one of the six narrative forms we learn growing up (she calls them archetypes): the Innocent, the Orphan, the Wanderer, the Warrior, the Martyr, and the Magician.

Researchers among elderly people in Scandanavia decided that most of their subjects could be classified according to what story they thought they were living: the Suffering One, the Loser, the Fighter, the Altruist, the Careerist, or the Happy One.

Most of us will draw on many genres to make stories of different episodes or stages in our lives. Such lists aren’t exhaustive of course. Our own cultural toolkits might include genres that help us see ourselves as tricksters, disciples, or knights.

Literary critic Norththrop Frye thought that the main modes of narrative were myth, romance, tragedy, comedy, and irony, and all of us have subplots or chapters in our life stories in which each of the modes comes to the fore. It’s often a matter of where we stop the story. When Falstaff is found dead on stage, the mood in the theater feels tragic. After people have spoken gravely of what a loss his death his, he gets up, ready for another swallow of wine. When we learn he had only been pretending to be dead, to save himself from the fierce battle, the tragic mode vanishes. All of us can tell stories of events that seemed horrible at the time but that now seem hilarious. Life went on, which is the essence of comedy.

Still, we know from experience that some patterns, or genres, seem dominant in some lives. Some people see the trouble in every event while others tend to see only disguised good news, which a little work will reveal. To make a plot out of all the episodes and events that happen, we need to discern or decide where things are going and we need to select which details are part of that story and which are not. In other words, we need to emplot our lives to understand them and to take intelligent action. And to do this we draw on our knowledge of what genres are available which we get from our cultural canon.

We can see the way differing narrative intelligence in different students affects everything about their lives. Some already think their life story is that of the victim of malicious plotting. Some already understand themselves as invalids. Some have a diffuse narrative intelligence, having trouble making causal connections between the events that happen to them and how these relate to their futures.

And yet, some have strongly integrated and coherent narrative intelligence--their lives make sense to them and they take actions based on what they anticipate in their future.

We know that all adolecents are new at thinking autobiographically--at seeing their lives as stories they are authoring. Can we help them author better life stories?

Here are a couple of questions:

1. Does the use of stories in the Heritage Project (those gathered from community members, those read in history or literature) help students develop their narrative intelligence? Do you think that hearing veterans, for example, tell stories of persevering and doing their duty and getting past tough times helps young people more intelligently emplot their own lives?

2. Does telling stories drawn from local and family history in public help students develop their narrative intelligence? What role do the expectations and standards we apply to these public tellings play? (By that I mean the expectation--built into the nature of heritage fairs and heritage evenings--that the stories will affirm civic values and that the telling will be coherent and well-crafted. We know that the stories we tell are powefully influenced by the audiences we have or expect to have).


Note: I came across the citation to the research in Scandanavia in Restorying Our Lives: Personal Growth through Autobiographical Reflection, by Gary M. Kenyon and William L. Randall (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers) 1997, p.80. They cited: Ruth J.-E., and G. Kenyon ( 1996). “Biography in Adult Development and Aging.” In J. Birren, G. Kenyon, J.-E. Ruth, J. Schroots, and T. Svensson (eds.), Aging and Biography: Explorations in Adult Development. New York: Springer. 1-20.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/24 at 06:14 AM
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2007 Montana Heritage Project
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