Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Fri 2/24/2006 2:55 AM
Random Thought: Homo Narrandus

Well, I had just returned from a delightful three day gathering at the Lilly-South conference at UNC-Greensboro. It was impossible to distinguish between teachers and learners. Here was a gathering of over 200 academics willing to come out from their safe place, willing to surrender the security of their place, ready to grow, willingly accepting the challenge to change.

So, it's time to return to the accusations of the professor from a southern university. I'm really grateful to this professor's barbs. That may sound strange, but she has gotten me to think, to reflect and to articulate my philosophy of education, my vision of teaching, and why I share my experiences. If you remember, she had called my stories "worthless," "soft," "anecdotal," and, to paraphrase her, Seuss-ish. This was my response to this part of her earlier message that I sent out this morning.

"It is said that among Native Americans the medicine men ask three questions of the sick: 'When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story?' I understand the first two questions. We'd all be a lot happier with our lives if we could see the delight in dandelions, the wonder in sunrises, the beauty in a swaying tree, the miracle in a lady bug, and the fun in mud puddles, and the enjoyment of life itself. But, why is telling your story obviously so important? My answer is that we each are someone who has learned something and who, by telling that part of his or her experiences, can benefit others. . It's a question that asks if you have lived the full width and depth of your life rather than merely its length, what footprints have you left behind, how is the world better for you having passed this way, how have you altered the world and changed the future. In this sense, stories are indications that there is a way or a path that has been cut by someone else's footsteps. Our experiences, our discoveries, our ideas, our visions are all meant to be shared if for no other reason than we never live or work or love alone."

"So, to be honest, it is true. I mostly tell stories. I am a storyteller. I plead guilty. Besides, why should I apologize for being one? Why should I buy into the myth that our individual experiences, our individual lives, our anecdotal existence doesn't count in the statistical scheme of things? You want me to reduce myself to a mere speck? You want me to shirk my responsibility of being significant? You want me to accept worthlessness? I won't, nor should anyone else. We all tell stories, even you, because we know we're each worthy of being noticed, because within our gut we know we each are important and that our stories count. Stories are how we let each other know how we feel. They help us form our identities, share our visions, break down barriers, build bridges, forge connections, and spin webs of community. Stories let us and others see what we're made of in a way impersonal statistics, axioms, theories, generalizations do not and cannot."

"As I was aimlessly googling the other day, I came across some writings of Ann Foerst, a theologian who talks of human beings as 'Homo Narrandus,' the story-telling animal. She proposes that the one distinctive characteristic of we human beings, the one that separates from all other beings, is that in large part we are defined, shaped, and revealed by our own stories that live deep in our flesh and bones and mind and spirit. She says we use stories about how we came into being, how we came to a place, what's our meaning, what's our identity, where we're headed, how we're going to get there, and what we've left behind. Stories are the 'why,' as well as the 'how,' 'what,' and 'when' of us. That is, in my words, we are the stories we tell."

"After watching once again the PBS presentation, "Declining by Degrees: Higher Education at Risk," while at the Lilly conference, as a teacher, I am more convinced than ever that I am in the 'people business.' My concern is to see and listen to and deal with people, fellow human beings, sacred individuals, students, whom too often too many of us treat as clones of each other. I realize more than ever that the most important work for me is not writing this Random Thought or publishing a book or giving a workshop or lengthening my resume. To be honest, as others have noticed, there is something that is random in my Random Thoughts. It is the sharing of stories powerful enough to remind us academics that we, degrees and resumes not withstanding, each are an imperfect but noble person, that we're in the people business, that there are real young men and women out there, that we not some higher order of human beings elevated there by our degrees and robes. I share my stories as a call to trust our humanness. When you do, you welcome student surprises; you're curious about students' differences; you respect them; you delight in their inventiveness; you nurture them; you connect with them. They, in turn, will trust you act in their best interests and that you want to bring more good into the world for them. I share stories in the firm belief that we each carry an inner desire to make a difference, and that it is essential - imperative! - that we call forth, carry forth, and put into action that intense desire in ourselves and others ways to do so. I share to urge you that if you carry this story within you, it is time to tell it, wherever you are, to whomever you meet, whenever the occasion arises. I share my stories to break the silence. I share stories to call forth my dream into being and weave it into every fiber of my being, and to offer others more than a peek at my vision and the consequences of putting it into daily play. I share my stories to tell you that rather than seeing students as problems or obstacles, I realize more than ever that there is an innate human desire for connection, meaning and value in classes and on our campuses.

"The problem, as exemplified by you, is not that you're hard-hearted. I don't believe that for a second. The problem is that we live and work in a professional setting where all too often it is impossible to exercise and demonstrate our natural inclination to be empathetic, sympathetic, and compassionate. Storytelling is suspect and spurned as intellectually disreputable. That's because too many academics act with a particular mindset. The focus on subject matter, the emphasis on assessment, the spotlight on research and publication, and the fearful quest for tenure have an out-of-tune, "dis-connecting," "dis-heartening" and "un-emotional" impact so that student and teacher see each on differentiated planes. So many of us see through students as if they were made of cellophane. So many of us have lost that ability to walk in a student's shoes. We seldom give ourselves reflective time to define our relationship to our selfs, to our work, to the college community, and to students."

"You wish to discount 'soft' anecdotes and ban them to the depths of worthlessness because they deal with the murky things that defy those 'hard' analytical diagrams; they find the holes of exception in statistics; they go against the current of flow charts, and they complicate the over-simplified. Stories are disregarded because they disregard and deviate from "the norm." I am all too familiar with skepticism about storytelling. When I tell a story or write up a story, I am prepared for a lot of eye-rolling, head shaking, yawning, accusing, and unread deleting. The academic world is too often a black and white world in which anecdotal is bad and statistical is good. Ask us academics to stand up in front of a professional audience and we'll put on airs. Tangles of abstractions, theories, axioms, numbers, and jargons will spew out from our mouths. Go to a party, a conference, a coffee clutch, a restaurant, or a meeting, and listen to them informally talking among each other. Guess what you'll hear from these very same academics? You'll hear them let down their hair, reveal their humanity, and tell stories to each other. You'll hear 'did you hear' or 'when I was' or 'let me tell you what happened to me' stories. We live in a sea of 'for instances' stories. Why? Because analysis might excite the intellect, but excite the heart it doesn't. Storytelling is crucial to anyone's search for meaning and purpose. Storytelling motivates people to action with enthusiasm and energy; it inspires people to enter the unfamiliar and unwelcomed. You think a cascade of mind-numbing numbers does that? You think a flood of coma-inducing Power Point slides read boringly by the presenter like a bedtime story to the illiterate does that? You think a torrent of droll, fact-packed lecture does that? Have you forgotten what it is that moves mountains? It's not numbers. It's faith that is more often than not described by a good story. Stories concern the feelings, attitudes, emotions, and actions of human beings."

"You condemn stories as anti-intellectual anecdotes. You and others condemn them as 'soft,' 'fuzzy,' 'fantasy,' 'touchy-feely,' 'squishy,' 'emotional,' 'childish.' You accuse me of contaminating the intellectual world of academia with the pollutants of emotions and feeling. You call stories 'impractical.' Yet, storytelling is powerful. If you want to be the light to help show others the way rather than merely a light bulb, tell your story to yourself and to others. Telling your story will connect you to others. They'll be more inclined to trust you because they'll know who you are, where you've come from, why you believe and act the way I do, and that you are there to be in their service. And so, I need as many stories as possible in my tool box if I want to share my values and vision to influence the values of others effectively enough to change their outlook, attitude, and behavior.

"Impractical? A critical step in coping with change is to become aware of your life story, and the fear and doubts and perceptions and habits that have governed your life thus far. I can attest that when you uncover your personal story, you've provided yourself a way to change. We all have an "inner story" that helps us explain the past, understand what's happening now, anticipate the future. I tell you story after story demonstrating that it is one of the best ways to communicate with people and to form bonds among them. It's the story that has the life-altering power, not the numbers of statistics or the flow of charts. Its stories that make the heart leap and spirits soar, not rigorous critical thinking and analysis. It's the storytellers who can hold an audience engrossed in what was being said. If you have a new idea and want to change the world, if you want to change the minds and hearts of those around you, if you want to touch someone, tell a story. Tell your story."

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
                                 /     \__/         \/  /  /\ /~\/         \
                          /\/\-/ /^\_____\____________/__/_______/^\
                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier