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Week 1 - Getting Started

Anne Dalke's picture

Welcome to the course forum area for Story Telling as Inquiry , a College Seminar at Bryn Mawr. This is an interestingly different kind of place for writing, and may take some getting used to, but we hope you'll come to value it as much as students in other courses have.

The first thing to keep in mind is that its not a place for "formal writing" or "finished thoughts". It's a place for thoughts-in-progress, for what you're thinking (whether you know it or not) on your way to what you think next. Imagine that you're not worrying about "writing" but instead that you're just talking to some people you've met. This is a "conversation" place, a place to find out what you're thinking yourself, and what other people are thinking, so you can help them think and they can help you think. The idea is that your "thoughts in progress" can help others with their thinking, and theirs can help you with yours.

So who are you writing for? Primarily for yourself, and for others in both sections of our course. But also for the world. This is a "public" forum, so people anywhere on the web might look in. That's the second thing to keep in mind here. You're writing for yourself, for others in the class, AND for others you might or might not know. So, your thoughts in progress can contribute to the thoughts in progress of LOTS of people. The web is giving increasing reality to the idea that there can actually evolve a world community, and you're part of helping to bring that about.

We're glad to have you along, and hope you value/enjoy sharing the an exploration of Story telling as Inquiry. To get started, what's the "story" of the picture on the cover of our course pack? It's copied below (click for an enlargment). Post some of your thoughts.


Looking forward to seeing where we go with this and ...

ashaffer's picture

Going back and reflecting

Looking back on this question @ the beginning of the course, I'm thinking about the discussions we've had and reflecting on this picture once again. After getting the author's perspective on the work, I got a chance to see what the picture meant to her, but have also learned the value of different people interpreting it in their own way. I think the goal of understanding as some state of being is a poor way of thinking- one that is better is perhaps to consider learning as a process that is continually changing- it's more a direction than a finish line; more a journey than a destination.
Anonymous's picture


To me the picture shows that the more we understand the less we understand. When I first looked at the picutre I had no doubt that the pieces were falling down. It fits my understanding of the world, however as some pointed out they could be floating up. That well could be. The thing is that I thought I understood the picture yet maybe I was all wrong. We only understand things in our point of view.

On the net the other day I read that you have to praise your children the "right" way. They said that you don't tell your child he/she is smart you tell them that their work shows a lot of effort and they did a good job. It reminded me of a time sitting at the table working on homework with my daughter. I was telling her she was smart and could do this. She was saying that she wasn't smart because she couldn't do it. What I said and what she understood were two different things. What I said was that her brain is able to do the work and that if she tries she will make it. What she understood was that if she was as smart as I thought she was she wouldn't have to work that hard to get it. We each thought we understood what was going on but neither of us did.

Again I say that the more we think we understand the less we do understand.

Masha Davidson's picture


Storytelling As Inquiry
Blog Entry 1

Having been in class during the further discussions of Sharon Burgmayer's painting and dissections of her intent and message, my post is going to be slightly biased. I have always had a very pragmatic mindset and so I tend to find overly simplified visual (or other) representations of such intricate and complex issues as "understanding" to be frustrating to say the least. I have been known to get deeply involved in the philosophical debate or two, as well as having proudly played the Devil's advocate, but in general, I shy away from philosophy. I think learning should come from some methodical approach. I like to start by taking baby steps, proving little bits of information as best as possible and then moving in. I like taking all of the little pieces and putting them out in front of me so I can see patterns and shapes forming. Sometimes people jump too quickly into making conclusions and summaries, leaving a significant amount of information out of the summation just because it doesn't' fit the hypothesized or ideal model--a great risk. I don't think it is possible to have one painting present any accuracy about understanding as a concept. I can certainly understand the desire to do so, and the convenience, but I believe it is verging on "dangerous." I would never say an approach or conclusion is incorrect or correct, as every mind has its own way of sorting through information, but in my opinion, this cube and sphere just don't cut it for me.

Moving away from argument, simply looking at the image present I see two basic forms: a red, blue and green cube, and a multicolored sphere. There is great dichotomy between the cube and the sphere. The cube is hard, solid, rigid, opaque, and certain whereas the sphere is significantly more free-flowing, adaptable, variable. It would appear that the pieces of the cube's puzzle are falling down toward the sphere and not the other way around, just because of my personal cognitive associations. You read from right to left, down the page and thus in general, I follow this path of motion as the "normal" or "expected."

Initially, that is before viewing the video, I thought the message of the painting with the "??????" on the base was saying Understanding is supported by something, some x factor. Seeing the video explanation or, story, behind the painting kind of intrigued me. I don't really understand why rational thought is breaking down and breaking away to fit into the sphere, which is supposedly representing "Life, the experience of life ". If one is using a visual to explain something, then I would expect it to be constructed using terms and associations found most familiar with whatever group it is intended to be shown in. Why aren't the cube and sphere closer in size? I don't want to be nitpicky, but since we are compressing a huge area of study, the basic substance of life, a large part of what we are trying to accomplish by education, then it is a big deal in terms of the intent and message of the painting.

I think it would make more sense if either the cube were significantly smaller than the sphere, or if there were two shapes, one represent rational thought and one representing abstract thought both emitting material to a common third party.

I don't agree with the idea that Understanding is the booby prize. There can be understanding stemming from the exploration of abstract thought as well as from rational thought. Understanding cannot only be achieved from rational thought.

merry2e's picture

Understanding Chaos

Understanding is questioning and colors of bold. Blues, reds, yellows and greens jump out of the page wanting me to  figure out what the missing puzzle pieces mean. Another minute passes by and a ball, the earth, a swirling sphere of rainbows, missing parts, that do not seem to want to fit together, looking as though they are about to explode, catches my eye. The color of the sun fills the corner of the page, a bright yellow, the hue of my mother's bedroom at our beach house in North Carolina, reminds me of my childhood, finally allowing me to understand the white.
rm2885's picture

The Truth about Understanding

The ball of information on right hand side of the picture consists of all sort of information we take in every moment of our lives. Then on the left hand side there is the tower of understanding. We process information from the ball, and then break it down into pieces of concepts, theorems. That’s the green, red, and blue, which represent the three most fundamental believes in our mind, whatever that maybe. It could be love, desire, and justice; it could be question, intuition, and power. It could be with any set of values and believes that’s important to that individual person. Then according to those basic believe, we sort and put the pieces into where we think they belong. Then we reprocess them. But do realize the information that we took in will no longer be what it was. It would be what we think it is. It will be encoded with our opinions and personal feelings.

This is an illustration of how mind works. Mind, however, is a curious thing. We have a tendency to process information, to categorize and make connection. In most cases, we have to break down information in order to comprehend what the information trying to tell us. Knowledge is the building blocks. And they build on top of one another. The more knowledge one has, the less parts “needed” to be breaking down. Because of we would be able to decode the information in bigger chunks. The higher the knowledge tower goes, sometimes the easier to overlook the simplest idea. The more we know today, the more we realize that we don’t know. It’s hard not to lose originality in the information as it was when was first distributed.

Knowledge, however, does not necessarily give us truth, but it could lead us there. In order to understand the information, it’s as important to look at it as it is, and appreciate its complexity as breaking down and digests the information. Minds need to be opened, go back and forth in the process in order to really understand.

christa wusinich's picture

what do you see?

I see geometry and colors. "Understanding"seems to connect, as a bridge, question and puzzles...or rather puzzle pieces. As a whole, the bridge and its parts assume the image of a lamp. Next to the lamp on a table appears a multicolored ball...that too has puzzle pieces. The ball could be a globe, perhaps a globe that represents a world of questions and understandings. In this picture colors are both distinctly themselves and in some areas colors blend and form less defined colors, darker colors.
Student 23's picture

Placed on a pedestal

Understanding is forged through the interpretation and classification of information the mind gleans from the world. The colored sphere represents the world; the box, the world deconstructed and pieced into something more concrete. Understanding arises from a base of questons-- without questions we would not understand the world. We hold the product of these questions, a worldview consisting of the knowledge we gain from life, sorted logically and uniformly, and place it far above the beautiful chaos of the world's mysteries.

redmink's picture

Understanding is . . . .

In this picture, I see spirits of people mingled and untangled on a globe.  Interactions between individuals are represented in colors.  Outside the globe, there is a cube in which each side has a different color and puzzle piece.  Each spirit is shaped and carved as puzzle pieces, and then is projected into the box where our definition of 'understanding' is defined.  The red puzzle piece in the picture fails to get into the box, whereas the blue piece smudged with red color successfully goes up toward the box.  In fact, understanding is acknowledging the fact that we are all connected to each other.  Here, people who made blue piece are too narrow-minded to integrate any other color, and could not reach the box of understanding. 

nmuntz's picture

I've finally figured out

I've finally figured out what it was I wanted to say about this image, though it's taken me a while.  I see the image like this: the different colored sides of the cube are different groups of people, who are all trying to understand only their own specific group.  It's a flat way to look at life, thats the reason for the flat sides of the cube.  Finally certain "puzzle pieces" realize that they need to understand each other in order to understand themselves, thus they magically change into the multicolored  circle which represents the real understanding and acceptance of everyone as a whole.  By being closed-minded to only our race, religion, sexual-orientation, and so forth, we cannot truly live peacefully and happily in the world.
calypsse's picture

Story of an image

When we were told to write the story of that image I was trying to make up an actual fiction story that at the same time I could relate to what some of the figures meant for me. At the same time, I had in mind a book I have, is a book with several poems, some of them have only three or four lines but all of them have an image to the side, as if the poem was explaining the picture or the other way around. So I came up with this:

the base of questioning supported the pillar of understanding, who at the same time carried a heavy cube. The cube started falling appart into puzzle pieces that eventually got together to form a ball of mixed colors. All of the sudden the colors were reflected on the wall as if the puzzle pieces had formed a light of knowledge.
Paul Grobstein's picture

reading/revising one's understanding ....

Maybe its not "complexity" that precludes complete understanding but rather the notion that the process of inquiry inevitably (and desirably?) expands the scope of things to be understood?

Anyhow, for those interested, here is a link to Sharon Burgmayer's several accounts for the story of her painting. Notice, among other things, that the image you were given to respond to wasn't quite the image that Sharon originally painted. Any thoughts about why?

Allyson's picture

"Simplify, Simplify, Simplify."

I am partial to the very straightforward explanation that nothing is complete, including understanding. But this lack of definition in our understanding makes the world a much richer place and unifies humanity in a unique way. We need to understand that we do not understand in order to be understood, understand?
Riki's picture


I do understand. And we will never understand understanding itself, for it is, as you said, incomplete. One couldn't possibly ever wholly understand their best friend or even oneself for that matter. We go our whole lives trying to figure ourselves out, and perhaps some of us succeed in the slightest, but everything is far too complicated to be understood.

Hilary McGowan's picture

Bernard and Glenda.

They had been high school sweet hearts. He liked chess, she liked to paint. He enjoyed building model ships and she sometimes sang in the shower. They melded together like ice cream and pie. Every day they would wake up together and feel the morning sun light. It would seep into them, removing the darkness, the thoughtless things said earlier, and the inhibitions to the unconcious.

As much as she tried to admire his ships and he her not always on key voice, they didn't always understand one another. It's no surprise that not everyone thinks the same, for we each have our own thoughts and feelings on everything, therefore our own understanding. But this is not our story, it's Bernard's and Glenda's.

She was always so shocked when he raised his voice at a comment she made. Even watching certain channels on the TV could raise an argument. Sometimes it was those "damn" sour cream commercials. She just couldn't understand why he didn't enjoy that cute jingle. And he didn't understand why she had to sing it in the shower.

But every once in a while, when the fighting and seething had ended for the day, they would lie in bed next to each other. Bernard on the right and Glenda on the left (she liked the view of the window). And on those nights, when none of them were thinking about it, they would share stories about their day. He would listen and she would nod, and they would understand. Never knowing and never fully realizing it, both of them would release and hold their sorrow, their thoughts, their feelings and their love.

Catrina Mueller's picture

In my opinion, the picture

In my opinion, the picture revolves around individual thought and society. Questions, as they are the base of the "lamp", are the foundation (literally and figuratively) of understanding. From there, understanding is the foundation of the "cube", which represents a person's thoughts and ideas. Once a person has ideas, he/she can share them with the world and then these ideas turn into the "collective knowledge" of the whole of society (the sphere).
Danielle P's picture

Exchange of Information :)

In class there had been much discussion revolving around whether the puzzle pieces were being removed from the solid cube, or whether they were being inserted (with the source being that bomb shaped multi-colored orb).  After some contemplation, I personally think that perhaps the primary purpose of this piece of art is not to determine the exact meaning and intent of the artist.  Instead, our personal interpretations are esstentially all correct, and when considering this, one can conclude that the picture depicts a exchange of information - some pieces are being removed, and some are being put back in.  This represents the world we live in now, with some people sharing information, and gleaning new information from others along the way. 
Mr. Body's picture

When I first looked at this

When I first looked at this picture, my eyes immediately focused on the red face of the cube. By focusing on artistic techniques, one can see how the artist used the edges of the red part of the cube along with small white diagonal lines coming from the missing puzzle piece in the red part of the cube to lead viewers to the sphere in a downward motion.

The sphere reminds me of a bomb waiting to explode when there are too many puzzle pieces in it. If the bomb explodes, then people will lose all sense of understanding. It is already about the size of the cube with many puzzle pieces still left to fill the bomb. As puzzle pieces continue to fall into the bomb, people lack understanding. The question marks at the base of the of the structure show that we must ask questions in order to create understanding which would bring the pieces of the puzzle together creating equilibrium.

ErinDoppelheuer's picture

The Vibrant Distinction

At first when I looked at this picture in class on Tuesday, I saw the puzzle pieces coming out of the sphere.  The sphere represented the world of knowledge and the pieces were parts of knowledge that we did not know yet, but are being taught to us.  As each piece leaves the sphere it darkens from multi-color to a certain bold color or either green, red, or blue.  These pieces of knowledge represent the things that we do not yet know.  On the pedestal which the cube is attached to reads UNDERSTANDING and then beneath that are question marks.  I interpreted this as the phrase "understanding is asking questions."  When it came time to write this assignment, I now look at the cube and sphere and see something different.  I see the pieces falling out of the cube and into the sphere.  The pieces of the cube still represent pieces of knowledge, yet however these pieces are our own pieces of knowledge that we are sharing with others of the world.  As the pieces fall from the cube, they change from their bright distinct color into the multi-colors of the sphere.  This struck me as interesting because it is as if our bold pieces of knowledge that we are sharing are eventually being meshed with others.  I also thought it was interesting that the cube had vibrant and distinct colors and that the sphere was less vibrant and multi-colored.  The vibrant colors of the cube make it stand out and each person’s knowledge is different, unique and that is what makes them stand out.  The sphere is multi-colored and not as vibrant because it is a mixture of everyone’s knowledge and not as unique. 



hannahpayne's picture

The colorful sphere in this

The colorful sphere in this piece represents the constant mixing of ideas and experiences that ultimately lead to understanding the world we live in. When something new is discovered or realized pieces of the sphere fly up to fill the gaps in the cube. To me the cube represents knowledge. Knowledge begins with questions, which is the base of this structure, questioning leads to answers and understanding, the post of the structure. With this support the cube of knowledge is sturdy and can hold onto the new ideas that come from the sphere. Also, knowledge is what makes someone stand out from the background. The bright colors of the cube are a sharp contrast to the background grays and browns. With knowledge comes the ability to be an unique individual.
Allison Fink's picture

Human Attempts at Understanding

This image shows a block with sides of different colors with puzzle pieces falling out, representing the inevitable gaps that are revealed in human understanding when we analyze, as our analytical minds tend to do, in a grasping way, in order to gain an understanding of the world. When we allow the pieces to fall away, the boundaries that exist in our minds fall away, and we are able to open to the light of understanding. The universe would be boring if the pieces fit; nothing could change. And what I believe the picture is showing is that the universe is conscious of itself. We are part of the universe, and as such we are constantly exploring and manifesting the universe as being conscious of itself. New realities, new understandings, evolve through us. Our task is to let the pieces fall away, to let go of linear thinking in order to open our minds to a solution beyond our normal mental operations. If we look at things separately and isolatedly, we can't understand. But if we use a truly conscious way of thinking, we are drawing on a larger source informed by the the workings of the unconscious,  represented by the magical-looking orb, an order in which everything is infiitely interconnected and inseparable from everything else, hence the prismatic array of light and colors. It is then that we suddenly get an understanding out of what appears to be nowhere. The orb is fluid, flexible, and reveals divine creative intelligence informed by our consciousness, whereas the pillar of separate colors is rigid and fixed.

Al Keefe's picture

Leaves, Grass, and Lima Beans

Once upon a point in time, the world appeared to have a single color, or no color at all, to its inhabitants. They moved about (as so many seemed to do) relying on shades and texture. One day a little girl decided to play in the woods. Her favorite game was see-the-birds. She’d creep up to nests a watch the tiny feather-balls breathing in sleep. But being young she soon became board of birds, and began to examine the leaves. She wondered what made leaves, and if it was the same thing that made the birds. She wondered about their material, and came to the firm conclusion that it was not the same thing that bark was made of. As her eyes wandered in her tree top she noticed something else different, from leaves and birds, and leaves and bark.

The girl went home and asked her mother what made something special. Her mother kindly told her that shape and size were very good for making things unique. However, the little girl was sure that this was not the answer, and stored it in the part of her brain designated for “adult” answers. In time, the girl began to notice more special things in her world. She realized that sometimes that the same special ness could reside in object although they seemed different. Apples, and her bed shirt, and cars had something the same, as did leaves, and grass, and lima beans. Her child’s eye had unearthed a the unique quality of color. She soon realized that not everyone (including grownups) could appreciate the quality, but that those who did lived richer, fuller, more colorful lives.

akerle's picture


I find the 'imagery' in this piece far too explicit for my taste. There is little subtlety in the message the artist is trying to convey. It seems to me as the observer HAS to be provoked and in doing so I feel the strength of the image is lost. However, regardless of the artists intention the concept of 'understanding' is, ironically, somewhat incomprehensible. As human beings, we are tortured by a constant desire to understand everything and to catagorize the world around us into neat segments. In reality- this act is completely impossible. There is no absolute truth except for ignorance.   
Audra's picture

The Story of the Image

Understanding is putting the pieces of a jumble of information and experiences and surroundings in a neat, organized, color-coded pattern. If that's what you want it to be. Understanding is also... who knows? It could be filling in the gaps, it could be acknowledging that there will be gaps. The color-coded block could be crumbling into the jumble or erecting itself from chaos. Understanding could be rearranging the pieces of an ordered world to see things from a different perspective. Is understanding the ordered block at all? Is it actually the jumble? Or is it finding the balance between the two extremes-- accepting certain mysteries as forever dark while trying to illuminate others; appreciating some pieces of knowledge as necessarily undefinable while separating others into concrete categories.
Hyperpuffball's picture

My Great-Grandfather's Fingers

Looking at the sheer number of words used to respond to this image, I am reminded of the phrase 'a picture's worth a thousand words'.

This phrase immediately reminds me of my favorite baby picture, taken when my Great-grandfather Lou was very much still alive. He and I are sitting together at a dining table, with his artwork in the background and his oversized glasses heavy on his face. He's smiling: a Mona Lisa smile that's quiet and speaks of private joy. I'm sitting across the corner of the table from him, looking up at the camera with my mouth hanging open and my short, curly orange hair everywhere.

Besides painting, my great-grandfather was most well known for his storytelling. Not only was he exceptionally eloquent in his tales, but his posture was unique. When starting on a familiar story, he would lean forward towards his listeners, spread his fingers and palms into steeples, and emphasize his words by tapping or bouncing his fingers onto the table in front of him.

In this particular picture, he has his fingers spread in such a manner while I imitate him and stare at the camera.

Just mentioning stories reminds me of this captured moment. Quite bittersweet now, since I have no memories of Great-grandpop Lou remaining except what is shown in photographs.

BriBell's picture


The box is incomplete. Where the pieces are missing one can only look in to find the darkness of mystery. However, this box stands upon the support of understanding, and this understanding is in turn held up by the support of questioning. Thus representing the need for questioning to begin to develop an understading of that which is held within the confinements of the box.

Beside the box is a sphere filled with blotches of color. These colors represent the complex and diverse questions, ideas, and interpretations which grow from the minds of the equally complex and diverse populations of our world. Each of these colors has its own way of searching for the mysteries within the box, but its is only when the colors fall away and join together in the sphere that the mysteries of the box will be revealed to all.

Madi's picture

People like lists. We can't

People like lists. We can't help it, but we do. We love categorizing, cataloguing, filing facts away. A place for everything and everything in its place. School, well, at least my high school, embraces this notion. Classes are the files in which we place information. Take that red box. That's where math is. Don't forget that ab+ac=a(b+c) by the distributive property. The blue box, that's history. That contains the Battle of Saratoga (1777) and Napoleon Bonaparte. The green is science: Watson and Crick, Marie Curie, and Charles Darwin. But life doesn't work the same way. It doesn't separate itself into neat little compartments. Life is like the sphere, facts and information intertwining the disciplines, breaking down the boundaries between them.
carterian's picture

A monument of answers was

A monument of answers was built at the beginning of time. It still remains as a simple structure, with all complexities taken out. The topmost part of the monument is a puzzle cube. It continually gets rearranged because of information changing in the world.

Next to the monument is an orb of questions. The world's questions are filled in this orb. Only when an answer is achieved will the question fly out of the orb as a puzzle piece and into an answer.

Pieces are forever missing from this monument, and questions are foreer fleeing their colorful orb. Time changes all.

The orb and monument are shown as a constant reminder that the world is a series of never-ending questions and answers.

anonstudent01's picture

Sharon Burmayer

My immediate reaction to this image was exasperation that the creator's intention for the image was to bother me until I figured it out. Indeed, once I looked at it I couldn't stop thinking about it! After reflecting for a bit I think that the multi-colored sphere represents all of the thoughts and experiences of human beings. When one of these experiences or thoughts is acknowledged or validated somehow, it is set free in the form of a piece of the cube of understanding which never really can be completed because there are so many sources to be drawn from. I don't really like it but I sort of see what she's getting at....
gary clark's picture

Storytelling as Inquiry


....the primary suspect in this tale is a series a Quest/ion marks serving as a foundation [aka platform] for Understanding....thus, ergo, so understood, the cube balanced on the pole loses puzzle pieces [randomly or for a proscribed reason?]....dysolving into a prismatic, wondrous, yet ...... as in a tale..... waiting for inquiring minds to comment....[cf: commit?]....

chAPTer Oneness....


Ashton Shaffer's picture

Questions and Understanding

Well, the words seem to suggest that "Understanding is ??? (questions/questioning), but is this trying to convey that understanding is gained by questioning (which seems reasonable) or that the simple act of understanding is merely a continuous series of asking questions? My guess is it's probably both. As for the significance of the colored sphere and the block with the puzzle pieces, I don't think that whether the pieces are going up or down is really crucial to the message. I would assume that the point is to communicate that understanding is never complete and is full of diversity. If I had to sum up my guess on the meaning of the picture, it would be that there are always things to learn outside of the realm of human ability and that there are many different viewpoints that contribute to the common whole understanding.