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What Sort of Stories Do You Like?

Towards Day 1 of Evolving Systems course

I. Welcome!--to evolving story that is BMC and E-Sem

for next 14 weeks we're going to be having a conversation here;
we are a various group, with varied experiences;
we come from different places and we know different things;
we also like different things, for different reasons...
so let's start by getting a taste of that...

...and start to get to know one another:

For Thursday, we're going to read a book by Thomas King, called The Truth About Stories, which begins,"When I was a kid, I was partial to stories about other worlds and interplanetary travel...Fact of the matter was I just wanted to get out of town."

Let's get a sense of our own story preferences,
before we learn more about King's story, and why he tells it the way he does:
go round, say our names and tell one another what sort of stories we like
(and if you know why, say why you like that kind).

II. trying out/modeling what we'll be doing

our first obligation here is to say what we know:
our task is to articulate our experiences—tell stories about them;

but our second obligation is to listen/really listen to one another's stories/
to try to take them in; this bi-partite experience can be very tricky:
on the one hand, to make our stories as compelling as we can;
on the other, to acknowledge that they are always inadequate, incomplete,
and open to revision: we have to be willing to change our stories in light of new information (this is hard to do—we get attached to the stories we tell….)

We’re going to get lots of practice talking with each other:
a learned skill, needing lots of experience.
What we’re working towards, value, in talking as in writing:
A willingness to speak up/share your insights, however wacky!

And a willingness to have them tested against further data, be revised in conversation.
You'll offer an initial thought, the rest of us will encourage you to develop that idea, to back it up. Risky, hard, important, and required: that you contribute to
ongoing conversation/learning of us all (not just your own, interior…)

Lots of little concrete ways to do this
(ex: don't raise your hand while someone's speaking);
come in to every class w/ some thoughts to share,
ready to say what you thought as you read: take notes, bring questions;
not really taking the course otherwise:
I've already done a lot of the cooking, but everybody's contributing to this pot luck!

So: we invite all accounts/insist that everyone shares what they are thinking;
and we insist on openness to re-telling/revising ‘em all (=being educatable!).
We'll start by telling stories about what we know experientially,
laying those experiences alongside one another,
and alongside what other experiencers/thinkers/writers
have experienced/known/thought/written about .

We will think and write together about the implications of our experiences
for the evolution of the larger world; after the introductory time w/ Thomas King,
the course has four sections, on

  • creation stories (mythical and scientific)
  • cultural stories (and how they change)
  • individual stories (and how they evolve)
  • our storytelling brains.

Move back and forth from abstract to concrete,
from the general to the specific,
from the philosophical to the pragmatic,
from the theoretical to the embodied,
from the time-distant to time present,
being spontaneous as we go--and revising constantly.

We’re going to start with Thomas King's collection of six native narratives,
which is both about the power and the danger of storytelling and -hearing:
"you have to be careful with the stories you tell.
And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told."

The particular emphasis of this collection is on the
creation, preservation and re-creation of Native American culture.
King tells two old legends: a story about creation,
and another one about Coyote and the ducks.
Three of his stories are historical:
one about Wil Rodgers, one about an "exhibit Indian," Ishi,
and one about the Indian schools.
The last one is personal: an excruciating story
about King's own failure to be a good friend.

There's lots of good (I mean bad) history included here, lots of awful, and awfully instructive, accounts of how "the Indian problem" was handled in this country in the past. Each story King tells begins with the identical preface, a story about it being "turtles all the way down." And each ends with the same caution: "Take it. It's yours. Do with it what you will .... But don't say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You've heard it now."

The collection is grounded in a belief that in fiction, as in life,
whether we live or die "depends on which story we believe."

Week after this, we will go outward from King's personal stories
to more universal narratives, about the origin of the universe,
then turn to cultural ones, about the diversity of cultural forms,
then loop back to individual lives and brains.

The central idea of the course is on-going evolutionary change,
which occurs simultaneously in the realms of inanimate, living,
cultural and individual human worlds.
Our central project will be to imagine the future evolution
both of ourselves as individuals and of our world as a whole.

III. Background
We are one of two courses in a cluster;
designed syllabus jointly w/ neurobio prof, Paul Grobstein,
teaching another section right next door,
w/ 14 other students, identical reading/writing assignments.

Outgrowth of an interdisciplinary faculty working group on Evolving Systems,
as well as much shared teaching over the years, including an earlier ESem on
Storytelling As Inquiry, and a mid-level Bio/English course,
The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories.

Paul, like me, has been here forever/decades.
Unlike me, he's done extensive laboratory research on the organization and development of the nervous systems of frogs, and has an array of more general interests: the underpinnings of human behavior, the nature of biological, cultural, and intellectual change, complex systems and general information processing principles, and the character of human understanding and the relationships among its different forms. He thinks of himself as an "applied neurobiologist."

My own earlier training was in 19th c. American lit; am interested now in all variations of American literature (understood as a world literature, fed by streams across space and time); in how literature, generally, gets organized (a new course this fall, on the wierd non-category of Non-fictional Prose); in the relation of literature to science (co-presenting a panel on the role of the unconscious in literary production/reception @ Society for Literature, Science and the Arts in November); & in emergent pedagogies. I am also a gender theorist (new spring course on Gender and Technology, co-taught w/ a physicist), and am involved w/ lots of campus activism (gay and transgender issues, social justice program, etc.).

Paul and I meet regularly to plan/co-ordinate/adjust what we're doing.
We might meet together w/ his section a couple of times this semester;
one joint activity we hope to host is a visit from Emily Artz French,
my first-cousin-once-removed, who created the multi-media images
we're using on our course website.

But mostly we'll just be meeting here, every Tues/Thus @ lunchtime
(bring your lunch if you want).

We’ll be giving you lots of food for thought throughout the next few months,
continually providing additional information,
asking why we think what we do,
how we might learn to think differently,
how we make choices in thinking our thoughts/telling our stories/living our lives.

You’ll have abt. 50 pp. reading to do for each class.
You'll find much of that reading on-line; you should also
pick up three books, all available in the Bookshop for a total cost of $43:
Thomas King's collection The Truth About Stories (for Thursday, $15);
Octavia Butler's science fiction novel, The Parable of the Sower ($10.50);
and a multi-authored graphic narrative, Logicomix: The Epic Search for Truth ($17.25).
Also pick up Diana Hacket’s Pocket Manual of Style, required of all sections;
(and here's a gift from the CSem program:
Gordon Harvey's Writing with Sources).
You can buy these more cheaply elsewhere if you want;
there are also copies in library, but not on reserve.
(The first chapter of The Truth about Stories is available on-line as a Google book).

Start on Thursday w/ the whole of King's collection (about 150 pp--whoosh!;
focus on the first chapter of creation myths).

Ask you to read--and to write regularly, both in and out of class,
and to meet with me every other week to discuss your thinking and your writing.
Hope to meet with (all/most of) you on Wednesdays, starting next week;
sign up for conferences on Thursday, once your schedules are (more) settled.

What's unique about our course is that, besides talking w/ each other in person,
and handing in a piece of more formal writing to us each week,
and having conferences about your writing (which all E-Sem'ers do),
we are offering you an inbetween space: our on-line class forum @

Each week, Paul and I are asking you to post a comment in that forum,
reflecting on our discussion from the week before
(more deliberate than speaking in class, less formal than written work:
excellent place for showcasing revisionary thinking).
About being a public intellectual: thinking out loud.

First assignment for Thursday (besides reading all of The Truth about Stories),
is to go to the web forum, introduce yourself, and put up a link to a creation story that "works for" or "connects to" you somehow--ethically, historically, philosophically, imaginatively, pragmatically....

To do this, you need to follow these instructions...

This is background/preparation/warm-up
for your first “formal” writing assignment,

which will be due a week from tomorrow (Wed, Sept. 8th).
This sets the pattern for our thinking-and-writing:
each Thursday, we'll have some new material to read and discuss together.
On Monday evening, post a short comment
in our on-line course forum, reflecting back on our discussion;
by 6 p.m. each Wednesday, e-mail me a 3-pp. paper.
(I’ll be bringing in samples of your writing for the rest of us to
look @ and work on together, anonymously @ first, on Thursdays).

Following week, we’ll give you another, different-but-related assignment.
Sequence intended to place what you know experientially into conversation
with something you may not know, have not encountered before.

Difficult push-and pull of authority and humility:
claim what you know, acknowledge what you don’t (yet),
and figure out the relation between the two.

In the first book we’re reading, The Truth About Stories, Thomas King writes from rich personal experience: he failed his first year of university, took a series of jobs (including craps dealer and bank teller), worked his way across the Pacific on a steamer, then worked in New Zealand and Australia as a photographer and photojournalist. He returned to the US, went to college, worked as an administrator, got his Ph.D, emigrated to Canada. He's now an English prof and Native (First Nations) activist.

We’re going to ask you to work (read/write) the way King's lived his life:
start w/ what you know, go outward, add to it.

Whole semester spelled out on-line (but will be revised! so keep on checking!)

What is also (probably) distinct about our course is our form of evaluation:
we will not grade any of your individual papers. @ the end of the semester,
you will put together a portfolio of all your work, and evaluate yourself.
The checklist for that evaluation, and our expectations, are all on-line
(this is not mysterious:
come to class and conferences,
contribute in-person and on-line,
hand your papers in on time,
be responsive to instruction...)

What else?

Let’s GET Back TO WORK
"principles of co-constructive dialogue"
do a "brain drain" (say what first comes to mind, tap into
the unconscious) re: "conversation" and re: "evolution" ....

Where do we differ? Where do we align?
What sense can we make of these patterns??
How might we alter/re-/co-construct them?

See you Thursday!


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