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Towards Day 25: The Call of Stories

Anne Dalke's picture


course notes by veritatemdilexi

Carl Sagan meets Robert Coles....what would THIS conversation be like???

I. coursekeeping
today's notetaker: veritatemdilexi

am not ready to sign you up for final (required!) writing conferences...
e-mail me as you find yourself ready to talk,
next week, over the weekend, or early the week after (by Tuesday, 14th)

for next Tuesday, read the remainder of Robert Coles' The Call of Stories--
and come ready to sign up for your final performance groups

tomorrow @ 5 p.m.: your third 4-pp paper is due on-line

as continued inspiration for more creative on-line work:
Changing Education Paradigms

if we wanted to work in these directions: what sort of
college writing projects would we be  assigning and doing?
some examples of local possibilities:
Melinda, The Internet Connection
Hannah, Bryn Mawr: First Life, Second Life
Alex, Notes Towards Day 28: Know Thyself, Know Thy Technologies
The Doctor, The Endless Dance: A Hyper(non)fiction

"changing paradigms" is another way to frame a conversation between Sagan and Coles, about how education is/should be done....

II. Tuesday we were digging into Carl Sagan's  "religion" of skepticism:
how deep does it go? how "real" is his "reality"?

Tyl: Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World is constantly exhorting its readers to exert skepticism, considering everything through the lense of scientific enquiry. But he does not, however, turn science under this same exacting microscope .... What Sagan does not acknowledge is that Science is itself an authority, and if we are to be true to his argument, it too must come under the same extreme scrutiny that he advocates for government and religion.

SandraG: I found ... a statement that 93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Scientists are Atheist or Agnostic... They  most likely  feel that if they cannot prove something then they do not believe it

EVD: After class today I was thinking about how I might apply Sagan's skepticism to my life. I consider myself a pretty skeptical person, especially of authority, but I was trying to think of instances when I might not be skeptical... I think that Carl Sagan would say that I should be skeptical in accepting the opinion of my own doctor... you could make the same argument about judging the advice of your lawyer or even of a professor who gave you advice about editing a paper...but is this really feasible? No matter how much I try to learn about these things I still won't be as knowledgeable as a person whose profession it is to be knowledgeable about the subject....I'm still not really sure what exactly Sagan means by "skepticism" and "questioning authority."

platano: I find myself caught between God and the facts that science presents.... I feel guilty that my belief is not as firm, and sometimes I feel like I've completely lost it.... For years religion has had the authority, but ... we have given the authority to Science.... What bothers me the most about Carl Sagan's writing is that he seems condescending to those that believe in something without evidence (i.e. God).... I feel prodded in a certain direction. Not just by Carl Sagan, but by other people that consider themselves "questioners" or academics.... Sagan speaks as if he, the academic/scientist, knows what the next step should be for me. 

"the order of the Universe is not an assumption; it's an observed fact" (273);
and yet: does he believe/do you "believe" that we are alone? (396).
what is the role of the imagination, in the practice of the scientist?

FatCatRex: According to Sagan, normal lies somewhere between reality and fantasy...
some of our shared truths came from a space of collective dreaming, instead of fact.

maht91:  In the chapter about Hallucinations, there is a line on page 105 that says: "...much of culture is hallucination," and that "the whole intent and function of ritual appears to be...[a] group wish to hallucinate reality"....According to the OED, hallucinate is "to be deceived, to suffer illusions, entertain false notions, blunder, mistake"... the etymology...means "to wander in mind, talk idly, prate."

Smacholdt: As Sagan points out on page 137, everyone’s senses are fallible .... how are we supposed to prove things about the world? ...Sagan also ... admits that he too is ... prone to superstitious wishes and beliefs, like wanting to see his parents again.

veritatemdilexi: I came across a quote from Brunno Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment"-"He can achieve... understanding, and with it the ability to cope, not through rational comprehension of the nature and content of his unconscious, but by becoming familiar with it through spinning out daydreams-ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements in response to unconscious pressures.  BY DOING THIS, THE CHILD FITS UNCONSCIOUS CONTENT INTO CONSCIOUS FANTASIES, WHICH THEN INABLE HIM TO DEAL WITH THAT CONTENT.  Suggesting that we exist in a world of "nonfiction" but we then teach our children through "fiction" to create a "reality" that then allows them to deal with the "facts" of life.  Perhaps the only way to understand nonfiction is through fiction? Ideas?

jaranda: Sagan raises a lot of questions about what we take as “fact”.... it seems as though the stubbornness to acknowledge anyone has been duped, will mean change is a long way off.  

"Denial by definition": Definitions -- establishing limits -- are powerful verbal tools. They can help us understand words better. However, words sing. Words are poetic and polyvalent. When we cram them into definitions, we are always performing a Procrustean maneuver.

If the result doesn't seem to fit our definition, it may be that we need to come up with a better definition.

III. Cf. The Call of Stories-->
what do Sagan and Coles have to say to one another/to us?

was Coles' education into skepticism?
is he calling us into a different sort of education?
how are the stories he tells like/different from Sagan's stories of science?

platano: Sagan and Coles both admit that everyone is fallible. They both however seek the truth, and learn to do so despite the blurs between reality and fantasy.... There's something collective about the way that we share stories that allows us to move past categories.

Smacholdt: I think that part of the reason that we enjoy stories so much is because we all have a fundamental need for understanding and human connection. We want to know that someone else has gone through what we have. A student that Coles talked to put it well: “we’re all in trouble, one way or the other” ...People need stories to make sense of their lives and experiences.... Coles makes the point that you can really make someone else’s story your own....I loved the way that Coles opened the book. He intentionally began his first patient’s story…like a story. For a minute I thought I was about to read a novel. However, reading the first patient’s story made me think... Isn’t the nature of a story that it’s biased, that it’s your own experience of an event? Is it possible to have a non-fictional story, or are the two terms mutually exclusive? So are all stories fictional? And if so, why are we reading a book entirely about stories in a non-fictional prose class?

Aya: I think one of the important parts of Coles's book (in the context of a course examining texts) is the simple value he places on stories .... I think it's also interesting (at this point in the course) to ask (again) why write books at all, why read them and why write nonfiction in particular. Is that even what is being written? The major difference I have arrived at in regard to non-fiction is treatment by the audience. I don't know how the quantify it. There's an assumed level of relevance to non-fictional books where as fictional forms need translation, analysis, theory. 

The Call of Stories does a good job of showing ... the 'use-value' of narrative ... maybe what also bears consideration is the narratives that surround us with no benefit of a cover page.... Life is narrative. We are surrounded by it, surround ourselves with it and our impulse to call it 'non fiction' or 'factual' is ... perhaps as distancing as our efforts to call patients 'hysteric' and 'phobic'.

EVD:  Coles' writing ... about Children of Crisis.."if they are not true, neither are they false...They have the status of fiction based very firmly on the transcription of life"... he lets each story speak for itself ... He seems to be skeptical of categorizing his storytellers and so avoids being scientific in interpreting the stories ... I wonder what Carl Sagan would say about his skepticism of subjecting "true" stories to scientific categorization! ... the stories do not pass through any filter before the reader gets a hold of them... taking whatever someone deems as their own story as the truth... I think this is a really interesting concept, that anything that someone says is their story is true in its own way even if its a lie.

veritatemdilexi:  The plane, this class, is going to land very soon, we are now in the final descent.  Do we now try to stand up as we are approaching the ground entirely unaware of the world and environment that surrounds us?  I really hope that "Call to Stories" will give us the feeling of landing that this class needs

what has been the role of stories in your life?
(how) have they "called" you? what is their "use-value"?

xii: from reading vs. the radio, and "drowning in print," to
A Literature of Social Reflection: fiction of moral and social inquiry
xviii: these pages: documentary study or psychiatric anthropology
14: hold off the rush to interpretation
19: active listeners give shape to what we hear
27: "more stories, less theory"
29:  Theory was a means of getting to the core of things...
"Who's against shorthand? No one I know.
Who wants to be shortchanged? No one I know."
47: "the beauty of a good story is in its openness--
the way you or I or anyone reading it can take it in, and use it for ourselves"
79: Dorothea Brooke's "theoretic" mind had not always helped her understand people.
85: we were all being Mr. Heads, himself included...trying to prove to the world how 'high-and-mighty smart' we are.
89: Sure, the mind wanders...But @ a certain point..I make connections....The students are usually grateful. They want to digress, but they want to be brought back home, also. Otherwise they feel lost--too much on their own."
90: George Eliot insists in Middlemarch that life can be exceedingly hard to tie down with abstract, categorical formulations, and hard as well to predict...College students are forever trying to find a direction for their lives and forever discovering that there are currents and cross-currents to negotiate. Again and again, instructed by novelists, students remind themselves of life's contingencies.
97: high moments of consciousness that philosophers say make us what we are, creatures of language who find phrases that display the I clinging to itself
"Don't free associate....Try to describe what you saw..and remember to cover it with words."
100: Medical students keep learning to concentrate, to get to the very heart of this or that matter. They keep struggling to tame life itself, in its excesses, its madness. And they keep being stopped in their tracks by moments of tragedy or great bad luck.

28-29: I went to visit William Carlos Williams regularly when I was in medical school...heard him describe ... "minds gone all awry"...Dr. Willaims urged me to tell "doctor stories"...short fiction meant to evoke the various events, moods, impasses a doctor experiences.

The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams

so much depends



a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


This Is Just To Say  
by William Carlos Williams
I have eaten the plums that were in the icebox and which you were probably saving for breakfast Forgive me they were delicious so sweet and so cold

“A Sort of a Song”

Let the snake wait under
his weed
and the writing
be of words, slow and quick, sharp
to strike, quiet to wait,

—through metaphor to reconcile
the people and the stones.
Compose. (No ideas
but in things) Invent!
Saxifrage is my flower that splits
the rocks.