"Connecting the Dots of Labor Stories" NEWCA Keynote 2016
Connecting the Dots of Labor Stories Jackie Grutsch McKinney NEWCA Keynote Address: Keene, New Hampshire, April 2, 2016
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak with you today. I’m so honored to kick off what promises to be an enriching experience for all of us as we spend a couple days listening and learning from one another, fortifying old connections and making new ones. Like many of you, I can’t imagine doing writing center work without gathering with writing center colleagues at least once a year. For those of you who are first-time conference attendees, be forewarned. Many a writing center tutor has changed the direction of their lives after a conference. The exchange of ideas, the decency of writing center people, and the contagious passion for the work is a pretty potent intoxicant.
I was, of course, really excited that the conference theme would take on the idea of stories. I love stories. I think storying is essential part of humanity: we can’t not story. We are compelled to story and we are compelled by story. I know by training I should believe that “everything is an argument,” but I actually see the world through story-glasses. I agree with Jonathan Gottschall who says humans are the storytelling animal—that is, storytelling makes us human.
Because we are compelled to story and are compelled by story, because we are the story-telling animal, we even story our work. When we talk about writing center stories, we are talking about work stories—labor stories. So, writing center stories are about work. And, stories do work. There are no unmotivated stories or storytellers.
This conference and calls for qualitative writing center research invite us to tell or collect “writing center stories,”: the question though is: what do we do with these stories? This is the question I’m going to try to answer today and that I know many of you are working through in your presentations this weekend. For my part, I’m going to suggest if we read writing center labor stories through a narrative inquiry frame, that is if we collect and treat stories as data for empirical research even when they are our own stories, the stories are infinitely more interesting and, really, more useful.
Before I get into all that, I want to ask you to contribute something that we’ll come back to at the end of the talk. This is the audience participation part of this keynote. Have you heard of six word memoirs? This is where you try to say something about your life in just six words. It can be a phrase. Six separate words, whatever. Well, I’d like you to send me your 6-word writing center labor story. Tell me about your work in six words. [describe how to send] [give two minutes for writing]. OK, good. We’ll look at these in a little bit.
So, when I was working through this talk, I realized that the idea of “labor stories” connotes another kind of narrative in American culture: the birth story. I’m not sure if you all have heard birth stories, but when you are pregnant, there’s not a person you meet who doesn’t want to share a birth story with you. (To spare us both embarrassment later, let me be clear: I’m not pregnant now nor will I ever be again.) And, the thing is, every birth story is a gruesome, tragi-comedy. Someone says something inappropriate. Something terrible happens that, according to the books, shouldn’t. There’s pain. Oh my god, is there pain. There are certain, shall we say, lasting effects. And, there’s a down right stupid contagious joy. When I was pregnant for the first time, two of my dear friends were pregnant, too. We compared notes on these labor stories that were given to us and wondered if the tellers of these stories, for even a single moment, thought about what a burden the stories were to us.
For the teller, the labor stories were surely cathartic. After giving birth, I understand the impulse for others to understand the depths of the fear, the unbridled happiness, and my own heroics when faced with crippling pain.
But as the pregnant receiver, labor stories were like a too-late cautionary tale. They were “go back” signs when you had already committed to the path. And, also, there was a little competitive edge to these tales—my birth was so much more “authentic” (read drugless) than your birth will be, or your birth will never be as hard as mine was, or I made very good choices in my pregnancy so my birth was perfect and easy (as is my baby perfect and easy). As a terribly competitive person, I didn’t need this. Believe me.
Looking back, I realize that as I heard these stories I was also being initiated into how to tell my own birth story. I learned who the hero was, how to frame the conflict (the mother wants the baby to come out, the baby does not want to come out or conversely comes out much quicker than everyone expects), that bodily functions that one does not normally disclose are perfectly acceptable details to describe in full, and that time and numbers are important to the story. Labor stories always include centimeters and hours.
And, what is true of birth stories is true of all kinds of stories: we learn them by osmosis. We learn when they can and should be told, who the permitted characters are, how the plot line curves up and down. We learn, as narrative theorists say, the cultural script. In Peripheral Visions for Writing Centers, I argued that there’s a common story about writing centers, too. Though our work is complex, I argued, that our storying of the work, the labor of working in and running a writing center is not. Instead, I say we have a writing center grand narrative which, like the birth stories I was told, have particular conventions, consequences, and ways of being told. And, I argued that once we learn the contours of a particular story, it is difficult to tell a story without falling into those narrative conventions. The problem with this is, I argued, that the magnetic pull of storytellers to the grand narrative reifies a central story and a central way of telling a story, and all stories begin to sound the same. We find ourselves leaving things out to fit. We find ourselves watching our lives to see how they fit the story rather than crafting stories that necessarily reflect our material realities.
When I was researching for this talk, I was searching labor stories, and came across a hilarious blog post by Mommyish that decried how boring birth stories are. The author wrote: “Everyone gets a year long grace period, since I understand that you just brought a child into the world in an explosion of blood and goo and that’s still kind of mind blowing. But once your kid’s first birthdayhas come and gone, every engraved invitation that I send to your home will have an asterisk under the RSVP line that cordially invites you to shut up about your mucus plug because we are all done with that now.” Birth stories—labor stories, all stories that follow a cultural script—can be boring because the way they are told familiar and predictable—even when births are actually wildly interesting and momentous. On a similar vein, I know many seasoned writing center professionals who are over stories about faculty who don’t understand writing centers or students who just want proofreading, when, on the whole, these professionals find their work invigorating and challenging.
Though still think the pressure is high of our field to tell legible writing center stories in the scholarship —discipline here has two meanings—I want to consider writing center stories outside of published scholarship today. I ended Peripheral Visions suggesting we take up Lyotard’s suggestion for “little stories” as one way to resist the grand narrative. Little stories are the stories of individuals. And, I’ve spent the last few years in a stew of little stories, which both confirm and resist the writing center grand narrative. I had to learn, along with my co-researchers, how to read these little stories, how to answer the question of “what do we do with these stories?”
We had to learn to see the complexity of stories by drawing on the work of narrative inquiry. Narrative inquiry show us how to understand stories, how to ask for stories, how to sort and contextualize stories, even how to write our stories so that we can learn from them. Today, I’m going to talk first about some assumptions about narrative that narrative researchers start from, then I’m going to talk about a couple of ways to situate writing center stories, and finally we’ll get to back your six word memoirs to see if the lenses and approaches to analysis can make sense of the stories you’ve told.
ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT NARRATIVE
Scholars such as Jerome Bruner, Susan Chase, and Michael Bamberg have written extensively on how narrative researchers approach narratives. Here are some central assumptions of narrative researchers which illustrate the often competing pressures of telling a story:
1. Narratives are verbal action; they do or accomplish something. Sometimes they try to accomplish shared experiences—such as the student who just wants proofreading. Sometimes they are cautionary tales—like the birth stories I heard. [Chomsky example]
2. Narrative is retrospective meaning making. Bruner says narratives are interpretations of reality: “There is no innocent eye, nor is there one that penetrates aboriginal reality. There are instead hypotheses, versions, expected scenarios. Our precommitment about the nature of life is that it is a story, some narrative however put together. Perhaps we can say one other thing: any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it can be told” (Bruner, 1991a, 36).
3. Bruner also notes that the meaning we are trying to make is not just for others. We are trying to make the story make sense in our bigger life story. He says past, internalized narratives direct future actions; when new things happen to us, we work to see how this is part of our ongoing self-narrative. This is called diachronic identity maintenance by Bamberg. Stories are both enabled and constrained by social resources and circumstances. They have to be intelligible to receivers of the story.
4. Jerome Bruner tells us an individual’s narrative conforms to cultural expectations: we tell stories to be seen as typical or “culturally confirming”; we tell stories to articulate belonging.
genre: "a typified rhetorical action based in recurrent situations” Carolyn Miller
5. Narratives are “socially situated interactive performances—a produced in a particular setting, for a particular audience, for a particular purpose.”
Bamberg says we can ask: why this story now?
6. Narrative researchers pay attention to what is said and what is unsaid in stories. Avery Gordon would say that some stories are ghost stories—they haunted by what is left unsaid.Restated and somewhat simplified, we can ask these questions of little stories we collect, we hear, and even that we tell.
+++ It was with these questions in mind for narrative that I began a year-long study of new writing center directors with my two amazing colleagues, Nikki Caswell and Becky Jackson. We selected nine new directors from different backgrounds and at different types of institutions and different regions of the states and one Eastern European country. We wanted to know what new writing center directors did on the job--what was their labor? We interviewed them for a full academic year. In narrative inquiry, researchers can explicitly elicit stories and metaphors or they can find stories within the data. We did both. We found that both the length of each interview 20-60 minutes, the frequency of the interviews (4-8 times over the academic year), and the degree to which the directors identified as WCDs, resulted in the participants telling us stories that bolstered the cultural scripts about writing centers and diverging from these. Their stories were sometimes expected and sometimes surprising.
I want to walk you through one story that was surprising. Nikki, Becky and I spent a long time talking through this story. We heard it, we could understand it, but we didn’t immediately know what to make of it, since the participant went off the cultural script. Doing so, I hope to illustrate how “little stories” are not easy to untangle; they may be “little” in Lyotard’s terms, the issues are not small.
The story is on your handout. It’s from Isatta. Isatta was a first-year writing center director at an HBCU during our study year. She was appointed director, without asking—or wanting to be director she notes in our first interview. She also becomes the de facto writing program administrator and WAC director. Though new to these roles, Isatta has been working in higher education for decades; she has a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition and gets award tenure during the study year. For these reasons, perhaps, Isatta is bolder in making decisions than some of the other new writing center directors in our study. Over the year of talking with Isatta and then a couple years reading transcripts and shaping the book manuscript, we came to admire the work of our participants. Isatta is no exception. I invite you to try to set aside any assumptions you bring to working in a writing center when you read her story because it might lead you to judge before you understand.
We asked each of participants each interview to think about a significant moment they had had since we last talked. One month, Isatta told us this story:
ISATTA, significant story #1 “So, my assistant director who runs the training every Friday morning let me know that this student wasn’t attending. I had them come to my office, you know, just let her know the importance of being here and being professional because our theme this year in the writing center is professionalism. If she had a problem, just come and let us know and see how we can solve that problem with her. But just to not show up and ignore the whole situation--we’re not going to tolerate that. And I talked to her like a daughter; I have three grown daughters, so I was able to relate to her and share my experiences of being a mother and how we need to be responsible. You don’t want to disobey the associate director. You don’t want to disobey her because you never know when you are going to need her for references. You probably will some day; you will need her for references when you graduate, so you want to be able to do the best you can as an employee. And as a student as well. She took that very well from my standpoint. I wasn’t really preaching to her. I just wanted her to know the importance of her being here, and that I expected her to be here for the rest of the training for this year, this semester. I bet she’ll find a way to get here, so it’s not even something that I’ve been doing for a long time, but I think it’s something that I had to do at this point in time to take care of the situation.”
We can ask of this story the five questions:
1. What does she try to do in telling this story? I believe she is trying to show us her work as a director. She is showing her competence and articulate her role as she sees it.
2. We can ask what internalized narrative does this story fit with? How does she see this moment as consistent with her story? I believe she tells us in the beginning of this story—this is a story of how she is making the writing center more professional. More on this in a second. It also tells of the limits of her tolerance and acceptance of the role of boss.
3. Third, does this story fit with a cultural script? It doesn’t easily fit with a writing center cultural script where hierarchies are usually downplayed. Nor does it fit with a feminist script which would worry about equating boss work with acting like a mom. Yet, we think she was trying to fit a different cultural script, one as a boss, one where the buck stops with her.
4. Fourth, we can ask: why this story now? We know that she’s participating in our study to document her work; she has expressed in nearly every interview that HBCUs are not adequately represented in WC work, so this is part of her motivation overall. I think she tells this story both because she might want reassurance from us that she handled the situation well and some empathy about the difficult parts of running a writing center. But she also wants to show, on behalf of HBCU directors, strong leadership.
5. Finally, we can ask: what’s left out? Perhaps many things, but interestingly, we don’t hear what the other players in this conversation say. What does the AD say? And what does the tutor say?
In addition to asking questions about the pressures of narrative, we can contextualize this one “little” story with other little stories. This is something that is central to qualitative research: deep collection of data and triangulation. Next on your handout is how Isatta articulate her goal for the year:
ISATTA, focus for the year “Professionalizing the writing center has to do with how our tutors are hired, it has to do with training our tutors, has to do with how our tutors (we call them consultants but I keep saying tutors) greet their peers when they come in the writing center, how our tutors present themselves personally, how they dress and all that. Just trying to run it like a well-oiled business place and also a comfortable place that clients can come and get help with their writing. That's my goal: to make it professional—a little bit more professional than it is right now.”
When we read this next to the first story, we can see how she’s connecting the incident where she has to reprimand a tutor with her goal for the year. Another story that Isatta tells us, also seemed to speak back to the first story. She tells us about the time a student apply to work at the Writing Center:
ISATTA, significant story #2 “He sent us an email and just because he’s not tutoring doesn’t mean his writing shouldn’t be effective. So, he sends this email and it’s just full of grammatical errors. He attaches a résumé that has nothing to do with the job. It seems like he did a cover letter and résumé for something else and he decided that he would submit it for this particular job as well. [...] You have to apply for the appropriate job. So, my assistant did not know how to handle the situation really, and she thought, “I just wouldn’t respond to him. That’s okay. We’re just going to ignore him.” I said, “Let’s not ignore him. Let’s call him in, and it’s not like we’re pretending we’re going to give him the job.” But we said, “We’d like to see you. Just come on in. We’d like to talk to you.” So he comes in and we talk to him about his writing and how he can improve on his writing. How we want to make sure any type of document he sends out there represents who he is as a young man, as an intelligent young man. We’re open to him revising that email and reapplying for the job, even though he wasn’t going to get the job. It doesn’t matter; it was a teachable moment. So he came in and we talked to him. He was receptive and everything. He was warm and said he appreciated what we have done because a lot of people would not have done that. They would have just ignored it and not done anything about it. So he really appreciated it; he’s learned from that experience.”
This story seemed again a moment where Isatta was motherly, perhaps, but clearly not focused merely on the moment at hand but on the horizon. She is concerned with professionalization not only because of how people will perceive the writing center, but really because she wants students to be successful long term.
Since we had nine participants in our study, we were also able to contextualize Isatta’s “little stories” with others in the study. We noticed that several directors had similar issues over the course of the year. Sara tells us a significant story that also involves confronting a tutor. Sara was also a first-year director, but she is at a larger PWI university, she is non-tenure track, and does not have a degree in Rhet/Comp. She tells us:
SARA, significant story “I’m getting a little bit of pushback from my grad students. One of them has been working for the center during the interim time when there was no director, so he has a real sense of ownership about it. And he wanted to drop down from what he’s doing right now which is 20 hours a week to 10 hours a week. But I told him my goal is to have no one working less than 20 hours per week because we have two grad assistants from English work ten hours a week, and it’s really hard. They’re hardly ever here. It’s difficult for the tutors because there’s no kind of consistency and leadership. And it’s hard for them, too. They want to do more, but they simply don’t have the time to do it. Their emphasis is on teaching. So, I’ve actually worked it out with English that I should be able to have two 20-hour GAs from English and I think that will be great. So I told the GA who wanted to drop down that I really have to have this center’s best interest in mind. If you can’t commit to 20 hours then you’re going to have to look for other opportunities. I think his feelings were hurt.”
Notably in Sara’s story are the words “hard,” “pushback,” and “difficult.” We see less confidence in her stance and concern about how the tutor feels about this conversation, about Sara’s decision.
Finally, there are other ways to compare “little stories.” One interesting way, which we didn’t do in the book, is to create analytic I-Poems, a method suggested by Carol Gilligan to reveal agency and identity in qualitative transcripts. The method involves culling from the transcripts any moments where participants use “I” and a verb phrase. The researcher lists these in the order they were found. I did this for Isatta’s first story and Sara’s story for illustration of another thing we can do with little stories. I’m not going to read these, but we can talk more about them in the Q&A if you like.
ISATTA, I-Poem I had them come to my office let us know we’re not going to tolerate that I talked to her I have three grown daughters I was able to relate to her I wasn’t really preaching to her I just wanted I wasn’t I expected her I bet she’ll find a way I’ve been doing for a long time I think I had to
SARA, I-Poem I’m getting a little bit of pushback I told him my goal I’ve actually worked it out I should be able I think I told the GA I really have to have I think
What I hope to have illustrated today is that little stories are far from simple. When we ask for little stories, collect little stories in data, or tell little stories, we need to acknowledge that narratives are complex and simple, singular interpretation is evasive. I believe that the questions of narrative inquiry allow us to resist simple interpretations, as does putting “little stories” in context with other little stories by the same teller and others. I’ve used the idea of constellations as a visual metaphor here on these slides to emphasize the power in connecting little stories to other little stories into something larger and more complex, connecting little stories organically by where they are already grounded. I believe this is what we do with writing center stories: connect them. One does not erase the other, they sit together to make meaning.
And, finally, before we look at your six word stories, I would like to encourage us as tellers of little stories to be self-reflective in our storytelling. I would like us to Do our labor stories, like the birth stories I was told, scare, scar, intimidate, or confuse our listeners? Do they bore? And if they do, why do they? Have we done the work of seeing how our stories align with cultural scripts, existing scholarship, and other stories? To put it dramatically: are our stories black holes, continually taking and collapsing in on themselves? On a different note, to what do we connect our stories if we do? Do we look very far into the darkness?
Many years ago, Lynn Craigue Briggs and Meg Woolbright editing a collection called Stories from the Center. They encouraged WC professionals to use stories because “so many publications about writing centers seemed to sweep away complexity, to reduce tutoring/consulting/responding to a set of seven steps or five categories, to streamline policy and procedures, and to offer simple ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’ ” (x). I agree in the power of stories, and caution us to be careful of stories that collapse complexity.
Let’s discuss the memoirs you wrote for a bit and then I can open it up for more general questions and comments.