Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Making Good Stories


In twenty days,  I’ll be innovating a course at the University of Maryland called Good Stories: Teaching Narratives for Peace & Justice, perhaps the culmination of my forty-odd years as a professional educator.  Encouraged by my administrators to develop the course as an option in the renovation of gen ed requirements, for motives that I read as altruistic and other, I opted into this redesign for a similar complex of reasons.  One strong drive comes from the vitality that I feel in the dynamic engagement of story, particularly as its nature flexes into emergent forms of digital media.  I want to chart my process by writing in this forum and hope to be joined by friends who may contribute reflections or simply provide silent witness.

About twenty years ago, I was captivated by an oral storyteller, Gioia Timpanelli, in the company of Robert Bly, Coleman Barks, and a host of others, in a mytho-poetic camp doing what some call performance of text, or the living text.  The translation of cultural treasure stored in mythic tales into contemporary meaning shot through me with the affirmation of gnosis or sacred truth.  The work of civilization and consciousness, to me, means the task of constructing social truth, which involves peace, justice, freedom, and love, of course.  This work in the 21st century must engage social and digital media.  The course on Good Stories, then, translates narrative across the terrain of oral, print, and digital media; and the process of translating is key.

As I prepare for this adventure, I’m very aware that the academic subculture includes a band of cut-throats whose status depends on ravaging what can be sacked as non-rigorous, juvenile, or the like.  Certainly the word story looks like easy prey.  Thus on alert for bolstering my defense system, my eyes glimmered at the title and description of a book: On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd (Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2009).  The reviews promised: “This is an insightful, erudite, and thoroughly original work. Aside from illuminating the human love of fiction, it proves that consilience between the humanities and sciences can enrich both fields of knowledge,” (Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor).  “Boyd covers an astonishing range of evolutionary concepts, human evolution, cognitive and developmental psychology, human ethology, anthropology, game theory and related topics. Having done research in several of these areas, I can attest that he has selected judiciously and described the science remarkably accurately and clearly,” (Gordon Burghardt, University of Tennessee).

Now about a fifth of the way into Boyd’s 500 pages, some important applications to the course are churning.  Boyd sets out early to dismantle false dichotomies that limit the advance of civilization and the continuing place of story, such as nature versus nurture; a complex interplay among such forces better aligns with evolutionary psychology and the hope for peace.  His treatment of social intelligence, and particularly the evolution of cooperation (Chapter 4), portrays this poignantly:  The
greatest pressures for advanced intelligence arise from the need to track the identities, status, powers, and intentions of conspecifics [friends] and to respond to them to best advantage. . . cooperate . . .  subtly enough to earn resources obtainable only together. . . compete . . . to maximize their share of socially earned resources without risking prospects for future cooperation . . . [This is a] complex task in species with changeable hierarchies and fluid alliances.” (p. 45). 
Wow!  Doesn’t this undergird the need for powerful stories and storytellers and the engagement in storytelling in order to bring forward cooperation necessary for peace and justice!

The evolutionary advance of our being, with particular focus on the brain’s activity, deals with “subtle interactions at the variant end of the information continuum,” which I interpret as times when we have a non-routine problem that needs a more novel response.  In such times, Boyd says an active window on the mind’s computer screen gets bumped up into consciousness.
Deliberate attention amplifies information relevant to the problem and inhibits the irrelevant.  In the severely limited space of working memory, we process information not unconsciously or implicitly, but consciously or “explicitly,” and not in parallel but in series through representations—perceptions, memories, projections—in one of our central executive’s slave systems, via images (in our mind’s eye), words (in our mind’s ear), or episodic memories. (pp. 47-48)
My association leaps to what happens when I’m working in digital media with the frame by frame mixing of image, sound, and text.  All of these connect with memories and potentially lead toward creative responses to stuck situations.

Boyd confirms my experience that we have a compulsion for stories.  He validates the importance and difficulty of cooperation, which I call peace-making.
. . . increased cooperation, many researchers now believe, may also be the key to the runaway growth of human intelligence.  Through greater motivation to share emotions, attention, intentions, and information, we have learned to understand other perspectives and to detach thought from the immediate; we have developed language and what we could call human ultraculture. (p. 53)

Cooperation depends on maturity, not naïveté.  Civilization advances partially through the detection and treatment of cheaters.  Boyd states that our stories teach us how to do that.  My engagement in this text meshes forward into my appreciation and high value for integrity.  The compelling story consists in the truth of the word and speaker infused inseparably.  Society urgently depends on such storytellers/leaders as well as citizens with story savvy who discern lies and cheaters.  Discernment depends on purification.