I.17: Redefining Narrative Writing as a Strategy for Action

Reviewed by Ljiljana Coklin, University of California, Santa Barbara (lcoklin@writing.ucsb.edu)

Chair: Janet Auten, American University
Speakers: Janet Auten, American University, “Literacy Narratives as Auto-Ethnography: Helping Students Locate Themselves in Academic Discourse”
Karen Shaup, Georgetown University, “Hunting for Genre in Geocaching: The Narrative of Place and Academic Writing”
Alison Klein, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, “Changing the Narrative: Story as Advocacy for Social Change”

A renewed interest in using narrative in teaching composition brought out a sizable audience that packed the conference room on an early Friday afternoon. The three presenters, Janet Auten, Karen Shaup, and Alison Klein, set out to dust off the old perceptions of narrative as an outdated genre in composition classes and infuse it with new energy and purpose. To demonstrate how that may be the case, the presenters offered a range of possibilities and new ways to bring narrative assignments back to the classroom at a graduate level in composition teacher education, in a first-year writing class, and in high school.

Doubling her duty as a chair, Auten briefly introduced the premise of the panel and then opened with her presentation, “Literacy Narratives as Auto-Ethnography: Helping Students Locate Themselves in Academic Discourse.” Auten introduced her experience of working with graduate students in composition teaching classes. Drawing on Stephen Brookfield’s (1995) Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, Auten asked the students to compose a literacy narrative and examine writing strategies that have served them well. The goal of the assignment was to ask future composition teachers to locate themselves as students, critically reflect on their writing practices, and shape their positions as future teachers. After the initial unwillingness to make personal experience a part of their graduate work, the students followed the prompt and examined a literacy narrative through a list of reading response questions, thus turning personal experience into an analytical and reflective tool. Taking the projects through three stages — narration, reflection, and response — helped the students to establish connections between their experience and class readings. This critical distancing from the personal content led to further development of metacognitive awareness, as the students were able to use personal experience to illustrate scholarly ideas. In this way, Auten demonstrated how students turned literacy narrative into critical auto-ethnography, which helped shift the students’ perspective of writing from a means of communication to a mode of meta-reflection. The exercise in critical auto-ethnography was thus intended to provide a model for future critical action of composition teachers who could similarly use narrative to explore other academic genres or types of literacies, such as information or digital literacy, which might be essential to the work of their students.

Shaup’s “Hunting for Genre in Geocaching: The Narrative of Place and Academic Writing” focused on the role of narrative in teaching genre in a first-year composition course. Shaup designed a course around geocaching, an outdoor scavenger hunt that uses GPS technology and user-generated content to create a personalized tour. The students worked collectively on tours, such as “Music in DC,” “Women March On,” “U Street/Gentrification,” or “HIV/AIDS Awareness.” By creating their tours, students were able to interact with various locations, create a narrative about them, and then invite the virtual community to either discover new locations or experience familiar ones in a new way. As they did so, the students were made to reflect on the nature of an effective narrative, as well as on the nature and limits of genre. Some of the questions they faced in the process were “What makes a tour attractive?”, “How can we structure both an effective tour and narrative?”, “How does something new become familiar?”, and “How can we improve, rather than imitate, narratives on the website?” The students learned that each tour called for a different genre, which they had to discover and adapt as they created narratives of specific locations.

By making students “hunt for genre,” Shaup wanted to reinforce two concepts about genres: that genres are both context specific and dynamic. In particular, she wanted the students to explore and stretch the limits of genre and engage with Peter Medway’s (2002) concept of a baggy genre, a genre that is amenable to revision and adaptation. The assignment was thus designed to help students understand that genre is a complex system, dependent on the context and open to revision, rather than a rigid form. Shaup believes that this exercise in adventurous use of narrative to explore a genre in action prepares first-year students effectively for new adventures in their future writing tasks.

Klein’s presentation, appropriately titled “Changing the Narrative: Story as Advocacy for Social Change,” demonstrated effectively the use of narrative to challenge negative perceptions of a marginalized community and turn personal narrative into a tool for social change. Klein introduced the Story Project, run by Shout Mouse Press, a program that invited teens of Ballou High School, a predominantly African American high school in Washington, D.C., to respond to the prompt “Our Lives Matter.” What started as an impassioned response to the unrests in Ferguson, MO, and Baltimore, MD, turned into a publication of the same title, a compilation of students’ narratives that shed light on the students’ lives, communities, experiences, and goals.

As Klein emphasized, narrative in this case helped students process politically and emotionally charged public events and encouraged them to speak back to the dominant narrative of race, violence, and injustice. Part of the success of the project Klein contributed to the three aspects of collaborative writing emphasized in studies like Felicia Mitchell’s (1992) “Balancing Individual Projects and Collaborative Learning in an Advanced Writing Class” and Vincent Gray’s (1993) “Just Short of Paradise: Collaborative Writing in Middle School.” The students needed to be engaged, or “turned on” by the project; the project had to have a broad and well-defined audience, and the project needed to be "published" or made public in some form in order to impart the significance of proofreading and editing the document. In this way, the communal writing project became also an effective opportunity to include and support novice writers. Our Lives Matter (2015) was sold in bookstores in Washington, D.C., and distributed to school libraries, and Klein had a few copies on hand during the conference. She stressed that the proceeds of the sales go to a Ballou High School scholarship fund and support future writing projects. Inspired by Klein’s talk, I purchased the book online and was excited to discover Shout Mouse Press and their intense focus on the power of narrative and personal voices: “Everyone has a story to tell and the ability to tell it. Our job is to amplify those voices, and to share them with you” (Shout Mouse Press, 2016). Our Lives Matter is an important yet fun piece of engaged writing that empowers novice writers and strives to effect social change.

The three presentations received a fair share of questions from the audience. Perhaps the inevitable question that immediately followed the panel had to do with objective assessment of personal narratives. While the question may have been pragmatic in nature, it also reflected a considerable distrust of the personal in an academic setting. The panelists responded to the question with brief accounts of their own experience of evaluating narrative in their classes and mostly hinting at the larger purpose of the narrative assignment, after which the discussion widened to the rest of the audience members. A few takeaways from that discussion were to establish clear parameters for assessment that had less to do with the students’ willingness to share the emotional content and more to do with their ability to critically examine personal experience, as well as to establish, analyze, and demonstrate a link between personal experience and the larger context in which it operates, such as, the composition teaching profession, an online game, or the dominant narrative of a marginalized group, as was the case of this panel.

Shaup’s presentation also generated quite a bit of interest in terms of course and assignment design, her teaching experience, and students’ responses to the assignment. While looking at the fun digital content of the assignment, many audience members wondered about the workload, and Shaup confirmed that designing the assignment and keeping up with students’ trajectories was quite labor intensive and time consuming. The most revealing detail that Shaup shared with the audience was the students’ resistance to inventing genre. A number of students felt at a loss when presented with a challenge of stretching the limits of a genre and creating a personalized story in a digital space. Their resistance had to do with the absence of models and hence responses like “What do you want from me?” or “Show me what to write.” Perhaps next time Shaup teaches the course, she can use a few examples from her initial experience to demonstrate the possibility of stretching and redefining genre in order to encourage creativity and help students gain confidence. The question that remained after this presentation was the possibility of using the geocache assignment in classes beyond first-year composition.

With little time left, Klein took questions about Our Lives Matter and Shout Mouse Press after the session had finished, as she handled the sales of the copies she had with her. This inspiring and rewarding panel demonstrated effectively the significance and efficacy of narrative in teaching composition. As the examples provided showed, narrative offers a great potential for developing students’ critical and analytical skills, facilitating self-discovery, and becoming a key strategy for action, be that exploring literacies, rediscovering new modalities, or redefining social perceptions. I have no doubt that the audience members left the panel with a renewed interest in teaching narrative and ample ideas for bringing narrative back to classroom.


Brookfield, Stephen D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Gray, Vincent. (1993). Just short of paradise: Collaborative writing in middle school. English Journal, 82(7), 58–60.

Medway, Peter. (2002). Fuzzy genres and community identities: The case of architectural students' sketchbooks. In Richard Coe, Lorelei Lingard, & Tatiana Teslenko (Eds.), The rhetoric and ideology of genre: Strategies for stability and change (pp. 123–153). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Mitchell, Felicia. (1992). Balancing individual projects and collaborative learning in an advanced writing class. College Composition and Communication, 43(3), 393–400.

Our lives matter: The Ballou story project. (2015). Washington, DC: Shout Mouse Press.

Shout Mouse Press. (2016). Retrieved from http://www.shoutmousepress.org/

Created by MorganM. Last Modification: Tuesday January 3, 2017 22:36:40 GMT-0000 by ccccreviews.