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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Responsibility in Storytelling

Last week I went to a Crisis Prevention training as a requirement for my camp job this summer. The person leading the training session told a lot of her personal stories. She talked about the experiences she has had with children, occasionally directly related to crisis prevention, sometimes tangentially related, and frequently not at all related to crisis prevention.

Throughout the training I sat, trying to absorb the information and take notes, but also observing the other adults in the room laughing at and thoroughly enjoying the tales the instructor was telling.

This "storytelling" made me uncomfortable. What was the the value of the anecdotes we were being told? Were they helping us learn how to deal with children experiencing stress, or were they simply "funny" and entertaining stories? In her book chapter "Are you makin' me famous or makin' me a fool?: Responsibility and respect in representation" Appleman¹ discusses the care that must be taken when writing about other people. Reading this chapter last semester impacted the way I have read, interpreted, and analyzed all subsequent books and articles. Appleman's reflective analysis of the ways she has used anecdotes in the past, and the impact this potentially has on those she is writing about, have subsequently reminded me to always take note of the purpose and effect of these types of stories.

When I write about an experience I have had with a child (or anyone, for that matter) what is my purpose? Am I attempting to reflect upon the experience, using written word to organize jumbled moments into coherent thoughts? Am I recording an experience in writing in hopes of having something to refer to later which may help me to deconstruct future experiences? Or, am I simply telling the story to laugh at something funny the other has said or done?

I feel that the woman in charge of my Crisis Prevention training was telling many of the stories she told solely to entertain. This is something with which I disagree. Whether or not this was her direct purpose, the only value I could ascertain was one of entertainment, and that makes me uncomfortable. The children she was talking about are real people with various difficulties and life experiences. I appreciate that she gave examples of times during which various crisis prevention methods should be used and other time during which crisis prevention should not proceed beyond a certain point. However, her details and stories were recounted to excess. These were beyond the point of what Appleman would call responsible storytelling. These anecdotes were meant to shock and entertain first, and perhaps teach and inform second. (Although I do doubt that some of these stores were told with even the intention to teach or model.)

Perhaps I am being oversensitive. After all, everyone else in the room seemed to be enjoying themselves - this included people around my age as well as people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. Maybe the fact that I am still enmeshed in the world of academia, mentally if not physically, allows me the luxury of mentally critiquing a trainer who obviously has much more experience than do I. Maybe it's the idealism that I hope to hold on to as long as I can. Maybe it's just my continued striving to be the best educator/person I can, to tell stories only with a purpose and not to mock or exploit the children's actions. I don't know. I do know though that throughout the training I felt uncomfortable with the type of anecdotal stories being shared, and the ways in which the other adults in the meeting were reacting to the tales. I immediately thought of Appleman's book chapter, which has greatly impacted the ways I read ethnographic accounts and the ways I create (in spoken word or in writing) stories of my experiences with children. The fact that a professional seemed to break a rule which I have created for myself only makes me more aware of the importance of only telling stories in responsible and productive ways.

¹Appleman, D. (2003). “Are you makin’ me famous or makin’ me a fool?” Responsibility and respect in representation. In Greene, S. & Abt-Perkins, D. (Eds.), Making race visible: Literacy research for cultural understanding (pp. 71-84). New York: Teachers College Press.

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Blogger Neophyte said...

I think this raises an interesting point -- us young'uns are frequently much more sensitive to this kind of thing than are more experienced folks. I believe it's called "youthful idealism."

My ex-girlfriend works with former felony offenders with mental health issues, and she spent the first few months talking on eggshells about her clients. Six months in, however, and she was telling wry and funny stories about the same clients. Her attitude towards them and her work with them - not to mention her respect for them - hadn't changed one whit, but she had learned that in order to survive in a field like that, you have to have a sense of irony. I imagine that, if the storyteller in question is a good person and not just a callous bitch, a similar mechanism is at work here. Sometimes you just need a release valve.

But good for you for setting high standards of conscientiousness. It's rough out there, and someone has to maintain a certain level of thoughtfulness.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Not Quite Grown Up... said...

Neophyte, in the case of your ex-girlfriend, I would say that she was reflecting and decompressing by sharing her experiences, and that is very important (and I don't think at all inappropriate).

I probably was just over-sensitive at this training though. And over-attuned to my youthful idealism. :)

6:57 AM  

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