Tag Archives: narrative theory

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Thank you very much, but The Governor of Florida would prefer to tell your story his way.

Active Listening in the Classroom Heather Syrett.

An age-appropriate accounting of the multiform American experience is an educator’s duty.

These days a possible run for the Presidency means becoming the voice of widespread grievances held by potential voters. It’s a bit too early to know, but Governor Ron DeSantis’ and Florida’s legislative leaders seem to have mapped a path that includes taking on the educational establishment.  There appears to be no end to the state’s interest in laying down curriculum rules distinctly at odds with best practices known to schools of education, teachers, librarians and curriculum specialists. An age-appropriate accounting of the multiform American experience is an educator’s duty. But the Governor seems to favor gag orders that omit inclusion of all of the state’s citizens. Among other goals, he wants newer but widely accepted representations of gender off the table in most school classrooms.  In addition, DeSantis has replaced a university president and most of its board with fellow social conservatives, demanded the removal of “inappropriate” library books, disallowed a high school AP African American Studies course, and is attempting to dismember various diversity initiatives. He clearly prefers narratives that pull us back to the less aware years of the last century, when homosexuality was mostly not acknowledged, or insights about social injustice were limited to a few heroic figures. And forget about introducing students to what we now understand are the many sources of systemic bias. He treats this aspect of organizational life as if it were mere speculation rather than settled social science fact.

Here’s the thing. Building a description of anything in everyday language is not a neutral act. The vast and largely accepted literature in the Sociology of Knowledge reminds us that narrative cannot help but come from perspectives shaped by the particular experiences and values of a given community. Narratives evolve with shifting preferences. The question is less if there is a perspective, but which ones are in play at any one time. These systemic preferences—some harmless and some pernicious—are built into the rhetoric of human communities.


To progress beyond these limitations requires awareness.  Going the other way to denial leads us to banning rhetoric if it is “woke,” meaning that they may consider newer narratives that acknowledge more fluid definitions of gender, racial discrimination, or the situational ethics of the founding fathers. All are unsettling to anyone who mistakenly understands learning as a static enterprise dealing with “knowns” that are oversimplified into immutability. And so it follows that if a student is made to feel uncomfortable through discussion of a specific topic like the many form of the American family, a teacher is presumably supposed to retreat to some safer topic. Ditto for any topics touching on gender identity in the early elementary grades.

How does all of this look like in the classroom? One teacher in Palm Beach County recently changed her plans for a discussion about the first American woman to fly in space to omit the fact that Sally Ride was a lesbian. The teacher feared for her job if that detail was included. The same frightening logic is evident in the recent decision of a Florida College to cancel a scheduled appearance of the U.K.’s renowned King’s Singers. Someone discovered that a member of the acapella group was gay.

This land of swamps may have even more than it knows.

To be sure, no one wants to expose children to more than they can comfortably understand. And Ron DeSantis has imposed more gag rules on teaching professionals than the courts may accept. But hate bills against a lot of groups are fouling the very idea of education in the Sunshine State.

We can hope we have less to fear than we think from doctrines that pretend not to see. As Communication Theorist Marshall McLuhan once noted, school is a place where children can ‘take a break’ from their education via the mass media. For better or worse, our social and public media are infused with contemporary attitudes that are easily absorbed. And there are alternate ways for children to find their way to understanding the nature of social relations, even if they start with unfairly branded books like Todd Parr’s The Family Book, or Justin Richardson’s and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three.

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No Sports, No Problem

If there is a deep structure to television and other media platforms, it’s the long reach of the story form. It’s the foundational structure for almost everything we know.

It is obvious to everyone that the pandemic has sidelined almost all sport activity that would have been eagerly reported in our news and video media. Americans others around the world have a thirst for constant coverage.  In addition, competitive events are a major driver of revenue for professional leagues, as well as broadcast and cable television outlets. When the chances that teams would meet normally began to vanish, the sense of doom was apparent for the thousands of players, merchandisers, leagues and sports journalists.  And, of course, there are millions of fans everywhere who are mourning over the possible loss of whole seasons.

But the assumption of disaster is not completely justified. True, there is obviously far less play-by-play of everything from soccer to baseball.  Live (but not archival) coverage is mostly limited to golf or Korean baseball. But most sports reporting is not just about what is happening on the field.

Sports journalism is actually organized around narratives of competition, with a standard subset of reliable storylines: games from the record books to recall, players moving up or down, off-season trades made for strategic or financial reasons, narratives of personal triumph over hardship, reports of the wounded pride of those who have been benched, or news of clubhouse rivalries that have gone public.  And there can always be noisy discussions about which city, college or high school gets rightful bragging rights for its teams.  When all else fails, virtually any unbridled hubris from a sports superstar is good for a few thousand words or an hour of sports talk. These kinds of themes  are what continue to occupy news sites and mass media talkers, who would no more think of giving up their time slots than turning in their press passes.

Sports enthusiasts and lovers of romance novels share more than you might think.

I say all of this as someone who rarely pays attention to sports coverage.  But its so ubiquitous it is hard to miss.  Among others, The New York Times has hardly noticed that no one is playing anything. And then there is the recent biography of Robert Iger (The Ride of a Lifetime, 2019), former CEO of Disney-ABC.  He reminds his readers that the greatest sports producer in television history structured every event around the idea of an unfolding tale of triumph against long odds. Roone Arledge at ABC set the mold for television with Wide World of Sports, where a younger Iger worked as a lieutenant.  There would be no relying on just the action of the athletes to report.  There was always more drama in a Jamaican bobsled team, the humble backstory of a figure skater, or fog that has shut down an olympic event. Later in his career Arledge would easily move into new realms, like a spectacular Frank Sinatra special in Madison Square Garden, or managing ABC’s growing News Division.

The real point is that sport is but one narrow category of narrative, and narrative always outlasts its subjects. Sports enthusiasts and lovers of other narrative forms–romance novels, for example–share more than you might think. The standard tropes remain key to understanding both.  Villains are to be identified, their victims pitied, and heroes need to show up to save the day. There are usually fools as well, but it’s usually enough that the just are. Throughout a story, character remains dominant and defines what will happen at a certain plot point.  And, of course, these roles can change.  New events always pose a risk to a hero’s stature.  And villains are made to be reformed.

So if there is a ‘deep structure’ to sports portrayed on television or elsewhere, it is surely the durability of the story form. It’s the structure of almost everything we know. Those old afternoon “soaps” on ABC and it’s Monday Night Football have more in common than we might think.