More about Metastories, Part I

salvete, sodales hospitesque, and welcome to your daily dose of  “Tres Columnae.” Today we’ll look in more detail at the Metastory – or Metastories – for the first version of “Tres Columnae.” As time goes by, and as the project grows, we may need to develop some additional Metastories to meet the ever-changing needs of our audience. Gratias maximas to Laura G, whose comment on yesterday’s post showed me a way to incorporate the “best of” all three current potential Metastories. More on how we’ll do that in a bit.

Perhaps we ought to begin with an obvious question: why even have a Metastory? Or, for that matter, why have a continuing plot or a continuing set of characters? It’s certainly possible to “learn” Latin without a continuous story.  But as Daniel Pink points out in his amazing book A New Kind of Mind, human beings naturally love Story. By connecting learning with Story, we make the learning more “sticky.”  We also associate the learning with emotion and meaning – and according to some brain researchers, the only way that anything makes it into long-term memory is by association with emotion, meaning, or both.  The value of  a Metastory in this context is that it provides an overarching structure within which smaller stories can take place.

The authors of the “big three” reading-method Latin textbooks must have had an intuitive understanding of the principle of Story, and they did a great job of incorporating both Emotion and Meaning in a way that “worked” for the pre-Web generation. As you know, I’ve used one of the “big three” for a long time with my face-to-face students, and for many years, they loved the stories, the characters, and the situations. We would occasionally read stories from the “other two” as well, and they also enjoyed those stories and characters. But I find that all three work less well for my current students than they did 10 or even 5 years ago. My students today still enjoy the “soap opera” aspects of their textbook, but they don’t come to love (or, when appropriate, to hate) the characters as much as their predecessors did.

Perhaps it’s significant in this context that TV soap operas are increasingly a thing of the past – but continuous, soap-operatic stories are alive and well on YouTube and elsewhere. Maybe the “professional” versions lost their audience because they felt flat and outdated, but the “amateur” ones feel vital and authentic to today’s audiences. In any case, my students have begun to find the characters in their textbook stories to be flat and undeveloped. This became painfully obvious a year or so ago, when I led a culminating Paideia Seminar with my Latin I and II classes, using a quote from Joseph Campbell about the universal archetype of the hero. We had a great conversation about heroes (with a lot of references to movies, books, and even video games), but for the most part, they could not find any heroic characters in the storyline of their textbook – even though I thought it was “obvious” that there was one.

These conversations led me to take a closer look at the textbook’s plot arc; when I did, I could see why it was problematic for my students to find a heroic character. The potential hero does have many of the requisite attributes – painful childhood, symbolic death, development of skills that help other – but he disappears for long periods of time as the narrative focuses on other, more minor characters. He has a number of wise elderly advisors, as a good hero should, but he doesn’t have a consistent band of companions. Also, his fate is, perhaps deliberately, left ambiguous at the end of the stories about him. So he doesn’t really fit the archetype of a hero – at least, not the way that a generation steeped in heroic narratives like the Star Wars saga, Braveheart, or the Lord of the Rings films would expect.

Besides, I wanted a number of potentially heroic figures for my students to work with.  And, of course, I want some interesting female characters – an area where the “big three” are woefully deficient. I also want some voices of servī and lībertī (and ancillae and lībertae) and some poor-but-freeborn Romans, as well as the children of wealth and privilege who dominate the “big three.”  And for the benefit of my military-connected students – and to build the understanding of the many potential subscribers who have no military connections at all – I also want a strong focus on the Roman army, and on Romanization in different places … but not just “Egypt and England” (as someone disparagingly summarized the non-Italian content of one of the “big three”). It would be helpful, I think, to focus on places that are important to the literature that “Tres Columnae” participants might actually read later – including Caesar and Vergil, given the “new” Advanced Placement ® syllabus. So I want our characters to spend some time in Gaul and/or Germany, on the one hand, and in or near the Troad, on the other. For example, one character may be in Titus’ army for the siege of Jerusalem; he may then go on leave to Troy (perhaps visiting Catullus’ brother’s grave) … and even visit Egypt if the community of participants wants him to. 🙂

That’s why I decided to set the beginning of “Tres Columnae” in Herculaneum, shortly before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and to feature characters from different social strata. (Of course there are also convenient correlations with two of the “big three” reading-method Latin textbooks (quōs nōmināre nōlō), but their characters are Pompeian). Many of our characters will escape before Herculaneum is destroyed, and at least two iuvenēs will join the Roman army. Given their different social backgrounds, one will become a tribūnus mīlitum while the other is an ordinary mīles; a third iuvenis will marry (perhaps he’ll marry the sister of one of his friends) and begin a career in government service in Rome. The other two will be stationed in different parts of the Empire – but not the ones where one of the “big three” takes its Pompeii survivor – and will interact with local people, witnessing first-hand the issues around Romanization. Eventually they will both end up back in Rome, reunited with their families and their childhood companion; they’ll both have some ambiguously-heroic adventures and some suspicion-producing interactions with Jews and/or early Christians. They’ll communicate by letter with each other, and with the strong female characters in their families.

The idea is a double (or triple?) heroic-journey plot, with the main episodes relatively “set” but lots of opportunities for community members to create sub-stories and sub-plots. At some point, we’ll also meet some time-traveling characters (a feature that my face-to-face students love to include when they write extending stories, and that Laura G suggested in a great comment yesterday), who will give us access to pre- and post-Silver Age Latin. More details to come, though some will have to wait for you to become a “Tres Columnae” subscriber. And some, of course, will be up to the subscribers as they create the details of the story.

In the “new” environment of Web 2.0 tools, we’ll actually be doing something as old as the Homeric epics – a plot with an overall arc and some central episodes don’t change with the telling, but lots of opportunities for the individual bard (or group of bards) to add (or delete) other episodes.

So, dear readers, what do you think about this version of the Metastory?  What other features would you like to see?  Tune in tomorrow for more details about the Metastory, and some response to your feedback about logistical issues.

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Published in: on December 23, 2009 at 10:54 pm  Comments (3)  

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  1. This is so exciting, Justin! I’ve never seen myself as a teacher of Roman history (and I’m not much of a student of Roman history to begin with) – but I really like the idea that it would be possible to ‘weave in’ subnarratives inside your metastory. The courses I teach (English composition) center on the idea of the FRAMETALE, and how every story is actually INSIDE another story (i.e., a story is told by a storyteller, who has his own life beyond the story), and how every story can also CONTAIN other stories (because the characters in a story can become storytellers themselves). The frametale approach to storytelling is one that is well represented in folktales from all over the world; for example, in my World Literature class, I start out with two units on the Buddhist jataka tales and the New Testament parables to show how Buddha and Jesus were both storytellers, and how their stories are “framed” in the Buddhist jatakas and the Christian Bible (here’s a LINK to the website for that course).

    So, one of the things I will be looking at would be the ways in which the Metastory you propose can serve as a frame for the inclusion of other stories.

    Some of the ways your story can frame other stories would include storytelling within the metastory – and this is something the textbook makers have exploited very nicely, where characters inside the story tell mythological tales, legends, etc. For my own world of Aesop’s fables, the mention of any animal at all in the metastory could be an excuse to tell stories about that animal, too! The animal lore of the ancient world is VAST, and in my experience it is of great interest to students; animals are a kind of cultural universal – even if many aspects of ancient life and vague and uncertain to them, they can trust in their own knowledge of horses and dogs and eagles to enjoy the ancient stories and legends about those animals. I would love to build a kind of “story zoo” to accompany your project, giving students access to fables, proverbs and legends about different animals, with reference to the ancient sources online where they can learn more.

    Another possible way to have new stories intrude into the metastory is through dreams (including prophetic dreams) and visions of previous incarnations (as I mentioned with Pythagoras and his “life” as a soldier in the Trojan War).

    Retelling stories is the main technique I use in all my classes; there’s no writer’s block when you are re-telling an existing story! Not surprisingly, the diary format is hands-down the preferred format among my students. It is both “ego” and “other” at the same time, and it really seems to inspire their Muse to write out a story in the diary of one of the characters. So, letting students keep the diary for one of the characters in the metastory could be a great way to get them involved. As the metastory spins out in third-person, letting the students craft the first-person version of that story in diary format, or in letter-writing, can be a great way for them to practice retelling the story, and also working on the different first-person verb forms and, in letter-writing, second-person forms. Interview format is also a great way to do dialogue interaction – my students have had great success using interview shows like Oprah, Jerry Springer, etc. to retell stories with a first-person voice engaged in dialogue with the interviewer.

    I’ve got a list here of the various ways that I encourage my students to retell stories creatively, and every semester they come up with all kinds of other ideas I had never even thought of before! I’ll be added some more ideas to this list based on the new techniques people experimented with this fall semester! 🙂
    Storytelling Ideas: LINK

    • Laura,
      This is really exciting! Thanks again for all your great suggestions and ideas, and for the links to what your students are doing.
      My favorite frame-story ever, just in terms of packing the maximum punch in the minimum number of words, is the opening of Faulkner’s The Reivers: “Grandfather said:” A double frame (Grandfather narrating, implied grandson listening and retelling) in two words! 🙂
      Yes, I think storytelling, dreams, and visions are a great way to incorporate little stories within the larger stories. I like the way that textbooks have been doing this, but I greedily want more opportunities for my students. So I love the idea of having animal stories retold as animals appear. I’m also very committed to having stories retold from first-person point of view, or in dialogues or letters that involve second-person forms. Once we’ve destroyed Herculaneum :-), I think the three protagonists will end up in very separated parts of the Roman world: most likely, one in Judea or Syria, one in Germania, and one in Rome. But they’ll all have government/military jobs that would give them access to the cursus publicus, so they’ll be able to write to each other, and to other friends and family, regularly. The idea of dialogue and interviews is a great addition, too!
      Thanks again, and warmest holiday wishes.

  2. […] We looked specifically at the importance of Story (and what I’m calling “Metastory”) in this post and this […]


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