Stories Big and Small

It’s the first day of the new semester … but bad weather threatened, and Prudent Powers called for a delayed start to the day.  As usual with storms from the north and northwest, the bad weather mostly skirted us.  There was a cold, steady rain for much of the evening, and a few flakes apparently fell.  But I woke up this morning to a cold, clear day with no snow and no visible ice anywhere.  It was good to sleep a bit later, to have a more relaxing breakfast, to spend a bit of extra time with The Dog.  And it will be good to have a softer start than usual to the new semester, too, with slightly shortened classes today and some diagnostic testing previously scheduled for tomorrow.

When you build a joyful learning community, as we started to do with our twenty minutes together on Friday afternoon, each member brings a small story (or many small stories) and, eventually, contributes part of that small story to a big story the community builds together.  We see that happen in the ways that the Tres Columnae Project stories have grown, shifted, and developed over time, as the perspectives of community members led to unexpected insights about characters and situations that initially seemed simple.  Cnaeus’ encounter with Fortunata the cow in Lectio VI: real-life punishment or fearful dream?  I’m still not sure, but I look forward to the insights of the new Latin I family members in a few weeks.  Cnaeus’ gradual change of character as he matures?  What new stories, other than the ones about Velox the horse in Lectio XXII, will emerge to reveal what happened?  And what about the relatively undeveloped characters who still await someone with a passionate interest and connection?

The big story is always made up of small stories, I realize, and as we move past the twentieth-century paradigm, perhaps that insight is more important than I’d realized.  Over the weekend, thanks to George’s Google+ share of this blog post by Cathy Earle, I started reading Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.  In the first of five major sections, Rushkoff argues that narrative itself has collapsed in the post-industrial period, as people grow ever more suspicious of externally-imposed stories … but he also notes the rise of role-playing games – and gaming in general – as a replacement or, perhaps, a new form of narrative.  It struck me as I lay awake, my sinuses complaining bitterly about the constantly changing barometric pressure and humidity, that what’s collapsed isn’t the small stories, which are more popular and more important than ever.  Instead, people reject big, externally-imposed stories, a common thread Rushkoff notes in his discussion of the rise of the 24/7 news cycle, “reality” TV shows, and political groups as diverse as the Occupy movement and the Tea Party.  In each case, he argues, there’s a rebellion against the 20th-century style experts, the folks who decide what’s “fit to print” or who conveniently package what “really” happened, complete with a Teacher’s Guide, multimedia tools, and pre-written chapter tests.

To be fair, Rushkoff hasn’t mentioned 20th-century-model education at all yet, but the parallels are clear.  When the raw information and the small stories are right there, easily accessible from a device you carry in your pocket, it’s completely understandable that you’d be suspicious of any attempts to impose a story.

I’m not yet far enough into the book to know what recommendations Rushkoff will make, or if he’ll make any.  But the more I think about it, the more important I realize it is to build a community in the midst of the bewildering diversity, the overabundance of data that we’re trying to synthesize into information, knowledge, and even – if we’re fortunate – wisdom.  Just as my students – and Tres Columnae subscribers and participants everywhere – build up the big story from below by contributing little stories, any community can build up a dynamic big story from the little stories its members bring.  How true and valid will that story be?  It depends on the community, of course … and that’s exhilarating and terrifying all at once.

I wonder what new discoveries, what new stories big and small, await us all in the days to come!

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Published in: on January 22, 2014 at 1:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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