Friday, September 6, 2013

Reflections on Me and My Shadow and autoethnography and narrative

I continue reading my Norton anthology because Oscar Wilde left such a delicious aftertaste. I find Jane Tompkins, always one of my favorites, and go to page 2126.

"How pathetic, I thought, to have to call attention to yourself in that way. And in such bad taste. It was the worst kind of special pleading, and admission of weakness so blatant it made me ashamed" 

What Jane Tompkins writes for her original feelings about a certain type of feminism applies equally to how I felt, and sometimes I still feel, about doing autoethnography. Do I really feel ashamed? Or, maybe I should rather say one voice within me despises the idea with a passion. Needless to say just like Tompkins I wanted nothing to do with it. I too was afraid to be taken as a certain type of person that I didn't want to be perceived as, as a person who was doing what she was doing not because of her own choosing but because she didn't know or couldn't do any better, a person who spoke only her mother tongue because she hadn't mastered her father tongue, not because she chose to speak her mother tongue (the distinction between mother and father tongue comes from Ursula LeGuin's commencement speech as cited in Tompkins in the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism). That critical voice in my head is sometimes quite debilitating. It speaks louder especially when I feel emotionally vulnerable, as I was feeling for the last couple of weeks. Was I really "soft-minded, self-indulgent, and unprofessional" in doing this project? Was it really so unacceptable to bring together what I wrote professionally and what I wrote personally and privately? Who decides what should remain private anyway? Wouldn't anyone think "I love writers who write about their own experience. I feel I'm being nourished by them, that I'm being allowed to enter into a personal relationship with them. That I can match my own experience up with theirs, feel cousin to them, and say, yes, that's how it is." for my own writing.

But my thoughts suddenly take me to a scene that was repeated several times when I was a student taking classes. We're in a classroom, we're supposed to discuss a topic, a concept, or an article as a class or in small groups. Then inspired by the article someone starts talking about their personal experience in detail, an experience that I'm not interested in, an experience that has no relevance to me or what I'm interested in. I want to talk about and compare ideas, concepts, definitions and we rarely if ever really get to discuss what I want to discuss. When I was taking my last classes, I had given up trying to steer the discussion away from personal experiences altogether. I would behave like a good girl and smile politely, but inside I would be bored to death. I would just roll my eyes in my head thinking "Oh, crap, not again! Please shoot me and end my misery, right here, right now." Of course I had learned to behave by then and I looked respectful and interested but I would get lost in my own thoughts, having imaginary conversations with the authors of the articles or the professor instead. Did I, do I, really and categorically hate sharing personal experiences that much?

Now I wonder whether that feeling of frustration and boredom was due to my own idiosyncrasy, that is, I rarely find someone or their experience interesting or even relevant to or stimulating for my thinking, or was this a learned behavior. It seems to me that telling personal experiences was a particularly common feature of teaching oriented graduate students, of people with a lot of teaching experience. Did this association have anything to do with my discourse community's and as an extension my value judgments on the matter? I noticed this association between a group of people and this attribute of sharing personal experiences when I took courses with students from foreign language and literature and education departments because this behavior was more pronounced. You can also see the use of narratives more frequently in TESOL and teacher training.

I wonder if my discomfort with this behavior was because of my personality which is more enthralled by theory and interested in abstract ideas or was it because not in our SLS program but in the course readings teaching and practice, and as an extension their telling in narrative form, were considered secondary and inferior to research and theory. So was the reason nature or nurture? What a cliche! The discourses of teaching and research were certainly quite different and one was more valued than the other in both circles. I would say I was socialized into a discourse that was less tolerant of narrative and teaching (which to my mind at least go hand in hand for some reason) but what am I doing doing autoethnography and narrative inquiry if that is the case? I really and truly don't know the answer to this question. Perhaps I just took this project as a challenge. What a way to chose your topic, eh?

So, I ask myself, since I have occasionally committed the crime to look down on narrative and personal discourse, do I now have the right to get upset when someone says the ultimate reason behind people's unproductivity is their narrative thinking and the solution is analytical thinking? This statement for some reason have the effect of forcing my palm to my head :-) But still, let's focus on my dilemma here. Do I have the right to change sides? Am I a traitor? What is it with me and my desire to be consistent and loyal? Am I even a real convert? Why do I think there will be "many who will fling aside [my autoethnographic work], or never take it up" Why do I care about them anyways? Do I care?
Moving on, I read Tompkins write about her other unexplored silenced voice, a voice which I have to invent to write this dissertation, "This voice, though, I hardly know. I don't even know if it has anything to say. But if I never write in it, it never will. So I have to try. (That's why, you see, this doesn't sound too good. It isn't a practiced performance, it hasn't got a surface. I'm asking you to bear with me while I try, hoping that this, what I write, will express something you yourself have felt or will help you find a part of yourself that you would like to express.)" Do I have what it takes to create this voice? I wonder.

Interestingly, Tompkins writes "my response to this essay is not a response to something Ellen Messer-Davidow has written; it is a response to something within myself, just like the impressionist critique Oscar Wilde prescribes. Was it really a coincidence that I'd read Wilde just before Tompkins? Or, is the universe trying to speak to me through my magical book called Norton :-) voicing and responding to my concerns about how to write the autoethnography. What is my response to the sources I read but a response to something within myself? What is the response that I desire to my writing here in this blog or in the dissertation?

Then Tompkins gives voice to another concern of mine as she write "How can we speak personally to one another and yet not be self-centered? How can we be part of the great world and yet remain loyal to ourselves?" How indeed? I remember the personal stories that alienated me because they were so self-centered, the stories I told that evoked no response or no desired response because they were apparently so self-centered. How can one tell something particular that would touch others' particularities, begin real two-sided conversations instead of parallel monologues? I don't want people who read my work to feel like how I felt when I listened to all those personal testimonies which didn't speak to me at all. Perhaps I simply wasn't the intended audience. Stories are supposed to bind and connect, not fall on deaf ears. How do you tell stories without alienating your audience?

Then Tompkins's writing reminds me of another issue. The issue of we. I think about all the qualifiers I use for myself or others use to refer to me like international graduate student, Beryl instead of Beril, Turkish, female, etc and then think writing about myself how can I refrain from using we in a coercive way. I'm a spokesperson of no one, i wish for no generalizations but can I avoid using "we" the greatest and most ubiquitous illusion, following "I". How can you touch others' experiences and stories without assuming some kind of we?

What I want is to write with my own blood as I usually do when I write about something I care about. The reader reaction that would satisfy me the most is not of agreement. Agreement is boring and sterile. I want something with a generative power. The reaction I want is described in Tompkins's section in Norton "I'm completely hooked, I am going to read this essay from beginning to end and proceed to do so. It gets better, much better, as it goes along. In fact, it gets so good, I find myself putting it down and straying from it because the subject is so close to home, and therefore so threatening , that I need relief from it, little breathers, before I can go on. I underline vigorously and often. Think of people I should give it to to read (my husband, this colleague, that colleague. )" I want the reader to want to share it with someone, to tell their own similar or contradicting stories in return, to reach out to me--the last of which is of course the best kind of response possible though I'm not getting my hopes that high).

Then when Tompkins talks about "As a result I've built up a huge storehouse of hatred and resentment against people in authority over me (mostly male) Hatred and resentment and attraction" Oh don't I know these feelings! As I write my autobiography/literacy narrative as my data, I thought about the significant people in my life. I realized that men and women equally helped and nourished me, but the ones who really injured me were always male, though I doubt I can write this in the dissertation. It's not like no female ever betrayed me, upset me, hurt me etc. Women certainly do all that but only men, in my case, caused me sustained excruciating pain that scarred me. The hurt women cause seem to disappear without a trace in my case. I learned something new about myself. This situation was partly my fault. I was attracted to these men, it was my fault that I valued them and their opinion of me. Partly because of my attitude that they could hurt me so. Of course, this doesn't change the fact that they were jerks and our cultures generally socialize men to be jerks :-). And partly the injuries caused by men were deeper and more long lasting because they were in positions of power, because as supervisors, relatives, etc they were able to control me against my will. When that rather twisted love and attraction diminishes in time though these men turn into pitiful and ridiculous creatures. Fortunately maybe these men get replaced, they get older, they retire, they lose their charm and power and their whole existence which depended on such coercion simply disintegrate. It's rather sad to watch that happen. And, yes, it is true that an intense mourning follows this disillusionment. 

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