MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations

Student Videos
The following are videos from a reading seminar that I facilitated this spring semester, MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations (view the course schedule and description). Students explored “open listening” as both a social and embodied practice. We anchored our exploration using a narrative perspectives, framing listening as an exchange (and potentially a transformation of) stories. This seminar was also anchored in mindfulness, open, engaged awareness of the the present moment. Students’ videos thus embody both content learned in the course and their experiences synthesizing this content with their own lived experiences & stories. All projects have been shared with the students’ explicit consent.

Project #1: “My Story? Oh. What?” 

My Story? Oh. What? from Brittney Hernandez on Vimeo.

In MC 399: Having Difficult Conversations, we framed listening as an exchange of narratives, or stories. We explored how stories, in addition to their emotional contexts, continually inform our perceptions in the present moment.

Brittney’s project acknowledges the ways that narratives are co-constructed. Her video primarily focuses on the fluidity, complexity, and multiplicity of stories. While Andrea’s project (#4) acknowledges the ways that narratives can act as relatively stable forces in our lives, Brittney reminds us of their ever fluid nature (“…how our narratives change!”).

We spent a lot of time in this reading seminar talking about the body, something that we both pay attention to and with. We also talked about the body as something that is encoded with stories. Brittney’s project artfully demonstrated this point (“It’s every sensation and interaction and ancestor that courses through my veins”).

This seminar also included a mindfulness component. We explored different kinds of attention/awareness, including different brain wave states. Brittney’s project, too, captured not only the complexity always available in the present moment, but also that it is “the awareness of [ourselves] that makes [our narratives] come alive.”

Project #2: “A Day in the Anorexic Mind | A Healthy Day”

While titled “Having Difficult Conversations,” this seminar examined the inseparability of our ability to listen to others and our ability to listen to ourselves. Listening was framed as an ability to openly “update” one’s story with new perspectives, a process that can happen when a person is alone as well as during our interactions with others. In terms of brain waves, this process is called “alpha-theta.”

Alpha-theta is essentially when a person has a story and its associated emotional context (associated with the brain wave theta) come up into one’s consciousness, but it is accompanied by a more open form of awareness (associated with brain wave alpha and mindfulness). Alpha-theta neurofeedback training has been used to help individuals cope with traumatic memories by bringing mindful awareness to them (rather than trying to “move past them”).

During our conference, this student described her own alpha-theta moments. Her video also shows how her daily mindfulness practice changed her relationship to the rather immersive narratives associated with eating disorders as well as her body. In her companion manifesto, she writes, “Hello body! I am finally home!”

Project #3: Interactive Photo Collage

Like Brittney’s Project #1 and Andrea’s Project #4 , Rachel’s project highlighted the ways that our stories are intertwined with others. In this project, however, Rachel helped us experience this truth. She printed out a large poster with a series of pictures, and then asked us to write down our responses to the pictures using sticky notes.

As a result, we saw the ways that our narratives and standpoints represent areas of both commonality and differences, both of which are important to acknowledge. While we had covered a modified version of Goodson and Gill’s (2011) Narrative Fusion of Horizons model (see image below), Rachel’s gave us an experience to help us more deeply appreciate that every conversation involves the coming together of multiple webs of meaning.

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Rachel’s project also highlighted something that Royster and Kirsch (2012), in their Feminist Rhetorical Practices, call tacking in and tacking out. They argue that in order to more fully appreciate another person’s perspective, we must practice listening from both up close and far away perspectives. Rachel once again helped us experience tacking in and tacking out through photography. Notice the bottom left pictures of the road. The middle picture, which is actually made mostly of smaller picture of herself, also acts as a metaphor for tacking in and tacking out (while also driving home the point that we are made up of stories).

Project #4: Core Stories 

While stories are constantly changing, we arguably still have a set of core (though never fully stable) narratives (and associated values, beliefs, and opinions) that guide our everyday behavior. Andrea’s project identified and explored the meaning behind what four of her own core stories. While acknowledging how certain experiences can have dramatic effects, Andrea acknowledges the ways that smaller, seemingly insignificant moments simultaneously shape our stories and our lives. She also acknowledges the construction of her core stories as a relational activity.