Honors | Making Meaning Through Stories
H203 | 6369 | Ray Hedin


This course will focus the nature and role of stories. Why do all
cultures tell stories? Why are stories so fascinating? What role do
they play in the creation of individual and cultural meaning? How are
stories put together to make them interesting and meaningful? Why -
and how - do we so often revise stories that are already out there
instead of trying to invent new ones? And what skills do we need to
understand them and to enjoy them as fully as possible? This course
will address these issues by considering a wide range of materials -
fairy tales, films, fiction, autobiography, narrative profiles, and
personal essays, as well as some brief critical/theoretical works on
the nature of narrative and its relationship to identity - to see how
stories construct meaning. Students will also actively engage in
story-telling and story-making in order to understand the power of
stories and their strategies from the perspective of the
writer/teller
as well as from the perspective of the reader/listener.

The premise of this course is that all of us, by virtue of being born
into a culture steeped in stories - perhaps by virtue of being
human - already see our lives as stories: "story" is the dominant
metaphor by which we express our basic wishes and fears and our
desire for a life that goes somewhere. So by becoming more aware of
why stories are so powerful and how we can understand what they
convey, we will be developing skills that will not only help us
understand the texts we read, the stories we tell and listen to, and
the films we watch, but will also help us understand the ways by
which we make - and remake - sense of our own lives.

Students will write one analytic essay on one or more of the works we
consider. They will also construct a story out of raw materials that
I can provide (extended transcripts of interviews, for instance) or
that the students will provide (by interviewing someone else at
length) to give them a sense of how a reader/editor comes to see and
shape one particular story out of such materials. And they will also
write or tell a story of their own that aims to make sense of some
interesting events in their lives. These latter two assignments will
include analytic afterwords in which the students will explain the
goals, processes and choices that went into the construction of these
stories.

Students will be expected to have read the works assigned by the
first day on which they are to be discussed. Grades will be based on
the three longer assignments (25% each), shorter assignments (such as
written responses to a given work or in-class quizzes), and class
participation. The latter two taken together will constitute 25% of
the grade. Students should think of this as a course that depends on
their active preparation for class and participation in it as much as
it depends on the information and analysis that I can provide. A good
class is a joint endeavor.

COURSE MATERIALS

The list of materials below is partial and tentative; students should
email me (hedin) in November if they would like a final list. We will
consider, on average, a book a week.

Selected fairy tales (central cultural narratives)
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
(political/cultural agenda of the slave narrative)
Hemingway, "Big Two-Hearted River" (narrative as control: what to
keep out of the story)
Baldwin, "Going to Meet the Man" (making sense of racial hatred)
Disney's Beauty and the Beast and selections from Angela Carter, The
Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (revisions of central fairy tales)
Raymond Carver, "The Bath" and "A Small, Good Thing" (two narrative
versions of the same event)
Working Girl (making sense of gender wishes, gender fears)
Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (the narrative
rhythms of desire and fear, adventure and home)
Alan Lightman, Einstein's Dream (a series of meditations on
alternative versions of time and story)
Lorrie Moore, selections from Birds of America (stories that make
sense, stories that resist sense-making)
Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried (The truth of fact, the truth of
story)
Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars (narrative as key to
identity)
Selections from Paul John Eakin, How Our Lives Become Stories: Making
Selves (more on narrative and identity)
Hedin, "My Father's Bowling Trophies" and "An Anxious Reunion"
(writing personal essays to figure things out)