ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
I have taught the narrative interview in three different states, but my admiration for the assignment as a pedagogical tool has fully taken root at the University of Central Arkansas, a comprehensive regional public university that draws students from Arkansas and the surrounding states. Though there are exceptions, the students and community in central Arkansas tend to be conservative, and because of our location in the Bible Belt, they also tend to be very religious—enough so that, when I had my students write environmental manifestos after reading Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain manifesto—a text that playfully and forcefully challenges human exceptionalism—one of my most insightful students wrote in all caps and italics that humans were, indeed, created to have dominion over the earth.
Like much of the Midwest and the South, my community also recently experienced historic flooding. In May and June 2019, the Arkansas River rose to historic levels, breaking previous flood records by more than two feet. The river covered the top of my daughters’ favorite playground, destroyed homes, and cost the state an estimated $23 million a day. The flooding has been clearly linked to climate change. Although the Biden administration is giving new—and much-needed—attention to climate change, large-scale action continues to face resistance, especially in politically conservative regions such as Arkansas.
In the context of such natural disasters, I can sometimes hardly believe we still need to “prove” that climate change—or racism or sexism or any other form of injustice—exists to resistant students. Nonetheless, we do, and as everyone who has engaged social and environmental justice issues in the classroom knows, instructors must be prepared not only to teach the text, but also to respond to students’ emotional reactions, whether those reactions take the form of anger, denial, apathy, fear, indecision, horror, or despair. We must be prepared to respond to climate denial and microaggressions, and to compassionately address misinformation and to meet students where they are. It can be a challenging task. But in my years teaching, I’ve discovered that one assignment, more than any other, has helped my students localize and engage complex environmental and social justice issues: the narrative interview. By asking students to interview another individual and draw insight from that conversation, the narrative interview helps students learn to listen empathetically and gives them a space in which to grabble with others’ lived experiences. This leads to insight, perspective, and a better sense of the complexities of our interconnections and shared life on earth.
I, of course, am not the first to use the narrative interview as a pedagogical tool with social and environmental justice in mind. In his well-renowned book, Composition and Sustainability, place-based compositionist Derek Owens describes an oral history project that requires students to interview community members and then write an essay based on that interview. The assignment comes near the middle of the semester, after students have written about their personal experiences of a place, and before they begin researching an environmental or social issue that affects that place. Interviewing a community member, Owens argues, can help students connect to and engage more in their local environments, and in conjunction with other place-based assignments, can help them become engaged members of their communities.
Bonnie Stone Sunstein and Elisabeth Chiseri-Strater’s ethnography textbook Fieldworking, which is now in its fourth edition and is often used in advanced composition courses focused on writing for the community, asserts that students will become stronger writers and researchers through ethnographic work, and that ethnography, even within their local communities, allows students to “develop a greater understanding of the self as they reflect on their encounters with the ‘other’.”
Even more recently, Amanda Wray makes a case for ethnographic creative nonfiction assignments in her scholarly essay, “Contesting Traditions: Oral History in Creative Writing Pedagogy.” Using her own classroom as an example, and an assignment in which Wray asked students to interview community members in a neighborhood experiencing gentrification and radical change, Wray argues that oral history projects not only “help students to get out of their heads and out into their community […]. But also, oral history engages students in an embodied research process that makes lessons of audience awareness far more real than any other exercise could and arms students with practical life skills, such as interpersonal relationship building and ethical practices of representation.” In addition, she echoes Derek Owens when she says oral history can “connect the university to the communities that support and sustain us.” In other words, narrative interviews and ethnographic research can ground students in the communities in which they live and teach them how to responsibly engage with those communities through their writing.
Jennifer Case is the author of Sawbill: A Search for Place (University of New Mexico Press, 2018). Her essays have appeared in journals such as the Rumpus, Orion, Michigan Quarterly Review, Sycamore Review, Fourth River, and the Journal of Creative Writing Studies. She teaches at the University of Central Arkansas and serves as the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org. You can find her at www.jenniferlcase.com.