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date: 18 November 2018

Narrative and Curriculum Theorizing

Summary and Keywords

Within contemporary, conventional, interpretive, qualitative paradigms, narrative and curriculum theorizing have traditionally been understood as primary constructs through which educational researchers seek to explain, represent, and conduct inquiry about education. This article traces shifting understandings of Western constructs of narrative and curriculum theorizing from a modernist perspective, in which they were conceived primarily as methods central to the representation of knowledge, to postmodernist perspectives in which they are conceptualized not as epistemological constructs, but as ethical/ontological systems of becoming through/in relationships. Historically, the emergence of “curriculum” and “narrative” (as phenomena) within a modernist, technocratic paradigm, rooted in an epistemological worldview, were constructed as “technologies” whose purpose was to represent knowledge. Current critiques of narrative and curriculum theorizing from the perspective of postmodern, poststructural, feminist, and new materialist perspectives illuminate understandings of these constructs as ethical-ontological-epistemological phenomena. From this perspective, narrative and curriculum theorizing have shifted from being understood as grounded in epistemology in order to provide “better” understanding/knowledge of experience, and alternatively are understood as ethical obligations to “be” in a web of relationships/intra-actions.

Keywords: narrative, curriculum, theory, curriculum history, research, method, ethics, ethical/ontological/epistemological entanglement, deterritorialization

When asked to write this article, the topic, as well as the title, were given to me by the editors. I did not hesitate to accept the invitation. Over the course of my academic career, my intellectual interests have focused on the intersectionality of narrative as a primary way of knowing (Bakhtin, 1981; Barthes, 1974; Bruner, 1986; Hendry, 2007, 2010; Munro, 1998; Riceour, 1981), and curriculum theorizing, as the narratives of our lived experience (Aoki, 1988; Barone, 2007; Eisner, 1991; Greene, 1973; Grumet, 1976; Hendry, 2011; Husserl, 1964; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Pinar & Grumet, 1976). However, perhaps the title of this article, as it stands, needs clarification. The “and” infers two distinct entities: curriculum theorizing and narrative. However, the entity “curriculum” is not a universal, timeless, independent object, but is a product of particular narratives of the history of education. Likewise, narrative, understood as a form of inquiry, is deeply implicated in phenomenological, deconstructionist, and feminist constructs of curriculum as lived experience (Aoki, 1988; Connelly & Clandinin, 1999; Dewey, 1938; van Manen, 1991; Witherall & Noddings, 1991) which have challenged technocratic, behaviorist, and “banking models” of curriculum (Friere, 1970; Tyler, 1949). Curriculum conceived narratively constituted part of the larger interpretive turn in the social sciences (Geertz, 1973; Riessman, 1993) in which qualitative research sought to provide an alternative to reductionist, positivist constructs of inquiry as the sole source of scientific knowledge. This shift, in which narrative inquiry was engaged to understand curriculum as lived experience contrasted sharply with more traditional 20th-century positivist conceptualizations of curriculum as a technocratic endeavor.

The emergence of narrative research as a legitimate form of inquiry, through which educators would gain a deeper understanding of curriculum as a complex, complicated, and humanistic phenomena, has however been severely undermined by the recent privileging of science as the gold standard of research (Barone, 2007). Simultaneously, there has been a recognition of the limitations of the practices of conventional, interpretive, and critical conceptions of narrative/qualitative research in education (Hendry, 2007; Jackson & Mazzei, 2009; Jipson & Paley, 1997; Lather, 2013; Lather & St. Pierre, 2013; St. Pierre & Pillow, 1999). Ironically, the “tools” of conventional qualitative research—data, coding, triangulation, giving voice, meaning-making, narrative, and storytelling—have functioned to reify notions of experience as representable, authentic, human-centered, and epistemologically based. Postqualitative, posthumanist critiques of interpretive qualitative research have disrupted any comfort in the representational possibility of voice, story, or narrative. However, the category “post” conjures notions of linearity that assume competition, progress, and change, hangovers from Enlightenment thought, which Sandra Harding (1991) has characterized as “successor régimes” in which there is still the desire to “get research right” through improved “methods.” Consequently, rather than approach this summary of “Narrative and Curriculum Theorizing” as an attempt to represent a tidy story, I take up a diffractive (Barad, 2007) reading that rejects a representational account of the world in which objects can be reflected in a mirror image. This nonrepresentationalist approach acknowledges that all phenomena are engaged in a dynamic network of relationships in which there are no “objects” and “subjects” that we can take for granted. So, I take up this summary committed to understanding which differences matter (in this case the difference between narrative and curriculum theorizing), how they matter (what has made this difference thinkable and unthinkable), and for whom (who is and can become a subject).

Curriculum, as a concept, is only made possible within particular historical, cultural, gendered, racialized, sexualized, and political assemblages that take into account both the constellation of elements comprising it and the processes resulting from the different ways those processes combine and interact (Asher, 2010; Gaztambide-Ferández & Arraiz-Matute, 2013; Taliaferro-Baszile, 2010). Likewise, narrative, while often situated as an alternative to positivist constructs of research (Denzin & Lincoln, 1994; Polkinghorne, 1988; Reissman, 2008), is not a “method” that can ultimately illuminate the experiences of curriculum (whether this be students, teachers, etc.) or give “voice,” since this use of narrative as a “method” reproduces modernist notions of representation in which there is a correspondence between experience and language. While curriculum theorizing and narrative have been constructed as two independent entities/objects alternatively, I take for granted that these two concepts are always already constituted, not as two separate objects, but through a process of ongoing intra-action, a concept which signifies that distinct agencies do not precede their interaction, but rather emerge through intra-action (Barad, 2007). In other words, current postqualitative, posthumanist, postmodern scholars reject the metaphysical assumption that there are determinate objects with determinate properties and corresponding determinate concepts and meanings. Curriculum and narrative are not objects that can be known (epistemology) but are indeterminable, discontinuous, always emerging, in-process phenomena. Consequently, this “summary” is not one grounded in epistemology (knowledge of), but in an ethical-ontological-epistemological engagement of being as constitutive of the world in its becoming. In so doing, this summary troubles the objectification of curriculum and narrative, and instead seeks to practice them as living, breathing, generative creative spaces of being of/in/through curriculum/narrative.

Curriculum is the narrative of our lives, the stories of how we make meaning (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Connelly & Clandinin, 1999; Kim, 2016; Witherall & Noddings, 1991). This process of creative interpretation, poeisis, is the heart of both narrative and curriculum theorizing. Narrative and curriculum theorizing are intimately intertwined, braided in a complex web or assemblage that cannot be disentangled. This “entanglement” disrupts notions of simple categories, concepts, and binaries, and of curriculum/narrative as the representation or production of knowledge, tekhne, or a technical endeavor, or a purely epistemological one. Curriculum theorizing/narrative understood as the process of meaning making or a mode of being embraces an ethical-ontological-epistemological world view (Barad, 2007). In other words, curriculum theorizing/narrative is not an epistemological project, in which stories (naturalistic inquiry) provide “better” understanding/knowledge of experience than science (positivist inquiry), but is an ethical obligation to “be” in the web of relationships/intra-actions and to contemplate, as Ted Aoki (1988, p. 316) suggests “what it means to dwell together humanly.” So, I see my task in this article as twofold, first, to interrogate what has made possible and real the severing of these concepts. To do so, I trace the emergence of “curriculum” and “narrative” (as phenomena) as categories/cuts reduced to method. This reduction, I maintain, is what makes possible the objectification of curriculum and narrative as independent objects of knowledge production/technology. Second, what are the ethical-ontological-epistemological implications of this cut, this severing of curriculum theorizing from narrative?

Mastering Narrative: Cuts That Matter

The production of these cuts/boundaries, and the exclusions which they enact, have had profound consequences. Narrative, as a form of conventional, qualitative, interpretive inquiry, has for the most part reduced stories to objects, to data as a method to represent curriculum. Ironically, while narrative as understood by educational philosophers like John Dewey (1938), William Doll (1993), and Janet Miller (2005), among others, has functioned as a critique of technocratic, reductionist views of curriculum, the appropriation of narrative as a “method” reifies curriculum as a commodity. In other words, narrative has become an instrument, a technology. Martin Heidegger reminds us that the “essence of technology is by no means anything technological” (1977[1955], p. 4). For Heidegger technology is a means to an end, an attempt to bring “man into the right relation to technology” to “master” it “in the proper manner as a means” (p. 5). The “will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control” (p. 5). In the end, it is technology that becomes our master. In this “master narrative,” narrative has been situated as a “technology” of curriculum; it is the instrument which cuts, dissects, and separates.

These are cuts that matter deeply. They construct boundaries/borders/structures through constituting exclusions which privilege particular discourses and marginalize or make invisible others. These cuts are what Gyatri Spivak (1988) calls a form of epistemological violence. The cut by which narrative becomes a technology is deeply interwoven and bound within a modernist paradigm in which William F. Pinar argues that technology has become “the only way of life on earth” (2015, p. 65). Technology is seen as contiguous with progress, science, production, capitalism, and ultimately human freedom. Drawing on the writings of Canadian curriculum scholar, George Grant, Pinar (2015) posits that there has always been a close relationship between technology and Western political liberalism, in which the measure of democracy has been the “belief that man’s essence is his freedom” (p. 66). A truly liberal society, as Grant reminds us “has always been linked historically to the progress of science” (p. 66). Science, as a master narrative, situates the improvement of the human condition not as a spiritual, ethical, or intellectual one, but as a technological one.

This elevation of scientific/technological discourse is understood not only as inevitable, but as essential to progress because it reduces both narrative and curriculum to:

. . . “what works” in classrooms, a restated behaviorism quantified in students’ test scores. Just as learning disappears into numbers on tests, moral striving is recast as increases in productivity that are dependent on technological advancement. No longer conceived as laboratories for democracy, U.S. schools are dismissed as antiquated “bricks-and-mortar” institutions, now to be privatized, then virtualized, as increasingly curriculum is moved online.

(Pinar, 2015, p. 66)

In this way curriculum and narrative become a technology, a science, devoid of moral or ethical implications. The narrative of curriculum as technology and technology as a master narrative function to guarantee the ongoing reduction of humans to data. Master narratives, by their very nature, exclude multiplicity, difference, and disorder, entailing a belief in representationalism which assumes an independent reality and the separation of knower and known. These cuts are a form of violence. This technological master narrative in which science, capital, and technology are understood as omnipotent, is according to Lyotard (1984) a threat he calls “terrorism” because it functions to exclude other ways of knowing and being. The terror of technological master narratives is its totalizing reductionism, control, and dehumanization. The “cut” which separates narrative and curriculum marks their reduction to technologies.

There is nothing natural about this severing of curriculum theory and narrative as instruments of technology. The objectification of narrative as technology begets narrative as an instrument of curriculum for the production of knowledge, knowledge about curriculum. This seduction of technology, cloaked as progress, obscures the “mastery” of the teaching machine, an ongoing mechanistic vision of education which serves the master technology. Education as technology, as reduced to knowledge, remains deeply embedded in a metaphysical worldview in which education is understood as an epistemological project of representation. As Karen Barad (2007) reminds us, “representationalism takes the notion of separation as foundational” (p. 137). The separation of subject/object, teacher/student, culture/nature, and specifically for our discussion the separation of narrative/curriculum, are boundary-making practices which reify a representational logic of educational “research,” in which narrative and curriculum are reduced to method, which assumes a correspondence to reality resulting in narrative/curriculum being situated within an epistemological worldview.

Instead, curriculum/narrative scholars have challenged us to think about narrative not as knowledge or method, an epistemological project, but as being, as a practice, a doing, a becoming (Eaton, 2015; Fleener, 2002; Jardine, 2006; Markuewitz, 2016; Wang, 2004). As an ethical/ontological/epistemological entanglement, narrative and curriculum no longer are obliged to serve the master of technology. Alternatively, narrative and curriculum theorizing are understood not as independent objects, but living, breathing phenomena who coexist in an assemblage of complex, entangled relationships that are continually in motion. When narrative and curriculum theorizing are no longer understood as discrete entities engaged in knowledge production, but are understood as a process/practice/performance of meaning making, the questions we ask become those of ethics. Dwelling or lingering in the space between (not the and) narrative and curriculum theorizing, what resonances will sound, what spaces will be illuminated, what new questions will be generated? My desire is to suggest possibilities for education without curriculum and narrative, and instead consider “dwelling” in the indeterminate spaces between curriculum and narrative as a mode of being, an ethical/ontological/epistemological engagement (Heidegger, 1962).

Deterritorializing Curriculum History

. . . the historiality of phenomena is written into their materialization, their bodily materiality holds the memories of the traces of its enfoldings; space and time (like matter) are phenomenal, that is, they are intra-actively produced in the making of phenomena; neither space nor time exist as determinate givens outside phenemona. As a result of the iterative nature of intra-active practices that constitute phenomena, the “past” and the “future” are iteratively reconfigured and enfolded through one another: phenomena are material entanglements that “extend” across different spaces and times.

(Karen Barad, 2007, p. 383)

Deterritorialization is a movement in which “material-discursive boundaries and their constitutive exclusions” are reconfigured through the dynamics of intra-acting, doing, practicing, or enacting (Barad, 2007). In other words, curriculum is understood as constituted through/in spatial relations/practices. The notion that curriculum/narrative does not exist outside of time/space, but the assumption that “past” and “future” are, as Barad maintains, “reconfigured and enfolded through one another” disrupts concepts of linearity or progress. The field of curriculum theorizing has increasingly sought to look across space and time (Baker, 2001; Helfenbein, 2010; Hendry & Winnfield, 2013; Middleton, 2016) as a means to dislodge spaces regulated by dominant systems of signification which have reduced curriculum to a technology that functions as a form of epistemic violence. The reduction of curriculum to a technology can be traced, for the most part, to the impact of the Protestant Reformation, in which education reduced teaching and learning to method (Triche & McKnight, 2004). While “method” has become so normalized as the means to teach, and functions as natural, it is almost inconceivable to imagine that curriculum could be understood alternatively. Reconfiguring or deterritorializing curriculum from an object to a phenomena, or living system, produces spaces in which to trace the enfolding of material entanglements that are curriculum across space and time thus disrupting the myth of technology as inevitable progress.

Technology, derived from the Greek tekne, pertains to the category of knowledge concerned with “what works,” the practical, everyday know-how, also known as episteme (Davis, 2004). The deterritorialization of technological understandings of curriculum has been central to the field of curriculum theorizing (Apple, 1979; Block, 2004; Dewey, 1916; Doll, 1993; Foucault, 1972; Grumet, 1988; Malewski, 2010; Miller, 2005; Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman, 1995; Slattery, 2013). Critical to this task has been thinking about the languages of curriculum. Specifically, the language of learning and teaching, concepts that are so normalized in regard to curriculum that they are difficult to problematize. This normalization is in part due to the ahistorical nature of curriculum/narrative that is the consequence of technology. This technology has become a materially embodied phenomenon whose traces echo through the spaces of time as a form of discipline and control (Gershon & Van Deventer, 2013). These “disciplines,” which reflected the emerging scientific view of the world, marked a radical epistemological shift in which knowledge was no longer understood as critical to meaning-making, but as a tool for mastery of the world (Hendry, 2011).

The shift in the purposes of education from meaning-making to mastery was clearly linked to the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation (1517–1648) might be considered one of the very first “Western” educational reform movements. Coinciding with the rise of nationalism, the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, and the printing press, the Reformation marked the transition from the medieval to the modern age. Nowhere did this shift to modernity have greater impact than in major changes to concepts of education and teaching. Prior to the Reformation, teaching had been done through dialogue, either through conversation or through a formal argument (rhetoric) or disputation between the student and teacher (Trueit, 2012). In fact, Ong (1983[1958]) maintains that the 16th century had no word in ordinary usage that clearly expressed what we mean today by method—“a series of ordered steps gone through to produce with certain efficacy a desired effect,—a routine of efficiency” (p. 225). According to Ong (1983[1958]), “this notion is not entirely missing . . . but it has no independent existence” (p. 225). While the concept of order was not absent in medieval thinking, it tended to be focused on the order of the mind or discourse (rhetoric); in other words, a routine of thinking. The shift from rhetoric to a method of logic certainly did not occur overnight, but is often associated with one particular individual: Peter Ramus (1515–1572).

Ramus was a schoolteacher at the Collège de Presles. While he started his teaching career employing rhetoric, by 1555 he began to “methodize” everything. For Ramus, “method” (methodus) is the “orderly pedagogical presentation of any subject by reputedly scientific descent from ‘general principles’ to ‘specials’ by means of definition and bipartite division” (Ong, 1983[1958], p. 30). Method came to mean, among other things, a curriculum subject because it signified a short cut to knowledge. Triche and McKnight (2004) point out that this intellectual short cut “suppressed the metaphor of education as intellectual journey characterized by lengthy, rigorous study, and inquiry from which knowledge of self and the world would emerge” (p. 39). Learning, rather than “study” (a significant shift), became for Ramus the goal of his teaching as a means to simplify or “shortcut” the procedures of his students. He accomplished this by creating a map that attempted to codify knowledge and present the reader with a linear process by which to attain that knowledge (McKnight, 2003). According to Doll (cited in Trueit, 2012), “in charting knowledge in this way, Ramus in the interest of pedagogical expediency ‘dissociated knowledge from discourse’ (Ong, 1983[1958], Preface). Teaching now moved from laying out issues for discussion to disseminating knowledge for absorption” (pp. 92–94). The shift from study to learning, and from rhetoric to knowledge, necessitated method. Curriculum was reduced from universal and general principles to the smallest, singular parts.

The success of the Protestant Reformation was dependent on shifting from scholasticism’s use of Aristotle’s complex logic to developing a practical set of educational tools (or practices) that would be expedient and useful both in terms of preparing sermons and running schools, institutions that were central to converting people to Protestantism. Both the term “method” and “curriculum” emerged, constitutive of Protestant discourse and the Reformation, as a means of producing individual human subjects and converting meaning-making into knowledge. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest source for “curriculum” is the University of Glasgow in 1633, with the exception of the 1582 records of the University of Leiden, where a version of Peter Ramus’s Professio Regia with the term “curriculum” appears. Both universities (Glasgow and Leiden) were heavily influenced by Calvinist ideas, leading Hamilton (2009) to suggest that to speak of post-Reformation curriculum “is to point to an educational entity that exhibits both structural wholeness and sequential completeness” (p. 11). While humanist education had not been structured, negotiated instead between the student and teacher, the emergence of “curriculum” as a Protestant concept suggested the need for control of both teaching and learning.

This shift to “order” education also shaped the concept of method. Whereas rhetoric in humanist education had functioned as a mode of intellectual analysis that was a leisurely art, it did not provide, according to Hamilton, a science or technique that articulated “guidelines that could be rapidly assimilated and easily applied” (p. 11). These “reforms” to order education through method resulted in constructs of learning in which: there is a separation of knower and known and in which learning is understood as a developmental progression and as a process of accumulation. In other words, learning is understood to be dependent on teaching. Teaching, on the other hand, emerges as explanation and telling in order to lay out knowledge in clear, logical, and sequenced ways. Modernist notions of curriculum, in which learning (not dialogue or study) is understood as acquisition of knowledge, required breaking down subjects into the smallest pieces and then in Cartesian fashion sequencing the concepts from simpler to most complex.

It was this reductionism that made possible the concept of school. The term “school” emerged at the beginning of the 17th century in England and marked what would become mass education (Davis, 2004). “Education” as a formalized institution was radically different from ancient and medieval understandings of education, in which the liberal arts (geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, music, grammar, logic, and rhetoric) were the heart of curriculum, as opposed to the practical arts (math, reading, writing). These “disciplines,” which reflected the emerging scientific view of the world, marked a radical epistemological shift in which knowledge was no longer understood as critical to meaning-making, but was reduced to a method. This “method” of teaching had great appeal to Protestants, who adopted Ramus’ maps in Calvinist universities throughout Europe (McKnight, 2003). Puritan leaders, trained in and by Ramist curriculum maps at British universities before coming to America, were well versed in the utilitarian nature of Ramus’ curriculum. For the Puritans, “without a reasoned, linear method, one could never understand and explicate, by way of a spiritual narration, one’s conversion” (McKnight, 2003, p. 54). The Puritans adopted “method” at Harvard as well as throughout the schools and churches in colonial New England. At the heart of being Protestant and Protestant salvation (for the Puritans in particular) was “method.” Reason alone could not be trusted to discover salvation, since this would mean “man” could “know” God. According to John Morgan (1986), “reason could be trusted to help faith by providing it with an intellectual base, but it could not discover the means to salvation” (p. 45). While reason was essential, salvation also required living a “civil, good life, the peaceful carrying out of the duties of earthly existence” (p. 55). While “method” ensured reason, schooling (beginning with Harvard and eventually the common schools) provided the mechanisms for ensuring civility. Method and compulsory public education were the modernist practices through which technocratic understandings of curriculum achieved hegemony.

Central to these practices is a language of education/curriculum that includes concepts like learning, teacher, and student (Trohler, 2011). It is so taken for granted that “learning” is the purpose of education that it is rarely, if ever, questioned. Dwayne Huebner (1999[1967]) reminds us that the purpose of education is not learning or teaching, metaphors that are deeply embedded in an epistemological worldview which privileges not only the naming of the world through language, but assumes a “subject”—a learner/teacher. Dwayne Huebner (1999), suggests that “learning” as a major concept in curriculum thought/theorizing is deeply problematic and inadequate as its central project. “Learning” is a postulated concept. As Huebner points out, “if change is detected and it is assumed to be related to interaction with the environment, it can be said that learning occurs” (1999, p. 133). If certain aspects of behavior change, we call it learning. However, there is no such “thing” as learning. Learning is an abstract concept and is assumed to be something that happens within the individual. For Huebner, this is not the case, given that individuals are not separate from the world; we are, as Heidegger suggests, a “being-in-the-world.”

More recently, Gert Biesta (2010) has highlighted how “the new language of learning,” despite its emancipatory intend of deconstructing the teacher/student power binary, is grounded in the assumption that calling someone a learner means there is something to be learned. In other words, the subjectivity of the learner is constructed as deficient, lacking, and incomplete. Drawing on Jacques Rancière (1991), Biesta highlights that this deficit model is predicated on the fact that someone knows and someone does not know. What is problematic in this setup according to Biesta is the assumption that an educator is needed to intervene for learning to take place and that “the learner is not capable to learn by himself” (Biesta, 2010, p. 541). The learner is constructed as a subject who is “not yet complete” (Bingham & Biesta, 2010, p. 134). The learner, in other words, requires someone to explain. This “explicative order” functions, ironically, to demonstrate that the “learner” is incapable of understanding something independently, without explanation, without the intervention of an educator/teacher. In other words, the learner is lacking the very capacity to learn without the intervention of an educator.

Consequently, the very concept of learning (and traditional curriculum which becomes the explanation machine) is predicated on inequality, lack, or ignorance. Modernist constructions of curriculum (whether they be derived from social efficiency, social reconstruction, progressivism, or behaviorism) are inherently predicated on the fundamental assumption of the separation of knower/known, object/subject, teacher/learner, which requires explication. The idea that humans move along a path from ignorance to knowledge is enfolded and can be traced to origin stories in which the “fall” from paradise requires “a continuous project of regaining a lost perfection” (Davis, 2004, p. 86). This trajectory from ignorance to knowledge (or inability to ability), in the language of learning, as Biesta (2010) reminds us, is predicated on the “intervention of an educator on the assumption that the learner is not yet capable to learn by him/herself” (p. 541). To eat from the tree of knowledge marks the separation of the knower and known, through which “learning” as a construct is inaugurated. This first cut, or separation, marks the curriculum of the “apple” (on which I am also writing) inscribed on our bodies as lack and in need of explication. In other words, we cannot “learn” on our own. The fall and requisite salvation is dependent on external authority, the apple (knowledge, language, culture, male) in order to return us to a state of paradise, to the garden (harmony, innocence, childhood). Learning, as knowledge, is encoded in this salvation narrative as individual and through time/history. This universalizing, totalizing, aborescent theory of learning reduced to knowledge (an object/apple) continues to materialize itself through technocratic, reductionist views of learning enfolding itself in time and space.

Alternatively, curriculum scholars (Biesta, 2014; Doll, 1993; Huebner, 1999[1967]; Pinar, 2006) suggest the radical possibility that curriculum is not about learning. “Deterritoralizing” the assemblage of curriculum requires new lines of flight from the “language of learning” in which concepts like the teacher and student are deterritoralized within the discourses of education so that they are no longer understood as “real.” There is nothing real about the concept of the learning, the student or the teacher. Curriculum as lived, as being, not as method, opens spaces in our assemblage to explore not only language (or the written word as a site of learning, a rather recent invention) but also the profoundly diverse ways in which we experience—through sound (resonance), movement, space, and place (Gershon & Van Deventer, 2013). Curriculum understood as an ethical-ontological-epistemological phenomenon that does not have at its center a “knowledge” or “linguistic” perspective, is understood instead as an organic, nomadic process of becoming (Roy, 2003). In other words, curriculum must acknowledge that as human beings we are only “made” possible as we are constituted in relation to all that is; all is material.

While the curriculum field has sought to define and redefine itself in response to previous articulations of curriculum, this is a futile gesture that places a stranglehold on curriculum because it seeks a tidy story through which curriculum becomes intelligible. There is no such intelligibility. Curriculum is meant not for explication, but exploration of the “networks” of possibility that breathe life into the creative spirit which is curriculum. Given the premise that curriculum is a living organism, embedded in a complex network of relationships, curriculum is an entangled assemblage that is so intertwined that it defies simplification or disentangling. To reduce curriculum to a method, a package, a canon, or set of readings is to create a “closed” system that assumes a body of knowledge. Unpacking the textual striation of curriculum provokes a seismic shift or way of being in the world.

The cut through which curriculum becomes a technological apparatus is about obedience to the order-word, the project of representation. To deterritorialize means to plug into language not as representation, in other words, not as operating between something seen (or felt) and something said, “but always from saying to saying” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 76). According to Deleuze and Guattari, language is defined as communicational, rather than informational. This shift or difference in language resituates the subject from an object of language, to one in which subjectivity is always brought into being through/in not only language, but also the body, sound, silence, space, place, and the arts. This disruption of language as representational, to one in which language as text is understood as a relationship of communication is critical to deterritorializing curriculum. The current language of curriculum is dominated by the concepts of student, teacher, and learning that function to confine education within a closed system. The deterritorialization of language becomes a geology of differentiation that creates a spatial, relational shift that enacts an ontological cut through which curriculum is understood as being. This act of becoming, instead of an act of replication, results in creating difference and the potential to articulate new ways of being in the world.

Central to this shift from curriculum as epistemology to an ethical/ontological/epistemological entanglement is the ongoing need to deterritorialize ourselves from closed assemblages into lines of flight in which curriculum theorizing is understood as always in process, nomadic, indeterminate, unpredicatable, and nonlinear (Reynolds & Webber, 2016). There is no progress, no liberation, no revolution, no utopia. The field of curriculum studies is a complex assemblage, part, and parcel of cosmic (dis)order. One cannot escape or step outside the assemblage in order to name, represent, or control; this results in “killing” curriculum, making it into an object, not a living, breathing system. As a curriculum scholar my obligation is to engage in an ethics of relationality, what Molly Quinn (2010) has called a “question of hospitality” in which our work as curriculum theorists is understood as an ethical engagement to make room for the other (p. 101). To do so, as Derrida suggests, is to acknowledge the impossibility of ever “knowing” the other. To embrace the stranger, the other, without seeking to name, represent, or understand is a curricular ethics which requires scholars to be troubadours, wanderers, continually in motion to be present in the assemblage, seeking to deterritorialize that which has become commonplace, familiar, and striated. As a researcher, one who engages in narrative inquiry as curriculum theorizing, narrative, like curriculum is not a method, but a way of life that situates meaning making as an indeterminate process of ethical engagement.

Interrupting the Curriculum of Narrative

In a reflective relationship between teacher and student, the teacher does not ask the student to accept the teacher’s authority; rather the teacher asks the student to suspend disbelief in that authority, to join with the teacher in inquiry into that which the student is experiencing.

William Doll (1993, p. 160)

As someone who has been deeply invested in narrative inquiry, I have simultaneously been profoundly troubled by the ways in which narrative has become reduced to a “method” to “represent” the stories of teachers, students, and curriculum. Narrative, as I have argued elsewhere (Hendry, 2010, 2011), is the first and oldest form of inquiry. The earliest human beings used oral storytelling traditions to address questions of meaning and knowing. From the beginning, narrative embodied multiple ways of being and knowing. For the ancient Greeks, knowledge was understood as both practical or everyday, episteme, and as related to larger questions of meaning, gnosis. Both modes were accounts of knowing and being that were understood as complementary, not as oppositional or binary (Davis, 2004). The current typology of research in which science (positivist) and narrative (interpretative) are understood as two incommensurate modes of inquiry in the Kuhnian sense, functions to perpetuate boundaries and bifurcations that reduce narrative, like curriculum, to a method rather than a mode of being.

I would like to suggest that all research/inquiry is narrative. This is a departure from the traditional ways in which narrative is used. Narrative is generally understood as a method separate and distinct from other research methods. Although narrative is often understood as exclusively interpretative or qualitative, I would like to suggest that narrative is not a method of analyzing story but the primary process of all inquiry. Narrative as inquiry is not a method, but an ongoing process of meaning-making. In this, I diverge from Bruner (1996) and others (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Polkinghorne, 1983, 1988; Riessman, 2008) who maintain that narrative is a distinct form of inquiry separate from scientific inquiry. Despite their supposed differences, narrative and scientific inquiry share a fundamental feature, which is the asking of questions, responding to those questions, engaging in exploration, and generating more questions. This is the creative process that is the heart of inquiry.

While narrative research has traditionally been understood as constituting part of the interpretive turn, a turn away from positivism, it is as Elizabeth St. Pierre maintains—“actually unthinkable without positivism” (2009, p. 21). This “unthinkablility” is what remains uninterrupted. Given the linguistic, interpretivist turn in the later half of the 20th century, a cut between quantitative/qualitative, positivist/naturalistic research was enacted. While this cut made possible each category, this bifurcation or dualism also made “unthinkable” the entangledness of all research. Narrative inquiry in this turn was conceptualized as an alternative to the objectifying, reductionist, and hierarchical tendencies inherent in positivist modes of research. Ironically, critical, feminist, poststructuralist researchers engagement with qualitative/narrative research revealed unsettling dilemmas and contradictions regarding issues of voice (Jackson & Mazzei, 2009), power (Munro, 1999), representation (Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Marcus & Fischer, 1986), and the very limit of narrative to “transcend” the reductionist nature of positivist research (Barone, 2007; Lather, 1991; St. Pierre, 2000, 2002). To address these critiques, narrative researchers have sought to “improve” methods of research as a means to make inquiry more “collaborative,” “dialogic,” or “representative.” In other words, “stories” are still understood as “data” which makes them “objects” of study, and “research” is still understood as a “method” resulting in a technocratic approach to inquiry. These limits of “stories” to enact an emancipatory project are the consequence of narrative still being embedded in the modernist troupe of “method.” I would like to ask: “How might we conceptualize narrative outside the normative tropes of ‘research,’ given that ‘stories’ do not provide unmediated access into another’s world what are the limits of narrative as an epistemology? What are the implications for reframing narrative as an ontology or ethics as a means to situate ‘narrative outside research’?”

The “narrative” of loss that is the locus of feminist, poststructural critiques of research (Lather, 2007; Pillow & St. Pierre, 2005) embodies a mourning that situates “research” as never able to satisfy our desires of what constitutes “good research.” The seduction of research (Dillard, 2012), and particularly the quest for “good” research, has pushed us to the limits of research as a paradigm. When narrative continues to be understood as the search for “authentic,” “missing,” or “marginalized” stories, narrative functions as an epistemology that seduces us with the “real.” Given a postmodern, poststructural sensibility, in which we acknowledge that there is no correlation between “stories” and “reality,” narrative inquiry can no longer claim to be an epistemology. Alternatively, the question becomes, what is required to subvert the desire or seduction of research as representational (epistemological)? I maintain that this requires a reconstitution of inquiry that is not embedded in method. Disrupting narrative as method, I turn instead to an understanding of narrative as ontology, a mode of being in the world that requires listening and being present to relationship. From this perspective, narrative inquiry is relieved of the impossible task of bringing about “change” or creating “better” representations of the world. Alternatively, I explore the notion of narrative not as an act of representation or correspondence which requires method, but as a sacred act in which being present to others is an ethical act, not a source of knowledge. While narrative has typically been understood as a way of knowing or meaning-making, thinking with narration shifts narrative from an epistemology to an ontological-epistmological ethics of relationality. Narrating is a process, an engagement with the world, it is an action, a verb . . . narrating, not narrative.

Narrating, Not Narrative

“Narration created humanity.”

Pierre Janet (1928)

I have read this quote multiple times to make sure that I have understood. Narration, not narrative, creates humanity. Narration, the telling or performance of stories, is a process that requires movement, creation, listening, speaking and intra-action, while narrative is the story, the plot that is constructed after the telling, what we as human beings do to make sense of our lived experience, which is then no longer experience, but the story we tell about experience. Narration, as an ongoing process, suggests not only the limits of language, whether Sassurian or Foucauldian, as always embedded in some act of “knowing” or “unknowing” (epistemology), but suggests the very indeterminacy of narrative. That there is nothing “to know” has always been for me ultimately unthinkable, even terrifying, paralyzing, and thus unimaginable. Deleuze suggests this indeterminacy in regard to reading a book:

There are, you see, two ways of reading a book; you either see it as a box with something inside and start looking for what it signifies. . . Or there’s the other way: you see the book as a little non-signifying machine. The second way of reading is intensive: something comes through or it doesn’t. There’s nothing to explain, nothing to understand, nothing to interpret. It’s like plugging into an electric circuit.

(Deleuze, 1990, p. 8)

Imagine doing research, specifically narrative, with “nothing to explain, nothing to understand, nothing to interpret.” This requires that research be done without coding, generating themes, and analyzing. It is to “plug” in like an electric circuit, to be energized, shocked, and electrified by being in the circuit. Not outside the circuit, but in the flow, always moving, always narrating.

Narrating, as opposed to narrative, is being in that circuit/web of relationships and our experiencing of it through “plugging in.” “Being,” rather than “doing,” suggests that narration is not description, not an object, but a spatial concept. Narration (or sayings), as de Certeau (1984) suggests, functions to “organize places through the displacements they describe” (p. 116). Narrating, constantly transforms places into spaces or spaces into places. According to de Certeau “they also organize the play of changing relationships between places and spaces” (p. 116). This distributive power and performative force of narration creates spaces that displace/place ever-shifting boundaries. In other words, narration is not a description, but a culturally creative act. “Words are not tools,” as Deleuze and Guattari (1987) declare, and “language is not life” (p. 76). So life cannot be represented, instead it goes from “saying to saying” in the circuit of being.

As Jackson and Mazzei (2012) warn us, “conceptualizing the process of plugging in is the easy part. Putting it to work requires much more acumen” (p. 1). The work of “plugging in” to narration requires, as William Doll maintains, an “openness to the text, its uncertainty” (Trueit, 2012, p. 107), in other words a recognition that there is not a firm reference point. Thus, narration is characterized by indeterminancy. I borrow this term from quantum physics, specifically from the work of Niel Bohr, who in critiquing metaphysical notions of science, argued that “certainty” or “determinancy” requires the precondition that “objects have an independent existence separate from the conditions of determinability specified by the apparatus” (Barad, 2007, p. 127). Whether the apparatus is a microscope, or in the case of qualitative research, narrative method, it is the apparatus that makes possible the “notion that objects have an independent existence separate from the conditions of determinability specified by the apparatus” (Barad, 2007, p. 127). In the case of narrative inquiry, it suggests that “stories” do not have an independent existence or reality, but instead are always, already being constituted through intra-action. In other words, indeterminacy rejects the “assumption that there are determinate objects with determinate properties and corresponding with determinate meanings independent of the necessary conditions needed to resolve the inherent indeterminacies” (p. 127). This means there are no stories with meanings that require a method for interpretation. In fact, I would argue that indeterminacy is the condition of narration.

Drawing on Wolfgang Iser (2000), William Doll (2012) reminds us that “it is the element of indeterminacy that evokes the text [narrative] to ‘communicate’ with the reader [researcher]” (p. 107). This indeterminacy requires participation, intra-action, engagement, in other words, narration. This is a performative act, or as Doll suggests a “performance of meaning” in which the researcher and the narrative negotiate moving together and meanings emerge from mutual intra-action (p. 107). Iser’s theory of aesthetic response, as opposed to reader response does not analyze actual readings of texts, but proceeds from an ideal “implied reader.” For Iser, the reader does not mine out an objective meaning hidden within the text. Rather, narrative generates effects of meaning for the reader in a virtual or in-between space created between reader and text. Although reader and text assume similar conventions from reality, text/narratives leave great portions unexplained to the reader, whether as gaps in the narrative or as structural limits of the text’s representation of the world. This basic indeterminacy “implies” the reader and begs participation in “living” events of meaning throughout the process of reading. As Doll (2012) describes it, this shift is one from a stable, static, closed system of reading/narrative to one that is dynamic/emergent and open. Instead of narrative as a project of representation, from an open systems perspective narrative is understood as narrating, as a performative act of creativity, that generates movement which is indeterminate. Indeterminacy thus requires improvisation and play in order to “keep knowledge alive” (Doll, 2012, p. 109).

Narrating or “reading” from the dynamic dance between text/narrative and reader/researcher, which Iser describes as “texting,” is a retrospective description of the nature of readers based on the effects a text can produce on them. One might say that phenomenology has been inverted, so that the phenomenon under examination is not the narrative of the “other,” but is primarily us, the researchers. Like Noel Gough (1995), I also can no longer justify my engagement with narrative inquiry “by reference to existential and phenomenological foundations” (p. 72). Narrative inquiry can no longer be understood as central to representation, instead the centrality of narrative (or what I now call thinking with narrating) is an ethics of relationality/performativity in which being/doing/practicing is critical to the creative agency of being human.

Like Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) body without organs, there is no interior truth or meaning which can be uncovered/discovered in narratives or curriculum. The question is no longer one of “meaning,” but of how we are constituted in the flow of continuous diffraction through/in which we practice/be/perform. We are entangled in the web of life and cannot step outside of it. Ethics, according to Levinas (1985), “does not supplement a preceding existential base” instead our subjectivity “is knotted in ethics understood as responsibility” (p. 95). If narrating is a form of ethical relationality, an “ontoepistemology,” then it is not about the “right” response to the “other,” but about the responsibility “for the lively relationalities of becoming of which we are a part” (Barad, 2007, p. 93). Narrating focuses not on understanding the other (there is no such subject) or on meaning (since this is always in flux), but on practicing/doing/performing/being in the dance of connectivity and intra-action. Narration will not result in better knowledge or better curriculum or better research, but in an “embodied sensibility” or relational ethics in which we engage and are present to the wonder and awe of the web of relationships that constitute our being.

Narrating/Curriculum as Ethics

The severing of curriculum and narrative as two distinct, independent objects has resulted in these practices being reduced to the master narrative of technology. This reduction of curriculum/narrative to method/technology has had a significant impact on understandings of education as a technocratic endeavor in which human beings are understood as data, products, numbers, and text. Ironically, human beings are no longer “real,” despite the best efforts of naturalistic inquiry. The problem is not one of “better” research methods (narrative or otherwise) or better curriculum (standardized or otherwise), but is one of practice. Education, as a practice of ethical relationality, of being in relation with ourselves and others, is a process of narrating the web of life in which we are suspended. It requires that we be present to how we are constituted through/in our connectedness/intra-actions of and in the world/cosmos which is the curriculum.

Narrating, like curriculum, requires that we “trust” the process, that there is faith that “being” is enough. Research as a “faith act” with indeterminacy is not a “method,” but is an ethical engagement in which living creates spaces for us to reclaim the human and the material as part of a cosmology that is the web of life. Narration as a living, breathing embodiment of curriculum seeks to displace the spaces in which research has functioned to dehumanize/categorize through making stories, words, and lives objects to be cut, analyzed, and understood as knowledge (as objects). This displacement of space is no small matter given that our humanity is at stake.


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