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Grace Aheron

Analytical Paper

MDST 3559

September 2012

As the events of Theresa Sullivan’s firing and reinstatement played out this summer, I was squirming in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My sociological imagination was churning as I felt the events in a deeply personal way-- the dishonesty directed at a community I hold so dear and a community of which I feel I am an integral part-- and in a more impersonal way as this event shed light on the larger world of high education. While I often feel removed from stories and social commentaries picked up in the media, I became obsessed with this event and overwhelmed with the desire to act. My journey towards this class began with that desire. After the reinstatement, with the event so raw and unresolved, I felt the need for some sort of community healing to work through the divisiveness, demonizing, and lack of trust that came out out of the 17 days. In the Fall of 2012 after the death of Yeardley Love, Theresa Sullivan sponsored a community-wide Day of Dialogue for similar purposes-- to have conversations that worked towards a caring community. I had hoped that a similar response to this event might have been possible (and perhaps one day will be)-- imagine what a powerful thing it would have been to visibly see this entire community coming together with dialogue at the forefront, a process that President Sullivan and I both see as necessary in the healing process. While that event proved presently unrealistic, I hope that this class fulfill many of those same goals.

After taking a few months to reflect, I have realized that my burning desire to act and my vision for a second Day of Dialogue came about because of the incredible showing of community that was fostered throughout the ouster. Our UVa community mobilized far and wide in a unprecedented way. Many voices in corners of the community which are usually not visible began to cry out. Many other voices still have their stories to share. But as I poured over photos of the Lawn filled with community members, staff, faculty, and lingering students, I thought to myself, “How can we harness this energy?” The dynamic energy that spurned the reaction to the ouster was incredible-- I wanted to capitalize on it. This event was something about which, it seemed, everyone had an opinion and everyone felt effected them in some way. So, my desires in entering this class soundly concerned with using this event as a springboard for working towards a more caring and more conscious community on Grounds. In conducting my interviews, I’m hoping to push interviewees in this direction. In this line of thinking, I am particularly interested in this question: Did the events of this summer change the way you understand the UVa community or change the way you understand your role in the UVa community?

I was also initially attracted to this class because of the focus on oral history and story sharing. Though Goodson has now complicated my understanding of story, something that was was initially striking to me in the media coverage of this event was the lack of people’s stories. Surely, this deficiency was particularly noticeable because I myself am a member of the UVa community (I don’t find myself clamoring for human stories in media coverage of the war in Iraq or brush fires in California, for instance). However, I saw this class as an opportunity to give voice-- to breathe human life-- into an event which seemed overly “newsy” to me. I appreciated the opportunity to hear both Coy and Phyllis speak about their work in oral history and the concept of oral history in general. Coy told us several times, “You are doing important work here,” and beyond just bolstering our self-importance, I thought this was a striking message from someone so well-respected in the community and in the field-- hearing that oral history is emerging as a legitimate form of historical preservation is heartening to me. We are valuing and preserving individual's stories and letting them speak for themselves. As a feminist, this is ideal; feminists often write about being historically denied a voice and story and story-sharing is the means by which we can remediate this denial. However, oral history is problematic for me in that is it not dialogue-- it is about story-sharing, but not about bringing people together. I am concerned that this is simply not enough, that oral history may be too oriented in recalling the past and not acting in the present. I worry that the interviewee will not get as much out of the interview as myself or my classmates, which, to me, feel like some sort of strange manipulation. I want to empower people to feel like part of the larger narrative, but also to challenge them to encounter other stories and be moved by them. Will oral history alone be enough to satisfy my need for community building and community healing?

The Goodson reading helped assuage some of these concerns, but also complicated my understanding of personal narrative in a larger social context. Goodson was largely critical of story-sharing standing alone. He writes that the “cost is that personal minutiae and anecdotes replace cultural analysis” (3). I found this notion extremely challenging given my work with dialogue at UVa. I am heavily involved in groups at UVa that purport dialogue as a means of action. That is, by sharing my story with you and by hearing your story, my consciousness of different narratives within a community will be raised and I will act differently. Here, I can provide a concrete example: One group I am a part of, Dialogue Across UVa, organizes small discussions group of faculty, students, and staff. In that way, I have been able to meet people from all corners of the University, from places at UVa I did not even know existed. Before building relationships with these people, I usually assumed that any random group of adults I saw walking around Grounds was some sort of visiting group of business people investigating UVa. For some reason, I never assumed that these adults were part of my community. Now that I can personally recognize many of these adults as employees and integral parts of the University, I can see these “random” older people walking around as vibrant parts of my community who belong as much as I do. Through story and relationship, my worldview was changed and my actions reflect that.

After reading Goodson, however, I have become aware that dialogue and story sharing in themselves may not always be enough. I have always been reticent to try to tie others’ stories and my own into some sort of larger political or social schema because I have no part in them, but perhaps what is more true is that I do not want to see that I do have a part in them-- both the negative and positive aspects. I do not want to feel that my daily actions are perpetuating oppression or patriarchy, but, as Goodson writes, perhaps I am merely trying to divorce my own story from this social context in which I do participate daily. Goodson writes that “New stories do not by themselves analyze or address the structures of power” (10). Take that, feminists. But truly, I am not sure that I totally agree with his thinking here, but I will admit that his critique did cause minor tremors in my foundation of dialogue-oriented thinking. In thinking about that quotation in relationship to my goals in this class, I have begun to consider how our collections of stories may be agents of change in our community-- how can we use these narratives to address structures of power? And by structures of power, I could be talking about something as large as university governance or as local as worker recognition at UVa. In our interviews, “it cannot be all give and no take (8), and I wonder what our “takes” will be-- what will we make of this and for what greater purpose?

DMU Timestamp: September 14, 2012 19:31

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