Other People's Stories. Researching Perspectives through Literature and Drama

Master's Thesis, 2006

55 Pages, Grade: A


Table of Contents


1. Introduction

2. Theoretical Background
2.1. Stereotypes and One-Dimensional Worlds
2.2. On Cultural Identity
2.3. Exploring Alternatives
2.4. Literature and Drama in the Exploration of Alternatives

3. Research Methodology

4. Practical Work
4.1. The Beginning of the Project
4.2. Context
4.3. ‘It’s All about Sharing, Isn’t It?’
4.4. ‘Be the Muscle, Be the Eye’

5. Conclusion




The teaching of foreign languages, and especially that of English as a Foreign Language, has undoubtedly undergone massive changes in Romania during the last decades. A general openness towards innovation and transformation is to be noticed in the post-revolutionary Romanian education system. The study of a foreign language is accompanied by elements of literature, culture and civilization, to which students from the bilingual and philological classes are to be widely exposed.

If, on the one hand, teenagers are encouraged to become active learners, teachers, on the other, are supposed to keep up with all major transformations and find the best way to help their students engage with their studies.

My practical attempts to stimulate teenagers’ involvement with the study of a different culture via literature have proved to me that drama is an extremely valuable method to be employed. It opens the way towards roads not taken and not even thought about, it makes written texts come alive, it colours perspectives and brings depth into our viewpoints. It contains in it the capacity to make us continuously (re)consider and (re)shape ourselves and the world we share.

The aim of this research is to bring into discussion a case study developed in a Romanian upper secondary school and observe what the theory it was inspired by looks like in a practical environment. As a study, it is meant – at its turn – to open new perspectives towards the teaching of English literature. My hope is that it can be of any interest to my colleagues, or to anybody attempting to challenge the youth of today to listen carefully and purposefully to somebody else’s stories.

1. Introduction

‘MICHAEL: […] I was trying to see how they experienced what happened there. Because our histories intersect.

MAN: Your histories don’t ‘intersect’, yours is a subplot of theirs. […]

TODD: He’s not going to write about this. He promised.


MICHAEL: You people are part of history. I don’t owe you anything.

STEPHEN: We’re not part of your history. […]

MICHAEL: I can tell whatever story I want.

STEPHEN: Evidently. […]

ALTHEA: I thought about it. Who am I to say I own an atrocity? Go ahead.’ (Redhill, 2005, pp.15, 70-71)

Our history, your story. The aforementioned conversation taking place between Redhill’s characters (2005) refers to one of the major topics dealt with in Goodness: the power of a story over everybody whom it gets in touch with – the ones who live it, the ones who tell it, as well as the ones who listen to it.

At the same time it reminds me vividly of Bharucha’s analysis of ‘Interculturalism and Its Discriminations’ (2000), with a description of a ‘double performance’ he had watched happening in Calcutta, in 1977. On the one hand, there was the actual Chhau dance-theatre, performed in the folk tradition of the Eastern states of India. On the other hand, there was the performance of the ‘interculturalists’ (with their video cameras, zoom lenses and projectors, with a technology that seemed ‘western’ and implied the ‘power of capital’), ‘so oblivious to the hundreds and thousands of people sitting behind them’ (p.21). The most interesting part of this situation is Bharucha’s way of moving backwards and forwards in time, in-between his past and present thoughts.

‘Who are these people? What are they seeing? Today these questions suggest a context of exclusion on my part, implying a […] sense of cultural belongingness and territoriality that is being assumed, even as it is in the process of being disturbed. […] Was I overreacting to what I saw? Were we being made into voyeurs of our own culture as we saw Chhau through the screen of alien bodies? To what extent can Chhau be regarded exclusively as ‘our’ culture? What goes into the construction of this possessive adjective ‘our’ – our culture, our language, our nation?’ (Bharucha, 2000, p.21).

Our stories, as well.

It was in the 20th century that the topic of the relationship one – the other emerged and started taking shape as a philosophical theme (Vlad, 2005). The first decades of the 20th century witnessed the philosophers’ first attempts to define the two in relationship with each other. It was therefore in the troubled period of 1930s that the ‘who am I?’ question received for the first time the answer ‘a being in relationship with’. The ‘Other’ became once and for all the source of ‘One’, touching in this way the core of the most personal experience possible (Vlad, 2005). To conclude with, it is only through the relationship with the ‘Other’ and in the ‘in-between’ space, that ‘One’ can be defined. This might provide us with an image of the importance of multiculturalism and plurality in nowadays world.

In the 21st century, multiculturalism is said to be a ‘portmanteau term’ (Bhabha, 2005) for anything, ‘from minority discourse to postcolonial critique, from gay and lesbian studies to chicano/a fiction. [It] has become the most charged sign for describing the scattered social contingencies that characterize contemporary Kulturkritik ’ (Bhabha, 2005).

Žižek, cited in Bharucha (2000) sees the very reference that one makes to multiculturalism as a disguised form of racism: ‘a ‘racism with a distance’ – it respects the Other’s identity, conceiving the Other as a self-enclosed ‘authentic’ community towards which he, the multiculturalist, maintains a distance rendered possible by his privileged universal position… [T]he multiculturalist respect [for] the Other’s specificity is the very form of asserting one’s own superiority’ (p.35).

To put it again in Redhill’s words (2005), ‘you’ll find any reason at all to make a ‘them’ so you can be an ‘us’. […] ‘The minority culture is, the majority culture does ’’ (pp.19, 17).

If multiculturalism appears to be indeed a type of racism, is perhaps nowadays the thought of universality a more comforting one? It would appear more appropriate to me to think about multiculturalism and multiplicity – just as Aoki does – as if they were ‘something’ that ‘grows in the middle’ (Aoki, 1996/2005, p.11), in the dialogical space where ‘selves and others indwell’ (p.8). I consider it all to be a question of perspective, as the space between us can indeed be a gap, if this is what we are making of it. But it can also be the place of our encounters with the others, and in this way the area where we can acquire a better understanding of ourselves.

Why do we speak about a fear of multiculturalism (Greene, 1995)? What is it that explains the censorship of it? How can we expect personal, distinctive growth, if we are afraid to step outside, in the open, in the space where these encounters take place?

In the 21st century, teachers are the ones who have to carefully listen to the various voices, so many times at odds with the mainstream ones (Greene, 1995). They have to be able to realize that sometimes people stubbornly stick to a relentless tunnel-visioned perspective, and that they are more than often prone to think in terms of predictions and predeterminations. They also have to be aware of the fact that one can be so trapped in one’s personal perception of the world that he cannot even imagine this could be different to somebody else. If the young people today are expected to live with the others and remake their own world together (Greene, 1995), it is still the responsibility of teachers to help them realize what a burden slogans and stereotypes really are. It is therefore their task to find a way to overcome divisiveness and group hostility, to provoke the questioning of the fixed and settled situations and the moving towards what is less known and perhaps less comfortable in such a fragmented culture.

In this context, it is also worth asking ourselves in what sense we can say that a culture belongs to a certain group (Grossberg, 2005) and which are the chances for the marginal to become central. Which ones are our personal stories and which ones are parts of somebody else’s cultural heritage?

With this thought, it is my intention to approach the topic of exploring alternatives via literature and drama, while encouraging students to relate to a different, an- other, cultural background.

I intend to refer in the first chapter to the theoretical background that supported and continuously nourished the planning session of the workshops with my students. Its sections are meant to bring into discussion cultural identity, the exploration of alternatives, as well as drama and literature as tools for the above-mentioned search for new, fresh perspectives.

The second chapter will discuss the paradigms that influenced my research design, the data gathering methods I employed for my specific purposes, problems encountered and practical considerations that were taken into account. I also see this chapter as the bridge linking the theory referred to and the practice it continuously informed and reshaped.

As far as the third chapter is concerned, this is going to consist of the analysis of the practical work that has taken place in a high secondary school in Romania. It brings into light specific moments that I consider particularly important, as well as the students’ answers to various more or less slippery questions related to diversity.

This research is of main interest to me personally, as I have worked as a teacher of English literature, culture and civilization in Romania for a number of years now. I hope that it will provide my colleagues with a different perspective upon the teaching of British and American literature in Romania, but also upon the teaching of English as a Foreign Language. Our students would obviously be the main beneficiaries of this process.

I believe that, in my attempt to use literature and culture in order to guide students on their journey towards different ways of seeing things, drama is the best means to allow for questions to be raised. According to Winston (2004), ‘the imaginative experience of fiction through drama is more immediate than through a written story. […] Because the language of drama makes use not only of words, but also of visual and other types of aural signal, it offers more of what we might call ‘avenues of engagement’ for children to access the human issues within a story. […] Thirdly, […] there is more scope for different interpretations or different nuances of interpretation, […] [which enrich] classroom discussion’ (p.27).

To quote one of my students, ‘people don’t always listen. I think they better observe and reflect on a situation if they’re really getting involved in it’.

2. Theoretical Background

2.1. Stereotypes and One-Dimensional Worlds

There was nothing in the poster put on display that could strike one as presenting something special or unique. As a background, white walls, daubed with graffiti. One young African American man, casually dressed, apparently running as fast as he could. No transparent message transmitted to the audience. Except perhaps of the fact that the image itself seemed to have been the result of a copy-paste process, so well could it have reminded one of the Hollywood movies that our screens are so familiar with.

The 21st century, a small Romanian town. A group of 12-year old students were asked to share ideas related to the poster in question and discuss them, with the aim of building a story rooted in, or inspired by this particular point in space and time. As expected, the young African American man became the focus of interest and presuppositions started taking shape. First question: whom is he running away from ? Several underlying assumptions, one common point. The man in the picture was generally perceived as being a possible criminal, most likely running away from the police.

In the 21st century of our world, a group of teenagers were thus attaching labels, through their responses to an image. Had they been asked to create a second poster to complete the story and present the two of them in a slide show, their own image would have had to follow the given one. There must have been somebody chasing the man, in an attempt to stop him and denounce the criminal mischief.

However, the designers of the poster had envisaged it in a completely different way. To them, this image was the second half of the puzzle game, as the young man in the picture was in fact the undercover police officer, running not away from, but after somebody. Instead of being the criminal, the man was the very protector of the law.

How did the 12-year old students in this group reach their conclusion? Undoubtedly, the culture of the classroom and the culture of the ‘beyond-classroom’ reflect each other. Which is then the departure point for a much desired change?

‘That children as young as three years of age are able to construe the world in racial (and indeed racist) terms is no longer in dispute […]. Moreover, this potential for incipient racism is continually nurtured by the myths and stereotypes that abound in popular culture’ (Short & Carrington, 1992, p.255).

The issue addressed by Short and Carrington (1992) brings forward a gloomy, if not frightening atmosphere. To what extent can one escape an innately prejudiced perception of the world, especially if these stereotypical images are constantly backed up by one’s own social and cultural context? Described as being ‘belief[s] guarded against reflection’ (Williams, 1985, p.116), all prejudices appear to be ‘directed to secure us ‘over here’ and them ‘over there’, to fix each in its appointed species place’ (Hall, 1992, p.16).

What is it then that we need to question inside ourselves to find out why we might think in such a way? What kind of an answer do we also expect to receive from the world that surrounds us? How do we all react to either the ‘blatant’ or the ‘subtle prejudice’ (Pettigrew & Mertens, 1995, p.58) that are still a presence nowadays?

With 16 officially declared ethnic minorities, Romania may easily be regarded as a multicultural space. It has always been considered as such, all along its history. Nevertheless, cultural diversity is not one of the most frequent topics that Romanian students are likely to discuss in schools. The national curriculum does not provide them with enough opportunities to analyse this kind of data. Nor are our students supposed to attempt at least to understand or to relate to the cultural panorama that is on display in this country. We might speak about awareness and interest, we might refer to tolerance and comprehension, but it is my belief that different cultures are still perceived as being very remote by a significant number of Romanian teenagers. Apparently, theory and practice are still quite far away from each other.

Seen from such a distance, real people and situations leave their uniqueness behind and start looking like plain figures and statistics. This process results in a detached and disconnected point of view and eventually in sheer indifference. After all, this is none of our business, so why should we care after all?

Unfortunately, a vision of people as if they were such chess pieces is generally the one adopted by educational systems, always ‘concerned with trends and tendencies’ (Greene, 1995, p.10), therefore prone to see things small. No doubt, the school curriculum reflects it as well.

In consequence, as far as students are concerned, this situation reduces considerably their chances to really understand how our world functions as a whole. Obviously, ‘one must see from the point of view of the participant in the midst of what is happening if one is to be privy to the plans people make, the initiative they take, the uncertainties they face’ (Greene, 1995, p.10).

One needs therefore to shift the lenses through which one is used to observing the world. For, to put it in Bakhtin’s words (1981), all differences ‘are pregnant with potential for new world views, with new ‘internal forms’ for perceiving the world in words’ (p.360). But, before anything else, one needs to be aware of the very existence of a different pair of lenses.

And this awareness is most likely to be reached as soon as opportunities are created for people to meet other people and to listen to their stories, to open up to ‘difference’ and to the ‘other’. Basically, as soon as opportunities are created for people to learn about other cultures.

2.2. On Cultural Identity

I imagine cultural identity as a living organism, subject to permanent transformation and adjustment, continuously shaping and reshaping itself, both adopting and adapting to other features. Hence, I believe it to be in an endless and ‘profound process of redefinition’ (Bhabha, 1997, p.5), in a perpetual hesitation between fitting into a mould and breaking the mould. I picture it as being constantly devised by the good will of time, space and human relationships.

For neither culture nor identity can ever be regarded as closed, stable and fixed concepts, turned towards themselves in self-sufficiency. On the contrary, they are extremely malleable, volatile and contingent, ‘never fully and finally made’, but ‘incessantly reconstituted’ (Butler, 1993, p.105).

If people feel that they belong to a certain group, it is simply because they can partially rely on a common set of rules or norms. The code in question always becomes the clear marker of a shared cultural identity. However, the very awareness of the existence of such codes is only possible via the confrontation with their absence and, consequently, via the vivid encounter with another culture.

Hall (2005) brings into discussion two approaches, related to the concept of identification, considered to be perhaps as ‘tricky’ as the notion of identity itself. In common sense language, any identification presupposes the existence of an origin or of some traits shaped by and shared with a group, ‘or with an ideal, and with the natural closure of solidarity and allegiance established on this foundation’ (p.2). The ‘discursive approach’, on the other hand, sees it as being ‘a construction, a process never completed – always ‘in process’’ (p.2). The solution proposed by the cultural theorist for those reflecting upon the two complex concepts of identity and identification is to draw meaning from both approaches, without being limited to either.

I associate Hall’s above-mentioned points of view with Mahatma Gandhi’s lively picture of cultural identity. ‘I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed’, he stated. ‘I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any’.

Is cultural identity then a well-built, circular construction, with a solid foundation and with walls made of layers upon layers of stone, polished by both people and time? A house provided and adorned with windows meant to be always kept wide open, which welcome all winds of diversity? Is cultural identity a permanently ‘changing same’ (Gilroy, 1994, p.21), with stony ‘roots’ and windy ‘routes’?

It appears that, taken alone, each side of the double-faceted perspective on cultural identity leaves one with an incomplete image, which needs ‘mending’. For, in spite of the seemingly well-established semantic path associated with it, the concept of identity requires that we do not only take into account a stable core, an unchangeable oneness, or an immobile belongingness. Cultural identity is not motionless. We also need to speak about variation, about the ‘collision between differing points of view on the world’ (Bakhtin, 1981, p.360), about frontiers and ‘frontier-effects’, about the ‘logic of more-than-one’ and about the ‘constitutive outside’ (Hall, 2005, p.3), as well as about multiple intersecting or antagonistic codes.

It seems that every process of self-discovery and understanding requires for its development that one meets and attempts to know an-other. It is only through the agency of the other that we are finally able to turn towards and better understand ourselves. Whether we ‘consume the other’ (Freud, 1921/1991, p.134) or simply acknowledge him, whether we absorb him or we develop a ‘capacity to exclude, to leave out, to render ‘outside’’ (Hall, 2005, p.5), whether we declare that I am because you are or that, on the contrary, I am because you are not, it is always the other that completes our own equation.

The exploration of cultural identity could not have been an exception. Cultural theorists and philosophers agree that it is through this relation to the Other, to precisely what they lack, that identities are constructed. As they are defined as incomplete and relational, identities operate not outside, but through difference and exclusion (Derrida, 1981; Laclau, 1990; Butler, 1993; Grossberg, 2005; Hall, 2005). By focusing on the play power-exclusion, a number of theorists also see identities as being the ‘result […] of the naturalized, overdetermined process of ‘closure’’ (Hall, 2005, 1993; Bhabha, 1994).

Laclau (1990) engages with Derrida’s point of view on the establishment of a violent hierarchy between two poles as the basis for the construction of identity. ‘What is peculiar to the second term’, he states, ‘is thus reduced to the function of an accident as opposed to the essentiality of the first. […] ‘Woman’ and ‘black’ are thus ‘marks’ in contrast with the unmarked terms of ‘man’ and ‘white’’ (p.33).

Hall’s metaphor (1991) supports this point of view and comes to complete the image. If the concept of identity needs to be defined in positive and productive terms – as stated by Rosaldo (1989), among others –, this appears to be possible only after the confrontation with the ‘narrow eye of the negative. It has to go through the eye of the needle of the other before it can construct itself’ Hall declares (1991, p.21). Obviously, as this is an interdependent relation, the identity of the latter – of the Other –, only becomes established via the very exclusion of the former (Grossberg, 2005).

This process leads to the clear emergence of the I and the You, each one of them definable through the acknowledgement or the negation of the other. Still, the picture is not complete. If ‘we can speak of Ourselves and Others’ (Bhabha, 1995/2006, p.209), it is perhaps time for us to find a place where the I and the You can meet, the very ‘in-between’, the ‘inter’, the ‘cutting edge of translation and negotiation’ (p.209). It is perhaps time for us to fit in the missing piece of the puzzle game.

While referring to ‘culture-as-difference’ (2005, p.55), Bhabha also discusses the linguistic difference, which is related to any cultural performance, and which requires three essential constituents: the already mentioned I and You, as well as a Third Space. According to him, the act of communication between the I and the You demands the intervention of this Third Space of enunciation, which will bring along the needed ambivalence. ‘It is that Third Space […] which constitutes the discursive conditions of enunciation that ensure that the meaning and symbols of culture have no primordial unity or fixity; that even the same signs can be appropriated, translated, rehistoricized, and read anew’ (p.208).

This image of between-ness takes us back to Derrida’s (1981) analysis of the ‘entre’, as well as to Anzaldua’s (1987) description of border territories and of their dwellers, perceived as inhabitants of two realities, trapped in a blurred and undetermined place. It also relates to Grossberg’s (2005) ‘external space of possibilities’ (p.104), and to the place that Greene (1978) refers to as the ‘shared reality’ (p.51).

It is precisely in this space of negotiation that we are supposed to expose our stone house to the winds of change. It is precisely this place that we need to find our way to, in an attempt to discover ‘the others of our selves’ (Bhabha, 1995/2006, p.209). And it is through the agency of ‘the others of our selves’ that we are always able to imagine alternative perspectives.

2.3. Exploring Alternatives

2.3.1. Narcissus’ Disciple

‘And God said to the Man, ‘Wherefore can I not send thee unto Heaven, and for what reason?’

‘Because never, and in no place, have I been able to imagine it,’ answered the Man.’ (Wilde, 2000, p.172)

Once imagined, as in Wilde’s poem in prose, alternatives come into view and are thrown open for the audience’s questions.

Wilde’s way of revealing perspectives works through the deconstruction of settled truths. The Disciple is perhaps one of the best examples of this kind.

Narcissus’ death gathers together the weeping nymphs of the mountains, valleys and ravines, who come to bring comfort to the pool in mourning. They loosen their green tresses in despair, they sing and cry on its shore and they take pity on the pool that had ‘changed from a cup of sweet tears into a cup of salt tears’ (Wilde, 2000, p.172), as they would pity the one who knew Narcissus better and loved him more than anyone else. And the Oreads’ words, related to Narcissus’ beauty, make the pool answer in amazement: ‘But was [he] beautiful? […] I loved Narcissus because, as he lay on my banks and looked down on me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw ever my own beauty mirrored’ (Wilde, 2000, p.173).

Apart from the flowing language and an overall picture-like quality – both attributes characteristic of Wilde’s literary work –, the beauty of his poems in prose also resides in an amazing twist of interpretation applied to an allegedly fixed, well-established image, that comes straight from the Greek mythology. The focus of interest appears to have switched from Narcissus to the pool itself, in whose perspective the Greek hero functions merely as a mirror, meant to reflect beauty, not to embody it. Apparently, it is all a question of perception.

2.3.2. ‘And in July We Would Often Go South to Ski’

Existential philosophers, starting with Kierkegaard, have constantly pointed out the subjectivity and partiality of perspectives. Arendt (1958) analyses the emergence of various, biased viewpoints as well, and finds an explanation for this in people’s distinct social and cultural codes or sets of norms. These ones deriving, at their turn, from the different locations of nations on the face of the Earth. In other words, as far as our alternative perspectives are concerned, it is the very fact that ‘everybody sees and hears from a different position’ (1958, p.57) that makes all the difference. Hence, one has to realize that ‘the world perceived from one place is not the world’ (Greene, 1995, p.20). The same way, ‘common sense says that you don’t bracket out 90% of the world’s cultural heritage if you really want to learn about the world’ (Gates, 1992, pp.711-712).

In consequence, as each object reveals itself in a different way to every single spectator, its reality can only be found in the sum of all ‘simultaneous […] innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself. […] Only where things can be seen by many in a variety of aspects without changing their identity, so that those who are gathered around them know they see sameness in utter diversity, can worldly reality truly and reliably appear’ (Arendt, 1958, p.57).

Gilroy (1992) and Grossberg (2005) support Arendt’s points of view entirely: subjectivity is considered to be spatial, and people’s experience of the world is most likely to depend on their position on the Earth. The two theorists also analyse the spreading of people from one national group or culture to other areas, and bring into discussion foreign influences and various affiliations, which will all – sooner or later – redefine the ways of belonging of what we call ‘diaspora’.

‘And in July we would take our winter holidays and we would often go south to ski’. This is perhaps the best example that I personally can bring to illustrate the above-mentioned points. When uttered by at least 85% of the human population, and more precisely by anyone living in the Northern Hemisphere, this sentence makes no sense whatsoever. For a few seconds it made no sense to me either to hear my friend – born in Croatia, New Zealander by adoption – utter it. Biased by my own geographical location, I found it difficult to immediately place her in her own.

A much more elaborate example supporting the idea that perspectives are subjective and biased would be the one presented by Hargreaves (1994), in his analysis of the ‘balkanization’ of teaching, or the ‘collaboration that divides’ (p.212), a feature still defining education systems in the 20th century. He brings into discussion two stories told to him by a Slovenian hairdresser living in southern British Columbia, Canada.

On the one hand, she creates the very ‘portrait of despair’ (p.212), born out of an extended historical and political analysis of facts and events related to former Yugoslavia, which are rooted in fundamental differences in ethnicity, religion, language and culture. ‘These differences were so deep-seated and multi-faceted, they were virtually irreconcilable’ (p.212).

Alongside this story, the Slovenian lady provides us all with a different one, featuring the owners of the three hotels in her Canadian town: a Serbian, a Croatian and a Slovenian, who – far away from their native country –, not only socialised, but managed to become best friends. ‘Traditional enemies in one country; loyal friends in another. Differences that seemed irreconcilable and immutable, and rivalries that had become entrenched by culture and history and context, were not so fixed at all in another. […] In the Canadian desert, far from the cultural assumptions and distinctions of their own native land, they could even become friends’ (Hargreaves, 1994, p.212).

A ‘portrait of despair’ (p.212) and a picture of understanding and human bonding at the same time. The difference between the two alternative approaches is that, in southern British Columbia, the ‘mutual bonds of solidarity’ of those engaged in ‘the same enterprise’ (Sartre, 1948, p.150) have prevailed upon all seemingly irreconcilable schisms, as rooted in ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural differences as they might have been.

On the other hand, all loss of interest in a common world, in getting involved with ‘the same enterprise’, will always result in a divided society, as pointed out by Arendt (1961) or by Greene (1995). This is the image that might illustrate the first story of the Slovenian cited by Hargreaves (1994).

According to Sartre (1948), our perspectives are a matter of choice, and in consequence they can be analysed, read differently and changed. It is up to us then to see if the world is indeed predetermined, and fixed in a framework or not. The power to choose and to act develops inside us the ‘capacity to become different’ (Dewey, 1931, p.293) and to see things in a different light, which leads us towards a permanent ‘renewal of a common world’ (Greene, 1995, p.196).

2.3.3. Celebrating Multiple Perspectives

The great challenge is to ‘live with [the] eyes open’ (Konrad, 1975), that is to constantly resist the temptation to take the world as a given, to take it for granted (Greene, 1978). The goal is to avoid the tendency of remaining trapped in a system for the sake of sheer comfort, unable or reluctant to imagine alternatives and to ponder them. There will always be issues to face, questions to raise and quests to embark on, as there will always be obstacles to surpass.

However, a ‘road not taken’ (Frost, 1992) will only arouse nostalgia in the one that knows that somewhere, there were at least two roads for him to take. In the same way, Foucault (1982) argues, people need to be aware that alternatives exist or that they can be imagined, if they are to feel blocked and manipulated.

In our world, I believe that it is the responsibility of teachers to equip students so that they may ‘see possibilities in the situations they confront’ (Greene, 1978, p.50), to level the way for them so that they may be attentive to others, avoid fixity and discover perspectives. This is how our teenagers will be able to overcome indifference and open up to variety and inclusion. Unger (1984) and Habermas (1987) also militate for dialogue and face-to-face relationships, in order to prevent one from categorizing and keeping one’s distance.

In the age of multiculturalism and plurality, it is certainly the teachers’ task to help students find their voice and refuse invisibility, after they have been allowed to explore and discover there might be ‘an emptiness, a void to be filled, a wound to be healed, a flaw to be repaired’ (Greene, 1995, p.159). Attention, openness and concern for the others can definitely widen the lens (Rukeyser, 1938) and make us all build bridges, instead of walls.

It is clear that by imagining and exploring perspectives, one brings them to life, and throughout this entire process, various features of one’s identity are also (re)shaped or come into light.

When presenting Mead’s studies of the self, Greene (1978) refers to the two determined components discussed by the American sociologist and psychologist: the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. According to Mead, the ‘Me’ refers to all internal cultural experiences and previous history. On the other hand, the ‘I’ is responsible for the self’s sense of freedom, agency and spontaneous actions. The ‘I’ deals with all present choices, ‘which are made against a background of past occurrences’ (Greene, 1978, p.36).

To conclude, the discovery of alternatives, one would say, has the capacity to unsettle the ‘Me’ and to help the frequent occurrence of the ‘I’. It provokes a permanent creation and recreation of the self, through the critical reflection upon the actions and features associated with the ‘Me’. Thus, it ‘allow[s] one to go beyond what one has been’ (Greene, 1978, p.36), in a reality that is also ‘unfinished and waiting to be created’ (Neelands, 2004, p.47).

The whole world is therefore to be (re)invented and human potentiality is viewed ‘as a project rather than as an essentialised and contained given’ (Neelands, 2004, p.53). Hence we are all ‘in a process of continuous transforming and (re)shaping of who we are and who we are becoming’ (p.53). Briefly, we are ‘human ‘becomings’ rather than human ‘beings’’, ‘going beyond ‘ourselves’: acting ‘otherwise’’ (p.53).

Or, as Dewey (1916) had also stated, ‘the self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action’ (p.408). By constantly refreshing our viewpoints, by ‘judg[ing], enjoy[ing] and judg[ing] anew’ (Stimpson, 1984, p.8), we will shape our identities and become authors of our own life, instead of remaining mere observers or tourists in a crowd (Greene, 1995). We will learn to watch, to listen, to make connections and to release untapped visions.

2.4. Literature and Drama in the Exploration of Alternatives

‘Vreme trece, vreme vine, ‘Days go past and days come still Toate-s vechi şi nouă toate; All is old and all is new, Ce e rău şi ce e bine What is well and what is ill, Tu te-ntreabă şi socoate […]’ You imagine and construe […]’ (Eminescu, 1982, p.288, translated into English by C.M. Popescu)

Formulated in the troubled epoch of late Romanticism, the Romanian national poet’s invitation to keep our eyes wide open, to ask questions, to attempt to understand and to authentically re-read the world we live in becomes a must in the age of multiplicity and postmodernism. Nowadays there is perhaps more than ever a need to open spaces for people to tell their stories and a necessity at the same time to accept storytelling as a way of approaching and understanding other identities and other cultures (Bruner, 1986).

Aroused imagination creates the links between narratives the same way that a thread pulls the multi-coloured fabrics together in a traditional quilt. One quilt in which every nation comes with its own stories, with a distinct background, as well as with ‘a desire and a dread when it comes to reading the world’ (Greene, 1995, p.191). We have to remain always aware of the fact that we encounter ‘distinctive members of the plurality’ (Greene, 1995, p.167) and that each fabric in the quilt appears as a perspective that enriches, embellishes and, most of all, alters the culture’s whole story.

As stated by Huxley, our memories and our stories form our private literature. If we are to live in our common world, we need to share all these, as we need to learn how to listen to people, and how to help the youth of today to teach it to themselves (Greene, 1995). According to Ricoeur (1992), ‘telling a story is deploying an imaginary space for thought experiments in which moral judgement operates in hypothetical mode’ (p.170).

Just like literary works, these stories are indeed a message in a bottle, as Eco (1991) claims it, and so it takes at least two (a sender and a recipient) for them to reach their goal. The work of the reader has to complete that of the artist / narrator (Dewey, 1934). For once the bottle is launched, it is up to the recipient to open it, decode the message and bring it to life.

Literature itself is a wonderful way of approaching another culture and of releasing the imagination of the readers. It makes them see afresh and think anew, it has the capacity to teach them where to find ‘all [they] demand – and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which [they] have forgotten to ask’ (Conrad, 1967, pp.ix-x). It contains the power to make people escape one-dimensionality and an ant-like, socially fixed reality.

But in order to attain its goal, literature asks for the reader to engage creatively in a series of activities (Rosenblatt, 1978). For, according to Wilhelm (1998) – who discusses the issues pointed by Johnston and Winograd (1983) –, meaning emerges from the active encounter with a literary text, and not from the text itself. There are always some ‘inferential walks’, that Eco (1978) also describes: since the text provides its reader with just the initial and the ending point, it is the task of the reader himself to fill in the gaps. One will do so by resorting to the knowledge and experience that one has previously acquired from other encounters with literary texts. This knowledge that is brought into light and actively re-examined is most likely to have a strong influence on the learner.

When analysing the impact that literature always has on the readers’ way of thinking, Greene (1995) refers to Morrison’s novels. According to her, by seeing the world through Morrison’s perspectives, not only do we gain access to another culture, but we also (re)discover a heritage and, most importantly, we get a better understanding of ourselves and of the world. Through her Beloved, for example, the world of slavery reveals itself to us once more, and it is so much more powerful, as we associate it with our own, personal experiences of loss, abuse, or oppression. ‘Literature does not replace historical description, but engagement with it does tap all sorts of circuits in reader consciousness […]. We begin moving between immediacies and general categories […]. We participate in some dimensions that we could not know if imagination were not aroused’ (Greene, 1995, p.186).

We certainly need the ‘encouragement of social imagination’ (Kohl, 1995, p.63), we need both the capacity and the liberty to imagine the world as being different, and to see people as being able and allowed to go ‘beyond themselves’ (Neelands, 2004, p.50). We need all these to feed our hope of a ‘society as a whole’ (Kohl, 1995, p.63). And as educators, we also need to learn how to raise awareness, how to challenge knowledge (Gallagher, 2000) and make it ‘come alive’ (Heathcote & Bolton, 1995, p.109). This is essential for the students to really engage with serious issues, which otherwise would be regarded as ‘too far away from us’, and therefore perhaps ‘none of our business’.

In drama education, literature is brought closer to the students’ world, and the interaction between fiction and personal response is therefore made possible (Gallagher, 2000). This is why drama has been used to raise awareness and help people better relate to, understand and react to social issues. Throughout this whole teaching – learning process, students are invited to bring into the light and refer to their actual experiences of the world, as well as to search for their own, personal voice and speak from it.

In terms of the reader’s personal experience, fiction is said to act both as a stimulus and as a guide (Rosenblatt, 1978; Wilhelm, 1998). The abstract text may thus easily be used as an archaeological tool to grub up a past experience, which will then be activated and altered into a new one. ‘Experience is divided and deferred’, Culler (1982) stated, ‘always behind us as something to be recovered, yet still before us as something to be produced’ (p.82). It appears that the future experience exists in germ in the past one, and it is the task of the present moment to facilitate the meeting of the two, via the literary text explored.

In this context, if students realize that fiction gives them the chance to bring their own previous knowledge into the classroom, and drama allows them to have their voices not just heard, but listened to, they will also see the multiple opportunities to create positive social networks and to build communities (O’Neill, 1997; Nicholson, 2005).

In the exploration of alternative perspectives, drama can be extremely helpful, for it provokes people not to settle for the easy, immediate and most obvious solutions. On the contrary, it invites students to keep searching until the ‘what if’ element emerges from underneath the various layers of meaning (Booth, 1990; Heathcote & Bolton, 1998). This way the flow is continuously redirected, fixed elements are shattered and deep thought is encouraged. ‘Drama activities […] are experienced as repeatedly challenging and fresh’, which explains the fact that learners engage gladly and easily with them (Edmiston, 1998).

Hansen (1981) and Langer (1984) stated that an active engagement in the elaborated process of creating and filling in (of the various layers of meaning, for example), opens the way for a more refined understanding and for more easily made connections between what is already known and what will soon be understood. ‘Active, participatory experiences are known to increase motivation’ (Wilhelm, 1998). The opportunity that students are given to bring their own particular ‘episodes’ to the surface and analyse them in a different light, as well as the chance to listen to other people’s personal stories makes the exploration of alternative viewpoints through drama and literature both an intensely individual experience and a very powerful, group bonding one.

Moreover, in the complete safety of the environment that learners themselves create (Byram & Fleming, 1998), drama also offers students a here-and-now framework, as well as the opportunity to step outside, look in (Gallagher, 2000) and revisit the space. To make mistakes and learn from them. By means of drama conventions, time, space and identity are completely altered, and the entrance into another realm of possibility is made available: and there they are, ‘ other people, in another place, in another time’ (Neelands, 1984, p.46).

When speaking about linguistic pluralism, Delpit (1995) discusses the choices that learners are supposed to permanently make in order to use the most appropriate forms in various contexts. It is obvious, she has claimed, that nobody can impose anything on the others, therefore all that teachers are supposed to do is expose their students to an alternative form and give them the chance to try and practise it ‘in contexts that are nonthreatening, have a real purpose, and are intrinsically enjoyable’ (p.54).

And this might be exactly the situation and the context that we can refer to when we bring into discussion drama in the classroom. Undoubtedly, one finds oneself in the non threatening space created on this enjoyable journey. And there will always be a purpose in drama, from the very moment that warming-up games start, until the feedback circle ends a session.

On the whole, the exploration of literature through drama makes us all look not just inside our own particular spaces, but also beyond our micro personal world, and therefore beyond ourselves, at the realities of our own lives. From where I stand, I see this whole process taking the shape of an estuary. It is an opening up towards the sea of possibilities and of multiple encounters for the rivers of our own personal experiences.

For our aim is to encourage people to open up to fresh perspectives, to accommodate ideas and to ‘produce challenges to assumptions and prejudices’ (Neelands, 1990, p.74). To stimulate learners to see anew and understand themselves better, as well as to help them realize how their position has moulded their way of thinking (Gallagher, 2000). There is a necessity ‘to balance individual needs and interests with other people’s’ (Neelands, 1990, p.24) and to understand that what ‘connects [us] naturally to the other, reconnects [us] through the other to [ourselves]’ (Noddings, 1984, p.51).

3. Research Methodology

The present research has its roots in a number of workshops that took place between 2005 and 2006. Through these sessions I attempted to bring an image more palpable and less stereotypical of my own cultural identity, straight into the space of a British classroom and a group of 16 British students were invited to examine it.

There is no doubt that these drama workshops with the 15-year old learners were extremely enjoyable for everybody involved. And to a great extent, they were also successful. But the discussions with the students in the end provided me (paradoxically) with both a feeling of relief – for what they expressed was what I believed I had wished to hear –, and a state of anxious wondering. From the students’ feedback, it was obvious that their conclusion was as follows: had it not been for our workshops, they would have thought that, since we belonged to such different geographical spaces, situated rather far away from each other, we were utterly different ourselves. Stereotypes could function well there. However, after the three-hour workshops, they felt comforted by the idea that ‘we are all so alike’. In the age of postmodernism, multiplicity and plurality, I have to admit that this statement was rather thought-provoking.

I had explored an insignificant piece of the Romanian identity with the British teenagers, I had looked for a new, fresh vision upon my own space and I had counted precisely upon these students to offer me a few guidelines on how to reinterpret the things that were so deeply rooted in myself. They succeeded in doing that and so much more – through them, I have reanalysed familiar cultural images, be they related to the Romanian literature, music or traditional crafts. But the issue which came up, the one that I had not taken into account was related to finding the measure unit for this. How ‘alike’ are we after all? And if the answer is ‘very much’, as it clearly was at the end of my drama sessions, then should we feel comforted by this thought?

The exploration of this small part of the Romanian culture and the responses that I had obtained all along these workshops motivated me to continue my research in an adjacent area. This time I was not so much interested in inviting a number of students to open up to a foreign culture, but rather in encouraging them to explore different types of perspectives upon situations and helping them to understand themselves better in the new light offered by various viewpoints. Looking at how they rediscover themselves through the others’ eyes and what they actually learn via this new experience was of main interest to me this time.

As I was planning to have the two workshops in the United Kingdom, it would have been interesting for me to observe how they perceived me as well, for I belonged neither to their own culture, nor to any of the cultures dealt with in the two workshops.

The students I worked with came from a challenging school and the problems most of them were struggling with ranged from low-literacy to various types of trauma. What I myself have rediscovered during these two workshops is that one can never walk into the classroom and expect to be trusted. Under no circumstances can one take this for granted: all along the first session, I felt that I was just an intruder in a personal space. However, trust and confidence can be built, and this is what the following sessions taught me. Undoubtedly, there was a greater openness towards working with the others and with me, and still, one could easily feel there was still a lack of comfort and of confidence coming from the part of the students.

All these have proved to me once more that it is impossible to bring changes into the classroom in a short period of time. But at the same time, these two workshops confirmed me in my belief that there is certainly a great potential for these transformations to happen in time.

The two workshops I planned later on for the same purpose of exploring alternatives were meant to take place in Romania. The difficulty with this extremely familiar space was that it did not provide me with the same clear possibilities to ‘touch’ auto-ethnography, as the previous ones might have. I would not be a foreigner entering the space of the classroom any longer, but the students’ teacher and form tutor, whom they had known for at least one year.

I believe that one of the best ways to approach a different culture and explore alternative viewpoints is through a mixture of ethnography and drama, and for this reason I used both of them for my sessions in Romania. Ethnography, for it is ‘loosely defined as the study of ‘other’ people and the social and cultural patterns that give meaning to their lives’ (Barro, Jordan & Roberts, 1998, p.76). It always demands a very active learner, whose experience is at the same time analysed and ‘translated’ through his own cultural understanding (Barro, Jordan & Roberts, 1998). Drama, because it operates on an emotional level and creates opportunities for students to link their inner world with the outer one (Schewe, 1998). The lively contexts it offers, combined with the rich potential of literature, make possible a better understanding of the codes and preoccupations of a society that might otherwise seem remote and therefore less accessible.

Based on fieldwork, the ethnographical research method generally leads to a qualitative description of human social phenomena. Since it is a problem-oriented one, my research required direct, first-hand observation, conversations with different levels of formality, in-depth interviewing, as well as the use of a case study, for a sharpened understanding of why something happened as it did, and what is interesting to look at in a more detailed way in the future.

The qualitative type of research, said to be concerned with a permanent revision of concepts, requires that one ‘concentrates on the instance, trying to pull it apart and put it back together again more meaningfully – analysis and synthesis in direct interpretation’ (Stake, 1995, p.75).

The reason for using interviews and not questionnaires in my research was based on my belief that the former are a much more open, informative and rewarding way of carrying out a study and therefore more applicable to a qualitative research. At the same time, I felt that questionnaires might well limit both interviewees and interviewers in their choices and decisions. Questionnaires could easily be seen as restrictive by interviewees, for such a simple reason that, for example, there might always be some answers that do not fit into one category or another. There is so much extra information that can be gathered from a face-to-face encounter, such as an interview, rather than through a questionnaire, which I see as a one-way, lonely route.

When conducting an interview, one also has to pay close attention to the level of ‘social involvement’ that characterizes the interaction between the two parties. On the one hand, sufficient rapport should be established between the interviewer and the interviewee, in order to avoid all ambiguity. On the other, a too high level of social involvement might result in bias.

Like all semi-structured interviews, mine allowed the students to benefit from a certain degree of freedom, while giving me the possibility to exert a certain control over the situation. Flexibility and a lesser degree of pre-determination are two features that will permit new questions to arouse at times from the students’ answers, leading to the production of richer and very useful data that can be gathered, processed and analysed further on.

As stated before, my approach to documents, as part of the analysis of evidence, was a problem-oriented one, which, according to Bell (1999), ‘involves formulating questions by reading secondary sources, reading what has already been discovered about the subject, and establishing the focus of the study’ (p.107). In this respect, this whole journey started from a number of articles that relate to the topic of exploring culture through literature through drama, and that deal with different approaches to intercultural patterns and issues, among which Schewe’s (1998) should be mentioned first.

In retrospect, I have realized to what extent the theory that I had constantly been referring to kept informing, nourishing, reshaping and altering the practical work that I was planning. As far as this research is concerned, it was an extremely interesting and enjoyable experience for me to see how theory could be literally turned into practice, and what it actually looked like in a performed environment. Once again, this entire process reflected that the metaphor of the ‘message in a bottle’ (associated by Eco (1991) with the transmission / reception of literary texts) could be used in this context as well, if I were to refer to the theory that I was working with: this was being brought to life through the agency of a group of 14 Romanian teenagers, in the same way a message is being re-created by the reader / recipient.

As I see it, the most challenging problem when discussing social issues, as well as such slippery and multi-layered concepts as cultural identity, multiculturalism, or plurality, is how to weigh the success of the enterprise, after having all the data gathered together. For indeed, how does one measure success?

One discussion with a group of mathematicians has made me realize that scientific evidence is what an enormous amount of people are always looking for. A situation is supposed to be crystal clear, a project is either successful or not, and if it is not, there should always be an attempt to ‘fix’ problems.

As opposed to this, I would state that there is undoubtedly the evidence ‘on paper’, but there is also the evidence ‘inside’, which is something that can hardly be measured. At the same time, I also tend to believe that sometimes, simply putting ourselves in different positions is all the evidence we need.


Excerpt out of 55 pages


Other People's Stories. Researching Perspectives through Literature and Drama
University of Warwick  (Institute of Education)
MA Drama and Theatre Education
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
"There is a strong sense of originality in her ideas and thinking as she pursues control over the direction of her argument and investigation. A particular strength of the work is her ability to locate complex theory and weave these adeptly into her own understanding and exploration of issues surrounding cultural identity, multiculturalism and plurality. She is able to use drama as a means of exploring other people's stories from a variety of perspectives, with theory informing and shifting practice and similarly her practice opening new lines of theoretical enquiry." (Tutor's comments)
Drama, Literature, Cultural identity, drama workshops, drama and theatre education, multiculturalism, plurality, ethnography
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MA in Drama and Theatre Education, University of Warwick Larisa Masay (Author), 2006, Other People's Stories. Researching Perspectives through Literature and Drama, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/888635


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