It Takes an Audience To Solve A Problem: Teaching Narrative Therapy Online
PEGGY SAX, PH.D
Adjunct Faculty The University of Vermont Department of Social Work.
Paper submitted to Narrativeapproaches.com. 2003.
This paper explores the new territory I discovered in constructing and teaching a distance learning graduate course, “Narrative approaches to social work “. Somehow, despite traditional academic structures, the students and I created a collaborative learning community in which we shared a love of learning, a quest for knowledge, and opportunities for narrative practice. How did this happen? More specifically, what was the particular contribution made by the online medium?
I have been surprised to discover that teaching counseling and social work skills online is not a universally positive experience. Colleagues have reminded me that there is no magic in online learning anymore than there is magic in a conversation . Good ideas, expressed initially in embryonic form, require others to express curiosity and inquiry. Rather than miracles, good ‘classroom’ conversations are facilitated by an instructor who structures the conversation to ensure that it gets somewhere and that its participants do not get lost. In this paper, I grappled with the choices I made performing this “shepherd” role, and have tried to be as transparent as possible about the ideas and practices that informed them.
Most reviews of courses are so “experience-far” as to read like instructions in a manual. This article attempts to give readers a real sense of ‘what happened’ in a teaching space in which curiosity, enthusiasm and learning flowed through the course. If I were to write this paper again, I would include even more student voices as it is their stories that bring the paper to life.
The original request for this elective course came from the students themselves . While the course was specifically constructed with distance learning MSW students in mind, others without experience with distance learning also expressed interest in studying narrative therapy. Many of these students faced a rather steep learning curve to become comfortable with the technology of interactive TV (ITV), the course management system, “WebCT,” navigating the World Wide Web, and working with attachments. From the start, I assumed that the students would share my enthusiasm for the topic, and that together we would create a rigorous, lively and generative learning community.
Connecting with colleagues with experience teaching narrative therapy has been invaluable. Prior to the start of the course, I spent an afternoon with several New England colleagues, sharing ideas, and learning from each other . Together, we committed ourselves to continue to collaborate with a generosity of spirit, and to resist assumptions of scarcity and competition common to academia and other intellectual communities. This circle of peer support has since expanded, and holds great promise for the future.
Teaching Effectively Online
I am not someone for whom mechanical knowledge comes easily. Each step along the way has taken a lot of trial and error work with more moments of exasperation than I would like to admit. Through practice, I eventually found a computer comfort zone, and the self-confidence that makes it possible for me to venture into new territory. Fortunately, I was also assigned a competent course developer who gave invaluable technical assistance.
When hired to teach this course, I was paid to take a training course entitled, “Teaching Effectively Online. ” This course offered a conceptual framework and technical skills for teaching online, including readings, web resources and peer discussion. I was able to learn more about the use of online communication tools in higher education and to apply design principles to my own course design (Chickering and Ehrmann 1996; Ritchie and Hoffman 1996; Tinker 1997; Funaro and Montell 1999; Salter 2001).
The key to effective online discussion is to choose judiciously ahead of time how online communication will be utilized, based upon course objectives. I sought to create a collaborative learning environment with unlimited possibilities for students to perform, witness, reflect and practice narrative therapy skills and knowledges. I had two interconnected objectives for students engaging in online discussion:
- To facilitate a collaborative learning community in which students would be comfortable sharing curiosities and reflections, while minimizing the effects of what Michael White (1997) borrowing Foucault’s expression, calls, “the evaluative gaze” (Foucault 1973); and,
- To practice their newly acquired narrative therapy skills, specifically those in reflection, outsider witness practices and letter writing.
Over the Vermont winter, I spent many hours reviewing my collection of materials on narrative therapy, exploring the world wide web for resources, and then linking the two to design an electronic course syllabus. The course “Narrative Approaches to Social Work” lasted for six weeks, and covered six content units;
- discovering our intellectual ancestors;
- the guiding principles in narrative therapy;
- narrative interviewing practices;
- thickening the alternative story;
- the ethics of collaboration;
- applications to practice.
A week before the class began, students received an electronic copy of the course syllabus that included resources, readings and exercises, many of which could be accessed online with the click of a mouse. This is when I first felt the potency of the online medium, which felt more like creating a treasure hunt rather than pulling together a traditional reading list. Even if students could not cover all the reading materials, they would have the map to guide future explorations .
The course included face to face meetings, interactive television (ITV) sessions and online communication. Every other week, we met for workshop days at a central location. These were lively full day sessions in which we discussed material, watched videos, practiced interviewing, reflecting teamwork and narrative exercises and met with guest speakers. Interactive television and online communication augmented these face to face meetings.
In a rural state like Vermont, ITV makes it possible to link geographically dispersed students in five designated sites throughout the state, one of which is on the university campus In addition to large group discussion, students can find creative ways to talk with each other in small groups, either within the same location or by hooking up with other site(s). Unfortunately, because of the potential of technological difficulties, the teacher must always prepare a back-up plan. In fact, when I attempted to show a video on the first night of class we experienced what the technician called a “cluster bomb” in which everything that could possibly go technologically wrong, went wrong. Needless to say, ITV was not my favorite component. For the amount of effort, I would much prefer to meet face to face.
The online component was organized around a course web site. Thus, conversations could continue between workshop and ITV meetings. While nothing takes the place of coffee after class or meeting in the corridor, there is a forum to keep conversation alive. As Olivia described, “Communicating online has allowed us to share more ideas and has really been a nice supplement to the class. It would be a nice addition to classes that aren’t even distance classes!”
When constructing the course, I polled the distance cohort students to find out their distance learning preferences. They asked not to have required “threaded conversation in which the instructor posts a topic and everyone is expected to contribute. As one colleague put it, such practices are ” …no different than the tyranny I felt as an undergraduate in seminars where you were marked every time you contributed.” Instead of the “threaded conversation,” I encouraged students to seize the opportunity to make the course site their own by sharing their reflections and assignments. Just as there is often silence before someone on a reflecting team begins to speak, students gradually moved into the position of “cyber-reflector.”
Designing Online Forums for Letter Writing and Reflection
The course web site offered several locations to practice letter writing and offer reflections:
Letters to ourselves: Students used this forum to post and share reflections about their first assignment and other topics as they emerged. Here, the students began to engage in the generous sharing, intimacy and connectedness that became the bedrock of our online learning community.
Letters to our consultants: Guest speakers were given “guest passes” so that they could join the conversation that continued after class if and when it worked best for them. Students posted their reflections and questions, and in response, guest speakers wrote further reflections. This also gave me, as instructor, the opportunity to add a few of my own reflections without dominating the conversation. For example, several students were particularly entranced by the topic of spirituality that emerged during the second ITV session, when I interviewed Jonathan Diamond (Diamond 2000) about his narrative approach to working with addiction, after which Dario Lussardi offered reflections (Lussardi and Miller 1990). Olivia wrote to Jonathan and Dario, to thank them and to ask a specific question about the topic of spirituality.
“It seems that often this topic is overlooked when talking about different kinds of therapies. It was evident that you felt it was an integral part of your work and I wonder if this is the norm with narrative therapists? More specifically, what if someone seeking consultation or even the therapist themselves isn’t comfortable incorporating spirituality into the interview? Does this then hinder the narrative process?”
In a post by Dario, he talked about how spirituality can be a form of untapped “power,” “as in relying on a power greater than ourselves to assist, heal and transform relationships,” distinct from other forms of traditional and modern power. “This has certainly happened in my life. Like any other therapy conversation the ground has to be fertile for such conversation for both the therapist and client. Best wishes for pushing a new envelope. ”
Reading this exchange evoked my own thoughts about distinctions between traditions in the field of addiction and narrative ideas and practices, the gentle ways I have learned to bring people’s spiritual lives into therapeutic conversations, and the need for caution in inadvertently imposing our beliefs on others. I was able to add my own thoughts online about the role of spirituality in narrative therapy, and offer an excellent reference that focuses upon gentle ways to inquire into people’s spirituality and religious experiences (Griffith and Griffith 2002).
Letters in social work practice: This forum was developed to practice letter-writing skills, and as an opportunity to conflate training,supervision and practice. On the afternoon of the last class, we watched a video of an interview between a colleague, Elisabeth (Betsy)Buckley, her colleague Darcey Sullivan, and a woman consulting her around her struggles with cocaine addiction and mothering. Before making the tape, Betsy reviewed the ethical considerations with ‘Susan,’ who gave her consent for us to watch the video, knowing that we would then write to her. Students watched the video, practiced reflecting work and worked together to co-construct the initial draft of a letter, which I then finished, posted on the course site, and sent via email to Betsy to share with the family. The following is an excerpt from this letter:
We are a class of 20 social work students and social workers. We are als a group of people with many life experiences including mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, grandmothers, recovering addicts, those living with addictions, parents of children with addictions and people struggling with relationships. We’ve all been in one or two “Royal Rumbles” of our own.
Several things moved us when we watched your video, and so we decided to come together to write you this letter. Susan, you spoke about the conflict with your mom, and how hard it is to shift into becoming the “peacemaker.” instead of the “royal rumble maker.” You spoke of how difficult it is to be in the center of the Rumble, and how difficult it is to get out. Yet we also heard about the gifts you gave your mother on Mother’s Day (the card, cup and shirt), and your attempts to stop a fight from getting in the way of expressing your love for her. It must be very hard to see how drugs can get in the way of expressing this love to your mother.
In our class, we talked about the strange ways we sometimes have of showing people that we love them. We also heard you speak about how a piece of yourheart is missing while you have not been able to care for your children. Yet you put your children, Sam and Sarah, in your mother’s care when you knew you couldn’t take care of them. What gave you the courage to give your children to your mother? You must love your children very much. Have there been times when drugs have not been in control, and instead your love for your children has been in control? Are you wanting another chance to do drug-free mothering? How would people know when you are ready?
General Reflections: An additional forum was created for general “Reflections” that did not readily fit into any of the other locations. This became primarily a place where guest visitors offered acknowledgements, reflections and questions as outsider witnesses to the course. Students gave me permission to share the course site with others who teach narrative therapy, as long as they left a “footprint” so students would know who had read their work. Throughout the course, they were quite touched to receive words of welcome and encouragement.
Preferred identities as social workers
I designed the first assignment so that while students were studying outsider witness practices and definitional ceremonies (White 1995), they experienced the communal nature of narrative work with multiple online tellings of their own preferred stories as social workers. Students were asked to apply Michael White’s “landscape of identity, landscape of action micro-map of narrative practice” to their own personal stories of identity as social workers . Based upon White’s creative adaptation of Jerome Bruner’s ideas about the dual landscapes of action and of consciousness (Bruner 1986; Bruner 1990), landscape of action questions encourage people to situate influential events within the past, present and future. Landscape of consciousness questions inquire into the meaning of developments that occur in actions, which can include perceptions, thoughts, beliefs, speculations, realizations, and conclusions (White 1988).
Before applying the assignment to themselves, the students participated in an in-class four-part narrative interview that explored turning points in one student’s social work career, the unique realizations that have emerged over time, and the subsequent effects of these understandings on the direction of his/her career (White 1992). Through the shared experience, students seemed to feel more emotionally connected to each other around shared themes. At the end of the class, I reminded them that they could continue online if they wished. The students then started to make the course site their own, not only to post their assignments, but to reflect on shared experiences in class, on ITV and online.
Steve was the first to post his micro map, which he graciously offered as a template from which other less computer literate students could create their own maps.
After completing their personal micro maps, each student posted online a letter of commitment, addressed to whomever they wanted to witness their written statement . In preparation for writing this letter, they were given a series of question. What did they learn about themselves and their commitment to their work through this assignment? How did these learnings relate to aspects of their own experiences? What does this reflect about themselves as a social worker and about future directions in their work? Who and what stood by them in working this way? What kind of effects do they envision this way of working will have on the people who consult them in the future? Who and what will help them feel supported in the future, and t continue to “thicken” their alternative story? The students were also asked to end the letter with a statement of their personal ethics and commitments, describing how these ethics are connected with past experiences, and how they imagine they will be carried into the future.
Steve chose to address his letter to his mother, as an opportunity to reflect on his life since taking this course and on his father’s recent death. In his letter, he expressed appreciation for ways in which his parents modeled the attributes and values important for the practice of social work, thereby richly contributing to his evolution toward becoming a social worker: “The principles you expressed in your lives with children, adolescents and adults, of encouragement, listening, non-judging, supporting creativity and self-reflection, curiosity and hospitality, have proved to be important elements in my work and living with other people.”
Wendy shared how she was at first very nervous about posting her work for all others to see, but how happy she became to share her micro-map, when she realized “by having other people witness what I have put together, it becomes more real.” Gradually, one by one, students ventured out to post their work under the course site under “Reflections: Letters to each other” and thus came to have their preferred stories and commitments as social workers become witnessed by their classmates. Students wrote letters of commitment to themselves, classmates, colleagues, mentors, family, friendsand clients.
Applications to practice
For the second assignment, students wrote a brief reflective paper that explored the application of narrative therapy to their own social work practice. Students were encouraged to choose something in the course materials that evoked curiosity, and about which they would like to learn more. I brought many materials to the second face-to-face class, and welcomed students to borrow them. As this was a short course with limited time to explore the many available resources, students were only expected to become familiar with some of the narrative therapy materials relevant to their specific area of interest. I hoped that this would pique their curiosity to continue their explorations after the course was over, and that they would have gained some sense of direction.
The format for the paper applied the four categories of inquiry described by Michael White in his “Statement of Position Map, ” either by explicitly organizing the paper according to these four categories, or implicitly embedding them within their approach to inquiry. In their papers, they described the area of interest, explored the effects of these learners on their work as social workers, evaluated and then justified the effects of this development on their current work context and future work direction.
Students formed six small online forums to share and reflect upon the second assignment. Before the end of the course, everyone posted his or her paper online, and gave a brief reflection after reading each of the papers posted in their small group. The first paper posted on the course site was Olivia’s. She chose to explore a sampling the anti-anorexia/bulimia archives on the web, including introductory essays, transcripts of meetings, personal experiences, and letters to individuals or families written by David Epston and survivors of anorexia and/or bulimia.
The following is a brief excerpt of what she wrote.
“I chose this topic because, being a young woman in this Western culture, I feel like I am a target for these disorders and therefore it is a very personal issue to me. I have seen people who are close to me suffer under the demise of one or both of these challenges. One of the people in the articles that I read in my research saw anorexia and bulimia as existing within all of us, but more so in some people than others. It’s as if anorexia and bulimia are in the air that we breathe. In this sense, it is a problem for the entire society, and as a social worker it is my role to learn effective ways of working against it and getting the pollution out of the air.”
“I naively went into the search thinking I already knew most of what there was to know about this topic. What I found was a much different approach to eating disorders that took a de-centered but very active stance against these challenges and remained focused on deconstructing the influence of culture and externalizing the problem from the person.…Reading these stories has been a form of co-research for me where I feel like I am learning and discovering things by using my own resources and those of the people who are in the experience. The archives are useful to people and families who have had or are currently dealing with an eating disorder, for therapists or other helping professionals, and those who simply are curious. These archives allow people’s testimonies and experiences to be witnessed and respected. Eating disorders thrive off silence and oppression and these archives allow for the silence to be broken and for people’s resistance to be heard. The archives have become a community of concern for anyone interested in this topic.”
This assignment has had and will continue to have many effects on my work. One effect is that I will be constantly reflecting on my work and assessing how it may or may not be helpful to people seeking consultation. I have begun to question my previous training and realize that it never felt quite right to me. However, I hadn’t found an alternative at the time. I will also be questioning whether or not I’m actually reinforcing the problem. I think that this co-research has also reinforced to me the importance of remaining flexible and never settling on one “right” way of working or learning. This involves being curious and open to new things. This assignment also reinforced to me that the most effective way of eliminating a problem is co-researching a solution with the person experiencing the problem. I have more faith in the knowledge of the person and I want to hear their story and learn more from them.
The students in Olivia’s small group formed a kind of “cyber-reflecting team,” and posted their reflections online, following the aforementioned guidelines for outsider witness practices. Matt wrote to thank Olivia for “writing what seemed to be straight from the heart,” which prompted him to share some of his own experiences.
“I felt myself drawing correlation between anorexia and bulimia (both of which I have no personal experience with) and substance abuse (which I have plenty of personal experience with.) I remember standing in front of many a mirror after having gotten high or drunk and remarking at how wonderful and “perfect” I was. ..Addiction tricked me in to thinking that our relationship was special in that it allowed me to achieve a level of self that it convinced me I could not achieve without it. It continually whispered in my ear, remarking that I was truly as handsome and charismatic as those “perfect” people in the Budweiser commercials who always seem to be enjoying themselves without any of the consequences at the end of the night. I learned early on in my sobriety to speak back (literally at times) to the demon that is named addiction.”
Steve pondered Olivia’s powerful description of how eating disorders thrive on silence and oppression.” I guess that is also why narrative therapy is powerful, in that it provides an opportunity for the silence to be addressed and for speaking against the silence. This idea also relates to what you said about “moral outrage,” that such an emotional response to anorexia and bulimia is reasonable and appropriate, considering that the problem essentially is a form of social control and influence over our lives, values and morals. I like the idea that we can and should rage and be angry together against these oppressive and unjust forces. This is a new angle on narrative practice that I hadn’t thought about before, of bringing in an emotional component, that it isn’t only a cognitive practice.”
FOSTERING A COLLABORATIVE LEARNING COMMUNITY
Online communication makes it possible for the teacher to take a “decentered” position. In this course, students were given the choice either to post online their first assignments or to send them to me privately. I was hoping they would take the risk of having their stories of identity as social workers public witnessed. However, I did not want anyone to feel pressured to do so. The words that made the difference came not from the instructor, but from a classmate, Steve, who posted reflections on how much he enjoyed the exercise and learning about himself through it, which he said, “hardly felt like an assignment.” Steve encouraged others to share their maps, created and posted by computer as “a means to deepen our understanding of each other’s unique stories and commitment to this art of social work.” For anyone with questions, he offered to give pointers on how to design a map in MS Word. In fact, the only times students did not post their work online seemed due to technological difficulties. I was awestruck by the quality of the students’ maps and letters. One of the hardest aspects of writing this article has been choosing a few illustrations from the many possibilities .
The students and I felt readily comfortable consulting with each other and outside consultants through online communication. For example, when Carol missed the interview of her classmate she asked me what she might do. I suggested that she post a request to the class for a retelling of what she missed. This gave her the opportunity to formulate specific questions. What transpired in the interview? Is there a way to briefly summarize it? What did you take away from the interview in regards to your understanding of narrative practice? How did this interview help in the re-membering and understanding of your development as a social worker? Carol then posed what she had gathered from phone, face to face and online conversations. Each telling and retelling added to the richness of our shared experience of the original interview.
As I prepared for classes, I was able to use the course site to consult with students as to how we might best use our remaining time together. While I could not promise to incorporate all suggestions, I was most interested to hear what they thought. I think the students’ active participation in planning added to a sense of collaborative learning community.
The ethics of collaboration
“It seems to me that we should be honored that we are witnessing people’s stories.” — Christine
There is a lot of heart and soul in narrative therapy. Otherwise, frankly, it would not have sustained my interest all these years. Yes, there is technique involved and much rigorous practice, but externalizing problems, statement of position maps and deconstruction of cultural discourses are no substitute for making soulful connections. None of the narrative practices means anything if it does not rest on bedrock of human kindness, and a strong ethical stance.
Narrative therapy makes it a priority and an ethical commitment to develop practices in which therapy is a reciprocal two-way process (White, 1997, p. 130). The same could be said for teaching narrative therapy. As instructor, I wanted this course to move beyond a one-way account of learning, for students to benefit from knowing not only the influence of their stories on each other, but on my work. In writing and in person, I strove to render visible the powerful ways in which the students’ work touched my life. Online communication offered several opportunities. Even while traveling, I was able to stay in touch with the students. At the end of the course, I wrote a personal letter to each student that included description of the effects of their specific work on my thinking and practices. Often&emdash;and with their permission– I shared students’ work with others.
“I feel like it wasn’t an accident that my work traveled to other people. Every time that I heard that my work was touching someone I also became touched powerfully. This is the beauty of narrative therapy isn’t it? All parties end up being enriched by their work together.”
My intention was to offer opportunities for practitioners in training to step into the experiences of those they aspire to help, to truly listen, and to develop practices to hold themselves accountable to the seekers of their services. I hoped students could move beyond traditional power relations to better understand help-giving practices that contribute to more equitable relationships between human service providers and the people they aspire to help (Sax 2000).
On the last day of class, I invited two experienced “service seekers” as guest speakers to speak to the last class from the perspective of the service seeker . Prudence and Pam have profoundly influenced my own development as a professional helper, and I wanted to share their experiences. As these two women have experienced many services, service providers, and social workers, they spoke passionately about how professional helpers have and have not been helpful to them along the way.
The “letters to our consultants” forum made it possible for students to write letters to Pru and Pam, even after the class was officially over. Diana wrote about the many things they said that had an impact on her, including Pru’s lament, “Where is the ‘social contract’ between the people that we work with?” “You reminded us that there is no one broken, no one can fix it, and that the gift that is needed is the “connection” of “community. We as social workers, should be a ‘helping hand to stabilize someone into a community’. …You talked about your friendship and how you both drew strength from your lives and experiences. This reminded me the tremendous strength and power of women!”
An Ethic of Circulation
“No problem with sharing my map and letter. It is the reading and hearing of other people’s experiences that has made it more possible for me to better express myself in these forms, so I am happy to share my learnings – sort of like a chain letter, but better.” –Steve
Teaching narrative online offers opportunities to build upon the ethic of circulation and innovative practices that narrative therapists utilize to incorporate audiences into the process of therapy (Lobovits, Maisel et al. 1995). The course site fosters a social interdependency and diminished hierarchy. Students gain immeasurably from the experience of performing and witnessing each other’s work. They also gain a great deal from being able to link and consult with each other and with outside consultants around shared themes. I share the delight expressed by Lobovits and his colleagues of no longer needing to be the sole source of support and knowledge, and instead to revel in the privilege to witness, interact with, and learn from students’ journeys as adult learners.
Just as narrative therapy challenges assumptions about the absolute privacy of client-therapist relationship, distance learning challenges the academic tradition of prioritizing individualized confidentiality over community sharing. In designing the course site, confidentiality is still operative unless the students decided otherwise; properties can be set for any forum to be either public or private. However, there is really nothing private about online conversations since any electronic posting or private email can readily be copied and sent to others. This course provides examples of the benefits of circulation practices, and the unexpected solutions, opportunities and creative ideas that unfold when people have access to a wide range of input and social support. Teaching narrative online is a wonderful illustration of how, as Lobovits writes, “It takes an audience to solve a problem” (Lobovits, p 255).
A caution is warranted. I often found myself asking the students what was okay with them. Is it okay for me to give out the guest pass to others who teach narrative? Is it okay if I link you to someone else who would be interested in reading your work? How would you feel about having your assignments and/or posts included in this article? Would you prefer to be anonymous? Have I given you enough freedom to say no, for whatever the reason? It is important not to presume or to take liberties based on earlier conversation when no objections were given. I also let the students know I would share with them any reflections that I heard about their work. It was important to follow through with this promise.
IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTITIONER TRAINING
The implications of distance taught narrative therapy graduate training are significant. After this distance learning experience, I can offer the following recommendations:
“Walking the talk”
Like counseling and research, teaching provides a context to “walk the talk” of moral action and social change (Welch 1999), and to engage in an iterative process of self-questioning in which we continually “bend back” to reflect upon and learn from our assumptions and choices. Learning and teaching are experienced as a trial and error, ongoing process of re-alignment with preferred values and practices. My hope is that teaching practices will become more closely linked to constructs and tools offered by participatory ethics (Kotze 2002), reflexive practices (Steier 1991), isomorphism (Liddle, Breunlin et al. 1988; Sprenkle 1988; Behan 2002), organizational learning (Argyris and Schon 1974; Schon 1983) and participative inquiry in research (Reason and Rowan 1994; Ristock and Pennell 1996; Zuber-Skerritt 1996; Park 2000).
Unlike other courses in which discussion is monitored and evaluated, reflecting teamwork views silence as being as much a contribution as “speaking” or writing. As a result, I did not grade online participation. Because of the personal nature of students’ sharings, I felt uncomfortable giving grades to students in this course. Next time, I will lobby hard for pass/fail evaluation criteria. I do not believe this would dampen the students’ enthusiasm for the course materials or their commitment to skill development. An added benefit of going to a pass/fail format is that it would free me from feeling like a hypocrite, and help the students stop looking over their shoulders. In the midst of rigorous discussion of White’s (White 1997) critique of our profession’s reliance upon formal and expert knowledges to control and shape behaviour, and Foucault’s discussion of modern power and “the evaluative gaze,” it is a dicey proposition for an instructor to turn to her students and explain what they need to do to get an “A.”
Teachers of narrative therapy face the challenge to deliberately accent local knowledge and minimize academic jargon, while fulfilling standardized accreditation requirements. Narrative therapy course content must interface “folk psychology” traditions and formal academic training (White 2001). A narrative approach is intentional in the use of language, and privileges experience-near language over expert definitions. Personal accounts of experience are respected sources of knowledge. At the same time, students need to situate their experiences within the cultural-historic context of the evolving field of family therapy.
All writing for “Narrative approaches to Social Work” was spoken from the first person, and involved personal reflection. Thus, students reviewed the literature, and linked it back to their own experience by mapping the effects of the material on their evolution as social workers. Helping students make a more personal connection to the rich intellectual history of their profession encouraged them to feel more ownership of the profession’s past, responsibility for its present, and excitement about contributing to its future.
Narrative therapy encourages people to move beyond dependency on expert knowledge, “to negotiate the passage from novice to veteran, from client to consultant.” (Epston and White 1992). I discovered similar possibilities within this distance learning course, as students realized the impact of their experiences on others. Whether or not they had formal experience as social workers, the students were overflowing with accrued knowledge from years of life experiences. And yet, despite these rich and varied histories, many had not thought of themselves as especially knowledgeable. Through their personal micro-maps, they were able to “re-member,” perform, and document their preferred stories as social workers.
On the last afternoon of class, the students were given the option of watching a David Epston video entitled “Hannah is in my heart now, ” or the video that my colleague, Betsy Buckley, had sent of her interview with Susan, a mother struggling with cocaine addiction. I felt torn as to whether to show something “expert” that would demonstrate an exemplary interview or to something more homemade but alive, in which students could actuallpractice letter writing that could be of help to a real family. The students chose to be of immediate help, which seemed like passing a real test in becoming a social worker.
There are several ways that our paths will continue to cross. As Carol wrote, “I realize that we are only touching the tip of the iceberg of narrative work with this class.” A narrative consultation group is now forming that will meet monthly in my office. I greatly look forward to opportunities to work with the students outside of the role of academic evaluator. In writing this paper, I have been in active communication with the students, sharing my drafts and asking for their input. One student commented, “Perhaps the best reflection of your work with us is that you have enabled us to address the best in ourselves and our experiences, and compose these written and spoken narratives that you are now using in your articles.”
When David Epston visited our course site, he was especially appreciative of the papers written by Olivia and Laura on anti-anorexia/anti-bulimia. As a result, he requested volunteers with a ‘co-research’ project, to become readers for a manuscript of a conversation with “Chloe”, age 19 who had spent the previous decade in 13 revolving door admissions to hospitals, but is now enrolled in a social work degree instead. Olivia wrote. “I am quite in shock that a number of weeks ago I was a “beginner” of narrative therapy and now my work has been powerful to one of the founders of narrative therapy as well as Chloe and perhaps others. Already narrative practices are transforming my work and I feel like I can actually make a difference or touch people in positive ways. It seems like many of the other things I’ve learned so far in this program haven’t really left the classroom and now I finally have the opportunity to use what I’m learning.”
What will become of the students’ enthusiasm for narrative therapy? Only time will tell. As both Michael White and David Epston have so intently modeled, skill development requires rigorous application on top of enthusiasm. I am reminded of my good intentions after attending a meditation retreat. Great steam and commitment can easily peter out unless there is some kind of ongoing structure to keep it going, especially when skill development is involved. Hopefully, students will find ways to continue their narrative explorations and to keep practicing. Regardless, I do believe this distance learning experience transported us to different places.
I know it did for me.
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A heartfelt appreciation to the following people who all contributed to this paper one way or another:
Kate Ball, Chris Behan, Elisabeth Buckley, Gale Burford, Philip Decter, Jonathan Diamond, Pam Doyle, David Epston, Steven Gilbert, Susan Haggerty, Sarah Hughes, Justin Henry, Lisa Lax, Dario Lussardi, Prudence Pease, Susan Roche, Shel Sax, Pam Burr Smith, Wendy Verrei-Berenback, Michael White.
Most of all, thank-you to the inspiring students of SWSS 380: Matt Bergeron, Christine Bourque, Erika Davis, Laura Edwards, Jennifer Fullerton, Judy Hertzler, Carol Kelley, Steve Knisely, Judy Leavitt, Anne Little, Sara Mabley, Linda Ruede, Ikey Spear, Jeanne Sullivan, Cathy Tolosky, Diana Vanderbilt, Olivia Weed, David Wein, Bea Wells, and Wendy Yorgensen.