Teaching Notes

You must become the flame on the candle. - Thich Nhat Hanh

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

To Meghan, Asleep in Ethics Class

What's Meghan's apparent attitude toward ethics? What does the poet think of her attitude? Whose point of view do you find yourself sympathizing with? Why? (The comments posted in the past in response to these questions have sometimes disappointed and surprised me with their lack of self-reflection. Truly think about what the poem is saying about ethical unawareness and those who cling to it.) Respond by noon Tuesday, Sept 1.


TO MEGHAN, ASLEEP IN ETHICS CLASS
As if what people are is all they’ll ever be
you close your eyes
and it’s suddenly night everywhere and always

nothing can reach you not even

the agitated ghosts of ancient philosophers
swirling around our hot basement classroom
but to you it’s just words love death etc.

so why wake you to see the firelight

beating frantically on the walls of Plato’s cave
when your sleeping face is beautifully composed
like that of a fairy-tale princess

with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat


Originally published in Silenced Press

39 comments:

GrobM said...

The poem is saying that people are stubborn and not willing to open up to new ideas. They shut their eyes and only see what they want to see. People appear to be compassionate, but really they are all black on the inside. That is what I got out of this poem. I don't sympathise for either the Poet or Meghan. The Poet is out of line for saying people in general will not open up and accept new ideas. That is BS! Why does the Poet care that Meghan is sleeping? It is Meghan's loss, not paying attention. She has every right to accept or throw out what is talked about in ethics class.

Howie Good said...

She has every right to not pay attention? Really? What is she doing there then? She has a right to waste the professor's time and knowledge? To desecrate moral and philosophical traditions and ideals? To lower the quality of classroom culture? To use up oxygen others need? To not contribute? To not meaninfully perform her social role as a student? To not fulfill her obligation for self-improvement?

I'm not sure I agree.

nekaiya trotman said...

I think that Meghan's attitude is insulting to the teacher and the philosophers. To fall asleep in class is disrespectful. Whats the point of being there if you use the classroom as your bedroom and not as what its meant to be used as which is a tool to further your understand on topics,share ideas and engage in discussion.

With that said i must say i sympathize with the teacher. To fall asleep is just blatantly saying that you are not interested and you don't care enough to pay attention.

Howie Good said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Howie Good said...

Don't forget the topic of the class -- ethics. Is ethics a subject unworthy of careful attention? What happens -- has happened, individually and societally -- if people are "asleep" to ethics?

Adrienne W said...

I think that it is obvious that the poem is saying that by Meghan falling asleep in class that there is no way she will learn or come to see things in different ways, if she never puts forth an effort or tries. I liked the last two lines about the princess with an apple caught in her throat because I think that is hows a sense of helplessness. Her ignorance to what is going on around her (whether its the princess or meghan) could lead to her demise. Not opening her eyes leads her to be 'tricked' or influenced by what others have to say, even if it is wrong or unethical.
I think that i sympathize with the poet, I believe that meghan should have at least attempted to hear out the arguments. I'm not saying that she had to agree, because ethics seem to differ from person to person but at the very least she should have listened and opened her eyes to what was out there, not be ignorant and think that she knew everything that there was to know.

Howie Good said...

One of the problems with using "gut instincts" as your guide to ethics may be that, like Meghan, you never get out of your own head. You think you're right without ever considering there may be other, better positions than yours. It shows a lack of humility. It also shows a lack of respect for the difficulties and complexities of the real world, which exists quite independently of whatever is in your head.

GrobM said...

Controversy, I love it. Listen I can't jump into the mind of Meghan. Yes it is a waste of time, why is she there? Why is the teacher annoyed about not reaching one student? Who really cares about Meghan? There are a lot of ignorant people out there. Maybe it is a required course for her and she isn't thrilled about taking it. (By the way I chose to take this class) There are 30 other minds in that class that the teacher can focus his or her knowledge on. There are a lot of people in this society that don't contribute and yet we are supposed to accept it and pick up the slack. I think its ridiculous but that is what this Politically Correct society wants. Basically, it is Meghans loss, but is it an ethical use of time, for the teacher to hem and haw over one student NO! Some would say that is real life experience in the classroom. There are those who contribute and those that do not.

Patrick Mattei said...

Te poet seems to think of Meghan as very self-centered. She thinks she knows all there is to know and feels that it might as well be night time for everybody since she wants to sleep now.

I feel myself sympathizing with the poet. He obviously feels that the class is important, but is forced to watch this girl pretty much tell him otherwise day after day.

At the same time though, I feel that the teacher of the class has an ethical duty to wake her and try to engage her in the lesson and broaden her mind a bit or at least tell her not to come to the class anymore if she's just going to serve as a minor distraction to others.

mika said...

It's hard for me to catch the implied meaning of this poem because English is my second language, but I hope everyone understands me.

I think this poem is saying that we loose precious chances of getting to know something amazing and important from our professors, if we fall asleep in the class.
Especially, falling asleep in the ethics class means Megan doesn't care if she can't know more about ethics and I think it's unethical.
Her behavior produces only disadvantages for everyone in the class.

Therefore, I agree with the poet.

Michelle V said...

As the poem started out I thought it was talking about a persons willingness to believe that nothing changes and people are set in stone. As soon as this opinion is made they themselves become unwilling to change therefore not only blocking out what they can learn in that particular situation but pretty much stop learning all together. By shutting out new or old ideas the student or anyone for that matter can take the meanings out of words rendering them pointless. The teacher then must struggle with waking her up, does he leave here in this simple world she's created much like the surface of a fairytale or does he wake her up and force her to see the truth, the posioned apple is the consequence of ignoring what can be learned by others. The moral that is usually hidden in the simple fairytale. Regardless of who's time she is wasting my sympathy lies with the teacher, he has to make a choice, destroy her protected way thinking or try and force feed it to her.

Julie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie said...

The poet's description of Meghan being asleep, to me, correlates with the idea that "ignorance is bliss." She is literally and metaphorically in the dark ("night everywhere") when it comes to knowing of different systems or ways to evaluate ethical decisions (as shown by the mention of Plato, philosophers, etc.). I think it's implied that she is also allowing herself to remain in the dark when she's faced with an ethical dilemma. The poem is about more than Meghan literally falling asleep in ethics class; it's about her choice to do so and thus ignore that ethical dilemmas exist and are worth examining in careful detail. She is turning a blind eye to the fact that things can get sticky sometimes, and you'll be forced to make touch decisions whether you like it or not. She has a childlike idea (as alluded to by the "fairy tale princess" comparison) that she can ignore lessons about ethics, and that ignoring situations that would challenge her will make them go away. The writer is clearly recognizing this egregious error in her way of thinking. This line stands out to me when it comes to the author's opinion: "with a piece of poisoned apple caught in her throat." The allusion to the naive Snow White (or possibly a biblical reference to Eve) shows that the author feels Meghan is failing to ask important questions about ethics that would help her make an informed decision.

While of course I sympathize with the author's point of view, I feel like we all cannot ignore the fact that we've made choices like Meghan at some point in our lives. We'd all be lying if we said we have never turned the other way in cases where we knew something was out of order. For example, I am sure I can say that we've all been in the situation where a teacher in high school forgets to give the class homework? Were you always the one to ask for it? I's likely your weren't. Now, this DOES NOT put us in the right; in fact, we are very wrong. It's a person like the author of this poem who's there to rightfully challenge us to make more informed decisions, even when that is a much harder thing to do.

Jaime Prisco said...

Its is difficult to add to this something that hasnt already been brought up but i sympathize with all the people in this poem. The teacher, a person who has choose to reach out to others and share his/her knowledge is being blatantly ignored. School is for learning and if you are not willing to do that, than why even be present. I feel as if meghan wanted to sleep, it would have been better off for her to just stay home because shes just making a bad name for herself in ethics class. However, i do agree with the person above me. I may be meghan and i have many friends who also may be meghan.I cant say that i have always been the center of class discussion or the most enthusiastic person about school and i feel as if it is unfair to judge meghan on this one event.I guess its just the inner slacker in me talking but maybe it was just a rough night and she really has an inner love for ethics. However, if i was a teacher, i know i would be upset.Being asleep to ethics is being unconcious of the things that are happening all around you. Ethics is presents in a lot of the things we do and can come up in all situations. Turning a blind eye to ethics is showing that you dont care about how you or other people affect society and the people in it. Megahns attitude in ethics class can be a forshadowing of how she is going to approach ethic situations in the future. Hopefully not.

Howie Good said...

Part of what this poem asks, implicitly, is, What is a good life made up of? What kind of activities? What kind of personal commitments? What kind of character traits?

Sam Speer said...

I have to agree with my classmates by saying, Meghan is stubborn, selfish and inconsiderate. But considering, she is wasting her money on tuition, i do believe that she has a right to be in the class. On the flip side, Meghan is basically blocking out on expanding her ideas and therefore is wasting both her professors and classmates time. I believe the first line in the poem is referring to Meghan by saying with this attitude toward ethics, she will always remain the same without the benefits of new ethical ideas her professor is suggesting. Adrienne put it nicely by saying her ignorance will ultimately lead to her demise. Julie, also had a good point by saying Meghan's choice to fall asleep creates an ethical dilemma that should be investigated in more detail. I think the poet believes the class is important and she is wasting his precious time. The author is basically saying that Meghan cannot be bothered to learn ethics and expand her thoughts. Furthermore, i have to side with the teacher because although she has a right to be there, there is no bigger insult to a teacher than falling asleep on their class time . This is an unethical approach as a student.

Kevin Harvey said...

This is a very dark and enlightening poem. Her apparent attitude is that of a person not concerned with ethics. She may be a very ethical person and that’s not to say she knows enough not to care and listen. She may have been up late the previous night solving an ethical dilemma. The problem is the poet doesn’t know, and is passing judgment and concluding something without actually knowing the true reason for why she fell asleep.

I don’t know enough as a reader of this poem whether she falls asleep routinely or if this was her first time. She may have been raised that it’s worth putting in the effort of being present and making it known she’s still responsible enough to be somewhere, even though she may have a very good reason of why she wasn’t able to get enough sleep the previous night.

My friend recently told me of a hypothetical story in which a clear example of a paradigm shift occurs. It takes place during rush hour when a man rode on the subway with three of his young children one evening. His children were running up and down the aisle and jumping on the seats. A person approached him and told him to discipline his kids. He apologizes for the way they were acting, and tried explaining how they were on their way back from their mother’s funeral and his children didn’t know how to take it. The person then apologizes and offered their condolences.

I wasn’t presented with enough information and therefore can’t decide whose point of view to sympathize with. I’d love to read a poem written by Meghan in response to this poem written about her though.

Pamela A. said...

I think Meghan falling asleep in ethics class symbolizes her ignorance and arrogance. She might think she doesn't need to know ethics because it will never apply to her. She might be tired for the night before but she chooses to come to class half asleep . To her, the point of the class is just to pass it. Therefore, I think she's completely missing the point of ethics class, which is to open our minds and learn something new.
When the poet says, "As if what people are is all they’ll ever be
you close your eyes" he means that if Meaghan chooses to close her eyes now, her eyes will be closed forever. If you fall asleep in ethics class you, in a sense, have no ethics yourself because that is where you were suppose to learn it.
I sympathize with the poet because I can sense the urgency and the disappointment he has in Meghan.
Why come to class and waste a perfect opportunity to learn?

Howie Good said...

Thinking outside the box -- or poem -- is good. It stretches our imagination, and a flexible imagination is perhaps necessary to do ethics the way it should be done. Then again, we never know all the "facts" when we're faced with a judgment or decision. We can only take into account those we can apprehend, and not a small part of being ethical involves giving each fact its appropriate moral weight.

One more thing: our character is reflected in our actions (or non-actions), and our ethics are based on our character. . . at least some philosophers -- for example, Aristotle -- think so. It behooves us, according to this interpretation, to develop good character if we're going to conduct our lives and works in good ethical fashion. One way to develop good character may be to struggle with the kind of questions this poem raises.

Anonymous said...

Meghan falling asleep in class is just like anyone else who falls asleep in class. She is bored and uninterested. Since this is an ethics class and there happens to be a lack in ethics in the journalism world, then she is definitely missing out on valuable information. Honestly, Meghan may have fallen asleep because she may think that she knows all about ethics because it is "common sense." After going to just one ethics class, I already see that it is not common sense because there are always gray areas. In order to be very ethical, we need to gain experience and an ethics class can be the start of it. Meghan would not know this because she fell asleep and assumed that she can afford to miss the material.

I think the poet uses Meghan as a stereotype for all the people who lack ethical practices. He began the poem by saying "As if what people are is all they’ll ever be
you close your eyes." Right there that shows that the poet thinks that Meghan sees ethics as if we are born with it and the way we think will never change.

I honestly sympathize with the teacher over Meghan because the teacher is trying to help out this lack of ethics in the world one classroom at a time. If students follow Meghan's example then the "ethical issue" will continue.

Colin V. said...

It appears that meghan is uninterested in learning about ethics philosophers, which in turn means that there is no reason for her to be in a class that she is uninterested in. which means shes wasting the professors time and taking the spot in a class that someone else who cares about the subject material could use. so she is acting very unethically.

The author finds seems very agitated by her attitude and reacts by writing a very sarcastic and striking poem.

i totally sympathize with the author just because this poem could be used on a variety of different topics. "to meghan asleep in Bio class" "...in geology class" etc. What it comes down to is someones inability to step outside themselves and learn something. instead we find too many "Meghan's" who feel that they know everything and wont benefit from trying/learning something new.

And as professor Good even mentioned last class they are not living up to their full potential as a human being by not trying to better themselves in some way or another.

which, i feel, is very unethical

Colin V. said...

i just realized that this whole meghan asleep in class is comparable to meghan being asleep in life. thus living her life unethically by not learning anything to experiencing her life to the fullest. So she is wasting space in a classroom of people AND wasting space in life, and should therefore die, or drop out of the class.

i choose the former

Kellie Noshfar said...

Meghan's attitude toward ethics might be nonexistent if she just falls asleep in class. At one point or another, I feel like all students will either fall asleep in class, as rude as that may be, or will be tempted. Not every class is going to stimulate everyone's mind, but that doesn't mean you should take the unethical route and completely disregard what a teacher is bothering to say. To answer the question about the poet, I wonder to myself who the poet really is. Is the poet a teacher, a fellow peer, or no one involved in the situation at all? Nevertheless, the poet words his/her disapproval by saying things almost lightheartedly, like the end comment about the princess and poisoned apple. It's kind of sarcastic.

I sympathize with both people in this scenario. As ashamed as I am to say it, I've definitely been Meghan in this situation. In high school, we were forced to take those classes so we could get to college and study what we really want to. On top of that, a large number of those classes were boring, yes, but that doesn't mean you should be disrespectful either. That's why I sympathize with the teacher as well. They are taking time to stand up in front of the class and teach this material, so I think that students, as we talked about in the previous class, shouldn't be called such unless they act like it, which might mean having to stay awake in the most boring of situations.

LindsayArden said...

I agree with most people on here that sleeping in class is a waste of time and resources. Not to mention a waste of one's own capability to learn and grow as an individual. If in fact, Meagan came to class today and decided to put her head down, merely to pass the time, then she is acting rudely, unethically, and ignorantly.
However, there is no indication in this poem that that is the case. I believe the poet has the ethical responsibility to question Meghan's condition. Is this a habit of Meghan's? Or is the first time she's ever fallen asleep in class? Maybe there was an emergency with a friend or family member and she was up all night, and it took every ounce of energy she had just to get to class and learn, but she fell asleep, exhausted. Can you blame her if this is merely a consequence of maintaining some of her other ethical responsibilities? Its all a matter of Meghan's intentions, which in this poem are only assumed to negligent.

Howie Good said...

Some intriguing contentions have been brought up recently --

1) that ethics is about intention, and not, as was said in class last week, consequences. big difference!

2) that you prepare for college by taking boring classes in high school in which you fall asleep

3) that meghan had a rough night the night before -- poor meghan!
is that a valid excuse or, rather, an ethical justification? think!
and if she had some real emergency, shouldn't be dealing with that rather than napping in class, where she's upsetting the equilibrium?

Lindsey Claro said...

Meghan's apparent attitude toward ethics is that she is clearly uninterested and shows so as she so rudely falls asleep in class. Yeah, according to the author it's hot in the basement classroom and yes, the subject matter may not exactly be the most enthralling, but the least she could do is keep her eyes open! Afterall, she chose to be in ethics class. Assuming ethics class is a metophor for life, I still feel the same. To go through life with your eyes closed is no way to live and maybe someone should clue sleepy Meghan in. I feel that the author is insulted and annoyed with Meghan's rude actions and honestly, they have every right to be. Having said that, obviously I sympathize with the poet. I'm sure it's pretty safe to say that the majority of us have all be in a class where someone has interrupted our learning experience in one way or another, for either their lack of participation or the incessant need to occupy every last second of the professor's time. If I feel so strongly during these times, I can only imagine how the professor must feel.

Howie Good said...

Lindsay makes a good point, one that echoes Socrates, who said, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

AllisonSoferSays said...

I have two opinions about this poem, and Meghan's apparent attitude. One is objective, and one is sympathetic. As a student, I can say that in fifteen years of schooling, I have fallen asleep in class. It doesn't mean I was uninterested, or I didn't care about the subject. Most of the time it meant I was just tired. From the poet's point of view, Meghan is being lazy and does not care about ethics, despite the impact it has on so many aspects of her life. The poets point of view is so different from my point of view, as a student. I find myself sympathizing with the poet and with Meghan, because I have been there, and I have had teachers dislike me for falling asleep. It's never intentional, and I feel like they take it personally, when I don't think it has anything to do with their teaching ability.

My other opinion is the traditional idea that Meghan is being lazy and disinterested. I truly believe the first more than the second, but I can see both as valid.

Alyssa said...

its a shame for her to be asleep in class. For the girl its the same old thing love and death over repeated so many times its lost its meaning and value. I sympathies with Meghan a little for not being able to see beyond her own expectations, but at the same time have to admit I am guilty of the same thing. Once you've heard something and understand the basic mechanics of it; you don't really want to learn more if you don't have

Nick Miggs said...

Meghan attitude towards ethics is nothing more than that its just another class she has to take to get by. Unless a class really grips you, most people will just try to get by.
The poet feels that she is missing out on something that to him is amazing and even once an a life time worth of information. To the poet ethics is the lifeblood of modern thinking and that of which Meghan has none of.
I find myself sympathizing with the student because Have yet to become so infatuated with a subject that I must teach others about it. I see a lot of myself within Meghan because unless i find my self dragged into and completely enthralled with a subject i often drift away without receiving much of the information that is given. I feel that if the teacher would like the student to be more involved that it is the job of the teacher to create an atmosphere to do so I.E. More discussions and less lecturing

Howie Good said...

here's a thought -- whose at fault if a person -- say, of college-age -- doesn't like a Mozart requiem? Mozart? or the person who hasn't made the effort to educate him- or herself to appreciate something so sublime as Mozart's music. now let's extend the thought -- who's at fault in the meghan situation? or in yours?

Brian Coleman said...

I agree with what a lot of previous responses, in that I believe Meghan has the right to sleep if she wants to. Like Nick said in the previous post, unless the class really grasps your attention, it is difficult to stay focused. On the other hand, if I was the teacher of this class, I would feel completely disrespected if I was standing in front of a class teaching, and students were sleeping..Although I feel it is disrespectful, I don't think its unethical to be sleeping. Meghan (or her family) is paying tuition and to be in that class, and therefore has her right to sleep. I think it is more unethical to her parents or guardians, or whoever is paying the tuition, because she is not using the education that is being payed for.

Howie Good said...

if people are just going to justify irresponsible behavior on the basis of money, we'll never get anywhere ethically -- or maybe we'll get to Wall St., which destroyed the economy and much of your future prospects with it.

think.

Lisa said...

Meghan is self-centered. She does not see how by falling asleep she is affecting everyone around her. It's unethical for to expect to get credit for simply showing up to class. Being physically isn't enough. The professor took the time to put together a lesson plan, and isn't there to just talk to himself. The other students are atleast trying to learn something. Having some sleeping in class while you struggle to stay awake and force yourself to pay attention no matter how much you rather "rest your eyes" a bit is discouraging. Meghan is completly blind to how her actions affect other people. She probably subscribes to the "I'm not really hurting anyone" philosophy, which is one that I find to be completly self-serving.

The poet seems to look at Meghan like a fool who instead of making valuable use of her time would rather waste her own time and the professor's and just sleep. She learns nothing and shows absolutly no interest. Her mind is an empty shell, there for little more than decoration and so that her shoulders wouldn't look out of place.

Brian Coleman said...

How is the professors time being wasted? In my opinion, as long as at least one person in that class was touched, taught, or influenced by the lesson, than it was a successful class..What happens if Meghan was up all night at the hospital because her friend was hurt in a car accident? She stayed up all night with her friend, to make sure he/she was doing well. Is it still then unethical for her to fall asleep?

Howie Good said...

i would say her failure to explain her circumstances is a problem -- but the poem implies, in any case, that she is a person upon whom certain kinds of riches are wasted, a person who sleepwalks through her life and work

Eve said...

Perhaps Meghan has no particular attitude about ethics, perhaps she likes it just fine. Her inappropriate classroom behavior is another issue. Granted she may be exherting an "ethical flaw" by sleeping and disrespecting her prof. and fellow students, but I do not believe that just because she went to dreamland means that she is an unworthy practicioner of ethics. Just because the speed limit is 55 and we drive 60 (being that we are unethical at the time in obeying NYS law)doesnt mean that we have no ethics or are unethical all around. The poet is very open in expressing his disapointment in Meghan. But he shows it in a non-challant kind of "her-loss" attitude. I find myself sympathizing with Meghan only because she is getting picked on. It was absolutely unethical and inappropriate to fall asleep in class, however, that doesnt mean that Megan is some terrible monster, shes just tired.

Howie Good said...

Some of you suggest the teacher should just ignore Meghan. Which one of you should I write off? See the problem?

Vince said...

I see Meghan as voilating ethical codes by wasting this oportunity to gain valuable knowledge. She has the ability to pay attention and put forth a effort, just as everyone does. I think she see's trying as useless and futile because she can't relate to ancient philosophers. Its only right to just try to appear awake and interested or even just alive in class just out of respect for all those present.

Is Media Ethics Education DOA?

It sounds like a joke Jay Leno would tell during his opening monologue on The Tonight Show. Hear about the graduate students at the prestigious journalism school? They got caught cheating on an ethics exam. Ha ha ha. Except that’s actually what happened at Columbia University in late 2006.

Students had been given 48 hours to sign onto a Columbia Web site to take the final exam in a required course called “Critical Issues in Journalism.” They then had 90 minutes to answer two essay questions.

The students were warned to not discuss the questions with each other, but apparently they did. As the headline over a story reporting the scandal put it, “Ivy J-Schoolers Fail Ethics, Ace Irony.”

No one admitted cheating despite pressure from the school’s administrators and pleas from classmates, who feared the scandal would damage the market value of their degrees. Meanwhile, the teacher of the course, New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, refused to comment. But if the disgruntled posts on RateMyProfessors.com are any indication, his students hadn’t exactly been soaking up knowledge. “Maybe he could e-mail his ‘speeches’ to the students instead of making everyone suffer through the most wasted class in j-school. . . ,” one read.

There’s an old cowboy saying that goes, “When your horse dies, get off.” Journalism ethics education is a dead horse. Or else those aren’t vultures circling in the sky.

A Question for Socrates


The question of how ethics is learned, or even if it can be, is as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s dialog Meno the title character asks, “Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?” Of course, Socrates, being Socrates, resists giving a definite answer. But we can’t. The sad fact is, students had better get an effective ethics education now or they may never.


Last summer I conducted an ethics workshop for some reporters and editors at the Poughkeepsie Journal, a small daily in upstate
New York owned by Gannett Co., Inc. The woman in charge of organizing the workshop had supplied us with several case studies to examine. I remember one dealt with a classic conflict of interest, a copy editor who moonlighted at a local radio station.

But what I remember most is the air of defeat that clung to the staff as we sat on hard plastic chairs in the break room discussing the cases. I could hear in their voices the bitterness and cynicism of employees forced to follow corporate policies they despised. Recently, for example, the paper had started running display ads on the front page and section fronts, a much more grievous ethical lapse, their mumbled asides suggested, than anything the case studies might have to offer.

I don’t want my students to ever wear the gray, defeated expression I saw that day on the faces at the Journal. But given the downward direction in which the media are moving, and fast, how in the world can I prevent it from happening?

Teaching Media Ethics by Telling Stories

A friend of mine who teaches at a big Midwestern university recounts in class the events of her first week as a reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune. She was sent to Duluth to cover Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail. When they were introduced, Humphrey vigorously shook her hand. “Oh yes, Susan,” he said, “I read your stuff all the time.” He couldn’t have read her stuff, though; she hadn’t written anything yet. “Just a few words,” she explains to her students, “but words that taught this fledging reporter a great lesson about pols and the little lies they tell.”

I usually find occasion during the semester to quote I. F. Stone’s dictum, “Every government is run by liars and thieves, and nothing they say should be believed,” to make the same point. But Susan’s story makes the point better. That’s because it has existential force. Her story vividly captures in a way a secondhand quote can’t the realities of a reporter’s life.

Some might think telling “war stories” is a waste of precious class time. I’ve a colleague who didn’t want to fall into the “trap” of regaling students with stories ad nauseam (“which, let’s face it, is easier than teaching or grading,” he said). So one semester he kept track. When he toted it all up at the end, he was surprised that he’d used less than an hour - out of 45 – talking about his newspaper experiences. And yet, he admitted, it was his stories that students seemed to remember most.

“Stories teach us how to live,” Daniel Taylor said in his essay, “The Ethical Implications of Storytelling.” What he meant was that stories preserve our experience for contemplation and evaluation. Although not all stories carry a heavy message, there’s an entire category of stories, so-called “exemplary tales,” that are told to convey a moral.

Our war stories are potentially just such tales. They can provide evidence, in ethicist John Barton’s words, of “how real human beings live through various crises and trials and remain human.” My colleague who kept tabs on his storytelling has described his stories as cautionary. Most, he said, deal with “screwups I learned from.”

But sometimes the storyteller and the audience can’t agree on what exactly the moral of a story is.

When Susan was a cub reporter on the Tribune, she interviewed the Beatles, who were on their second tour of the States. She got into their hotel room by dressing up as a waitress in an ugly, mustard-colored uniform and accompanying an actual room service waiter upstairs. Ringo took one look at her little plastic name tag – it read “Donna Brown” – and snorted, “What kind of name is that?” The waiter nudged her in the side. “Tell them what you real name is,” he urged. She did, as well as her reason for being there. Rather than throw her out, the Beatles politely answered her questions. They even let her phone for a photographer. The next day her story ran on the front page, with a photo of John sitting at a table and looking up at her and laughing as she poured coffee in his cup. She still has a glossy print of that photo somewhere.

Many of Susan’s students think she’s nuts for not having the photo hanging up in her office. They also think she’s nuts for saying she’d never participate in the same kind of stunt today. To her celebrity-struck students, disguising herself as a hotel waitress to get an interview with the Beatles seems soooo cool. They lose all sight of the fact that it wasn’t a story of vital public interest that demanded undercover methods.

Susan intends one lesson when she talks about her hard day’s night, but her students, living in a paparazzi-saturated culture, draw another. “It may be a lost cause,” she remarked to me.

Or maybe not. Negotiations over what the point of a story is can be part of the point of the story. In the process of negotiating, we test different interpretations, try out different themes. This is helpful. This is educational. Lawrence Kohlberg, the Harvard psychologist famous for his research on the stages of moral development, contended that “the teaching of virtue is the asking of questions. . . not the giving of answers.” Stories don’t necessarily have to yield clear moral rules to be of value. It’s enough sometimes if they just give us something to think about.