Education and Biography: Narrative Inquiry as Research and as Pedagogy (2019 Special Session)

Instructor: Kurt Thumlert, PhD
Meets: 4 Weeks (Mondays)

“The truth about stories is, that’s all we are…You have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told…” Thomas King

It is often said that we make sense of our worlds, identities, histories and possibilities with and through narrative – the stories we are told, and the stories we tell ourselves and others. Through narratives, we interweave our own experience with the experience of others and are transported to worlds and places not otherwise thinkable or visible. By critically negotiating diverse narratives, and by composing our own stories, it is also argued that we learn to have some agency or power in co-writing our own identities, our ongoing ‘narratives of self’ (Giddens, 1991).

Narratives come in many shapes and genres. In this course, we look specifically at forms of narrative where inquiry, memoir/biography, imagination, and critical reflection are all interwoven in the ‘the stories’ we hear and tell about learning and education (very broadly conceived). In these contexts, narrative work enables us to make sense of our experience, and forge deeper connections between critical inquiry and creative work, between personal memoir and wider cultural texts and histories. How then might we use creative forms of narrative inquiry for ‘research’ and for teaching – looking at the relations between life histories, identity, academic experience and social (re)construction.

This course will focus on different kinds of narrative inquiry, including multimodal graphic memoirs, with short theoretical texts that examine the role of narrative in inquiry and learning- in and outside of formal educational spaces. Students in this course will be invited to co-explore the historical and personal narratives that shape and inform their personal, academic, and professional identities, as well as look to the future – using speculative memoir – to imagine new possibilities of social action, sharing, learning.

A Few Opening Questions…

  • Why are narratives important and useful? What do they do? How do they work?
  • How do the stories we tell reflect our historical, social, cultural and political contexts?
  • Can composing stories transform our lives? Reshape our understanding of what is possible?
  • What makes a good ‘research story’? How do we position ourselves within the research stories we tell? How do we make sense of discontinuities, accidents, and the unexpected in our stories? And how might narrative inquiry work in pedagogy, teaching and learning?

Our task in this course is explore the rich affordances of narrative and memoir/biography as a mode of inquiry, learning and creative cultural production. To this end, we will also examine how narrative inquiry works across different genres and media forms – including graphic novels (memoirs) and short documentary video works – and we will experiment with media tools (any software tools will be provided for creating graphic/multimodal stories. 

Course Expectations:

Weekly In-Class Short Writing & Creative Media Projects (collaborative, not marked). It is expected that you also engage with the readings, come prepared with questions/reflections, and contribute to class discussions and collaborative activities. (25% )

Weekly (Short) Post-Class Writing and Media Projects (25%)

Culminating Final Project: The culminating project will be an extension of the weekly short-projects).  You will be invited to consolidate, develop and apply the theories, practices, and tools/techniques of narrative inquiry and storytelling to tell your own story or memoir. This final project will necessarily be unique to every student and may take (or remix) any number of genres or media forms: a traditional written memoir; a speculative memoirs; graphic narrative texts; digital graphic novellas; or a video work that may combine elements of documentary and storytelling genres. (50%)

Reading List

Week One / Inquiries into Narrative Inquiry
Narrative Inquiry as Research / Narrative Inquiry as Pedagogy


Week 2 / Indigenous Narratives, Indigenous Ways of Knowing & ‘Systems of Representation’

  • King Thomas (2003). The Truth About Stories. House of Anansi Press
  • Listen to the Land (2018). Dir: Celia Haig-Brown, York University (Short Documentary Video). 40 mins. Link to video will be provided (or will be watched in-class).

3 Week / Graphic Narratives & Multimodal Memoirs: Language, Culture & Identity 
Exploring the affordances of multimodal media for narrative inquiry and creative production.

Choose One of the Following Graphic Novels

  • Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood (2004) Marjane Satrapi
  • American Born Chinese (2006) Gene Luen Yang
  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir (2017) Thi Bui
  • Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2007) Alison Bechdel

Resources on/for Graphic Text Making to be Provided

Week 4 / Modes of Inquiry: True Fictions and Speculative Memoirs
Memoirs (language, culture, identity) for connecting the past and the present – and for envisioning (possible) futures.

Media Tools (Links) and Decks

Digital Storytelling & Narrative Inquiry: Comiclife (key will be provided)
Digital Storytelling & Place-based Memoirs: Lebens-Tour Builder
Deck for Micro-Memoir: iPad Graphic Text Demo

Memoir / Biography / Narrative Inquiry: ‘True Fictions’ Ideation Deck Game

Ekphrastic Ideation Deck Ekphrasis Slides

Image_Deck (Images) + Sample Deck (Card Prompts)

Recommended: Atlantic Article: Life’s Stories

New Yorker: Affect Theory