Tag Archives: politics

Keeping Your Story Straight: Narrative & Storytelling in Dispute Mediation

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar for December 5th was led by Dr. Madeline Maxwell, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication. In addition to discussing her research on conflict resolution, Dr. Maxwell discussed her work as founder and organizer of the UT Project on Conflict Resolution and the graduate portfolio program in Dispute and Conflict Resolution. Maxwell’s seminar took an unusual turn into introducing her topic, adding a note of intrigue in the form of a game.

Maxwell began by describing the disputes she mediates as ones that can threaten clients’ well-being fundamentally because of the risk they pose to clients’ personal narrative. Solutions, she noted, are often secondary to the issue of having a story that clients can tell themselves about the dispute and its resolution. She also discussed her plans to eventually write about storytelling in mediation, as well as mediation and conflict resolution as educational modalities. Teaching negotiation tactics can often be effective ways of teaching people how to work together and how to compromise, pedagogy that she has into practice with the Global Ethics and Conflict Resolution Summer Symposium. The Symposium provides high school students the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills that apply to everything from personal disputes to global issues. Maxwell stated she would like to further explore the benefits of communication and conflict resolution skills training in education alongside her current work.

Maxwell then informed the group that they would be doing a short exercise to demonstrate the ways in which storytelling often coincides with conflict resolution. Two Fellows selected by Maxwell read from a prepared script, telling a fragmented story of two seemingly separate, unconnected events. The rest of the group was permitted to ask the two readers any question they liked about the stories, with the caveat that the readers could only answer “yes” or “no.” The goal, Maxwell explained, was to uncover the full story connecting the two incidents. The Fellows had a lively Q&A, though several details still seemed unclear. Finally, Maxwell and the volunteered Fellows told the entire story.

Through this exercise, Maxwell provided further context for her work, noting the fungibility of words and the inexact science of interpreting disputants’ meanings. Maxwell explained that disputants in mediation will often have spoken or unspoken agreements about what is to be disclosed in the session, which further complicate the role of the mediator. The seminar closed with a discussion of Maxwell’s future projects and goals, as well as a discussion of mediating as a profession and the  relationship between leadership and mediation. Maxwell explained that teaching leadership skills isn’t a matter of teaching people to be assertive, or forcing people into a perceived best outcome. Rather, it’s a process of listening, compromising, and actively finding an agreeable outcome for everyone in a group–what might be called a common story.

 

Soldiers, Kings, and the Ethics of Ethnography

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

On October 24 the Faculty Fellows seminar was led by Jason De León, Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the prizewinning book, The Land of Open Graves. Previous to the seminar, Dr. de Leon gave a Distinguished Visiting Lecture on his work titled “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” covering research for an upcoming book and a range of topics including masculinity, representation, radical reflexivity and anxiety, and the ethics of ethnography. 

Dr. De León began the seminar with an introduction to his evolving research methodology, beginning with his early career as a Mesoamerican archeologist studying volcanic glass tools. While working in archeological excavations, De León became interested in the narratives and stories of the workmen digging alongside archeologists, including stories of the border and migration. De León’s work evolved into documenting material culture around the border, particularly in the Arizona desert, taking stock of material goods people take to cross the border, and noting what is left behind in the journey or in makeshift “rest stops.”  Having archived 8,000 different objects at UCLA, De León’s work developed into the Undocumented Migrant Project, a multidisciplinary research project that includes his most recent artistic collaboration, Hostile Terrain 94. This latest project is a participatory installation composed of roughly 3,200 handwritten toe tags representing migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. De León noted that his most recent book project will further explore issues at the border, focusing on smuggling and smugglers. 

Fellows questioned De León’s stated uneasiness with both ethnography and exhibition, which he had expanded on during his introduction. He admitted that though he currently views the exhibition and museum space as a place of potential experimentation, he initially worried that museum spaces presented too neat of a narrative, a problem he similarly faced in anthropology. Additionally, he wanted to avoid fetishizing the objects he archived, or setting migrants at a remove from the curator or audience. Yet he noted that the art space provides an opportunity for people to be made uncomfortable, or to be moved, allowing De León more freedom to craft a specific message or statement than in a written narrative. 

Fellows additionally interrogated De León’s depiction of smugglers, namely, how he would avoid either slipping into stereotyping or valorizing his subjects. De León stated that his aim is to undermine the typical narratives of smugglers made by the U.S. federal government and border patrol, presenting smugglers  as people who have done bad–even terrible–things, but also as people responding to a complex set of circumstances, from economic hardship to labor pull to interventionist policies on the part of the U.S. itself. He discussed the issues attendant on choosing to craft this book as one for a more general audience, noting that he wanted to write a book that would have the impact of fiction with the theoretical heft of academic ethnography. Fellows remarked on the clarity and compelling quality of his work, and the seminar closed with anticipation for his book and exhibition (which may be mounted in Austin–stay tuned!). 

The Way She Was: Writing Eve Merriam’s Life Story

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar on September 26th was led by Julia Mickenberg, Professor in the Department of American Studies. Building from her previous work on leftist and radical politics in children’s books, Dr. Mickenberg presented a collection of materials that represents her work-in-progress: a book on American writer Eve Merriam. Merriam published a wide range of work from the late 1950s into the late ‘70s, including plays, poems, essays, children’s books, and more, with surprising speed.

Indeed, the breadth of interests, topics, and expressive forms found in Merriam’s work is part of what makes her so fascinating to Mickenberg. Across her career Merriam participated in a number of different literary and political circles, tying together a number of Mickenberg’s own interests, for instance in radical cultures, feminism, children’s literature, and the children’s liberation movement. (These interests are explored in Mickenberg’s books, Learning from the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States (2005) and American Girls in Red Russia: Chasing the Soviet Dream (2017).) According to Mickenberg, Merriam is likely best remembered as a children’s poet, but her influence was felt through a variety of contexts, and a variety of genres. Her legacy was further complicated by the 1973 Barbra Streisand film, The Way We Were. Merriam partially inspired screenwriter Arthur Laurents’ take on the Streisand character, Kate Morosky, providing Mickenberg an unexpected inroad to writing about Merriam herself.

Participants in the seminar were amazed at the amount of ground Merriam covered over the course of her life, creating unexpected communities through her work and presaging the feminist work of Betty Friedan in her political essays from the late ‘50s. Many suggested that readers might similarly want to engage with the fascinating diversity of Merriam’s work, and advised Mickenberg to consider collecting some of Merriam’s writing into a separate edited volume. As Mickenberg noted, Merriam’s “The Diary of a White Liberal Racist” seems remarkably relevant to discussions today about some of the subtler forms that persistent racism takes, including institutional racism, implicit biases, and the benefits that even liberal or progressive white people often enjoy at the benefit of people of color.

Mickenberg’s own project is still taking shape and she is exploring different approaches to telling a life story, including the question of to what extent she wants to focus on narrating and analyzing Merriam’s own life and work and to what extent she wants to use Merriam as a lens for discussing some of the broader historical and cultural developments in which she participated. An enticing facet of Merriam’s story is how many major figures in diverse fields across a long stretch of time she had dealings with, ranging from W.E.B. DuBois to Norman Lear!

Seminar participants, including several who had written biographies or, in the case of Paul Stekler, made biographical films, brainstormed with Mickenberg about approaches she might take to organizing her materials and deciding upon a through-line for the story she wants to tell. Participants suggested focusing individual chapters on different genres Merriam had written in or on particularly resonant creative experiences she’d had. One participant suggested that  a chapter might be devoted to the  community created around The Club, her Obie award-winning play, which debuted in 1976. Mickenberg has interviewed the play’s producer Mary Silverman, and through the interview, she discovered how tightly knit the cast became during the play’s premiere at the Lenox Theater in the Berkshires. The actors bonded over a mutual connection with Merriam’s script, a satirical take on men’s clubs featuring an entirely female cast. Mickenberg closed the seminar by showing a series of clips from Merriam’s work in television, including a TV spot for the bicentennial anniversary of the American Revolution, and All That Glitters, a 1970s TV sitcom, directed by Norman Lear, parodying men and women’s roles by entirely reversing them. Seminar participants also discussed how writers include themselves in their scholarly work as narrators and as characters. Though including oneself in a biography or paper can be prove risky, participants agreed that Mickenberg’s reference to her research process added something valuable to her paper.

Getting Back to Abnormal: Politics, Narrative, and Rhetoric in Filmmaking

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

Dr. Paul Stekler, Professor in the Department of Radio, Television, and Film and the Wofford Denius Chair in Entertainment Studies, led the Faculty Fellows seminar on September 19th, beginning with a short overview of what brought him to politics, and more specifically, what brought him to making documentaries like Getting Back to Abnormal (2013). Dr. Stekler credited his family for his lifelong interest in politics, stemming back to conversations with his grandfather on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his first job working for a Republican congressman, among other things. Stekler has worked in a variety of political contexts since then, from the George McGovern campaign in 1972 to working with pollsters from The New York Times. His family spanned both sides of the aisle–his father, a Republican, helped him to get his first campaign work, while his mother is a lifelong Democrat. Stekler earned a doctorate degree in Government from Harvard University, and after working in academia as a political scientist for a number of years, he found his calling as a full-time filmmaker with a focus on politics.

Stekler showed the Fellows a series of clips from an NEH-funded film he made in 2000, titled George Wallace: Settin’ the Woods on Fire. The film allowed him, he explained, a new context in which to apply his political knowledge and background, but the challenge was presenting this information in a narrative appropriate to a broader audience. George Wallace, for Stekler, represented a transition point for American politics, and a documentary presented a unique opportunity to bring his conversations within academia into the mainstream.

Participants asked Stekler about his methods, from how he finds his subjects and characters to his methods for mapping the trajectory of a documentary film. Stekler emphasized narrative fundamentals, such as conflict, but he also noted the importance of finding an accessible subject–someone who would not only be open with the filmmaker, but who would be compelling to watch on the screen. Though crafting a story is of the utmost importance, Stekler explained that as a documentarian he seeks to balance storycraft, accuracy of representation, and visual interest. Several Fellows pondered what exactly could be told best in the context of documentaries and other projects for public audiences, and what academic and discipline-specific projects offers alongside more popular works. Participants agreed that although some work can be translated into popular projects, teaching also offers a venue for transmitting one’s research to the public.

Participants also raised questions about Stekler’s development as a documentarian. Much of his knowledge about filmmaking, and more generally, narrative, Stekler said, was learned through collaboration with other creatives. Stekler credited the producer of Eyes on the Prize, one of his first films, for teaching him some of the fundamental aspects of filmmaking–mainly, that the goal was to keep the audience watching. Overall, he admitted, he learned much of what he now knows about story from experience.

The conversation turned more specifically to Getting Back to Abnormal, and the variety of New Orleans documentaries that had been made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Having lived in New Orleans himself, Stekler explained he had found many documentaries of post-Katrina New Orleans lacking what he identified as the city’s true character. Stekler told the group that he and his collaborators wanted to tell the story of whether or not New Orleans had changed, capturing something of what he saw to be New Orleans’ contradictory nature. Stekler shared that at the Controversy & Conversation screening of the film the week before at the Austin Public Library, he had the chance to rewatch it with a number of engaged audience members. During the discussion he led, a member of the audience asked what the film would look like if he had made it in 2019. Although Stekler felt that his connections to the city have grown more distant, making him “not the right person” to make a present-day version of the film, he believes that the sway between the joys and sorrows of the city are unlikely to have changed.

Looking towards the future, Stekler stated he was working to raise funds for a film on the McDonald Observatory and astronomy–moving from the politics of the city to the stars.

See Dr. Stekler’s career reel here.