Telling Tales: Story Telling in the Academy

What allows some stories to call themselves ‘truth’ and others ‘tradition’? Who decides what stories get to take on the mantle of academic rigour?

I grew up, as many of us did, on a full diet of stories. The stories were many and varied, a range of flavours and styles fit for my consumption. Never one to check my appetite, I consumed everything that was on offer. The breadth of stories I could get my hands on seemed so great that it was hard to imagine that there was anything missing (I know now that that’s part of the trick, having an option so erased that you don’t even notice its absence). They came from all around, familiar sources like TV and books and movies, from family, from teachers and classrooms: there were the stories I could identify as stories and the stories that called themselves lessons, jokes, and perhaps most dangerously the stories that seemed to just exist without anyone telling them — the ones that said ‘this is how things are’.

There were stories that told me what it meant to be a student, to be a man, to be Canadian. A handful of stories told me what it meant to be Chinese. Even fewer told me what it meant to be Chinese in Canada: there were strains of something about building railroads (but that was so long ago, barely worth a paragraph in our history textbook); then there was nothing except the jokes and comments in the school hallway, stories where Asianness was alternately associated with either academic success or perpetual foreignness. In these stories, Asian accents were mocked and high math grades were assumed. And if these particular stories bothered me – I would like to think they did, though if I’m honest I can remember engaging in them myself, for isn’t it always less painful to ingest than to expel? – I didn’t think of them as being part of some larger narrative. This is just what people said. This is how things were.

Even as I began to develop an awareness of race and racism, no one seemed to have anything to say about where Asian communities fit into the conversation. The few comments that were made focused on Asians being different. We were not affected by racism in the same way (a story that has become so powerful it has been taken and repeated by people who are themselves Asian). It is only recently that I, in conversation with Asian American friends, have started to uncover what has been hidden from me. These were stories of Asian American activists working as allies to Black struggle, stories of internment and exclusion, stories of residential segregation and later gentrification in predominantly Asian neighbourhoods. These new stories complicated the ones I’d already heard. They showed me that ‘Asian’ wasn’t a synonym for ‘obedient’, ‘high-achieving’ and ‘quiet’.

These were stories that revealed to me narratives of struggle and resistance in Asian American and Canadian communities. Their emergence demonstrated the one-sided nature of the history that I had learned, in which such depictions had been all but erased.In these past few months, through discussions about the need to diversify and decolonize education, I’ve been reminded of my own process of learning this history and uncovering these stories. To me, this is the violence that an academic curriculum based in colonial thought and practice commits: the erasure of stories and experiences, so that all you know about yourself is what you’ve been told. For all the prestige that it claims, academia and academic knowledge is nothing but a set of stories claiming truth, dressed in citations and footnotes. Which is not to say these stories aren’t valuable, because they certainly are – I wouldn’t have committed myself to successive years of academic training if I didn’t think they were – but recognizing them for what they are leads one to wonder: why these particular stories? What allows some stories to call themselves ‘truth’ and others ‘tradition’? Who decides what stories get to take on the mantle of academic rigour?

It also does us no good to pretend that the ‘hard’ sciences are somehow immune to this. The ornaments might be different – footnotes replaced with p-values – but science is still a process of trying to tell stories, creating explanations for what happens to us and around us. It is a well-documented phenomenon that the vast majority of psychological studies come from Western universities. Their sample subjects are typically, and predominantly, young, White, well-educated individuals: what gives scientists the right to claim that those experiences can then be applied to everyone else as well? In medicine, what we claim is ‘evidence-based practice’ is centred almost entirely in a Western biomedical framework; it is ignorant of other conceptions of healing and health. Even in the non-biological sciences, who performs this work and who gets recognition for it shape the stories about the type of careers that are accessible to us, as people of colour. Faced with the narrowness of these frames, we must ask: why are these the stories we are told, and the stories we continue to tell?

The answers to these questions are right in front of us, quite literally. As students of Oxford University we are at the very birthplace of Western academic practice, held in the same imperial hands that rocked its cradle. It is no accident that the stories we’re told take the forms that they do. It is no accident that the stories we are told do not speak of or recognize the crimes committed against communities of colour. These stories do not mention the achievements of communities of colour. Academia as it currently exists is meant to shape a certain kind of history, tell a certain kind of story, and tell it so many times in so many ways that it becomes truth. And without putting too much emphasis on the impact of academia, because we all know how insulated and disconnected from the world it can be, we can also recognize that the knowledge that is produced here doesn’t just stay here. It trickles out, informing the content of our history textbooks, our popular culture, our perceptions of ourselves and of the world around us.

What can we do then, as members of the academy, to broaden the range of stories that get told? That’s the question that CRAE, the Black Students’ Union, the Rhodes Must Fall movement and other groups have been trying to answer. Because academic institutions – and this one (Oxford) in particular – are so adamant in their refusal to change, it will take many hands from many places pushing them in new directions. This means finding allies among staff and within faculties who also see the need for change (there are some), and working with them within individual departments or programs; this means speaking with coursemates about how a broader curriculum would be a richer intellectual experience for everyone; this means speaking out in tutorials and classes when voices are being silenced or underrepresented. This also means showing the University that academic practice in its current form is woefully insufficient, both in terms of what is being taught and who is doing the teaching. There are stories that demand to be told, and it is long past the time for academia to tell them.

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