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Narrative Research


This morning sometime between 3:00 and 5:00 I began a letter to my sister. One of those why-am-I-here-what-am-I-doing missives that are outside the normal expectations of sibling responsibility. It’s in the fine print on your birth certificate. Such things are way beyond the ken. My mid-life crisis happened thirty-five years ago, anyway, so this fits in the “Age and Stage” category. I’ll share part of it here, because it pertains to Agincourt. Doesn’t everything?

It’s just possible I am one of the least well-educated college professors within a goodly radius. Which is to say, I have a job for which I was ill-prepared but didn’t fully understand the implications of that at the time of hiring: I am tasked with teaching architectural history, but am neither an architect nor an historian. And so I have, as they say, grown into the job during the last forty-nine years. It’s worth noting that in the current academic environment, I’m totally unqualified to apply for the job I’m paid to do. If I were doing it poorly, they’d have brought it to my attention, don’t you think?

My evolution in higher education goes something like this: Graduating from high school in 1963, I set out to become an architect. Growing up in greater Chicago, that might have been inevitable — seeing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple before the age of eight; hanging out in Chicago neighborhoods (where I ought not to have been) in search of obscure early buildings by Wright, Louis Sullivan, and other less well-known figures in the Chicago School — so I set out in the fall of that year to the University of Oklahoma, where the philosophy was “organic”, and also had the benefit of being 800 miles from “the breast, the nest, and all the rest”. During my seven-year stint in a five-year program (do the math), it was obvious that I would have become an exceptionally bad architect, not in the sense of technical ineptitude or poor artistic judgment, but from the standpoint of architecture as a profession requiring client contact, social savvy, and a keen business sense. I possess none of those skills.

Part of the undergraduate curriculum at OU required  ten semester credits of architectural history, four courses that were more than tolerable; they were downright enjoyable. I had also become aware of the then-new academic field of historic preservation and applied to the graduate program at Columbia University. If I wasn’t going to actually make architecture, I could at least preserve some that already existed. And to accomplish that, a foundation in architectural history was no bad thing. My current employment grew from such beginnings.

As an academic naif with no preparation for actual teaching — undergraduate architectural education provides several bad role models but no experience — I recall being literally pushed into my first classroom, where I clung to a draughting stool like a prop, fully prepared to defend myself with it should the students suddenly turn on me like the lions did on Johnny Weismuller’s B-grade movies from Saturday morning WGN TV. Hindsight offers no clear point when that classroom setting became comfortable; it never did, really. At least it doesn’t hurt.


Who knows why I woke yesterday morning with the lyrics of “School Days” running through my head. If you’re younger than, say, fifty, you won’t know it:

School days, school days / Dear old golden rule days / Reading and writing and ‘rithmetic / Taught to the tune of the hickory stick / You were my queen in calico / I was your bashful barefoot beau / And you wrote on my slate, / “I love you, Joe” / When we were a couple of kids

Because a description of my life might be summarized as “reading and writing and rhetoric”. Though I’ve not done nearly enough of either the first or second and far too much of the third. So, in developing a game plan for what time remains, I am making a concerted effort to accomplish these goals:

  • #1—Read only those things that seem to contribute one way or another to the projects outlined in the points below. Recreational reading often turns out to be essential, while many of the books and articles I’ve tracked down, thinking they will solve every research issue, sometimes turn out to have been a waste of time. In other words, exercise judgment.
  • #2—Prioritize my research agenda (don’t you love academic-esy sounding phrases like that?) and put my waning energy into the most important of them. Now, determining “importance” is no easy task; what are the criteria for claiming that “The Episcopal Churches of Dakota Territory” is a greater contribution to scholarship than, say, “William Halsey Wood—American Gothic”? Somewhere in the mix, personal satisfaction has to come into play; it has to feel good inside before it can benefit the outside.
  • #3—Write! Write like there is no tomorrow. Because one of these days there won’t be one. Elliott set the goal of writing 1,000 words each day. More important, it was a goal with a reward: he wouldn’t allow himself “a perk” until that 1K goal had been achieved. This also means having a means of showing progress: a timeline, a chart, a bar graph with daily performance recorded—and rewarded.
  • #4—Rhetoric. By which I mean teaching. In this “new normal”, the way the I’ve been a delivery system, a mechanism for information exchange, will obviously be different, and may challenge me in new ways—just as the shift from 35mm slides in carousel trays went the way of the T-Rex and I found myself in the Land of PowerPoint. And now even that seems to be shifting into technical areas beyond my (current) skill set. To be successful in this job, it will be necessary to “interact” with students differently, which does not mean the sacrifice of inter-personal contact—it seems to me. How will I identify those new ways and how will I assess their success?
  • #5—Bring the Agincourt Project to some sort of “fruition”. But I have no idea what that may entail.
  • And, ultimately, how many of these worthy goals require the kindness of others?

And so I’m reading books and articles in the area of “narrative research” — “Narrative research is a term that subsumes a group of approaches which in turn rely on the written or spoken words or visual representation of individuals. These approaches typically focus on the lives of individuals as told through their own stories” — and learning a great deal about character and its development. After all, Agincourt would be merely a chess set of physical forms if there were not someone there to move them.

And once again I am happily off in a region unknown to me, a diversion from all those bulleted points above and an easy excuse for not fulfilling them.

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