University of Toronto Press Blog

  • The Sentence: The Transformative Power of Storytelling in Diagnosis

    In the diagnostic moment on story is told and another one is triggered. Hon. John Collier. No. 177. Royal Academy and Paris salon. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

    Imagine the following scene. You’ve had some symptoms that worried you. You’ve gone to the doctor who agreed that a diagnostic work-up was in order. You’ve had an X-ray, maybe a scan, and some blood work run. The results are back, and you are in the doctor’s office, awaiting the verdict. On the one hand, you’re thinking “It’s probably nothing. I’ve just been overworked recently.” On the other, you are asking yourself, “Suppose it’s something serious?”

    We have probably all rehearsed this kind of scene in our heads. What would we do/say/think/feel if the doctor were to say “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have [name of dire diagnosis].” We might have a list of activities to tick off, people with whom to reconcile, places or things to do or see.  Just getting a diagnosis ends up dividing as Suzanne Fleischman wrote: “a life into ‘before’ and ‘after,’ …[a division]… henceforth superimposed onto every rewrite of the individual’s life story.” She wrote this after her own diagnosis of what was to be a fatal leukemia.

    Imagining this story is not hard, if we haven’t experienced or witnessed it before, because the diagnosis is so common a device in stories of all kinds. Diagnosis is, in itself, a story. It links together a set of phenomena in a usually linear manner, it generates an explanation, a plot line, and a denouement, in which a knotted bundle of threads gets untangled.  It is a trope, or a motif. The stories of diagnosis are told in a particular tone, with an expectation of a particular kind of outcome. This is why we can imagine the diagnostic scene. We’ve seen in before in many other guises: a sombre newspaper report about a celebrity learning about an unexpected cancer, a book in which the protagonist must wrestle with the knowledge of his newly-announced disease, a film in which the main character watches her life wind down after learning she has an early-onset dementia. The picture accompanying this post barely needs a caption. We can recognize this scene.

    Thinking about diagnosis as a story gives us opportunities. Any story can be retold, or reframed. There are many narrative templates, and not all are linked to devastating change.  Importantly, thinking of diagnosis as a story, we have an opportunity to release ourselves from the dominating grip of diagnosis-as-verdict, diagnosis-as-moment-of-truth.

    How about we move away from the contemporary tendency of narrative constructions, be they about diagnosis or something else, to focus on personal change. It is a tendency that my friend and novelist Damien Wilkins laments, as it “leaves out other ways of being in the world.” It’s not that transformation stories don’t have their place, but there are other ways of telling stories.  Save the powerful about-turns for when they matter, he argues: “the notion of personal change – change which is improving – is both disreputable and unmoveable, tarnished and resolute, art’s cheapest trick and its most generous gift.” [i]

    Narratives don’t always have to promise change.  If we hearken back to the Greeks, the dominant narrative form focused on observing what happened to people as they endured trials. The trials were administered by fate, and rather than transforming the characters, they revealed them. They ride on, and through, the chaos of life, with only fate as immovable.  In contrast to the change narrative (like the moment the doctor is going to tell us the name of some dreaded malady), it is not a moment where a power structure is revealed. The narrative affirms, rather than changes the character.

    Diagnosis: Truths and Tales focuses on revealing the prevalence of the change narrative to which diagnosis clings, highlighting its transformative power, and suggesting a re-narration that will make the experience of illness something easier to bear.


    [i] Damien Wilkins, "No Hugging, Some Learning: Writing and Personal Change," in The Fuse Box: Essays on Writing from Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, ed.  Emily Perkins and Chris Price (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2017).


    Annemarie Goldstein Jutel is Professor of Health at Victoria University of Wellington.

  • #BalanceforBetter: Our Top Titles for International Women's Day

    This International Women’s Day, who will you celebrate? From radical housewives to the future of work, from violence to trafficking to politics and law, this week we’re highlighting top titles that celebrate women’s achievements, participate in a larger conversation, and reflect diverse and global voices.

    On March 8, we’re joining groups worldwide in the call for a more gender-balanced world.

    Let's turn the page.


    Disrupting Breast Cancer Narratives: Stories of Rage and Repair

    Resisting the optimism of pink ribbon culture, these stories use anger as a starting place to reframe cancer as a collective rather than an individual problem. Emilia Nielsen looks at documentaries, television, and social media, arguing that personal narratives have the power to shift public discourse.

    Female Doctors in Canada: Experience and Culture

    The face of medicine is changing. Though women increasingly dominate the profession, they still must navigate a system that has been designed for and by men. Looking at education, health systems, and expectations, this important new collection from experienced physicians and researchers opens a much-needed conversation.

    Wrapping Authority: Women Islamic Leaders in a Sufi Movement in Dakar, Senegal

    Since around 2000, a growing number of women in Dakar have come to act openly as spiritual leaders for both men and women. Learn how, rather than contesting conventional roles, these women are making them integral parts of their leadership. These female leaders present spiritual guidance as a form of nurturing motherhood, yet like Sufi mystical discourse, their self-presentations are profoundly ambiguous.

    Women and Gendered Violence in Canada: An Intersectional Approach

    A significant expansion on the conversation on gendered violence, this new book from Chris Bruckert and Tuulia Law draws on a range of theoretical traditions emerging from feminism, criminology, and sociology. Find compelling first-person narratives, suggested activities, and discussions on everything from campus violence to online violence to victim blaming.

    The Talent Revolution: Longevity and the Future of Work

    This book is a first. Two women from different generations debunk commonly held myths about older workers, showing how the future of work requires engaging employees across all life stages. Work-life longevity is the most influential driver transforming today’s workplace – learn how to make it a competitive advantage.

    Indigenous Women’s Writing and the Cultural Study of Law

    How do Indigenous women recuperate their relationships to themselves, the land, the community, and the settler-nation? Through a close analysis of major texts written in the post-civil rights period, Cheryl Suzack sheds light on how these writers use storytelling to engage in activism.

    Responding to Human Trafficking: Dispossession, Colonial Violence, and Resistance among Indigenous and Racialized Women

    In the first book to critically examine responses to the growing issue of human trafficking in Canada, Julie Kay reveals how some anti-trafficking measures create additional harms for the very individuals they’re trying to protect – particularly migrant and Indigenous women. An important new framework for the critical analysis of rights-based and anti-violence interventions.

    Becoming Strong: Impoverished Women and the Struggle to Overcome Violence

    What role can trauma play in shaping homeless women’s lives? Drawing on more than 150 in-depth interviews, Laura Huey and Ryan Broll explore the diverse effects of trauma in the lives of homeless female victims of violence. This essential read offers not only a comprehensive examination of trauma, but also explores how women may recover and develop strategies for coping with traumatic experiences.

    Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution

    Two young girls in Cairo strike up an unlikely friendship that crosses class, cultural, and religious divides. The first in a new series, Lissa brings anthropological research comes to life in comic form, combining scholarly insights and rich storytelling to foster greater understanding of global politics, inequalities, and solidarity.

    Ms. Prime Minister: Gender, Media, and Leadership

    News about female leaders gives undue attention to their gender identities, bodies, and family lives – but some media accounts also expose sexism and authenticate women’s performances of leadership. Offering both solace and words of caution for women politicians, Linda Trimble provides important insight into the news frameworks that work to deny or confer political legitimacy.

    A New History of Iberian Feminisms

    Both a chronological history and an analytical discussion of feminist thought from the eighteenth century onward, this history of the Iberian Peninsula addresses lost texts of feminist thought, and reveals the struggles of women to achieve full citizenship. Learn what helped launch a new feminist wave in the second half of the century.

    Radical Housewives: Price Wars and Food Politics in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada

    This history of Canada’s Housewives Consumers Association recovers a history of women’s social justice activism in an era often considered dormant – and reinterprets the view of postwar Canada as economically prosperous. Discover how these radical activists fought to protect consumers’ interests in the postwar years.


    Want to keep learning? Visit International Women’s Day for more details about this year’s #BalanceforBetter Campaign.

  • Negotiating Better by Negotiating like a Barterer

    Written by guest blogger, Brian Gunia.

    On a recent wintry weekend, for the lack of a better option, my daughters and I visited “Ridley’s Accept it or Else.” Our excitement over this museum of the odd must’ve been obvious, as the receptionist immediately offered a three-attraction combo ticket.

    “And what does that include?” I inquired.

    “All our weird and wacky attractions,” she said, “along with the marvelous house of mirrors and the exhilarating 4-D motion theater.”

    “Are all those appropriate for a six- and three-year-old?” I probed.

    “Oh yes, there’s nothing scary here.”

    I should’ve known better. But on this, our first visit to Ridley’s, I wanted to show my ragamuffins a good time. So I bought it.

    And I’ll admit it: We lapped up their weird and wacky attractions. From locks of Lincoln’s hair, to a shrunken head, to a T-Rex made of pop tart wrappers, we relished some of the world’s oddest oddities.

    But then came the marvelous house of mirrors. A pitch-black maze of mirrors from which several world-renowned explorers have never escaped, it wasn’t so marvelous for my three-year-old. It propelled her into a state of abject fear.

    And so, when we somehow escaped and approached the exhilarating 4-D motion theater, she wouldn’t even consider it. Nor could I blame her given the signs about sudden movements and sharp drops.

    Appropriate for a six- and three-year-old? The former maybe, the latter absolutely not.

    In sum, none of us really enjoyed the mirrors, and none of us even tried the theater. So I was irritated and wanted money back. And my daughters’ impending hunger and extreme fatigue made me want it now.

    Operating under the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue, I must admit I adopted a negotiation style that my book explicitly criticizes: the monetary mindset. Specifically, I marched up to the receptionist, told her what I thought of her sales tactics, and demanded some money back. In so doing, I was treating this negotiation like a monetary transaction, making the unproductive assumptions that:

    • I wanted just one thing (a big rebate)
    • I was negotiating with just one person (the receptionist)
    • She wanted just the opposite (no rebate)
    • For me to win, she’d have to lose
    • Or else we’d have to compromise

     

    “Let me call my supervisor,” said the receptionist, followed shortly after the call by, “We can’t give you any money back.”

    Most people’s story stops right there. They adopt the monetary mindset, fight over a fixed pie, and march out of Ridley’s with little or nothing but frustration to show for it.

    To the receptionist’s extreme credit, though, she attached another statement to the last: “But we can offer you our latest book on Ridley’s oddest oddities.”

    Now, I doubt the receptionist was thinking quite so strategically, but this statement epitomizes the approach my own book actually recommends: the bartering mindset. In offering the Ridley’s book, she was treating this negotiation like bartering trade, making the much more productive assumptions that:

    • She wanted and could offer several things (e.g., my future business and the book, respectively)
    • She was negotiating with several people (my souvenir-hungry daughters in addition to myself)
    • I wanted and could offer several things too (e.g., to satisfy my daughters and visit Ridley’s again, respectively)
    • For her to succeed, I’d have to feel like a winner too
    • Which we could achieve by exchanging the book for no hard feelings about the initial scam

     

    In sum, the receptionist compensated for her earlier sketchiness by adopting a highly productive negotiation strategy that treated the situation like bartering trade, i.e., by assuming the bartering mindset. Awakened from the visceral influences of irritation, hunger, and fatigue by her sophisticated response, I shed my own unproductive monetary mindset, accepted the book gratefully, and publicly promised my daughters to return to Ridley’s soon. And don’t think they’ll forget it.

    Just a funny story to introduce my new book, The Bartering Mindset, which will help you grapple with many of life’s challenges—including the substantially more serious. I hope you’ll join me in learning to negotiate like a barterer.


    Brian C. Gunia is Associate Professor at the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Bartering Mindset: A Mostly Forgotten Framework for Mastering Your Next Negotiation.

  • “Inside the box, outside the box, and among boxes”

    Written by guest blogger, Steven C. Muir.

    People are encouraged to “think outside the box,” and while this is worthwhile advice, it does not tell the whole story of doing effective and innovative research. Below are some observations on this process, and how I go about it. These issues were at work in my article for Mouseion.

    Inside the box. Dive deep! Don’t settle for a superficial reading or quick assessment of data. Go over the material very carefully, multiple times. Investigate the context of the phenomenon you are investigating. Things not only reflect but are a product of their time and setting. In your research, sometimes the background may need to be moved into the foreground. Have a good grasp of the relevant methodologies and theories. Consult assessments within secondary scholarship, but don’t be locked into those. They are relative to the perspectival context of the researcher. Finally, always check primary data. Don’t rely on footnotes and what others say. Others may be wrong, incorrect, or only have a partial grasp of the issue. Come to your own conclusions and don’t just parrot what others have said.

    Outside the box. Question old paradigms and theories. Seek new connections and explanations in data. Look for patterns. Assume very little. Investigate as much as possible. Cultivate your intuition and don’t be afraid to be creative and imaginative. In research, I empathize with others – walking the paths they walked, seeing the sights they saw, feeling what they felt. Have a sense of humour, for whatever humans do may seem surprising or even odd at first. Have fun in your research! “The devil is in the details” – and so is the fun.

    Among the boxes. Choose and combine fields and disciplines. Particularly within the Humanities, there is nothing which cannot fit together and inform your research. You will be learning not only about your topic, but about what it means to be human. Be interdisciplinary in your research and eclectic in your interests. In my Mouseion article, I deliberately brought Classics, Philosophy and Religious Studies into dialogue. That synthesis helped me produce new insights and challenge previous scholarship. A new project I am working on will bring together Archaeology/Architecture, Performance and Ritual Studies, and Pilgrimage Studies. Remember, boxes are always a construct, even when they are academic fields. We build and work within structures to help us manage and analyze data. But, those structures are not absolute. When we can achieve new insights by moving outside them, we are at liberty to do so.

    “A wheel has spokes,
    but it rotates around a hollow center.

    A pot is made out of clay or glass,
    but you keep things in the space inside.

    A house is made of wood or brick,
    but you live between the walls.

    We work with something,
    but we use no-thing.”

    Tao te Ching #11, in Getting Right with Tao (a modern translation) by Ron Hogan

    photo of Steven Muir

    Dr. Steven C. Muir is a professor of Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. He has published in the areas of Biblical Studies, Classics, History of Early Christianity, Healing and Identity in Religious Communities, Pilgrimage Studies, Ritual Studies. His most recent book is a co-edited volume, titled, Ritual Life in Early Christianity (Routledge 2018). Read his recent article in Mouseion “Greek Piety and the Charge against Socrates”—free for a limited time here.

  • Before the Country: The Native Renaissance and Our Search for a National Mythology

    With the recent reprinting of Before the Country, published over a decade ago now, we asked author Stephanie McKenzie to share how her book is still resonating with scholars interested in the study of the Native Renaissance in Canada.


    I’m not sure how others might understand what I hope is the continued significance of Before the Country, a study of the literary, political, and social context of the Native Renaissance of the late 1960s and 1970s and non-Indigenous mythologizing that followed on the heels of this movement. I hope my monograph has increased interest in this body of literature.

    The study is still very relevant to me and has spurred on further scholarship. Building on theories surrounding the study of oral literatures, I have now immersed myself in a consideration of the aesthetic markers in written literatures that grow out of oral traditions. This focus was at the heart of Before the Country when I turned to the theories of Milman Parry and Albert Lord to help make sense of writing produced by mature Indigenous voices during this Native Renaissance.

    There was little-to-no criticism during the time I was writing to help understand why the poetry of Chief Dan George, to offer one noteworthy example, carried such distinct markings of an aesthetic that was fresh in Canadian poetry when post-modernism was beginning to take hold. Recently, I have turned to Parry and Lord’s fieldwork in former Yugoslavia where they studied the gusle and guslar traditions and tried to define the formulaic characteristics of oral literatures. Living in Serbia for three months in 2017, I took gusle lessons and also produced my fourth book of poetry, Bow’s Haunt: The Gusle’s Lessons. I thought that, perhaps, pragmatic study of this instrument and immersion in a culture might grow my theoretical insights.

    I am belabouring an explanation of my own scholarly growth to highlight how Before the Country is still relevant to me and how I hope its assertions might still be examined by others. When I was writing Before the Country I was largely digging through boxes in the library of Victoria College at the University of Toronto. Many Indigenous texts of the late 1960s and 1970s lay buried in boxes with the exception of seminal works like Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed and Lee Maracle’s Bobbi Lee: Indian Rebel.

    I believe that when Indigenous literature could no longer be ignored in the late 1980s and early 1990s and when academic units in Canada were scrambling to create courses and programmes for the study of Indigenous literatures, they immediately embraced what was before them – the writings of Tomson Highway, Jeannette Armstong, and Beatrice Culleton Mosionier, for example. They did not turn back to what I think is the most important body of Indigenous literature in Canada: the building blocks of what has become the most exciting creative writing in this country today.

    Perhaps the academy’s omissions were due to a lack of time. Most certainly, the omissions had to have a lot to do with the fact that a significant amount of Indigenous writing of the 1960s/1970s was out of print. This is still true today.

    I hope that a belief in the continued relevance of Before the Country leads to the following: the re-issuing of Indigenous texts from this time period; a serious revisioning of the Canadian literary canon, which needs to include these voices; a continued challenging of greatness in the study of poetry that still does not really account for notable aesthetics of Indigenous literatures during a foundational stage.

    I also hope that the greatest fault of Before the Country – the lack of fieldwork – will prompt scholars to reconsider the essential role of ethnography and anthropology in literary analysis. When I was writing this study, I simply spread books in front of me, read and critically responded to texts in isolation. On the one hand, I think this was healthy as it solidified the fact that Indigenous literatures do not have to be handled with kid gloves. They grow from ancient traditions (albeit arrested during the residential school period) which can hold their own. They deserve intricate criticism.

    On the other hand, though an understandable, if not virulent, avoidance of ethnographical research during the 1980s and 1990s, commensurate with the desire to efface a longstanding objectification of “the Indigenous,” is explicable, I don’t think this is healthy. It is important to understand what shapes voices and from where voices emerge. This is what the gusle has taught me and what Before the Country inevitably pointed to.

    With the reprinting of Before the Country, published over a decade ago now, I would hope that people would still consider this scholarship relevant, even if that means to challenge, refute, or reveal weaknesses in the book. There are many. However, I would hope that the book’s existence underscores the relevance of Indigenous literature of the late 1960s and 1970s and the reason behind my commitments.

     

    Stephanie McKenzie teaches in the Department of English at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Corner Brook. Listen in on Dr. McKenzie's recent podcast, Poetry and the Gusle, in which she discusses her recent book and shares her research on the gusle, a musical instrument that accompanies epic poetry in Southeastern Europe. For more information see www.stephaniemaymckenzie.com.


    Looking for more on the subject? You might also be interested in Cheryl Suzack's Indigenous Women's Writing and the Cultural Study of Law.

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