How Stories Teach Us

Composition, Life Writing, and Blended Scholarship

by Amy E. Robillard (Volume editor) D. Shane Combs (Volume editor)
©2019 Textbook XII, 210 Pages


In How Stories Teach Us: Composition, Life Writing, and Blended Scholarship, Amy E. Robillard and D. Shane Combs leave behind the debate between the personal and the academic in composition studies in order to witness what happens when composition scholars allow both the personal and the academic to act upon them in the stories they tell. The editors and contributors, in blending their scholarship, celebrate the influence of life writing on their work and allow the contexts of their lives and the urgency of their stories to blend together for a range of approaches to scholarship and essay writing. This blended scholarship features scholars and teachers dealing with loss, grief, illness, trauma, depression, abuse, gender identity, and the ravages of time. How Stories Teach Us is both a challenge and an invitation to composition scholars to pursue a fuller and more robust approach to their scholarship and life stories. It is also an invitation to teachers of composition to open up the potentials of blended scholarship to the students they teach.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword by Richard E. Miller
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction: Learning How to Tell the Story (Amy E. Robillard / D. Shane Combs)
  • I: How We Come to Terms With Our Lives
  • 1. Before the Heavens Open Up (Elizabeth Boquet)
  • 2. An Arrangement (Rona Kaufman)
  • 3. Collecting and Coding Synecdochic Selves: Identifying Learning Across Life-Writing Texts (Bump Halbritter / Julie Lindquist)
  • 4. Writing Backwards: Adventures With Time and Structure in Life Writing (Sam Meekings)
  • II: How We Revise Our Lives
  • 5. Moving Literacies: A Need to Tell Transnational Stories (Lisya Seloni)
  • 6. (Dis)Arming With Stories: Power and Narrative Reconciliation in Retelling (Jessica L. Weber)
  • 7. In the Space Between Chaos and Shape: Reclaiming the Bound Exile Through Affect Study and Life Writing (Karen-Elizabeth Moroski)
  • 8. The Me I Don’t Meet Unless: Life Writing, Play Studies, and an Untested Story (D. Shane Combs)
  • III: How We Survive Our Lives
  • 9. Hearing Voices (Brooke Hessler)
  • 10. Writing a Queer Life, or, S-Town in Five Rhetorical Situations (Jonathan Alexander)
  • 11. Narrating Depression (Amy E. Robillard)
  • 12. Telling Other Stories: Some Musings on Rhetorics of Identity and Time in Memoir (Laura Gray-Rosendale)
  • Contributors
  • Index

← vi | vii →



I’d been teaching undergraduates to write, semester after semester, for close to twenty years when I accepted an invitation to help develop a writing curriculum for practicing social workers enrolled in a new doctoral program at my university. I desperately needed a change. I was tired of thinking the same old thoughts, of having the same old conversations, of grading and re-grading the same kind of papers. I got the jolt I needed and more from the three years I spent reading and responding to writing by the working adults in the social work program. Some of my students were counselors in public schools or prisons or half-way houses; others helped vets or addicts or victims of domestic abuse or sex offenders; others had private practices that specialized in trauma or grief or adolescence or divorce. Regardless of the client population and the practitioner’s specialization, story was central to all members of the doctoral program. To gain access to the suffering of others, these professional caregivers depended on narrative’s ability to open a window into the mysteries of personal experience.

The lesson I learned during those three years is the lesson that is at the heart of How Stories Teach Us, this remarkable collection of essays edited by Amy Robillard and Shane Combs: because we are the stories we tell about ourselves to ourselves, we can initiate change by learning to tell new stories about ourselves in new ways. In the therapeutic environment of the social work program, this change was triggered by having the students contend, over and over again, with the question, “what is a person?” Stories of mental illness and mental health, of practices that lead from decline to recovery, of research that points the way to improved care: all such stories assume a shared understanding of what it means to be a person. By moving that question to the forefront, we were able to get the students to question their own ← vii | viii → assumptions about the end point of the care they were providing in their varied settings.

The question that implicitly drives the stories in this volume is a different one: here, the essays composed by teachers reflecting on their lives together bid the reader to ask, “what is a teacher?” This is an important question, because it exposes the fact that scholarship on teaching and learning assumes that teaching methods are its proper subject. This assumption has led much of the work in the field to be an argument for one method over another, as if who is doing the teaching is an irrelevant detail to be filled in later. And, indeed, the emergence of the first-year Writing Program is, itself, founded on this same assumption: there is the program, with its method and values, and then there is the infinitely substitutable teaching force, comprised of an ever-churning pool of teaching assistants, part-timers, full-time instructors, program administrators, and the odd faculty member or two. But the assumption that who does the teaching is irrelevant is counter-factual. Each teacher in each classroom arrives with an archive of stories that shapes what form the teaching can take, what kind of writing will be solicited, what kind of writing will be rewarded, which students will be recognized, and what kinds of conversations will be permitted and which ones discouraged.

How Stories Teach Us breaks from this assumption, giving us direct access to actual teachers, with personal histories, reflecting on what it means to teach specific student populations at specific institutions right now. In each of the essays collected here, the teachers emerge as individuals whose concerns are shaped by past experiences, current events, and hopes for certain versions of the future. And this is what makes this book so important: it is a radical argument against the overwhelming pressure in public education at this time to flatten, to norm, to simplify, and to render generic. (Think high stakes testing; think Common Core.) In place of calls for sweeping educational reform, the contributors to this volume model varying ways to engage in acts of self-reflection. And then they contend with the disruptive results that inevitably arise when one looks and looks again into one’s own past.

In the Doctoral Program in Social Work, we had a shorthand phrase for this kind of work: we called it “n = 1.” What we meant by this was that the only way to responsibly deliver mental health care was to see every potential patient or client as an individual case rather than as a collection of diagnosable symptoms for which there were automatically proscribed treatment regimes. Working against a health care system designed for speed and profit, the approach we were teaching required slowing down, learning to see both the patient and the care provider as unique constellations of stories. To be responsible caregivers, we argued, practitioners had both to engage in the ← viii | ix → ceaseless hermeneutics of self-reflection and to help their patients imagine life stories not as destinies, but as possibilities.

Readers of How Stories Teach Us will quickly determine that there is not one method here for using life writing to reimagine the classroom nor is there is a single way to produce writing that blends scholarly aspirations with self-disclosure. Professors Robillard and Combs provide us with a set of essays that show that who does the teaching determines to a very large degree what becomes possible for the other learners in the writing classroom. Each contributor here comprises a set of n = 1; as the teacher-scholars learn to tell their stories in new ways, new meanings emerge for them and what can happen in their classrooms begins to change. That’s the gift of this volume: it shows teachers how constructing and reconstructing the narrative of one’s life leads to imaginative acts of interpretation that have the power to change how one teaches, what one teaches, and how one reads, understands, and assesses student responses to those changes. Or to put it another way, what the co-editors call here “blended scholarship” might also be called transformational scholarship, because it: cuts across both literary forms and generic conventions; captures the teacher in the act of experiencing the transformative effects of rethinking a past position; and invites readers to invent their own ways of generating writing that moves between the personal and the scholarly, the individual and the general, the specific and the universal.

Richard E. Miller

Rutgers University ← ix | x →

← x | xi →




I would like to thank Sarah Hochstetler for reading drafts of my chapter and for always encouraging me to say what I need to say, Bill White for helping me figure out how to say those things, and Steve Field for listening, always. I also want to extend sincere thanks to this volume’s contributors for heeding the call to tell their stories.


I would like to thank Demet Yiğitbilek, who was first to read each of my drafts. Moreover, she listened and encouraged when I was living those 45 days of untested story. I would also like to acknowledge anyone who chooses to take up the messy and meaningful work of blended scholarship. The process is the reward. ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 →


Introduction: Learning How to Tell the Story


Composition studies courts a paradoxical relationship to personal writing. On the one hand, our first-year anthologies are filled with essays, a large percentage of them personal, and we teach students how to write by asking them to read and respond in writing to these essays. On the other hand, we have engaged for decades in a debate about the relationship between the personal and the academic in our own writing, most often coming down on the side of the academic, for the personal itself should remain, we argue, outside of academe. Scholars in the field position themselves on either side of this debate, a debate in which the terms are reduced to, simply, the personal or the academic, a debate that is represented by, for instance, David Bartholomae and Peter Elbow in the mid-1990s, a debate that has us stymied when it comes to understanding ourselves as writers whose work grows out of impulses that are more than simply academic. The work collected here leaves this debate behind. We believe that rehearsing the debate only persuades us to choose a side; indeed, the debate suggests that there are only two sides from which to choose. More persuasive and more fruitful, we have found, is doing the work of imagining the agentive potential of story: how do stories act in our lives to direct our attention, to teach us what to value, what to believe, what to suspect, and what to do and not to do? What we should take seriously and what we should dismiss? How, in short, do stories teach us?

This is not to say that personal writing is to be equated with storytelling; indeed, the work we have gathered in this book demonstrates instead that good storytelling is both personal and academic, that there is a continuum on which what we are calling blended scholarship exists, and that scholarship ← 1 | 2 → and storytelling feed into one another in ways we have not yet recognized. We want to not just recognize that work but celebrate it here.


XII, 210
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XII, 210 pp.

Biographical notes

Amy E. Robillard (Volume editor) D. Shane Combs (Volume editor)

Amy E. Robillard earned her PhD at Syracuse University and is Professor of Composition and Rhetoric at Illinois State University. She is the author of We Find Ourselves in Other People’s Stories, and her personal essays have appeared on The Rumpus and Full Grown People. D. Shane Combs is Assistant Professor of English Composition and Professional Writing at Central Methodist University. His graduate work at Illinois State University centered on life writing in composition. His writing has appeared in Composition Forum, Composition Studies, Writing on the Edge, and Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.


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