Stuck narratives and the student experience, the inaugural SERT project

Seeking to “lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers”

James Baldwin

April 2018-April 2019

The “stuck narratives” project investigated questions about Ryerson University students’ sense of belonging in a university institution and the ways in which dominant narratives about the post-secondary experience impact students’ actual lived experiences within it. SERT used arts-based methods of inquiry, including collage, drawing, writing, photography, and digital storytelling, both as tools to elicit responses from participants and as ways to share the results of their work. Our report documents our process, research design, and final results and features each of the collages our student participants made to represent their experiences in post-secondary.

Participant Collages

Over the course of our focus groups, we engaged a total of seventeen participants in collage-making as a form of eliciting narratives about their student experience, representing in turn the following questions: A) What did you envision coming into post-secondary education? B) What is your actual lived experience as a Ryerson student? Through the making of these collages and the ensuing reflective conversations, we hoped to elicit responses and stories from students about their expectations and experiences in university and whether there were interesting relationships to be noticed.



What we learned: The notion of stuck narratives

We started with our coded themes and realized that as we named these themes, we amplified them, and in the amplification, we noticed them more – a kind of feedback loop of reinforcement. This raised for us what became the prevailing insight of our work, namely the notion of “stuck narratives” and the ways in which a research process can perpetuate these. Petra Munro Hendry’s “The Future of Narrative” (2007) figured prominently in our thinking about the value of narrative research and, like her, we began to question the explanatory power of stories; we began to view critically our treatment of these student stories, and our need for some kind of order-making. Hendry (2007) writes:

“Ultimately, I think it has to do with our need for the illusion of control and our inability to live with total uncertainty about what constitutes lived experience. As researchers we construct lives by reducing them to a series of events, categories, or themes and then put them back together again to make up a whole called narrative. Thus by constructing narratives we not only ultimately erase part of our lived experience but also impose a particular way of thinking about experience.” (p. 491)

We came to understand that our research design, despite our efforts and conversation around it, was in the end a kind of insistence on order. We presupposed a kind of order or coherence to the student experience with this design. We created an experience of “storytelling” that squeezed student stories through the filters we created, establishing the perfect conditions for reproducing certain tropes and themes that the students themselves already brought to the table; the narratives they were already stuck on got even stickier through this process. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s (2009) notion of the “single story” and its dangers, this idea of stuck narratives became a kind of lens through which we began to view, in a more complicated way, the storytelling “data”, and we became “less concerned with what stories are told, but why we tell a particular story at a particular time” (Hendry, 2007, p. 490). We began to wonder in what ways we and the students were simply choosing from and reproducing a narrow range of available cultural stories about students. Indeed, one central master narrative seemed to be operating in all but one of the student stories, the master narrative of the student experience: 

student-moves-from-disorientation-to-belonging, student-overcomes-obstacles, student-forms-an-identity, student-is-transformed.

The notable exception to this narrative are collages 3A & 3B, “Fragile Expectations” (3A) & “Welcome to Hell” (3B) whose stories make for a very interesting contrast. That story exemplifies an emerging counter-narrative, not about the student experience, but about (dis)organized post-secondary education:


We compiled some of our participants’ stories that centred around the theme of IDENTITY – listen here.
Many of our participants’ stories centred around the theme of STRUGGLE – listen here.
Listen here for participants’ stories centred around the theme of LEARNING.

The student stories were honest but, collectively, and through the prism of our interpretative frames, reveal a kind of restrained authenticity, as if there was an inevitable convergence upon the “student-is-transformed-through-challenge” theme. We perceived that the experience of disorientation, the overcoming of deep challenge, the becoming stronger through adversity is the normalized student experience. This is the oft-repeated grit narrative, the character-building narrative, the rite-of-passage, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative, all so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness about the post-secondary experience (Schreiner, 2017). And, naturally, this is a powerful, compelling, and genuine story, but it does raise the question about whether we are hiding from view the greater nuance, the stories of students’ life that lie outside that master narrative, a question thoughtfully raised more broadly by Zaretta Hammond (2014) in her work on culturally responsive teaching. She writes, “…for students, we give them only two choices when we promote a master narrative: Either resist it or accept it and let it become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Hammond, 2014, para. 11). This becomes all the more interesting when the “student-is-transformed-through-challenge” narrative co-exists with this other narrative about students as customers under-supported by the institutions they attend, exemplified in Collage Story 3A and 3B. This too is a powerful master narrative, though with shallower roots. These narratives compete for the soul of education asking fundamentally where the responsibility lies, but without making space for the messy middle-ground between them – the actual stories of student lives in all their nuance. And we are left with the burden of un-answered questions getting lost in the din of these dominant narratives: How do we find the balance between fostering university-ready students and student-ready universities? What challenges do we present to students that are really just harmful and un-necessary to their experience? In what ways do we ignore our responsibility as educators when we rationalise those harmful and unnecessary things as “part of the student experience”?

So… the most salient insight we gather from this research is about the research process itself and the ways in which we participate in the reproduction of the single story, the master narrative. Despite our concerted efforts to create an experience in which students would tell us their unique and idiosyncratic stories, and despite our best efforts to park and acknowledge our biases and to treat the students as co-participants in the research, we still felt implicated in a process that restrained or even incited what got told. This is not to call into question the truthfulness of the student stories – participants were deeply generous and thoughtful in their responses and engagement in this process – just that the research process itself that seeks to understand hidden realities of the student experience can be an exercise in simply perpetuating certain master narratives about that experience.

Stuck Narratives and the Student Experience at Ryerson University, the inaugural SERT project 2018-2019 received ethics approval from Ryerson University’s Research Ethics Board in June 2018 (REB 2018-260).