How personal storytelling pops canonical bubbles

OER philosophy

I’m new to Rebus and I’m new to the OER community. To be honest, before I interviewed for my current position, I didn’t know what “open” meant. But throughout the interview process it became clear to me that I was already expressing open values without saying the word open.

When I studied English Literature in university, there was an implicit pressure to absorb the English Canon. It was an unofficial prerequisite. My thinking was that if I could rattle off a great many names, I would enter the “boy’s club” that was the serious scholars group of my cohort. So I read Pynchon and Wallace, Chaucer and Langland, Kafka and Faulkner, and on and on and on. In all my reading it never struck me as odd that everyone I was reading looked the same, came from similar places, and spoke with the same authority. Their perspective was THE perspective. Maybe it’s because of my privilege—as a white woman from the suburbs—but THE perspective didn’t feel like it was othering me. (I did feel put off by the way Petruccio treats Katherine in Taming of the Shrew, but I brushed it off because…Shakespeare).

After my undergrad, I floundered, working in bars while trying to write like Robert Kroetsch. I have countless notebooks that, at the time, I considered very serious work. But they weren’t. I was trying so hard to make my voice sound like THE perspective. Alas, our experiences are different. I would never sound like James Joyce. Sorry, not sorry.

In my experience…

It was time to focus on writing about my experiences. Write what you know, right? (I can go on and on about how write what you know privileges certain people who know certain experiences, but that’s, as they say, another story.)

And so I tried personal storytelling.

The first time I told a story on stage was not my best work. It was a story about going to a very fancy party at a prominent Quebec business person’s house, and being mistaken for staff. The narrative arc was unclear and there were some blocks of information left out. But. It was unique. It was unique because it happened to me. And at that point it was the best thing I’d written.

Let’s skip the blah blah blah of the next few years to when I began teaching personal storytelling to scholars. The idea was for them to use storytelling as a way of communicating their research in an effective and memorable way. Humans connect to humans. So if the humanity of the researcher was available for connection then their research would carry more weight in the great sea of attention-grabbing stuff. The tactic is to use the tools of storytelling—character development, active voice, sensory details, and so on—to convey the researcher and their research as one story that can be digested, analysed, and, best of all, remembered.

Step back and amplify

Introducing personal storytelling into academic communication is where I see an opportunity to respond to the homogeneity of the English Canon and all that it represents. Historically, surveys, journals, op-eds, textbooks, and other receptacles for knowledge have been dominated by the voices of white men. While some more diverse voice are occasionally heard in these texts, they are often relegated to a “special topics” or “feminist perspectives” subcategory. If other voices were amplified, then the diversity and therefore quality of all those knowledge receptacles would improve.

There’s a fabulous Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talk called “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which she describes the effect of reading a canon of stories that only reflects the perspective of one group. It was this talk—and a few other texts, conversations, and friendships—that drove home for me the importance of supporting, amplifying, and making room for voices other than my own. Yes, I have a particular perspective, but simply blabbing about myself isn’t going to cut it. I need to make room for so many more voices.

As I approach my new role in communications for Rebus Community, I’m trying to apply my experience with storytelling, teaching storytelling, and amplifying other voices. Why? Because canonical literature texts, great volumes that span from Sir Gawain to Jonathan Franzen novels, ignore authors who live at the intersections of something other than white maleness—not because those voices didn’t exist, but because they are historically marginalized. Wouldn’t survey texts be so much richer if they included Fran Ross, Bapsi Sidhwa, and all the forgotten humans who created great stories?

So here’s the formula I propose:

A personal story that shares the perspective of a researcher.


More personal stories that share more researchers’ perspectives.


More diversity in the managerial and editorial teams that create open textbooks.


Amplification from loud voices in our community


Better open textbooks.


Better open knowledge.

***Let’s continue the conversation! Who are the best storytellers you know? What are some survey texts that amplify diverse voices? Please comment, ask questions, and discuss on the Rebus Community platform.

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