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Voices of the Global Community


Peter L. Hagen,  2007 NACADA Virginia N. Gordon Excellence in Advising Award Recipient

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

--Yeats, “Among School Children” (1927)

Peter Hagen.jpgStories have always been one of the primary ways we humans entertain, admonish, educate, acculturate, inform, persuade, praise, and punish.  We use stories to create communities.  As advisors, we tell and listen to stories every day.  An exaggeration?  Just think how often you use these words: “I have this student who. . . .”  That’s the way we academic advisors say “Once upon a time. . . .”  If this is true, then narrative theory—found mainly in literature, film studies, anthropology, and nursing—recommends itself as an example of how theory from outside academic advising may help us better explain academic advising and make us better practitioners. 

Fisher (1987) argues that humans are essentially storytellers, that all human communication is narrative.  It’s of paramount importance to us humans that our stories have narrative probability (are coherently structured) and narrative fidelity (resonate with other stories).  Does it hang together meaningfully?  Does it square with other narratives?  Then it’s a valid story.  And we advisors just love a good story; we can’t spend a day without them.  “I have this student,” says one advisor to another, “who signed up for calculus but got a D in precalculus.”  It may be just one sentence, but it’s a story plain and simple and it rings true to us as a story because it sounds like other stories we have heard.  But the events in the story don’t cohere with each other.  It’s not headed for the “happily ever after” ending.  Later, with the student, the advisor will likely use another short narrative to admonish: “I’ve seen dozens of students fail calculus when they had anything less than a C in precalculus.  Drop the course!”  Faithful and coherent narratives are vital to good advising.

Chatman (1978) makes a clear distinction between the real author of a narrative and what he calls the “implied” author.

He is “implied,” that is, reconstructed by the reader from the narrative.  He is not the narrator, but rather the principle that invented the narrator, along with everything else in the narrative, that stacked the cards in this particular way, had these things happen to these characters, in these words or images.  He, or better, it has no voice, no direct means of communicating.  It instructs us silently, through the design of the whole, with all the voices, by all the means it has chosen to let us learn. (p. 148)

We can’t know the author of a text, we only know the author that we infer from the words of the text.  “Shakespeare” is in a very real sense a character that you and I invent when we read his works.  Yes, there was a Shakespeare, but it almost doesn’t matter.  Even when authors are still alive and we ask them what they really meant, all we have is another implied author creating another text.  In fact, it’s worse than that, because if we combine this notion of the implied author with Fisher’s (1987) notion that all human communication is narrative in nature, then we’re left with the positively dizzying notion that whenever we read a text, or just hold a conversation with someone, we never really know that person at all. We create that person out of the narratives.  Just as you are inferring me at this moment, so do we infer students from the narratives that the flesh-and-blood “real” students present to us.

And they are doing the same thing to us!  Chatman describes the situation of the person on the receiving end of the narrative.

The counterpart of the implied author is the implied reader—not the flesh-and-bones you or I sitting in our living rooms reading the book, but the audience presupposed by the narrative itself.  Like the implied author, the implied reader is always present.  (pp. 149-150)

The key thing to remember about applying Chatman’s work to advising is that we and the students with whom we meet are both “implied authors” and “implied readers” simultaneously.

If we can learn anything from narrative theory, it is that we need to pay attention to the stories we tell and receive, especially in three situations:

  • Advisor to Advisor.  While we all have our catalogs and our policy manuals, the main modality by which we train one another is through narratives, case studies.  You can know the rules backwards and forwards, but until you’ve seen how they pertain to some sample cases, you don’t fully understand how to advise.  We store our most important advising principles—the unwritten ones—in stories.
  • Student to Advisor.  They tell us their stories.  We listen and use that most vital faculty we possess as advisors—our imagination—to imagine what it must be like to be that student.  We only have the implied author available to us as we try to understand and influence the real author underneath.  If their story lacks narrative probability or narrative fidelity, we question them.  “Wait a minute,” we say, “Earlier you said that you hated working with children as a summer camp counselor and now you’re saying that you want to major in education?”  We question them because we know how that story goes.  We demand that the telling of the story take another turn so that a more coherent and faithful narrative can take place. 
  • Advisor to Student.  How often have you illustrated a point you wish to make by telling the student before you some anecdote from your own life?  Viewing the advising interaction from this direction, the student becomes the implied reader, the one for whom we “write.”  Our hope is to influence the real reader, but all they have to go on is the “implied author” (us) in the narrative we are creating for them.  We have a conception of what that student is really like, so we tailor our anecdote to connect with the reader that we imagine is sitting before us.

So what if this “narrative theory” approach to advising seems coherent and faithful to your own lived stories?  What should you do if you want to become a “narratological advisor?”  Three basic things would make you a better teller of tales.

  • Constantly increase your storehouse of stories.
  • Recognize the primacy of stories in advising.
  • Take to heart and keep ever before you the narratological quandary posed by Yeats in the epigram that began this article.  It will keep you humble.  

How can we know the dancer from the dance?  We can’t.  But we have to keep trying, because the dance—the story—is all we have.

Peter L. Hagen
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
[email protected]


Chatman, Seymour (1978). Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Fisher, Walter R. (1987). Human Communication as Narration: Toward a Philosophy of Reason, Value, and Action.  Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Cite this article using APA style as: Hagen, P.L. (2007, Sept). Narrative theory and academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 36(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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