Narrating the Extreme – a Summer School Experience
Narrated by Katrin Kangur, PhD student of Literature and Cultural Research at UT
Based on comments by: Helena Jeret, Katrin Kangur, Anete Kruusmägi, Anneli Kurm, Allan Männi, Erika Renel, and Johanna Ross.
On August 9-23, an international summer school with the provocative title “Narrating the Extreme” took place at Aarhus University in Denmark. Seven students from Tartu had the chance to participate and now share their thoughts on this study experience.
Summer challenge “the Danish way”
The course promised “a brief but challenging educational experience during the summer”. After arriving in the green harbor town of Aarhus in the middle of the quiet holiday season, it took some adjustment to dive into demanding academic discussions. Perhaps the typical “Danish summer” we experienced the first days of our stay in Aarhus helped in this adjustment as well, since sudden rainstorms beating on the classroom windows gave enough motivation to stay inside and immerse ourselves in reading and discussions.
In recollecting the experience, we all agree that the summer course at Aarhus University was demanding yet enriching. The two-week immersion in narratology and bombardment by different approaches, theories and assignments was difficult and required some academic stamina, consequently pushing the limits of all the participants. However, the supportive and inspiring atmosphere in the group and the exciting and topical lectures gave everyone the momentum needed to pass the course.
The level of the discussions both in classroom and group work was indeed very high – which, according to the lecturers, was a very pleasant surprise – but achieving that level required hard work from the students. Still, we had time and opportunities to socialize, go sightseeing “the Danish way” (i.e., on bicycle), and take a tour to Skagen (The Skaw), the northernmost tip of Jutland Peninsula where the Baltic Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Sightseeing trips aside, “Narrating the Extreme” more than fulfilled its promise of intense academic challenge; therefore, quite a lot of our time outside the classroom was used for re-reading the materials and discussing them amongst ourselves.
Bringing experts together
As an intensive study course in narratology, “Narrating the Extreme” brought together participants – both students and lecturers – from the leading centers of narrative studies in Europe, thereby providing an excellent opportunity to get an insight into what is going on right now in this field of studies.
As coordinator for the Nordic Network of Narrative Studies, a project that unites a group of narratologists from the Nordic countries, the University of Tartu is on this “map” as well. Most of the summer school’s lecturers participate in the network. UT was one of the summer school organizers, and Associate Professor Marina Grišakova from the Department of Comparative Literature was one of the course lecturers.
Still, our previous contact with the field of narratology had been limited to one or two introductory courses here in Tartu. We agree that the reason narratology first appealed to us was primarily that it is not, broadly speaking, a literature-specific field of studies. Narratological tools provide access both to the act and the art of storytelling and, reaching further, connect stories to the surrounding world.
Narratology has become a very popular field, supplying a common site for theorists coming from different disciplines, as narratological tools are used to study not only literature, but also historical, scientific, political texts, to cope with forms of contemporary culture, and to explain human development and behavior in general.
Giving form to the extreme
Even though most of the course participants, both teachers and students, actually work in the field of literary studies, the texts analyzed included several types of media: literary fiction, autobiography, film, and documentary media. The main aim of the summer school, as stated in the course program, was “to investigate the ways in which both current and past cultures use narratives in order to give form to extreme events, to extreme experiences, to extreme places and to extreme values and viewpoints, both on an individual and collective basis”.
In other words, we looked at and discussed how narratives deal with extreme emotional or psychological experiences, trauma or terror, social marginalization, and taboo themes in society. Thus the focus was not only on the structural characteristics of these “extreme narratives” but also their role in our culture.
For us this course was also an excellent introduction to different narratological theories, from structuralism to the cognitive approach. It can be safely said that we learned a lot during our time in Aarhus - not only in terms of academic knowledge, but we also improved our skills in critical approaches to texts and in-depth analysis.
“Narratology has invaded my academic plans”
Students participating in the summer school were mainly MA-level students in various areas of literary and cultural studies. This course was a joint effort between six universities: Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg, University of Tampere, University of Oslo, University of Southern Denmark, University of Tartu and Aarhus University. Most of the students participating in the course were enrolled in one of these universities; however, we had visiting students from Canada and Australia as well as exchange students from Bulgaria and Romania.
This created a very multicultural atmosphere and thus the course was an excellent opportunity not only to learn from international lecturers, but also to meet fellow students with various backgrounds and compare their study methods and traditions in approaching literature with our own. All of us got some new ideas for our future work or MA theses, and in the words of one participant from Tartu: “as a result of this course, narratology has invaded my academic plans and thoughts like never before”.