Searching for meaning in the pandemic.
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The themes for this year’s magazine focus on understanding our individual experiences and interpreting them in the context of our collective experience. These themes -- which fall under the overarching pattern of “the meaning of students’ experiences during year two of the pandemic” are 1) experiencing loss and injustice; 2) being trapped/imprisoned; 3) finding strength/surviving; and 4) discovering and creating. We used hermeneutics (a form of interpretive phenomenology) to seek the meaning of students’ lived experience, which exists “in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act” (van Manen, 2007).
To illustrate this concept, consider the process of putting together a puzzle. Initially, pieces are looked at individually...and possibly as part of a group of individual pieces with similar colors or patterns. After some work, the individual pieces -- together with other individual pieces -- make small “blocks”/groups that can be “grown” by adding more pieces. From these “blocks”/groups, the image of the full puzzle begins to reveal itself. Ultimately, when all of the pieces have been joined, the illustration is clear, but individual pieces remain in their original form. It is possible to see the puzzle as a single, large illustration and as a group of small parts: the puzzle cannot be finished without all of the individual pieces, and the individual pieces cannot make the entire puzzle by themselves.
To engage in interpretive phenomenology is not unlike putting together a puzzle (find more information on the process below). In this case, however, the individual puzzle pieces represent artists’ written pieces, and the finished puzzle illustrates the themes highlighted in this year’s publication of The Bellwether Review.
The goal of interpretive phenomenology is to find the meaning of our individual experiences; it does not strive to generalize (to all students everywhere, for example). It is a cyclical process; our goal was to allow the process to unfold naturally and be open to new understandings and insights as they arose, so that we could be prepared to uncover themes that were revealed as the process unfolded.
After getting the final list of accepted submissions, we printed out copies of each story so they could be moved around like individual puzzle pieces. Initially, we immersed ourselves in the process by reading each poem; we sought the understanding of each and explored connections between them (as a group) to find the greater meaning that connects them all. At this stage of the process, ideas about individual and collective meaning were written down to articulate our understanding.
Next, each piece was reread individually, with the addition of written ideas about individual and collective meaning. Short stories were added to increase our understanding of the meaning of the collection, as a whole, and to provide a form of “checks/balances” for the poetry. At this stage, we created a “map,” of sorts, that included our preliminary themes. We added each piece that “matched” a particular theme to the map. At this point, we had almost as many themes as written pieces!
To condense the number of thematic groups, the written pieces were read again and again (each was read 10 or more times, depending on our understanding)! The thematic map was modified as the process unfolded: reading, rereading, and sitting with individual submissions (and the notes for each) to understand how they related to the overarching theme and subthemes. By continually revisiting “parts” of the collection, we were able to find meaning that was overlooked in prior readings.
This process of reading, rereading, and reflecting on each piece -- and all of the pieces, collectively -- revealed the themes highlighted in this year’s publication of The Bellwether Review. Our hope is that we’ve created a guide–a lens, if you will– through which you can experience the entirety of this year’s magazine.