Harvard MLD355M Public Narrative – Self, Us, Now


Click for Syllabus

Course description

Questions of what I am called to do, what is my community called to do, and what we are called to do now are at least as old as the three questions posed by the first century Jerusalem sage, Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

When I am for myself alone, what am I?

if not now, when?

This course offers students an opportunity to develop their capacity to lead by asking themselves these questions at a time in their lives when it really matters. . . and learning how to ask them of others. Public narrative is the leadership practice of translating values into action. To lead is to accept responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose in the face of uncertainty. Public narrative is a discursive process through which individuals, communities, and nations learn to make choices, construct identity, and inspire action. Responding to challenges with agency requires courage that is grounded in our capacity to access hope over fear; empathy over alienation; and self-worth over self-doubt. We can use public narrative to link our own calling to that of our community to a call to action. It is learning how to tell a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. Because it engages the “head” and the “heart” narrative can instruct and inspire – teaching us not only why we should act, but moving us to act. Based on a pedagogy of reflective practice, this course offers students the opportunity to work in groups to learn to tell their own public narrative.


Marshall Ganz, Fall 2015.


http://www.hks.harvard.edu/degrees/teaching-courses/course-listing/mld-355m and http://www.hks.harvard.edu/syllabus/MLD-355M.pdf, accessed 26 December 2015.

Link to uploaded syllabus on the Atlas


Additional material from the syllabus

We can use public narrative to link our own calling to that of our community to a call to action. Leaders can use public narrative to interpret their values to others, enable one’s community to experience values it shares, and inspire others to act on challenges to their values. It is learning how to tell a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now.

In recent years, scholars have studied narrative in diverse disciplines including psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, philosophy, legal studies, cultural studies, and theology. Professions engaged in narrative practice include the military, the ministry, law, politics, business, and the arts. We have introduced public narrative training to the Obama campaign (2007-8), Sierra Club, Episcopal Church, Immigration Reform Movement, Amman institute (Jordan), Serbia on the Move (Belgrade), National Health Service (UK), Peking University Civil Society Center (Beijing), Tatua (Kenya), Community Organizing Japan (Tokyo) and elsewhere. In this course we link narrative analysis across the disciplines, narrative practice across the professions, and narrative discourse across cultures with the narrative we practice every day.

Our pedagogy is one of reflective practice. We explain public narrative, model public narrative; students practice their public narrative, and debrief one another with peer coaching. Students are evaluated on their practical and analytic understanding of narrative practice. This is not a course in public speaking, in messaging, image making or spin. It is a class in the craft of translating authentic values into action. It is about learning a process, not writing a script. As Jayanti Ravi, MPA/MC 07 put it, “in this course students learn how to bring out their ‘glow’ from within, not how to apply a ‘gloss’ from without.”

Week-by-week topics and assigned reading

Week 1: What is Public Narrative

Welcome. Today we get acquainted, discuss course goals, our strategy to achieve them, and requirements. We ground our approach to learning in Thich Nhat Hanh’s parable and Carol Dweck’s wise counsel to bring a “growth mind set” to our work. Bruner grounds our work in the discipline of cultural psychology. My chapter on “Public Narrative” and the Sojourner talk (also on YouTube) explain the framework we will use to analyze James Croft’s public narrative. Recommended readings provide background useful throughout the course. In “Leading Change” I locate “public narrative” in a broader leadership framework. Arendt grounds narrative philosophically, Bruner grounds it psychologically, and Kearney in terms of literature.

Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Raft is Not the Shore” Thundering Silence: Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake, (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1994), p. 30-33. [4 pages]

Carol Dweck, “The Mindsets”, Chapter 1 in Mindset (New York: Ballentine Books, 2006), p.1-10 [10 pages]

Jerome Bruner, “Two Modes of Thought”, Chapter 2 in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), p.11 – 25. [15 pages]

Marshall Ganz, “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power,” Chapter 18 in Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action, Edited by Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2011), p. 273-289. [17 pages]

Marshall Ganz, “Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change”, reprinted with permission from Sojourners, (March 2009), pp. 18-19. [2 pages]


Marshall Ganz, “Leading Change: Leadership, Organization and Social Movements”, Chapter 19 in the Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice, Edited by Nitin Nohria and Rakesh Khurana (Danvers: Harvard Business School Press, 2010), p. 509-550. This article contextualizes public narrative within a broader leadership framework. [41 pages]

Hannah Arendt, “The Public and the Private Realm”, (p. 50 – 59), and “Action”, (p. 175-188), from The Human Condition, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958). [23 pages]

Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 18, No.1 (Autumn, 1991), p.1-21. [22 pages]

Richard Kearney, “Narrative Matters”, Chapter 11 in On Stories: Thinking in Action (New York: Routledge, 2006), p. 125-156. [16 pages]

Week 2a: How Narrative Works

Today we focus on the first part of the public narrative framework: the relationship among emotions, values, and capacity for mindful action, for agency. Marcus explains the neuroscience of anxiety: why we pay attention. Nussbaum argues we experience our values through the language of emotion, information required for making choices. Fredrickson introduces us to the domain of “positive psychology” in particular, the psychology of hope, a response to fear. Smith argues the necessity of understanding the moral frameworks within which individuals, communities, and institutions act in order to understand why we do what we do and the role of narrative within it.

George Marcus, The Sentimental Citizen: Emotion in Democratic Politics, (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2002). Introduction (p. 1-8), Chapter 4 (p. 49-78), and Chapter 8 (p.133-148) [43 pages]

Martha Nussbaum, “Emotions and Judgments of Value”, Chapter 1 in Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 19-33. [14 pages]

Barbara L. Fredrickson, “The Value of Positive Emotions” in American Scientist, Volume 91, 2003, p. 330 – 335. [6 pages]


Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals: Human Personhood and Culture (Oxford: New York, 2003). Chapter Two, Human Culture(s) and Moral Order(s) (p. 7 – 43).

Week 2b: Elements of Narrative: Plot, Character and Moral

Today we focus on the second part of the public narrative framework: the role of plot, character, and moral in the structure of story. Why does our capacity for empathetic identification enable us to access emotional resources for mindful action. Robert McKee, a master of story telling craft, trains screenwriters. Skim his manual for an introduction to the elements craft, elements we will work with. Here Bruner teams up with Anthony Amsterdam, NYU professor of law, in a book on narrative and law, although this chapter is an account of Bruner’s theory of narrative more broadly. We analyze how student James Croft links self, us, and now in an example of a public narrative final exercise.

Skim: Robert McKee, Chapter 2, “The Structure Spectrum”, (p. 31-42); Chapter 7, “The Substance of Story”, (p. 145 – 152); Chapter 8, “The Inciting Incident” (p. 189-197), and Chapter 13, “Crisis, Climax, Resolution” (p. 303 – 314), in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (Harper Collins, 1997). [37 pages]

Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner, “On Narrative”, Chapter 4 in Minding the Law: How Courts Rely on Storytelling, and How Their Stories Change the Ways We Understand the Law – and Ourselves. (Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 110 – 142. [32 pages]

Suzanne Keen, “A Theory of Narrative Empathy”, Narrative, Vol. 14, #3, October 2006, pp 207-236. [29 pages]

Week 3: Stories of “Self” – Telling Your “Self” Story

Today we focus on learning to tell a “story of self”: a story the purpose of which is to enable others to “get you” – to experience the values that call you to leadership on behalf of your cause, in this place, at this time. McAdams shows how “stories of self” are constructed – and reconstructed – growing out of choices we make to deal with challenges that confront us, what we learn from these moments, and how we remember them – something Bruner weighs in on as well. In the video, I coach a California School Employees Association member in articulating her story of self in a 2010 workshop. We analyze how J.K. Rowling used a “story of self” at the 2008 Harvard Graduation to communicate values that called her to her work. Shamir and Elam explain the role of self-narrative in articulating the values that shape the effectiveness with which we can exercise leadership.

Dan P. McAdams, “Chapter 3, Life Stories”, (p.73 – 99), in The Redemptive Self: Stories Americans Live By (Oxford, 2006). [26 pages]

Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Creation of Self”, in Making Stories, (Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 63 – 87. [24 pages]

Boas Shamir and Galit Eilam, “What’s Your Story?” A life-stories approach to authentic leadership development”, in The Leadership Quarterly 16 (2005), p. 395 – 417. [22 pages]

Video Debriefing of Stories of Self, CAUSE Campaign, California School Employees Association, March 2010. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JAb_DPyZdVQ [21 minutes]

Coaching Story of Self, Madonna Ramp. Ed.L.D. Workshop, August 2014. [6 minutes]

Week 4: Stories of “Us” – Telling Your Story of “Us”

The goal of a “story of self” is to enable others to “get you.” The goal of a “story of us” is to enable others to “get each other”. We tell a “story of us” to move others to join with one in collective action based on values they share. It is not a “categorical” us – people who fit into a particular category. It is an “experiential” us – people who may share certain values, rooted in common experience. This “us” is rooted in the experience of the “people in the room.” It works when people feel part of an “us.” And we have all felt part of multiple “us’s” – like at a sporting event, a community dinner, a cultural observance. New communities, organizations, movements, nations, learn to tell very well developed stories of us, based on shared struggles, moments of choice, historical points of reference, etc. But the effectiveness test of a “story of us” is always right there in the room. The Rifkin video makes the point that our capacity of empathy is the foundation of our ability to experience “usness”. Brown shows how organizational “us’s” can be constructed. Cuoto and I show how new movements, based on newly salient values, develop new “stories of us” that link transformed individual “stories of self” to the broader change in the environment being pursued. We analyze how Shakespeare crafted a “story of us” told by young Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, turning despair into hope. And we examine the challenges faced by Senator Robert Kennedy, delivering news of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King to an African-American audience in Indianapolis, Indiana, April 4th, 1968.

Video, The Empathic Civilisation, J. Rifkin, RSA Animate, UK http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7AWnfFRc7g [10 minutes]

Andrew Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher, and Michael J. Platow, “Crafting a Sense of Us: Leaders as entrepreneurs of identity” Chapter 6 in The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power (New York: Psychology Press, 2011), (pp 137-164). [27 pages]

Brown, A.D. “A Narrative Approach to Collective Identities” Journal of Management Studies, 43:4, June 2006, p. 731 – 753. This development of an organizational identity narrative. [22 pages]

Richard A. Cuoto, “Narrative, Free Space, and Political Leadership in Social Movements”, The Journal of Politics, Vol.55. No.1 (February, 1993), p. 57-79. Narrative in the civil rights movement. [22 pages]


Marshall Ganz, “The Power of Story in Social Movements”, American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, 2001. Story of the emerging farm worker movement. [16 pages]

Drew Westen, Chapter 7, “Writing An Emotional Constitution” (p. 145-169), The Political Brain: the Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (Public Affairs, 2007). [29 pages]

Week 5: Stories of “Now” – Telling Stories of “Now”

We tell a “story of now” to move others to choose to join us in response to an urgent challenge to our shared values with purposeful action. This requires finding the courage to create tension, elicit sources of hope, and risk failure. The story of now grows out of the “story of self” and the “story of us” that create the ground for it. But it also shapes the “story of self” and “story of us” that precede it. We become “characters” in a story unfolding now: we face a challenge, we hope for an outcome, but it all depends on what we choose to do – now! Polichak and Gerrig help us understand how it is we it is we experience the content of a well told story, the source of its motivational force. Maddux explains the relationship between belief in our own capacity to make something happen, and, in fact, our capacity to make it happen. We’ll analyze a video of how Harvey Milk evokes both urgency and hope in a few short minutes. Ben Kingsley’s interpretation of one of Gandhi’s first “story of now” moments in South Africa, focuses on what it looks like to make a choice not only urgent, but real.

James W. Polichak and Richard J. Gerrig, “Get Up and Win!” Participatory Responses to Narrative” in Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations, by Melanie Green, Jeffrey Strange, and Timothy Brock (Erlbaum, New Jersey, 2002), p. 71 – 95. [24 pages]

James E. Maddux, “Self-Efficacy: The Power of Believing You Can”, Chapter 20 in the Handbook of Positive Psychology, edited by C.R. Snyder and Shane J. Lopez (New York: Oxford, 2005), p. 277 – 287. [10 pages]

Week 6: Linking Self, Us and Now – Telling Public Stories

Today we discuss how to link one’s story of self, story of us, and story of now. A story that links all the elements may begin with a “challenge” drawn from the story of now, end with the “choice” called for in the story of now, with the story of self and us in between. We’ll revisit James Croft’s public narrative to look at it with a different set of eyes, with a focus on lessons useful for preparation.

Week 7: Conclusion

In this final class of the module, we reflect on the ground we have covered since we began. What have we learned about public narrative? Have we learned how to tell our public story? What will be our narrative of the class? How can understanding public narrative equip us for challenges in our own lives – and in our own times? We conclude, as we began, with Bruner, in one of his more expansive reflections on the “uses of story” in life.

Jerome Bruner, “The Uses of Story” in Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (New York: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002), p. 3-36. [34 pages]

Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of the Single Story”, TED, 7/09 found at: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html [18 min.]

Page created by: Ian Clark, last updated 26 December 2015.