Journal of Nursing Education

GOSSIP: A Transformative Art for Nursing Education

Peggy L Chinn, PhD, RN, FAAN

Abstract

"Having eyes, but not seeing beauty;

having ears, but not hearing music;

having minds, but not perceiving truth,

having hearts that are never

moved and therefore never set on fire.

These are the things to fear. ..."

(Kuroyanagi, 1981, p. 92)

It was early March, 1990. I was ending the first of two quarters as a Visiting Professor at my graduate Alma Mater, the University of Utah. For me, this was a time for reflecting on an important part of my past, of reconnections with people and places of a past life. I had been here first as a graduate student, and then in my first teaching role. Now, I seemed to be building a bridge between that past, and a future that seemed to hold abundant hopes and dreams. I was confronting my own educational experienees, and creating new ones that seem aU too rare in nursing education.

The problems that have persisted in my own career are not unique to any particular school or region of the country. Everywhere I travel I hear similar tales. Colleagues bemoan the lack of caring and related nursing values in our practice of teaching; yet they fear the erosion of quality as caring values become more real. Students everywhere are distressed by the painful realities of their experiences that leave them feeling powerless, diminished, and manipulated. No one seems to be able to locate the problem; it is always somewhere out there - invisible, intangible, and elusive. Most frustrating of all, despite the discussions, the concerns, and the sincere desire to see something better happen in our hallowed halls of academe, the problems persist and, at times, even escalate.

Now, finding myself in Utah where I had once before taken major steps to change my life, I decided that something was not "clicking" in what I said and did. Feeling somewhat despondent, but energized by the signs of Rocky Mountain springtime, I began to think about some of the words and sentiments that I had heard in the persistent refrains from both students and faculty. I began to realize that I myself was often trapped in a refrain that I heard over and over again - the problem is identified as what someone else is doing or not doing. After all, I am participating in the curriculum revolution. I am doing major things in my own practice of teaching to change what happens in the classroom. I am speaking all over this country sharing ideas about how to make the changes we aU say we want. But I realized that no matter how "correct" I felt my analysis and my behavior to be, it still meant little as long as I failed to demonstrate possibilities for change in the entire system, not just within the confines of my own classroom. Most of all, something still needed to change in me if I was to be part of this system-wide change. I needed to see the problem as located where I could do something substantive about it. If a transformation of nursing education was to happen I needed to practice more fully and widely the values that I "profess" as a professor (see Wheeler and Chinn, 1989).

And so, as the winter quarter in Utah drew to a close, I was restless to begin to make some of the shifts that were entering my awareness as possibilities. I had been working with doctoral students during the winter quarter, and would be moving to an undergraduate team for the spring. Those of us who had been together during the winter were feeling an urgency…

"Having eyes, but not seeing beauty;

having ears, but not hearing music;

having minds, but not perceiving truth,

having hearts that are never

moved and therefore never set on fire.

These are the things to fear. ..."

(Kuroyanagi, 1981, p. 92)

It was early March, 1990. I was ending the first of two quarters as a Visiting Professor at my graduate Alma Mater, the University of Utah. For me, this was a time for reflecting on an important part of my past, of reconnections with people and places of a past life. I had been here first as a graduate student, and then in my first teaching role. Now, I seemed to be building a bridge between that past, and a future that seemed to hold abundant hopes and dreams. I was confronting my own educational experienees, and creating new ones that seem aU too rare in nursing education.

The problems that have persisted in my own career are not unique to any particular school or region of the country. Everywhere I travel I hear similar tales. Colleagues bemoan the lack of caring and related nursing values in our practice of teaching; yet they fear the erosion of quality as caring values become more real. Students everywhere are distressed by the painful realities of their experiences that leave them feeling powerless, diminished, and manipulated. No one seems to be able to locate the problem; it is always somewhere out there - invisible, intangible, and elusive. Most frustrating of all, despite the discussions, the concerns, and the sincere desire to see something better happen in our hallowed halls of academe, the problems persist and, at times, even escalate.

Now, finding myself in Utah where I had once before taken major steps to change my life, I decided that something was not "clicking" in what I said and did. Feeling somewhat despondent, but energized by the signs of Rocky Mountain springtime, I began to think about some of the words and sentiments that I had heard in the persistent refrains from both students and faculty. I began to realize that I myself was often trapped in a refrain that I heard over and over again - the problem is identified as what someone else is doing or not doing. After all, I am participating in the curriculum revolution. I am doing major things in my own practice of teaching to change what happens in the classroom. I am speaking all over this country sharing ideas about how to make the changes we aU say we want. But I realized that no matter how "correct" I felt my analysis and my behavior to be, it still meant little as long as I failed to demonstrate possibilities for change in the entire system, not just within the confines of my own classroom. Most of all, something still needed to change in me if I was to be part of this system-wide change. I needed to see the problem as located where I could do something substantive about it. If a transformation of nursing education was to happen I needed to practice more fully and widely the values that I "profess" as a professor (see Wheeler and Chinn, 1989).

And so, as the winter quarter in Utah drew to a close, I was restless to begin to make some of the shifts that were entering my awareness as possibilities. I had been working with doctoral students during the winter quarter, and would be moving to an undergraduate team for the spring. Those of us who had been together during the winter were feeling an urgency about the limited time we had shared, and hesitantly mentioned the wishful idea that we might find some time to continue our conversations. These suggestions, uttered by myself and others as well, were feeling painfully familiar; we were expressing a desire for an interaction that seemed too impossible, too unattainable. It felt like I was asking for the most wonderful treasure, realizing that it could never happen. It also felt like we were all wanting something that should be happening, something that we all deserve, in a place designed for learning. The constraints felt overwhelming. Where would we find the time? What about credit for the time that we do spend together? How would my faculty colleagues view an ongoing relationship between myself and my students? Would the college administrators frown on this?

Being the person that I am, most of these questions were only fleeting thoughts. The pressing question was "where is the time to do this?" I needed to find enough time that I could convince myself that a project of human libération is indeed possible within the context of nursing education. I needed to structure that time so that other people could, if so inspired, participate as well. For several days I despaired, feeling the intense pressures of a demanding schedule of journal due dates, teaching responsibilities, travel commitments, writing commitments, meetings to attend, research projects waiting formy undivided attention, personal relationships, books to read, puppies to pet, Utah canyons to explore, urgent desires to simply "putter." I began to face squarely one of the barriers - limited time - that stops me from taking certain forms of action that in sentiment I believe in, and am committed to.

As long as I allowed the idea of time to stand in the way of my moving to a new and different way of relating within the educational system, there is, for me, no real transformation. So I found a time frame that I thought just might work. There was 1 hour every day at noon, particularly since I became committed to taking an actual lunch break and not working while I do it. There was also about 1 hour at the end of each day when traffic is too crazy to attempt to drive home anyway. If I make a few changes in how rapidly I move in the morning, there could be 1 hour before the hustle and bustle of the ordinary day. This spring quarter was relatively light where travel commitments were concerned; here at least I could make a time commitment that would not be interrupted by travel, to test the "workability" of my ideas. But then if I expected to have time with other people to continue the dialogue that we said we wanted, how could I coordinate what I do with what they do? The solution to this was fairly simple: I would make a commitment to be present for each of the 3 scheduled hours each week.

Another barrier I face is what to call this. How do I convey what it is intended to be? It was not a class. It was not a seminar. Clearly, there was to be no formal educational credit, no grades. I wanted to call it something that reflected the intent that I brought to this found time that had always been there. I wanted it to clearly be known that is was time for sharing ideas from a feminist perspective. I wanted the values that the time embodied to be feminist values (Wheeler and Chinn, 1989). Even though I was initiating this activity, it needed to reflect the sharing, open, and cooperative style that is consistent with the feminists' ways of thinking and doing. My partner in naming, Charlene Eldridge, brainstormed with me every chance we had, until one day she suggested GOSSIP. Thus emerged the idea for a Twilight GOSSIP every Tuesday evening from 5 to 6, a Noon GOSSIP every Wednesday, and a Dawn GOSSIP every Thursday at 7:30 in the morning.

Why GOSSIP?

Gossip was originally the noun for the woman who attended the birth of a child with a midwife, and who gave support and comfort to the woman during labor. After the birth, this woman was sent out to broadcast what had happened. It also referred to a woman who "spoke wisdom from the stars" - a soothsayer who gave wise counsel (Daly, 1987). What better symbol of a transformative act than to call it something that reclaims what we have lost, and at the same time confronts directly the twisted meanings that gossip has acquired - meanings that distort women's experience, and misrepresent the meaning of what women actually do.

By reclaiming the art of gossip, we can become the supporters, the creators of our own births and rebirths. We have no conscious memory of the art of gossip, and so we now become its creators anew. Gossip can be a way to broadcast to one another the images that we know are missing in every form of modern media. Our media becomes our gossip. Our mirrors are of our own making.

Now, how do we begin? A place to meet was solved when Dean Linda Amos assigned a room exclusively for the use of the graduate students. Individuals began to bring furnishings and other items to make the room a comfortable, inviting place to be. I began by posting a simple flyer announcing the beginning of the GOSSIPs, and the first gathering for speaking and hearing our Selves into existence. That first week, I shared with everyone what I call a SOPHIA (acronym created by Charlene Eldridge and me to mean Speak Out, Play Havoc, Imagine Alternatives). A SOPHIA is a brief mini-essay of the speaker's own inner ideas, thoughts, and visions, and is intended to help the group focus on the topic of discussion and think about possibilities. Charlene and I chose this word because of its ancient Greek meaning of wisdom, particularly women's wisdom. We also chose it to commemorate our nursing foresister, Sophia Palmer, the first editor of the American Journal of Nursing.

The first week's SOPHIA for the GOSSIP included a description of my own commitment for the next 10 weeks, an invitation for other ideas about how this might emerge, the history of the word gossip, and some early ideas about the skill and virtue of gossip - the new meanings that we could create together. During the first week, we decided we would place articles in the room where we gathered so that we could read more about some of the ideas we were discussing. We made a commitment to keep the readings very brief. Everyone participated in sharing readings and sometimes people read them before the GOSSIP; other times people read them afterward. There were no structured expectations other than being present when and only when you could, and wanted to be there.

As the weeks emerged, the art of gossip took form through what we shared about ourselves - our thoughts, ideas, and experiences that related to our reading. We began to see ourselves in new ways. For example, when we read Adrienne Rich's 1979 essay entitled "Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying," our discussion moved quickly to ways in which we experience the subtle deceptions and secrecies of each of our own Uves. We broadcasted to one another ways that we began to speak the truth. We talked about our personal relationships, our relationships with others in the nursing education system, and our relationships with other nurses. We celebrated, in the span of a few moments, the joy of hearing, speaking, and sharing our own truths. When we focused on the short story "A Visit from the Footbinder" (Prager, 1989), we talked about ways in which our own minds had been bound, and we sorted out feelings of anger, compassion, hurt, and joy as we began to grow in our awareness of our experiences as nurses and as women.

Our art, still embryonic in its conception and formation, was grounded in an ethic that began to reverse the modern meanings of gossip, creating a new meaning and a new reality for each of us who participated. The ethic upon which our art was built is relational (see Noddings, 1989), and the art grounded in skillful crafts of listening and speaking that we had learned both as women and as nurses. Because we were participating in forming a new possibility, we created and named the skills and the virtues as we went.

The Skills and Virtues of Gossip

The skill of gossip involves two things: knowing what to do and say, and why. The skül is grounded in the values or the virtues we deliberately choose. Some skills that have come to be known as gossip are habits we wish to end, replacing them with skiUs and habits that we choose because of their virtues. We grounded our GOSSIP in skills and virtues that I tentatively described during the first week as foUows:

* Gossip is to be purposeful. When you teU a story about someone or something, let the listener know why you are sharing this particular story,

* Tell deliberately about your Self. Focus on your own feelings and ideas, as they relate to your story, rather than what you think someone else felt or thought. When you do tell someone else's story, relate it to your own experience as well.

* Name your source. If you were there when the event happened, make clear your own participation in the event. If you were not there, share who told you about what happened, or "how you know about what happened. If you are speculating about what happened, be very clear to share this information. Naming your source is essential to demystify, to end the making privatization of women's lives, and to end the anonymity of women's lives.

* Own responsibility/agency. If you were a part of what happened, or are passing along information about what happened, be clear about what your responsibility is in the situation. Do not say, for example, "the committee decided to deny your petition." Instead, say "I was present when the committee voted to deny your petition, and I was one of the people who voted to deny it."

* Be cautious about handing over information knowingly that can be used to hurt another person; give information in a way that opens possibilities for greater compassion and understanding. For example, information that could be used hurtfully would be to leave a class saying: "I was astonished at what Peggy said in class today. She reaUy is intolerant." A message that could convey the same astonishment, but not be hurtful to Peggy would be: "I was astonished when I heard Peggy say how angry she is about what is happening on the Psych unit. I wonder if she understands what those nurses are going through?"

* Affirm the opportunity and possibility for growth and change. When talking about Peggy's comments on what is happening on the Psych unit, you might also talk about how Peggy's comments reflected blaming the victim for what happened, and what the group might discuss during the next class in order to help everyone gain an awareness of how this works. The concern shifts to possibilities for Peggy, and everyone in the class, to become more aware of how blaming the victim works, and how to overcome it.

* Use humor as a way to address emotions, and to shed light on a situation. Be very cautious about hurtful, diminishing teasing. Never knowingly tease or ridicule another person, and be cautious about humor that is self-denigrating. For example, a comment made with a laughing tone: "I guess I am just an unimportant student who has no business expressing my opinion" is not funny, nor is it dry humor. It is self-denigrating, and it passively implies ridicule of others whose opinions you are only speculating.

* Use information to share and inform, not to manipulate. For example, if you honestly think that your friend is taking a wrong course of action, then provide all the information you can that will aid her in her decisions and actions, without prodding or coercing her decision in the direction that you desire. Leave the decision to her, even if it turns out to be one you do not agree with. Sharing what you know about Jenny's experience can be helpful information for your friend to use as she sees fit. Saying "I think you need to do what Jenny did when this happened to her" creates an atmosphere of coercion, disapproval, and distance between you and your friend. Saying "I think what Jenny did when this happened to her was a wonderful solution" conveys the intent to share information that might be helpful, while remaining open to whatever your friend decides for herself.

* Use gossip to assist, to build community, not to compete. When you hear another woman's story, focus on sharing ideas and feelings as to what her story means to you, and how together you can begin to build on what she has shared. When you do share your own story, focus on what in your experience touches hers, rather than using your story to "one-up" her experience.

What Makes This Art Transformative?

The art of gossip is in the process, the experience, and the meanings for each participant. If we grow in awareness of what makes this art transformative, we can begin to create other forms of experience that can create the changes we seek. While it is fundamentally true that the changes and the insights must begin inside each one of us in order for system- wide change to occur, this is not wholly sufficient. My experience in creating the art of gossip provided several important clues for me as to how to begin the process of inner change that can begin to create change in our communities.

First, this experience depended upon my own struggle to find a way to bring together values and actions. I had to move to new levels of awareness as to how this had not been happening for me, and how I had become arrogant and comfortable in my usual habits of being. Once I realized this, I began to see more clearly the construction of barriers that I myself could de-construct, change, and overcome. This has not been an overnight miracle cure; I am still struggling with issues concerning the time demands of my life, and the energy demands of sustaining a commitment to a process.

As the transformation began to happen in the GOSSIP gatherings with other people involved, the actual art began to take form. The transformations began as we spoke from the heart, some for the first time in their educational experience. For many of us, we heard, for the first time in an educational milieu, other people speaking from their hearts. The hearing of our voices became a new kind of hearing. We were never bored; sometimes we were moved, or set on fire. We began to gain awareness of dynamics, situations, shared experiences, and differences that had never reached our conscious awareness before. Together, we began to unravel things that had before been mystified, as when we discussed what honor between women means. For those of us who gathered, the art of gossip was not confined to the scheduled hours; it became an increasing part of all of our interactions. Not every individual who participated was equally touched or moved; some people may not have been at all. But for the times we were together, we experienced becoming more human, real, and accessible to one another. These are the things to seek. These are transformative acts.

References

  • Daly, M. & Caputi, J. (1987). Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
  • Kuroyanagi, T. (1981). Tbtto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window. (D. Britton, Trans.). New York, NY: Kodansha International.
  • Noddings, N. (1989). Women and Evil. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  • Prager, E. (1989). A Visit from the Footbinder. In Park, C. & Heaton, C. (Eds.), Close Company: Stories of Mothers and Daughters. New York, NY: Ticknor & Fields.
  • Rich, A. (1979). Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying. In On Lies, Secrets and Silence. New York, NY: WW Norton.
  • Wheeler, CE. , & Chinn, PL. (1989). Peace and Power: A Handbook of Feminist Process (2nd Ed.). New York, NY: National League for Nursing.

10.3928/0148-4834-19900901-08

Sign up to receive

Journal E-contents