Making meaning (Part I)

Glass lilies

One of the things I love about working with graduate students is supporting their process of making meaning. As a person working in graduate student development, I get to see graduate students make meaning when they think through their teaching philosophy statement, talk through a challenging classroom experience, negotiate a power differential in a mentor-mentee relationship, and reflect on a major hurdle of their academic program. I get to watch them find the coherent, integrating strands of their personal, academic, and professional experiences. I get to see them make sense of and be truth tellers of their own experiences. I get to listen to their stories of significance. I get to see their expanded sense of capability, options, and belonging.

An example of meaning-making

During my mental health leave, I visited Rose Hill Cemetery twice. I’d never been there before. The first time, I became familiar with the landscape: where old and new sections are, where paths take me, interesting monuments, how sounds of the city break through the surrounding stone wall. The second time, a friend and his dog took me on a walking tour. He pointed out the headstones of notable people of Bloomington, the symbolism behind different headstone designs, and humorous epitaphs. 

The meaning for me of Rose Hill Cemetery evolved through these two trips. It used to be a place I’ve driven around innumerable times in the last 17 years, only vaguely aware of it. It has expanded meaning to me now because of a deepened association with some of my core values, including: friendship and mutuality; curiosity; authentic talk about the human experience; public memory and accountability; history and context.

Meaning-making as telling stories

Just as I’ve driven by that cemetery hundreds of times unaware, it’s very possible to spend much of our lives “asleep,” not doing much meaning-making about our choices or interactions. It can seem like not much important or significant happens, life is mundane and monotonous, and we zombie-walk through our days. We can be dissociated, heads disconnected from bodies. And even our brains may be largely “shut down,” even as we’re busy making to do lists, grading papers, collecting data, writing chapters, answering emails…

To me, meaning-making is the way we make deliberate mindful observations, recounting and interpreting stories we find significant and important. It’s the “being” part of human beings. A sequence of stuff that happens to us, the plot, becomes our stories with exhibition, inciting incident, rising action and complications, dilemma, climax, and denouement. We make connections to previous experiences, core values, and strengths. The stories contribute to our self-concept, our sense of self in relation to others. We see our impact on others and our relationship and belonging in communities. We create stories about our experiences that have integrity and alignment with our values, commitments, personality, strengths, thoughts, and behaviors. The story coheres with other stories, fitting into the larger arc of who you are and where you are in your journey as a human being. 

When I talk about meaning-making with friend-colleagues from teaching/educational development, some say, “oh, you mean … [metacognition, self-efficacy, agency, memory/recall/retrieval, reflection, application].” Hmmm, not really. Sure, those cognitive things are probably involved: remembering, knowing how you put pieces together, being aware of your thinking, having thoughts and reactions about your thinking. But meaning-making seems to me deeper than the cognitive and metacognitive processes we talk about in classroom and academic practice.

Meaning-making to me is the answer to “why?” What memories stick out to you AND WHY? What mementos have you hung onto AND WHY? Meaning-making is the glue and connective tissue holding multi-sensory memories and associations together. It’s the emotions, thoughts, and interpretations we stick onto the memories. It’s the imprints of other people, experiences, and places we take with us (or deliberately leave behind). It’s the things that connect your past, current, and future.

Meaning-making around global events

I’ve led a workshop with graduate students since the pandemic began about speaking truthfully about our experiences during the pandemic. In particular, we talked about different forms of grief: abstract and concrete, acceptable and disenfranchised. We made lists of losses we had experienced: family and friends; rites of passage and coming of age rituals; trust in institutions; timelines; gatherings and holidays; predictable boundaries around our work-personal time and physical space; meaningful work that brings a sense of purpose. I invited graduate students to spend time journaling, in a similar way to writing a eulogy, about why those things were important to them and what the losses meant to them.

Meaning-making about personal objects

In graduate student learning communities I facilitate, we often do a power object share activity. Each person finds something in their bag that is unique and important – something that is quintessentially them. In the zoom spaces, we’ve done that with power objects on our desks. Graduate students share those objects in small groups and talk about questions such as:

  • What is the object?
  • Where did you get it?
  • How did you acquire it?
  • What does the object represent to you as a memory?
  • What does the object represent to you about your personal attributes?
  • Why do you carry it with you? What would it mean to you if you lost it? Why would you want someone who finds it to treat it carefully and return it?

The objects are both universal and individual. We all have these objects, and there is a shared human experience in every object. At the same time, the objects are unique in the details of the story.

Meaning-making as part of adult development

Meaning-making is part of growing, learning, maturing, and developing wisdom of experience as a human. If a core script you tell yourself is that you are “bad,” meaning-making will tend toward evidence that supports that script, and stories you tell yourself can be self-limiting, blaming of others, and destructive. On the other hand, when you can identify your strengths and values in a story, it leads to your positive identity formation. A positive identity foundation expands your capacity for who you are, your strengths, what you believe you are capable of, how you imagine yourself to be of service and in service to others, and your sense of hope.

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