My New Cause; I Mean Class – Storytelling!
by Kamalla Rose Kaur
Ever have a political issue land right in your lap? Ever been called up to defend a cause, out of the blue? Like it suddenly pops up daily, or oftener? You can’t help yourself? You are passionately perturbed and find yourself voicing it? Loudly? You ever go from zip to full activism overnight?
That’s my Storytelling class at Western Washington University! No, no, not the class itself. The class is fantastic, awesome, powerful, profound, well-taught, well-attended, very difficult, and simply too much fun. Challenging. Tough. Frightening. A hell of a lot of work and yes, yes, I admit it! It is a total joy and blast.
Point is that my Storytelling class at WWU is not “basket-weaving.”
Please understand that I am an older woman now. Which is to say that I am a very serious student. I am not cute, not chic, nor stupid. I am well read and well educated. I have raised three children. I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. I may be childlike, but I am not childish. Many WWU professors are the age of my daughters – in their 30s – and most of my fellow students are the age of my son – 20. I am not age-ist rather I simply wish readers to take my words very seriously. Bellingham is my hometown and my Daddy was a professor at WWU right up to the year he died. He taught statistics and he was a fine storyteller.
So believe me please, I know many people in this town, on and off campus, and I am being asked daily; “How’s university life? What classes are you taking?”
I answer, “I love going to WWU. My professors are brilliant women – world class teachers. I am taking Women in Literature, Creative Nonfiction Writing and Storytelling.”
And then it happens!
“Ha ha, ha.” They chuckle. “Storytelling? Is that a class? That sounds fun and easy.”
I experience this daily, often several times a day. Even fellow students and professors and administrators on campus seemingly assume that Storytelling is an easy class. Several people have actually mentioned basket-weaving, and smirked – as if basket-weaving is so f%##king unworthy and infantile and lacking in cultural meaning, unworthy of our interest? I rarely swear, but REALLY!
As for Storytelling, why do people imagine that storytelling is a lightweight topic? At the risk of sounding matronizing, nay even patronizing, I am here to briefly but completely rub reader’s faces in some obvious reasons why storytelling as a subject – and why my Storytelling class in particular – might be as weighty, important, challenging and deserving of honor and respect as even math, or psychics, or logic, or philosophy classes at WWU and elsewhere!
“Throughout human history, stories have been used to pass on the wisdom and values of society as well as to nourish and strengthen the minds and spirits of those listening.” (Porcino, John, “Stories, the Teaching Tool.” Spinning Tales Weaving Hope; Stories of Peace, Justice and the Environment. Brody et.al. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia PA. 1992. 11- 21)
My Storytelling class is my hardest class, though my professor’s demands on her students are reasonable; we accept them. Storytelling is not an easy subject. Not only must we learn to stand up with no notes, no memorization, and tell stories extemporaneously (you think that might be a useful skill to learn?) but we also have to read and choose stories to perform. Our professor warns us that we will read 5-10 stories for every one story we might actually desire to share.
She knows, she knows, and she is right, absolutely right! After all we get video-taped. We don’t want to perform just any old story; we need the right story; the best story for us, the perfect one for right now. Is it so hard to imagine that many of us read as many as 30 folktales before we find the one we wish to risk performing in front of a live as well as video audience?
We watch those videos and we write evaluations of ourselves and we write evaluations of our classmates.
And beyond collecting stories, performing stories, and writing skillful evaluations, my storytelling professor naturally requires us to read books about storytelling.
I am not complaining about the work. Doing a bit of research into the art of storytelling , or the anthropology of storytelling, or storytelling through song and music, or dance, or storytelling in business settings, or how to sell product with stories, or the history of storytelling, religious stories, depth psychology, teaching math with stories and so forth, are all interesting and important academic pursuits.
“Folklore is not some frivolous drivel of the primitive (read savage) mind, nor unscientific, misunderstandings and concoctions that reduce the quality of life. Folklore, the result of a different, but equally legitimate, kind of inquiry, understands the universe through the devices of metaphor and emotion. It is not bad science; it is simply not about science. Its principle mode of investigation operates by direct human participation in the great mysteries of the cosmos. Its purpose is to provide human communities with ways of living in nature, not of controlling it.” (Rietz, Livo. Storytelling Folklore Sourcebook. Libraries Unlimited, Englewood, CO. 1929. 4)
I am an English Literature and Creative Writing major; subjects clearly based on storytelling. History, Sociology, Psychology, Journalism, and Anthropology are also storytelling and story reporting pursuits. Frankly it is difficult to educate humans without employing effective storytelling and it is easy to educate humans using stories.
Storytelling is also the heart and soul – or rather, the bottom line – of marketing and sales. I was amused to read the following advertisement out on the internet:
“Storytelling: Passport to Success in the 21st Century
Why is there a resurgence of interest among today’s business and organizational leaders in the ancient art of storytelling at a time when electronic communications might seem to make it obsolete? Human beings have been communicating with each other through storytelling since we lived in caves and sat around campfires exchanging tales. What is new today about the art of telling stories is the purposeful use of narrative to achieve a practical outcome with an individual, a community, or an organization.” (http://www.creatingthe21stcentury.org/ )
Since when is it “new” to use stories to sell products or organizations? The whole field of Advertising is nothing but storytelling with the agenda to inspire us to buy services and products.
Storytelling is primal and basic to being human.
“Stories have to be told, to be expressed, for they are part of the narrative quality of existence that can be shared and that therefore compensate for all that cannot be shared. “…When we tell our tales, we give away our souls’ (p.940). …We are our stories. We become our stories. (p.115). (Doty, W. “Stories of our times” Ed. J. W. Wiggins. Religion as Story . New York: Harper and Row. 1975).
My professor tells us that when she attends academic conferences she makes it a point to tell half of the people she meets that her field is “Oral Narrative in History, Culture, and Society.” To the other half she declares, “I teach Storytelling.” The resulting respect, and the snubs she receives amuse her. She can fight back, of course, because she is a world class storyteller and therefore as soon as she decides to address the group. I assure you, even the stuffiest dusty egotists gather round. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard University, speaks about the profound social and political power of storytelling in his book “Leading Minds, An Anatomy of Leadership”.
“In recent years, social scientists have come to appreciate what political, religious, and military figures have long known; that stories (narratives, myths, or fables) constitute a uniquely powerful currency in human relationships. . . . And I suggest, further, that it is stories . . . of identity — narratives that help individuals think about and feel who they are, where they come from, and where they are headed — that constitute the single most powerful weapon in the leader’s . . . arsenal.’” (Gardner, Howard. “Leading Minds, An Anatomy of Leadership” Basic Books. New York. 1995.)
So why is Storytelling devalued in our culture?
One reason may be that many assume that storytelling involves parents, elementary school teachers and librarians reading out loud, from picture books, to small children. This is not at all what my Storytelling class is about, of course – but even if it were, what is so f@^*&% unimportant about that subject either?
Or maybe we can blame boring, boring, boring academic lecturers; often even scientists. Obviously professors who are exciting and engaged and brilliant (like my late Papa) tell wonderful stories about science and scientists.
“Science seems to be afraid of storytelling, perhaps because it associates narrative with long, untestable yarns. Stories are perceived as “just” literature. Worse, stories are not reducible to mathematics, so they are unlikely to impress our peers.
This fear is misplaced for two reasons. First, in paradigmatic science, hypotheses have to be crafted. What are alternative hypotheses but competing narratives? Invent them as fancifully as you can. Sure, they ought to avoid explicit violations of reality (such as light acting like a particle when everyone knows it’s a wave?), but censor those stories lightly. There is time for experiment—by you or others—to discover which story holds up better.
The second reason not to fear a story is that human beings do science. A person must decide what molecule is made, what instrument built to measure what property. Yes, there are facts to begin with, facts to build on. But facts are mute. They generate neither the desire to understand, nor appeals for the patronage that science requires, nor the judgment to do A instead of B, nor the will to overcome a seemingly insuperable failure. Actions, small or large, are taken at a certain time by human beings—who are living out a story “
(Hoffman, Roald. “Storied Theory – Science and stories are not only compatible, they’re inseparable, as shown by Einstein’s classic 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect” American Scientist, Volume: 93 Number: 4 Page: 308 )
My professor lent me a couple volumes of “Storytelling, Self and Society; An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Storytelling Studies” which is an academic journal. It is an extremely scholarly journal – but, truth is, excellence in storytelling is naturally compelling, and therefore a fun read. I enjoyed every article. In one of the journal’s articles (“Storytelling and Organizations” by Jo A. Tyler – a professor at Penn State, formerly a Vice President of Armstrong World Industries) Dr. Tyler tells a personal story about being interviewed for a high level corporate job. After sharing some details about how tedious the interviewing process was, and how stupid the questions, she writes:
“Finally in the afternoon, there is a question that interests me. It comes from the hiring manager.
‘Jo, you’re the head of Organization and Management Development for a Fortune 500 company. How do you interpret your job?’
I feel ready for this question, as ready as if I have been willing them to ask it.
‘I’m a storyteller.’
There is a moment when my response hangs in the air, like words in a cartoon bubble. But then the hiring manager smiles. He exhales slightly, leans back, and blows the words with an invitation.
It is an invitation to tell a story, or two.”
Storytelling is THAT powerful. We all know that storytelling is THAT powerful too. Why deny it?
Of course, it is possible that Storytelling is simply too much fun to take seriously. Is it more recreation that scholastics?
Or is storytelling as an academic pursuit looked down upon because anyone can tell a story and everyone does in fact tell stories? Is it because professors are often horrible storytellers, while humble working class folk often excel at it? Is it a women’s discipline? Is it a childish subject? Or are other races better at storytelling than people of European descent?
If so, what total crap! These are class-ist, racist, age-ist and sexist perceptions which makes storytelling a political issue that demands that good people, like you and me, respond as activists.
Pete Seeger says in his book on storytelling, “More and more, it seems we’re becoming a nation of spectators. On Sunday we watch professional athletes instead of playing ourselves; on weeknights we watch professional jesters instead of tickling ourselves, and on weekdays we tune the radio to professional music makers instead of singing ourselves.” (Seeger, Pete. Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book Harcourt, Inc. 2000. 7)
Likewise when scholars study the stories of humanity but discount and resist becoming better storytellers – how smart is that?
Western Washington University is one of the first universities in the country to offer classes in Storytelling and make Storytelling a General Education Requirement. Good for us! Now how can we require that all our professors take my Storytelling class?
Because any instructor hired to profess any subject had better be able to teach utilizing the art and science of good storytelling lest he or she be graded by students and peers as being deadly – I mean DEADLY – dull – and thus stupid. Yes, I am actually recommending that every WWU professor take my Storytelling class and do the work – and speak out about it, and take a great deal of flack for it. Don’t imagine that you are too old or educated for this experience. Rather, GROW UP!
Be brave. Be humble. Get militant and take a stand for our species’ most unusual and powerful gift; the ability to share our experiences.
The capacity to tell our tales and tell them well is neither easy nor is it trivial.
I dare you! Weave a basket that holds water and lasts longer than your puny little lifetime.
Porcino, John, “Stories, the Teaching Tool.” Spinning Tales Weaving Hope; Stories of Peace, Justice and the Environment. Brody et.al. New Society Publishers, Philadelphia PA. 1992. 11- 21
Doty, W. “Stories of our times” Ed. J. W. Wiggins. Religion as Story . New York: Harper and Row. 1975
Hoffman, Roald. “Storied Theory – Science and stories are not only compatible, they’re inseparable, as shown by Einstein’s classic 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect” American Scientist, Volume: 93 Number: 4 Page: 308
“Storytelling: Passport to Success in the 21st Century” http://www.creatingthe21stcentury.org
Seeger, Pete. Pete Seeger’s Storytelling Book Harcourt, Inc. 2000. 4
Ross, Royal. Storyteller. August House Inc. Little Rock 1972
Gardner, Howard. “Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership”, Basic Books. New York. 1995
Tyler, Jo. Storytelling and Organizations. “Storytelling, Self and Society; An Interdisciplinary Journal Of Storytelling Studies” Florida Atlantic University, Volume 2, Number 2, 2006
Vohs, Rosemary. Woodring School of Education, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA, – my Storytelling professor, whom I conversed and communed with several times while writing this diatribe.