My New Cause; I Mean Class – Storytelling! by Kamalla Rose Kaur

storytelling2

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.

‘How so?’

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.

Bibliography

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.

Rosemary

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12 Comments

Filed under Inspiring, Kamalla Rose Kaur's Writings, Multicultural, Pacific Northwest

12 responses to “My New Cause; I Mean Class – Storytelling! by Kamalla Rose Kaur

  1. You have a very interesting blog (story) here! I never thought I would ever sit and read an article about “story telling” but it was truely fabulous and encouraging.
    Since last summer I have been “a writer” so, perhaps a story teller as well. I have worn many hats in my day, but never to imagine in my 40-some years to be a writer, or story teller. I find it to be one of the most rewarding things I have ever done…
    If you can hold attention like mine with a low attention span, your story telling endeavors will do very well! My hat is off to you!

  2. douglas

    As a person with native american roots i have long been aware of the power of stories
    my grandfather was an oral historian of sorts for his tribe and was responsible for the transmission of the tribal culture to his generation

    it is our ability to share information that is complex and meaningful that seperates us from our less articulate planet mates

    in this era language and communication over cultural boundries is no longer the issue it once was
    the stories of all the tribes are now easily available to most people
    the storytellers,poets and bards of this generation have an awesome job and are blessed with powerfull things to share and the ability to reach out to the whole world

    history is written by historians
    its the storytellers in my opinion that preserve the truth that would other wise be lost in politics and personal agendas

    to quote one of my favorite story tellers
    “the story being all well told, we pay the teller off in gold ,his job is to shed light and not to master”(roberthunter)

    Douglas

  3. the tone-deaf sister (guess!)

    That’s right, force the WWU profs into taking Storytelling classes and watch them struggle!

  4. kamallarosekaur

    Thanks so much for the great comments:

    I am afraid I have bad news:

    I wrote this diatribe last quarter. I have now learned that the WWU administration has cut my Storytelling professor’s, Rosemary Vohs, classes down to one and told her to vacate her office. Budget cuts. She is an adjunct professor, best imaginable teacher, a stunning performer and has taught a WWU for 23 years!

    For more information about WHY this is happening please read:

    Please Support WWU Faculty:
    https://kamallarosekaur.wordpress.com/2008/03/18/please-support-wwu-faculty-so-when-did-this-happen/

  5. Jacqueline Bartha, MSLS

    I was a returning adult student at WWU a few years ago. During that time I was supporting myself and paying tuition by working as a custodian. Today I have a Master of Science in Library Science from the University of North Texas. I work for Jacksonville [Florida] Public Library System as the manager of the Children’s Department of the Charles Webb Library.

    I attribute much of my academic and professional success to Rosemary Vohs. She accepted me into her classes knowing that I was a custodian that should only be allowed to take classes on a “space available basis”; despite the popularity of her classes she made room for one nervous blue collar worker—and she did it so graciously. She taught me virtually everything I know about storytelling, public speaker, and performing. She also laid a sound foundation in library science with her library classes—the remnants of a now defunct certificate for teachers acquiring library endorsement. What I learned in her acquisitions, and other library science, classes was invaluable in many of my grad school classes. Over and over again I watched student after student panic because they had no background in library science and the pace of graduate school was unpitying to the confused. When I applied for work–at an American Library Association conference teaming with people–what Rosemary taught me kept me focus when I found I had to tell an impromptu story. I was selected to go for a second interview and was able to prepare a story time based on what I learned from Rosemary. I got the job. Since then the success of my department has been written about in the Jacksonville Times Union Newspaper.

    To keep me from going crazy I have used storytelling to relax, keep focused, and present my ideas metaphorically.

    WWU cannot do without Rosemary Scott Vohs–I only hope they realize that before it is too late.

  6. Em

    I’ve taken this class from Rosemary as well as one other. Not only were they the most challenging I’ve come across, they were the most engaging. This professor has students lined up begging to work harder than they ever have before. And at the end of the term they thank her for the privilege, and ask please may I have another!

    Yet the number of classes she can offer does not get increased, but cut. What reasoning is behind this? I for one would rather take challenging courses than a watered down lecture series with no punch. The administration is making a serious mistake here. It’s as simple as the laws of supply and demand. Why are they cutting the supply of the courses most in demand??

  7. Meisha

    I am behind this cause 100%. Rosemary is hands down the best professor or even teacher I have had in all my years of school. She is entirely engaging and enthusiastic, serious when she needs to be, and very, very committed to our education as students. This is something that I think is ever-increasingly hard to come by. But on top of all of Rosemary’s exceptional qualities, I truly feel that this is a subject that should be in the know! The power of oral storytelling tradition is proven by the vast array of cultures in which it can be found, dating back to before any form of written text. It does not make sense to me that something revered through ages and cultures could be anywhere near scoffed at by anyone considering him or herself truly well-educated. This subject is something I constantly found connections to in my own life; on top of the surface relation with daily communication, I time and time again found myself coming back to ideas we had talked about or things I had discovered while doing my own work for the class. Often I would call my family members or friends as soon as I got out of class and start into a conversation about something along the lines of, “Remember that conversation we had last week? Well, here’s a new insight on that…” and then launch into one of the many new ideas storytelling has either opened my eyes to or simply reminded me of. It has helped me to overcome my fear of public speaking, helped me to accept my own words and descriptions for the value they have, taught me about endless different cultures and the beauty of the moral and ideological connections between them…I could go on and on.
    It breaks my heart that Western does not recognize just how lucky they are, and how lucky every student who has ever had Rosemary as a professor is. This is the kind of teaching that should be exemplified and put on a pedestal for all to see, and I cannot understand why it is instead neglected by its overseers. I sincerely hope that whoever has made the decision to cut a single one of these enriching classes will soon open their eyes to the amazing realm of possibilities that they are closing the door to and, instead, leave it open for future students to experience.

  8. Holly

    I couldn’t agree more. All the intensely hard work actually inspired a love and appreciation for storytelling i didn’t previously have. As well, in reading for the book report i read several books about the applications of storytelling in classrooms (I’m a student in Woodring) and it was phenomenal!
    Rosemary is a wonderful storyteller, professor and person. And it’s an absolute shame that she’s so poorly paid when she works so incredibly hard! And i would march on Old Main if i knew it would help! Unfortunately, it may only make things worse. but there must be something we can do. not just for Rosemary and storytelling, but for all hard-working, underpaid adjunct faculty.

  9. Marie Honrud

    I, like the rest of you, was outraged at the prospect of Rosemary’s storytelling classes being cut. I have taken both her storytelling and advanced storytelling classes at WWU. I am also an older student and I know the incredible value of these classes and I wish all of my instructors were required to take these classes. Is it possible for this article to be forwarded to the Western Front newspaper? I do not think that people are aware of what they would be loosing if these classes were eliminated. I wrote a letter to the provost and the head of the communications department, but I don’t know what else I can do. But maybe if the paper got a hold of this story it could stir up a real hornet’s nest of support for Rosemary and her classes. Keep a stiff upper lip and all that rot, Rosemary!

  10. Kathy

    I stumbled across this blog post and it struck a nerve. A few minutes ago I learned that the Storytelling class I was signed up for at San Jose State University’s MLIS program was canceled. It’s really frustrating that people don’t realize the value of this subject.

  11. Sarah Hubert

    I have been at Western for three years now, I’m a good student. I go to class even when I don’t want to, usually even when I am sick because I feel that I am paying for a good education and I want to get the most out of it. I first took Rosemary’s Storytelling class the spring of my freshman year. It was a class I had been interested in taking since starting at Western, but it had always filled up before I could register. Spring quarter I was lucky, they opened an additional class time in the evenings and I made it in.

    I worked hard. As other people have already said, Rosemary’s Storytelling class is not easy, but it is the most worthwhile and fulfilling class I’ve taken at Western thus far. When I heard that Rosemary’s classes were to be cut, and not just Storytelling but as of next year her Reader’s Theatre class will be no more, I was astounded. Not only do her classes continue to fill up but every quarter there is a waiting list that is unbelievable. How can the administration cut something that is in such high demand? It makes no logical sense. Not only to people want to take this class, they actually get something from it.

    Rosemary is a dedicated educator, like it states above she has been at Western for 23 years; and this is despite poor pay and obviously little respect from the administration(At least some of them). Rosemary is probably one of the most approachable professor’s on Campus as well. She is flexible and understanding and she makes her classes a lot of fun.

    All stories have an end, as you are reminded in Storytelling, not every end has to be happy. However, this story, Rosemary’s story, must have a happy ending. Not just for her and her family, because she will find something else, I have no doubt there, but for the community of WWU and for all of the students who would never get to experience her fabulous personality, teaching style, and never ending encouragement.

    Speak up, speak out, and tell those who need to hear it what you think, perhaps if enough voices raise in harmony we will be able to save this precious commodity.

  12. Here is an update for those interested!
    Budget decisions at all universities were difficult, to say the least, this year. The potential for my reduced employment was strong. Many non-tenured colleagues and staff members lost work for this upcoming academic year. Fortunately, the final result for me was continued work in both the college of education and in the communication department. Specifically, we will, after all, be offering some sections of the ever popular storytelling class.
    Thank you for your kind and supportive words and actions.
    Keep on telling great stories.
    Storytelling is still alive….in so many ways.

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