John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What’s The Story Line You Want Told about Your Institution?

John N. Gardner

One of the periods of the year that I enjoy the most is the summer visit from my wife’s grandchildren. We live in the mountains of western North Carolina where it is cooler than most parts of the country and it is a land of summer camps for kids. My wife has 8 “grans” and I have some of the best dialogues I have all year with these future citizens who have inherited their grandmother, Betsy Barefoot’s, two dominant genes: smart and sweet. This is also an occasion for me to further hone my own story telling skills. I know that I also used story telling as pedagogy to engage my college students but not nearly to the extent that I do this with Betsy’s grandchildren. The day of writing this post I really laid on a spellbinder, of about an hour’s duration. It got me thinking about the stories that we should be telling our students.

In all cultures, the oral tradition is often the most powerful. It usually is transmitted in the informal channels of cultural communication and hence is often much more influential than what gets transmitted in the formal communication channels. We have long known that the greatest influence on students during the college years is the influence of other students. Part of that influence is the story telling they do to and about entering new students. A challenge of us educators who facilitate the new student experience is both to empower more advanced and successful students to tell their stories but also to give some shape to those stories that are told.

At my institution of 32 years, one of the perennial components of the story line told to each entering generation was how to best experience what is known as “Five Points.” This is an area of the city of Columbia, South Carolina, adjacent to the campus of the University of South Carolina, and one characterized by watering holes which are truly dens of iniquities for many beginning college students. Dealing with the bars of Columbia has been a challenge for students since the first students arrived in 1805. In fact, in the early 19th century some students lost their lives in these dives when influenced by excessive quantities of distilled spirits they would be reduced to argumentation which, in turn, would lead to one male student (of course, who else but men would do this?) insulting the presumed honor of the other, which in turn would lead to the ancient practice of codo duellum, the code of dueling. Sadly, this tradition caused more than a few students to lose their lives and led the faculty to take steps to prevent the students from going off campus without permission. It is in such contexts in modern times, as in days of yore, where the action is, the stuff of which legends are told, and where make it or break it experiences are had by many. This story line must be told, and retold.

But what else do we want to figure into the story line? How else can we shape expectations and then deliver on the experience? In addition to the student orientation peer leaders who else might join the ranks of influential story tellers? Should all the stories be presented in oral form? What are some of the stories that have been reduced to writing and hence should be read and then discussed in student peer leader and faculty led discussion groups?  I never fail to be impressed with how impressionable, susceptible, entering students are to the power of institutional folklore. It’s a good thing they haven’t been around long enough to learn not to trust us.

So during this critical period, upcoming right now, this summer, while the students still trust you, and while you can get them to do some things they don’t have to do, what are the story lines you are telling them vs. should be telling them? There are stories you don’t need the protection of tenure to tell; and others that you do need the protection of tenure to tell. And that latter point is one more good reason to get the faculty, who do have tenure, engaged, in the collegiate orientation process. They have no compunctions about engaging in the truth telling process, for they have not had to learn to be “diplomatic” in the way that administrators and staff have been forced to adopt. And all of this is one more reason for academic/student affairs partnerships.

If I could go back and do college all over again, I would take a course in storytelling. For most of my readers, it is not too late. What’s your story line worthy of sharing with students? Own your power. Tell it. As I have learned from running into my former students years later, they often remember the story lines far longer than anything else we tried to teach them. Our stories really do have power.

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