Can storytelling change the world?
A pair of best-selling authors are coming to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for a conversation exploring how storytelling can broaden perspectives.
National Book Award winner Colum McCann, author of the New York Times bestseller “Let the Great World Spin,” and Ishmael Beah, a Quill Award-nominated author and human rights activist, will participate in a panel discussion called “Changing the World with Stories” from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 24, in the University Center Auditorium.
The event is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m.
To register for the event, visit the Changing the World with Stories website.
McCann and Beah are artists network chairs of Narrative 4, a global storytelling organization that works with educators, artists and students to make connections, break stereotypes and foster positive change.
N4 uses a “story exchange” method to create curiosity and empathy between participants in a first-person format—a concept introduced to many UTC campus members this year.
New Student and Family Programs hosted multiple two-day orientation sessions this summer for all new students entering UTC during the fall—including seven for incoming first-year students—and one of the activities was an experience in active listening.
Experiential Learning Coordinator Bengt Carlson, who had forged a relationship with Narrative 4 personnel, was allowed to introduce story exchange experiences to the incoming students.
“In talking about experiential learning, we wanted to give students a real experience in a very short time. In this case, the experience was active listening and telling a true two-minute story to basically a stranger, one of their incoming colleagues,” Carlson recalled.
Small groups of students, four to six at a table, were introduced to the concept by watching a conversation between a UTC faculty member and an orientation leader.
For example, Carlson said, the faculty member would tell a two-minute personal story. The orientation leader would then—to that person’s best ability—retell the story.
“We told them explicitly you need to be patient with yourself and you’re not going to repeat this story perfectly,” he said. “In fact, even as someone who tells the story, you’re going to realize afterward that you didn’t include details that you maybe should have or—in a perfect world—would have. This isn’t about being perfect. It’s about connecting with another person.”
Senior Isaiah Owens, a theatre major and Innovations in Honors student from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was one of the orientation leaders.
“This was my favorite out of all the ThinkAchieves we’ve done so far—seeing the elevation and all that,” said Owens, who has been an OL for four years. “I have to bring a little bit of my theater into it. When we did the first orientation, I was relaying the message back to the professor, and everyone was like, ‘How’s he going to memorize that? How’s he going to know?’ My tactic is to use the feeling that the professor aided in saying what they were saying.
“Finding those moments of feeling and emotion really allowed me to keep the flow and say it correctly.”
College of Engineering and Computer Science Professor Cecelia Wigal said she has participated in other experiential learning orientation sessions, but this method was clearly different.
“I shared my story to someone I might not know in front of a group of students I didn’t know,” Wigal recalled. “I picked one that impacted me; it was a scary situation, but it impacted my life. It was interesting to hear the OL giving the story back, their interpretation of what I said and their response to what I said.”
She said listening to the retelling of her story was an eye-opening experience for her “because of their interpretation of my emotions. It was interesting for me to hear, and I think the students saw that because I naturally let my response come out.”
After the incoming students were shown the example of active listening, it was their turn. They were given a card with prompt questions, such as “Tell a story of a particularly good day that brought you joy” or “Tell a story of a time you did something or created something you were proud of.”
The students took a couple of minutes to share their stories. Then, it was their partner’s turn to share.
The groups were asked to reflect once all the stories at their table were heard. What was it like to hear your story in the first person? What was it like to tell the other person’s story? Why is this type of listening and retelling important?
Carlson shared a few of the students’ written responses.
“Are we listening to others as we should? Are we able to take the main point of someone else’s story to heart?”
“Listening isn’t weird but it is weird returning it. I think I often ‘listen’ but it goes in one ear and out the other.”
“The event made me question if I listen enough to retell a story shared in everyday life. If I don’t, I need to reflect and work on myself in order to be a better listener.”
The reviews received from the incoming students, Carlson said, were overwhelmingly positive.
“Students told us again and again that this was something that made them think. It challenged them,” he said. “Students said, ‘This was kind of strange but I learned about other people in this really interesting way,’ or ‘I learned something about myself.’”
Owens said he recently bumped into a pair of freshmen he met at orientation who were strangers at the time—but are now friends because of the story exchange.
“This experience was genuine and the students really responded to it positively,” he said.
Said Wigal, “There have been other activities we’ve done where it’s been hard to keep the students involved. This time, the listening that went on was impactful.
“I tried to keep my distance so that my presence didn’t impact them, but I would go around the tables and try to listen in. The stories they shared were really impactful stories in their lives that meant a lot to them. I think to be able to share that with people—someone they didn’t know—is very interesting, and then the conversations afterward were very good.”
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The Oct. 24 Narrative 4 visit to UTC will include McCann, Beah, N4 Artists Network Director Felice Belle and a pair of authors with local ties—UC Foundation Professor and Associate Department Head Sybil Baker and Christian J. Collier, a spoken word artist and musician.
McCann, cofounder of N4, is the author of six novels and three collections of stories. His book, “TransAtlantic,” was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. His previous novel, “Let the Great World Spin,” won the National Book Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and was a New York Times bestseller.
Beah was appointed as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 2007, pledging to give a voice to children whose lives were scarred by violence. Forced to become a child soldier at age 13 after his hometown in Sierra Leone was raided during that country’s Civil War, he fought for almost three years before being rescued by UNICEF. His memoir, “A Long Way Gone,” was nominated for a Quill Award. He has written two other novels, “Radiance of Tomorrow” and “Little Family.”
Baker is director of the UTC Meacham Writers’ Workshop and a Yale Writers’ Workshop faculty member. She is the author of five books of fiction, most recently “Apparitions,” and her book of nonfiction—“Immigration Essays”—was the 2018-2019 UTC Read2Achieve selection.
Collier is the author of “Greater Ghost” and “The Gleaming of the Blade,” the 2021 editors’ selection from Bull City Press. His works have appeared in December, North American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Michigan Quarterly Review. A 2015 Loft Spoken Word Immersion Fellow, he also won the 2022 Porch Prize in Poetry and the 2020 ProForma Contest from Grist Journal.
The Narrative 4 visit to UTC is sponsored by the UTC English Department, Walker Center for Teaching and Learning, Meacham Writers’ Workshop, Division of Access and Engagement, and Division of Academic Affairs.