|From the Editor: Sharing Our Stories
By Kate Burns, Voices Editor
CAN STORIES BE dangerous? According to Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, one type of story can be harmful: the Single Story. Ruth Hickerson, TWC Director of Student and Community Engagement, first introduced me to the online video of Adichie presenting her TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) segment "The Danger of the Single Story." In the segment, Adichie tells about how she loved to read as a child. However, the only stories available to her were by non-Nigerians and told only about the lives of American and British families.
These stories dominated her imagination. She came to associate what was normal and admired with things that had nothing to do with her family, daily life, and community. “The unintended consequence,” says Adichie, “was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature.” It was the discovery of African writers later in life that saved her from the Single Story. “I realized that people like me—girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails--could also exist in literature.” At that discovery, she began to write about things she recognized. She began to tell stories from her point of view.
Why is it important to tell stories from one’s own point of view?
Ruth and I decided to explore that question in a new Winter Quarter 2010 class we team-taught called “Creating Digital Narratives: Telling Our Stories about Motherhood.” Over seven weeks, eleven students discussed research examining broad cultural narratives—Single Stories--and how they come to define what is “natural” and reputable in a community. An easy example of this is the myth of the nuclear family consisting of a husband, a wife, 2.5 kids, a dog, and a white picket fence. Less than 25% of American families fit into this neat package, yet pundits, politicians, and the mainstream media still tend to evoke the nuclear family as the norm. The danger is that families from social classes, ethnic groups, religious persuasions, and geographical regions that have different practices and beliefs with regard to parent-child relations, sexuality, family gender roles, and other aspects of family life become invisible or denigrated. When it comes time to make policies or distribute funding, families diverging from the nuclear norm may miss out.
In our class we particularly examined Single Stories about motherhood and how they can be forms of social control as well as opportunities for innovation or resistance. Students embarked on the process of challenging the power of dominant narratives by writing their own stories about motherhood. They developed the stories into digital narratives using a mixture of photos, video, music, sound effects, and their own voiceovers.
The academic process of studying power relations in narratives was rigorous. The creative process of wrestling with script revisions, learning digital editing technology, and piecing together images, music, and voice to develop a compelling movie was demanding. Yet, perhaps the biggest challenge, according to many of the students, was battling against strong cultural influences, often in the form of inner voices, telling them to keep silent. Truth telling is not for the timid. The night we shared rough cuts of the digital narratives, each one presented her story to the class. Tears and understanding were shared and a newfound trust developed in this small group. Yet many of them expressed a reluctance to show their works of art outside of the safe classroom setting.
Something changed over the next few weeks. The collaborative workshop enabled them to share their stories again and again as they helped each other find the right pacing and add music to create a certain emotional tone. They discussed stereotypes about mothering that had caused them to feel inadequate, doubt their self-worth, and judge others. Most of all, they began to see that their stories had merit. In fact, their stories were vitally important.
By the end of the ten weeks, many of them agreed to show their digital narratives in a public screening in the Garden Room. They brought family members and friends, and welcomed strangers in to view their work. Each woman stood up to introduce her piece. After the screening, the group came forward to answer questions from the audience like professional filmmakers. More than one of them used the word “redemption” to characterize her feelings at this end of the process. The myth of perfect motherhood had seemed like a monstrous presence before. By telling their stories, they were not only delivering themselves, but they delivered everyone from the grip of the Single Story. No single story can adequately represent how all of us are or should be. Sharing our stories can promote the values we hold dear at The Women’s College (TWC): diversity, understanding, empowerment, collaboration, critical thinking, and community investment.
The experience of this class reminded me, too, of the importance of publications like VOICES. The very title of our TWC college magazine speaks to a vision much larger than any single story. I am happy that many of the students in “Telling Our Stories about Motherhood” decided to share their digital narratives in this first online version of VOICES. I am also delighted that students from other courses, such as Sue Tyburski’s CORE 2671 “Women and the Wild West” and Shae Isaacs’ LAS 3700/GWST 2700 “Women, Social Justice and Documentary Film” submitted their responses to innovative assignments to share with the VOICES community. And dozens of students, alumnae, faculty, and staff members also contributed creative work and news items.
One of the reasons we decided to “go digital” with VOICES was to expand the capacity to distribute our stories in diverse and innovative ways. One of the most promising features about going digital is the potential for using multimedia forms of expression. In addition to text and images, we can include audio, video, animation, digital storytelling, hypertext, forums, comment boxes, surveys, and other interactive elements. Of course, all of this radiates from the core ingredients of any fine publication: superior writing and alluring design.
The electronic format also frees us from many of the space constraints of a print publication. Rather than producing two space-restricted issues a year, we can publish new pages as often as we like, refreshing our content on a regular basis. Events can be reported in a timely manner and updates can follow when appropriate. The immediacy of online publishing will enable us to respond more often to current events--local, national, and global.
Our own Dean Lynn Gangone introduces the new format with her essay “Going Digital,” which includes a frank acknowledgement that there can be a sense of loss associated with transitioning from a print to a digital publication. Yet, the benefits of launching VOICES online are compelling in 2010 when leaders conduct business and reach out to broader audiences through technology. She reminds us that we owe it to our students to usher VOICES into the 21st century, just as we must include technological literacy into their learning experiences along with other literacies and competencies.
Before signing off I want to recognize the work of two individuals who are integral to VOICES. First, I salute Acting Associate Dean Margo Espenlaub, longtime editor of VOICES, beloved professor of many TWC classes, and dedicated mentor to many writers whose work graced the pages of VOICES in print. Her deep commitment to advancing education for women and fostering creative expression by women serves as a model for us all. I am honored to follow in Margo’s footsteps as Editor and promise to do my best to live up to her reputation for excellence and originality.
Next, I want to acknowledge the leadership of our own digital guru, Anya McManis, webwoman extraordinaire. It is her design savvy and technological expertise that built the house where VOICES lives. We proudly claim Anya as an alumna (2004), and you can read more about her entrepreneurial spirit, electronic innovations, and artistic pursuits in the profile "Creative Vision" by TWC Advising Intern, Heather Golden. In addition to being smart and talented, Anya is dependable, gracious, and ever patient with the stops and starts of producing a college magazine. Thank you, Anya!
One way that we find empowerment and redemption is by telling our stories. We can also feel renewed and enlivened by witnessing the stories of others. What are your stories? I encourage you to share them here, too, as VOICES continues to grow in this new digital environment.