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Our Beloved Journey: Using Storytelling to Foster Faculty Community
“After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched from the tree. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, ‘Let the children come!’ and they ran from the trees toward her.
"Let your mothers hear you laugh,’ she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then, ‘Let the grown men come,’ she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
'Let your wives and your children see you dance,’ she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose. It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath.”
—From Toni Morrison’s Beloved
In response to changing higher education landscapes, as well as our perceived need to develop a signature program, members of the Spelman College faculty have been undergoing an extensive re-imagining of our general education and major curricula as well as our approaches to teaching. Our emphasis has been on experiences that promote integrative learning and the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ LEAP Essential Learning Outcomes. Broadly conceived, we call our core initiative the Spelman MILE (My Integrated Learning Experience).
The Spelman College MILE was developed to address the difficulties that students encounter in knowledge transference between disciplinary contexts. The MILE includes initiatives designed to strengthen the extended orientation for first-year and sophomore students; develop interdisciplinary and “Free-Thinking Woman” seminars; promote quantitative literacy, service learning, and writing across the curriculum; and implement research-based capstone experiences within each major. It also implements the electronic portfolio (SpEl.Folio) assessment tool that permits each student to assemble artifacts and reflections from courses over time, thereby creating a “story” of her academic and personal progress throughout her years of college study. Ideally, the electronic portfolios provide students with improved understanding of their own learning processes and a mechanism for establishing greater clarity about how their skills and abilities fit with their goals.
The Spelman MILE emphasizes integrated learning as a key component to improving student learning outcomes and assessments over the next decades. However, in order to bring more students to a place characterized by integrative and critical thought, some of the faculty realized that we would need to invite teaching scholars to come along the same path. It was necessary to create structures that would allow faculty to engage in conversations that were not limited to teaching tasks, academic production, and advancement in our discrete disciplines. We needed to rediscover what had originally brought us into the academy—curiosity, surprise, and connection. Below, we share our experiences of using storytelling as means to build an intellectual commons among our faculty, which in turn supports integrative learning in our students.
Stewardship and Leadership
In 2008, Spelman was awarded a Mellon Foundation grant that emphasized interdisciplinarity, integrative learning, and the incorporation of quantitative reasoning throughout the core curriculum and across disciplines. One outgrowth of this grant was the establishment of the Teaching Resource and Research Center (TRRC) as a site of interdisciplinary faculty development and activity. The TRRC offered the programmatic and physical space to intellectually engage faculty across disciplines. It also provided a steward for our efforts. Instead of relying on charismatic leadership with its top-down structure as a driving force toward the goal of commons-building, Ella Baker’s philosophy of “group-centered leaders” best characterizes the TRRC director’s approach (Carson 1981, 30). Group-centered leadership, in our case, involved marshalling small groups of faculty with common interests, who then organized their own structures and purposes through participatory democracy with little hierarchy (Carson 1981, 30).
A summer workshop steering committee formed, which included faculty members from English, sociology, psychology, and art. This steering committee engaged in wide-ranging discussions on interdisciplinarity and ways to engage faculty in interdisciplinary approaches to integrative learning in their teaching methods. These free-wheeling meetings were the first steps in creating our intellectual commons. Our first strategic decision was to use storytelling as a common pedagogy. The members realized that storytelling could ground our affiliation and offer a common framework for advancing the realization of integrative learning at Spelman College. We understood that integrative learning is heavily dependent on the use of storytelling to create informative narratives that weave personal, community, and academic frames of meaning. As such, this use of story is adaptable to any discipline and essential to addressing far-reaching questions. Given its suppleness, story operates through multiple languages of narration—text, numbers, maps, the arts, and digital rhetoric. Importantly, then, story allows us to integrate reflection, technology, collaboration, and interdisciplinarity in ways that are both focused and open-ended.
Since 2011, storytelling has provided an axis for developing summer workshops designed to build an intellectual commons among our faculty by engaging colleagues from diverse disciplines in cross-disciplinary conversations and interdisciplinary projects. We theorized that these workshops would facilitate new collaborations and raise questions that would lead to the adoption of integrative practices. We envisioned the intellectual commons as an artifice that, like a good story, would engender its own conversations, excitements, and revelations. As a model articulation of an intellectual commons, these workshops offered occasions for exchanges of ideas that would suggest new pedagogies. As an extension of their involvement, we anticipated that workshop participants would move logically toward interdisciplinary approaches by modifying existing courses, developing new courses, and restructuring student-learning outcomes.
The 2012 and 2013 workshops applied a multi-disciplinary approach to the re-reading of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, bringing together modes of inquiry from several disciplines. Set during the 1870s, Beloved imagines the psychic, physical, and spiritual journeys taken by a formerly enslaved community. The novel’s investment in the lives of those seeking renewal through different ways of knowing and being provided a context for examining community formation among a diverse constituency, approaches to leadership in the character of Baby Suggs, and surprisingly robust language for communicating the nature and process of such work.
The Clearing and the Commons
In reviewing the Beloved workshops, the TRRC steering committee decided that the ‘Clearing’ (described as an intellectual and experiential space in Beloved) would serve as a metaphor for an intellectual commons on our campus. Morrison’s Clearing is a place that stands apart from other spaces. It is a space reserved for communion with members of the community, with oneself, or with the intangible. It is a space of self-affirmation, discovery, and challenge. We realized that faculty needed to create such a space, and needed (like Beloved’s Baby Suggs) to enact pedagogy that could translate and engage students in the possibilities of their own intellectual space (the Spelman MILE). Over the years faculty had been focused on the business of teaching and producing work. What we missed were those conversations with our colleagues that made the “groundlife shudder under [our] feet” through shared intellectual exchange (Morrison 1987). We realized that in order to bring more students to a place characterized by integrative and critical thought, faculty must travel the same path and join one another in our Clearing.
Summer workshops gave participating faculty undistracted time and space; they brought unusual conversation partners into a common space; they disrupted the faulty premise that we were engaged in tasks designed to teach students who need “fixing.” The workshops re-situated the liberal arts tradition in the foreground of our work and muted the significance of disciplinary boundaries. The organic, creative sharing of ideas and exchanges of teaching practices cleared a space for free-flowing ideas, collegiality, and mutual respect for our different “eyes.”
The inaugural Digital Storytelling Workshop in summer 2011 presented technologies as story modes. We discussed the power of story to transmit academic content as well as the use of one’s experiences in intellectual sharing with students, and the relevance of faculty members’ research and professional identities. Faculty members from several disciplines worked to capture the “stories” or narratives within their own lives and to look for the significance of those narratives in their teaching practice. In doing so, participants created and shared autobiographies using digital media (in our case, Microsoft Photo Story). Later, many participants reported gaining insights from this workshop that benefited their teaching and scholarly practice.
The workshops, mentioned earlier, proposed a common question focused around Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) as an anchor text. The use of an anchor text was not meant to be a weight or a restriction, but an intersection—a proposed meeting at the crossroad of disciplines. In our Beloved workshop series, faculty participants brought their specific disciplinary perspectives and pedagogies to the reading of Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. This novel was selected as an anchor text given the many themes it raises in relation to biography, history, migration, literary and spatial analysis, and quantitative reasoning.
One of the benefits of using Beloved as described above is that it presented an opportunity for interdisciplinary engagement with the numerous ways we confront catastrophe and change as humans, as citizens, as victims, as perpetrators, and as scholars. Beloved as anchor text suggested the broad theme of “Documenting Moments of Crisis and Change” as the center of the workshops’ conversations. Pedagogically speaking, the idea of crisis and change informed our ultimate interest in helping students understand processes of social change in relationship to narratives within the scope of the African Diaspora and the United States. We explored the significance of letters and numbers in Beloved as well as other relevant stories. We incorporated multiple digital visual technologies and archival sources into our approaches to story. We shared our own intellectual journeys, told through these multiple languages. This series of workshops resulted in several faculty members discovering that introducing Beloved as a text, or other uses of story, into their syllabi exposed opportunities for their students to deepen their own practice in the social and natural sciences, the arts, and humanities, and also fostered engagement across disciplines and the college’s divisional structure.
Then, as we worked for two years on our project, we discovered that Beloved offered alternative ways for us to name and contemplate the project itself. The characteristics that Morrison assigns Baby Suggs suggest a model of leadership that resists dictatorial mandates, rejects a demand for organization that forecloses on the possibility for flux and fluidity to occur within communion, and refuses to belittle the needs or devalue the contributions of those gathered. Through a metaphoric consideration of Baby Suggs’s leadership, we recognized the enactments of our faculty workshops. We found communion with the invitation to engage one another through an array of expressions. Beyond learning new pedagogies, we learned to make connections across disciplines and within ourselves; we learned that commons-building is most effective when it is organic, when the focus is on faculty community rather than ‘development,’ when ideas, creativity, and expertise are valued, and when faculty embrace a generative model of intellectual stewardship.
A Culture for Sustainability
Our project has affirmed the importance of maintaining a rich and engaged faculty culture (through interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary engagements) as requisite to integrative teaching–learning strategies and of fostering a culture of curiosity among students. Journeying beyond disciplinary boundaries has enhanced faculty relationships and respect for work being done within the disciplines, and for diverse methods. Our modeling of intellectual exchange contributes in important ways to the expression of faculty leadership as shared commitment to student learning, as well as the emergent properties of an organic, self-organizing system primed for explosive creativity.
Even as we join with other faculty in our Clearing, those gathered must work seamlessly with campus administrators and technology units that comprehend the value of interdisciplinary work and the subtle yet meaningful changes that result. Marshalling resources—both financial and human—that support gathering in these ‘clearings’ is an important part of this effort. Faculty incentives and workshop funding are critical to sustainability, of course, and are primarily funded through grants such as those sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. However, equally important is a shared vision of community that will withstand potential disruptions such as changes in administrative leadership or gaps in grant funding. Only with this vision shared by all stakeholders can efforts such as this thrive.
As we have taken this path, we have learned much about our community and the nuances of the language of leadership when building intellectual commons among our peers. We believe that faculty who model integrative learning influence how students embrace its spirit and practice. As we move forward through the proverbial Clearing, we are confident that we will continue to lift our voices together and do so in the spirit of inquiry that embraces its delight.
Carson, Clayborne. 1981. In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Morrison, Toni. 1987. Beloved. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Karen Brakke is an associate professor of psychology; Michelle S. Hite is an assistant professor of English; Azaria Mbughuni is an assistant professor of history; Opal Moore is an associate professor of English and director of the honors program; Bruce H. Wade is professor of sociology; Mona Taylor Phillips is a professor of sociology, the former director of the Teaching Resource and Research Center, and coordinator of the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Collaborative—all of Spelman College