I think about stories all the time. Narratives are how I frame the world and my relationship to it. Even so, this week brought the interface between my professional life and the way I understand the world into sharper relief than usual.
Thursday night, the Communication Department at Wake Forest sponsored an alumni panel to talk about careers. Three of my former students and I were among the panelists.
Sam Swank talked about how he finds fulfillment in helping others develop their strengths, a natural fit for the standout kicker turned coach. I couldn’t help but think about him as a “molder of men” and recall the papers he worked on for me as a graduate student (drawing on a television show we both love, Friday Night Lights) and as an undergraduate in my seminar Culture and the Sitcom when he wrote about another show we both love (King of the Hill). He makes a difference for young men to need role models with character and grace.
Each panelist supplied quotes for a projected image behind the stage. Cagney Gentry’s read: “I was a closeted artist in a math and science wiz kid’s body. I met Mary Dalton and the rest was history.” I swooned. Okay, it was a quiet, internal swoon. Like me, Cagney is a teacher and filmmaker. I still remember the first time he came to my office as a first year student at Wake Forest who just wanted to talk about film. He has a rare intellect and a feeling for the story that is rare in its intensity and understanding. I can’t wait to see his next film project…and the one after that…and…
Shelley Graves Sizemore visited one of my classes as a high school student then turned up later on the roster. She earned a masters degree, took a job at Wake Forest, and is poised to continue her studies in the same doctoral program at UNCG that was such a happy fit for me twenty years ago. Shelley talked about how she sees life as a series of arguments, people explaining themselves and how they see the world and what that means through discourse.
Two days later Shelley and I had occasion to talk at a screening of my first documentary (I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper: Leadership and Civil Rights in Winston-Salem, North Carolina) for Wake Forest students about to take an alternative spring break trip to the Deep South to visit important civil rights sites.
I told her that I see the life as a series of stories, and she smiled. We really aren’t so far apart on this; it is more a matter of tone than substance.
In class, I often tell students that popular culture is important because those stories give us a set of “scripts” that set out possibilities and limitations for our lives, which can be good or bad depending on the media texts we encounter. And, we talk about intertextuality and how everything is grounded in narrative because even events in our daily lives are stories when you get right down to it.
That was brought home to me at another campus event I attended Saturday, Herstories: Breast Cancer Narratives and Counter-Narratives, an interdisciplinary symposium sponsored by the Wake Forest University Humanities Institute.
One of the panelists at the closing session turned out to be one of my favorite professors in my doctoral program. I had not seen her in years. Hephzibah Roskelly presented “Experience as Theory: A Pragmatist’s Guide to Breast Cancer.” I learned so much from Hephzi in class about reading and writing and thinking and teaching and – most especially – about how narratives help us create the world and ourselves as part of it.
On Saturday, the learning continued, and my passion for the story continues to grow…