We are riveted by TED Talks, tune in to NPR shows like “The Moth” and share videos of people telling personal tales on social media.
But what is it about stories that captivate us?
In “Once Upon A Time: Why We Tell Stories,” a new signature course at Rutgers University, Professor Barry Qualls encourages students to understand how pervasive stories are in daily life and to be attuned to possible end games for why people tell tales.
Standing in front of the lecture hall against the backdrop of the opening scenes of the Disney film Snow White, Qualls croons, “Some day, my prince will come,” and then pauses the movie clip. “Well, now isn’t that interesting? In fairy tales, the happy ending with the prince always ends the woman’s story. She is absorbed into the life of another. What do you all think of that?”
Hands shoot up.
“It’s such a romantic cliché,” says one student. “There’s something always at stake in these fairy tales – the heart.”
“Nah, these prince guys, all they want to do is look through keyholes,” says another.
“This is one of the most engaged lecture classes I have ever taught,” says Qualls. “That’s because stories touch everyone – no matter your age, occupation or ethnicity. When we explore stories that have been told over the centuries, students understand that storytelling is a uniquely human, shared experience.”
Signature courses are designed to explore topics from a fresh perspective, using material not typically brought together in a more traditional class. In “Once Upon a Time,” students study a wide range of literature – from Biblical and classical works like Genesis and The Odyssey to Sherlock Holmes and the graphic novel Fun Home – analyzing why people tell stories and deciphering the difference between history and storytelling.“Storytelling is built into our DNA,” Qualls explains. “As children, we heard stories from our parents and read fairy tales. From this, we formed a community of enjoyment and shared information.” As an example of this universal appeal, he notes that the class of 164 ranges from first-year students to auditors age 80 and beyond.
Along with Qualls’ lectures, students explore texts and hone their own writing in small groups. Qualls wants students to be aware of the politics of storytelling – that each person telling the story is in control over what is presented as truth – and to look critically at the story through that lens.
“Since the class started, I noticed how the students have become more able to identify when they are in the presence of a story – whether it is a group of friends who tell varying accounts of the same incident or an advertisement that uses a personal angle in its message,” says Regina Masiello, assistant director of the Rutgers University Writing Program, who leads two of the group sessions.
“Once Upon a Time” also addresses visual storytelling in fields such as art and architecture. “When you look at buildings or memorials, you enter into a dialogue with the architect,” Qualls says.
As an example, he notes that Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., was controversial when it opened because it did not represent humans, but today it is one of the most visited memorials in the Capitol. “People respond to Lin’s design with its names of fallen soldiers carved in stone because it is so quiet, impressive and emotionally resonant in remembering those who are no longer here,” he says.Matt Pozo, a junior biology major planning to go to medical school, enrolled in the course because he enjoys literature and realized it would offer a new perspective after two years of a heavy science and math concentration.
“Most of the time, I am neck-deep in understanding structures, processes and equations,” he says. “The course has allowed me to be creative, which has had a positive effect in all my classes and on my personal psyche.”
First-year student Tyler Gamba credits the enthusiastic Qualls for bringing the texts to life and inspiring students to take a different approach to their own writing. “He can roar passages from The Odyssey in one breath and crack a witty joke or sing show tunes in the next,” Gamba says. “I’ve never had a teacher quite like him.”
“Once Upon a Time” is a swan song for Qualls, who began teaching at Rutgers in 1971 and will retire in June 2015. But he designed the course in a way that colleagues can adapt it to texts of their choosing.
“This course will always be relevant,” says Qualls. “From when Homer wrote The Odyssey to today, people always will want to hear – and understand – the story beyond the headlines.”
For more information, Patti Verbanas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is part of a new Rutgers Today series, Classroom Close-Up, in which we take a look at innovative courses by faculty members sharing their intellectual passions to cultivate curiosity and broaden the minds of Rutgers students.