In COM 228: Capturing Family Stories, students refine their interpersonal communication skills while learning more about their own heritage. The course is taught by Dr. Joseph Ullian of the SCSU Department of Communication. “Every culture tells stories, and the stories that you hear tell you so much about your own life and your understanding of the world,” said Dr. Ullian.
Storytelling is quickly becoming a vital communicative tool in today’s hyper social world. Ted Talks, brand storytelling, and narrative nonfiction are just three of the ways storytelling shapes our world and proliferates ideas. “I think storytelling is a great way to persuade, and people identify with them,” said Dr. Ullian. By learning to analyze and understand stories better, students gain valuable communication skills that will help them in their future careers.
While creating the course, Dr. Ullian was also motivated to make an online course that could accommodate traditional students while still building a sense of community and connection. “I took an asynchronous online course and it was so isolating. So I decided to explore alternatives, and I found some software that allowed me to do synchronous meetings through an application called Fuze. That way I could see my students and hear them and we could share videos, documents, and other things,” he said.
Throughout the course students learn how to collect and analyze stories from their own families. Dr. Ullian pushes students to see stories as more than just entertainment. Often students have revelations about how family history has impacted their worldview. “One student told a story about how her great-grandparents came over from England. They had tickets to take a boat over to the US and her grandmother, who was a little girl, didn’t want to leave her dog behind so she ran away. They ended up missing that boat, which turned out to be the Titanic. She said her family always believes now that what happens to you in life is a matter of luck, and that got passed down to her,” he explained.
Other students have more subtle realizations. “I had a nursing student who discovered that the reason she went into that field was because her family had a long history of volunteering, charity, and comforting others. She realized this strain of caring that ran through her family,” he said.
For students, interviewing is the most difficult part of the course. Students must learn how to put people at ease, how to be an active listener, and how to effectively guide an interview. “Listening is the big thing. They are so eager to just jump in, but it is important to listen. When there is silence in the story that silence is okay. You have to let that silence resonate,” he said.
After collecting a story, students must analyze it. “It’s the analysis I grade them on. I look to see if they can pull meaning out from the story and link it with the readings and with life. I want those see those links.”
There is also a visual component to the course. Students also learn how to analyze family photographs. “What are people wearing? Who stands next to whom? How do they hold themselves? You can tell a lot about people from family photos,” he said. Students also do something called a “photo smash up” where family photos are arranged in order to tell a story.
The course also offers a chance for intercultural dialog. Although the course has only run twice, it has included students from Jordan, Israel, Italy, Trinidad, Germany, Burundi, Haiti, and more. Students share cross-cultural experiences in a personal and supportive environment. “It is a great way for students to learn about other cultures. It makes other cultures more identifiable,” said Dr. Ullian.
Beyond communication skills, Dr. Ullian hopes students gain insight into themselves and their world. “That’s what college is supposed to be about. It is supposed to shake you up and have you see things in a way you haven’t seen before,” he said.