Taming the darker dragons of student experience

Today I’m travelling to Birmingham for Jisc’s annual Digifest event. I’ll be running a workshop with Liz Austen from Sheffield Hallam Uni on enhancing the student experience through digital storytelling.
On the BBC news site this morning is a story by Hannah Price, a graduate of Bristol University and now a journalist. Hannah was the victim of a horrific sexual assault whilst at university, a much too common aspect of the student experience.
Her story stands on it’s own but while I feel uneasy using Hannah’s story to make some abstract points about storytelling it has forced me to reflect in the run up to Liz and my workshop.

Digital storytelling is NOT therapy

Let’s acknowledge a limitation. Digital storytelling is not a form of therapy. Good therapists may use storytelling as part of their toolkit but always within the context of support that requires specialist training. What I’m talking about here is no substitute for serious pastoral care and safeguarding.

If you are undertaking storytelling activities with people who are vulnerable for any reason you need to establish, probably with expert help, how best to support them realising that problems may manifest themselves in ways that are not always easy to detect.

Rebalancing power relationships

One of the most powerful aspects of storytelling is that it gives a voice to people who are disenfranchised for one reason or another. In Hannah’s case she had her voice taken away by her rapist as well as the social structures around her. Here she is using the tools at her disposal (journalistic skill, digital platforms, our attention) to challenge that power imbalance.

Vulnerability in storytelling

Rape is weaponised shame among other things. Telling this story has taken courage to overcome that but that is not something that society should demand of victims of violence. That in itself perpetuates the power imbalance. Hannah has chosen to do this herself but she also used digital tools like Snapchat to help people to tell their own stories whilst protecting themselves. As Donna Lanclos says, you owe nobody your story. It’s yours to do with what you like.

Process and product

Related to that is the point about what the process of storytelling is for. Hannah has created a product that we can engage with but I suspect the act of telling this story has been an empowering one for her. Even if a story remains private or shared with a small, trusted group the process of turning experience into narrative is what storytelling is for. Seeing digital storytelling as simply a mode of production ignores this.

The worst thing I had to deal with during my time as a student was navigating my parents’ divorce and acknowledging my mental health was not as good as it should have been. For the most part, though, I enjoyed my time at university.

Sadly, we need to acknowledge that people’s student lives are not immune from challenge and trauma. Using storytelling carefully and sensitively can be a powerful way of helping students to overcome difficulties and institutions to learn how they need to change.

“Those who tell the stories rule the world”

Proverb: Those who tell the stories rule the world
Image source: unkown

I saw this image in a tweet recently*. It’s often attributed to Hopi Native Americans or Plato. It really struck me.

On the surface it’s a simple message of “Yay! Stories! Woo!” but it’s also a very ambiguous statement about what stories can actually do at the social and personal level.

Is it an empowering statement? It could be saying that your stories are key to persuading the people around you that your view of the world is right and reasonable.

Is it a warning? Think of war propaganda. A trawl through government images from the Second World War, from both sides of the conflict, shows the efforts put into creating a narrative that can be used to influence society. That’s an extreme example. Listen to any political discussion and try and isolate the narrative from the facts. At least from the news sources I follow I’d say there is precious little of the latter and much more of the former.

When you realise it’s a mural from an ad agency’s wall, it takes on another more commercial, capitalist meaning. The agency is called Contently. Visit its website and think about its message of creating stories around brands. This was something I blogged about a little while ago.

But what of the personal level? “World” in this sense is much more about the meanings we ascribe to our own lives.

Bruner (2004) talks about how the way we conceive of our own lives is through narratives that we build up over time. Who controls that story and what sort of story is being written?


Bruner, J. (2004). Life as Narrative, Social Research 71(3), 691–711

*I haven’t been able to attribute this image as its source is unclear. If it’s yours please let me know and I’ll credit you properly or find an alternative if you’re unhappy with my use of it.