Telling stories to travel

I originally posted this article on LinkedIn.

While I was completing my undergraduate studies, I had a professor in Political Science that taught with stories. Yes, he would have slides and other visual media, but he would contextualize it by telling applicable stories. The approach fascinated me, not just because I could remember the things he taught during tests and exams, but also because it gave a “realness” to what I was studying. Over the last few years I have come to the realization that the tool of storytelling is also important within the field of international education. We need to use it during our pre-departure orientations; and we kind of sneak it in there. (*learningfrompastmistakes) I want to highlight two reasons why storytelling is important in the field of international education: firstly, it helps students to think about their upcoming experience (to imagine possibilities) and secondly, it induces certain emotions within students which helps to bring certain points across.

Firstly, framing an experience. With many of our orientations we start with the following slide, and it is in response to the question: “How should I study abroad?”

Martian – Eat Pray Love Approach

The reason we use this slide is not to give an answer per se (because there is not one correct way of doing it), but to encourage students to think and imagine possibilities of studying abroad. Films tell stories, they relate experiences, but also resembles certain archetypes that are important to communicate certain ideas. With the above slide, I am trying to tell students that one can be pulled to two extremes, as resembled by The Martian on the one hand (if you don’t plan and control everything – you will die), and Eat Pray Love on the other hand (just being open to new experiences). Obviously, these are meanings I personally have connected to these films, for other people they could resemble very different things – but this is not the point of this exercise. The goal is encouraging the student to think about ways of travelling, and deciding on the best one. (Side note: I do tell students that one should have a The Martian – Eat Pray Love approach: one should do one’s planning, but also be open to new experiences, and not discount everything that does not fall within one’s frame of reference. )

The second reason refers to how stories can induce certain emotional experiences that are super important for the learning process. Talking about cultural adaptation and making sense of how to act in a new culture is difficult to teach. I can show students the cultural adaptation curve, but am I really teaching them anything? And will they remember it? We therefore use various clips (snippets of stories) to illustrate certain experiences and the latter calls forth certain experiences with the students. It can be their own experiences it calls forth that relates to this, or it could itself be called forth at a future point when the student has the discussed experience. Here I would like to use two examples: Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and a recent graphic novel I read called Satoko and Nada. With Parts Unknown, we screen a part of an episode where Anthony is in Thailand and eating the blood soup. The point is not so much how to prepare blood soup, but more the facial expressions of Anthony when his friend explain’s how the blood soup is made. For me it is a tool to explain how one experiences certain things and expresses it. It could be disgust, or surprise. (Please have a look at the clip, but vegetarians and vegans be warned. It was hard for me to watch this.)

The second example, comes from the graphic novel Satoko and Nada. It is a story about two international students in America, one is from Japan and the other from Saudi Arabia. They are roommates. The story is about how they make sense of the USA, but also one another. It shows how cultural adaptation is a dialectical process. Here is an excerpt from the graphic novel, illustrating the different ways of waiting (and getting) on a bus.

 Picture acknowledgement: From Satoko and Nada, Vol. 1, Story & Art by Yupechika

Up to now I have just highlighted the good side of using stories to teach or illustrate a point. But when using stories there is an important proviso: there are also dangers to using stories as tools for teaching. One of the big dangers of using stories to teach is to not emphasize that stories can be told differently. A story can always be told differently – that is why it is so revolutionary. That is also why the above slide can be framed differently, for example:

One could also have a Discovery – EAT Pray Love Approach 🙂

We also need to be suspicious of the stories we tell. We need to question it – and we should do it upfront. I am a white, middle class (queer) trans woman, and that obviously impacts in terms of how I view the world. For example, I should ask myself, why are so many of the stories I use (or like to read) containing white characters, are cisgender and exudes certain standards of what is success and moral. Paul Ricoeur referred to the “hermeneutics of suspicion”, and referred to Marx, Freud and Nietzsche as the “masters of suspicion” – and in certain sense this is what I mean with being suspicious. Within this context, it was aimed at the enlightenment project, or at last parts of it, but it is never wrong to be suspicious of the stories we read and tell.

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