Every student has a story. And everywhere our students go, their stories follow. Their stories web out across campus, expanding into classrooms, coffee shops, advisors’ offices, and dorm rooms. In some academic spaces, storytelling happens. In other academic spaces, it does not. But the giving and telling of stories are important to our students’ success as academics, professionals, and citizens.
In The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination, Robert Coles explains that telling stories helps people “understand what they ha[ve] experienced by getting them to tell their stories.” Storytelling allows people to process information and experiences. Listening to others’ stories is just as important, as it teaches listeners to process information and experiences through the hearers’ own filters. Coles adds, “[A]s active listeners we give shape to what we hear, make over [others'] stories into something of our own.”
Digital spaces, such as Facebook, can be used for students to engage in storytelling. For example, projects like Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York Facebook page provides a forum for people to share their everyday experiences while also challenging the single story about people and places. In my own efforts to help first-year students transition to the campus community, I have adapted Stanton’s approach and created the Humans of UW-Stout Facebook project—a page where each of my first-year students practice telling the stories of people on campus.
With over 500 pictures and stories on the page, the common thread that emerges is this: we cannot judge a book by its cover, a saying that my students repeat to me every semester. While many of the stories students tell are lighthearted or silly, for some students this project provides the opportunity to tell deeply touching and life-changing stories that create broader conversations about relationships, sexuality, race, and gender. One student shared the story of a black male athlete learning how to adapt to a predominantly white campus. Another shared the story of a student who was once in an abusive dating relationship.
As a class project, the Humans of UW-Stout Facebook page celebrates students’ stories within the classroom and also provides a forum for first-year students to contribute to their campus community—a critical element for first-year retention. Recent scholarship shows that students, particularly first-year students, need to feel a sense of belonging and purpose while on campus. This sense of belonging and purpose impacts first-year students’ retention rates and academic success (see Freeman, Anderman, and Jensen 2007; O’Keeffe 2013; Turner and Thompson 2014). Nicole M. Stephens, Tiffany N. Brannon, Hazel Rose Markus, and Jessica E. Nelson explain in their article “Feeling at Home in College,” “Students will have a greater chance of gaining access to higher education and performing up to their potential when they have the sense that students ‘like them’—with backgrounds, cultures, or selves similar to their own—can fit into the academic environment and are empowered to do what it takes to succeed there” (Stephens et al. 2015, 3).
The impact of the Humans of UW-Stout Facebook page extends beyond students’ abilities to showcase the campus community in a medium where knowledge becomes public and fluid. Instead, the page is a genre that fosters a community of sharing within and without the classroom. Like other assignments that support and value students’ experiences, thoughts, choices, and goals, “Humans of” Facebook pages encourage students to share stories in a meaningful, public forum that harnesses their digital literacies, showcases the diversity of everyday experiences, and highlights first-year students as contributing members of the campus ecology.
Freeman, Tierra M., Lynley H. Anderman, and Jane M. Jensen. 2007. “Sense of Belonging in College Freshmen at the Classroom and Campus Levels.” The Journal of Experimental Education 75(3): 203–20.
O’Keeffe, Patrick. 2013. “A Sense of Belonging: Improving Student Retention.” College Student Journal 47(4): 605–13.
Stephens, Nicole M., Tiffany N. Brannon, Hazel Rose Markus, and Jessica E. Nelson. 2015. “Feeling at Home in College: Fortifying School-Relevant Selves to Reduce Social Class Disparities in Higher Education.” Social Issues and Policy Review 9(1): 1–24.
Turner, Patrick, and Elizabeth Thompson. 2014. “College Retention Initiatives Meeting the Needs of Millennial Freshman Students.” College Student Journal 48(1): 94–104.
Genesea M. Carter is director of first-year composition at University of Wisconsin–Stout and will be assuming the position of associate director of composition at Colorado State University in the summer of 2017. Her work has been published in Open Words: Access and English Studies, the Journal of Teaching Writing, and Composition Studies. She is the coeditor, with William H. Thelin, of Class in the Composition Classroom: Pedagogy and the Working Class.