Storytelling in Ze Olde Country

Well, the plan/hope/dream/fantasy came true, and here I am in the cultural paradise of Vienna, city of Strauss, Freud, Mahler and Klimt, teaching storytelling studies at an American university. It began badly, I think, with my behaving like an aggressive Rodney Dangerfield to an administrator, so prepared for storytelling to “get no respect” that I was lecturing about its merits in a variety of venues the moment I entered the office.

As the jet lag quickly cleared however (thanks to amazing Sunrider products), I realized that I was to be a guest lecturer not only in composition courses, which is what most academics assume storytelling is for (and who, really, can blame them?) but also in business communication, critical thinking, psychology and ethnic diversity classes. In other words, it was understood that I could do more than improve student writing, as worthy a goal as that may be. Throughout my first two weeks I have seen, in the course of talking about master narratives and counterstories, schema theory, linguists Labov and Waletsky’s structure of narrative, and the difference between abstract and concrete language, that people are starting to disassociate, just a little, storytelling studies from milk and cookies, and I am gratified.

Someone once said to me that when I write about storytelling, I am always explaining or defending it, never just letting it be. I’m sure it was this way in the 1960s with the burgeoning field of Communication, as well. Anything too familiar breeds contempt in the Academy, and thus the study of the familiar, be it soap operas, interpersonal communication or fairy tales, is assumed by those who have not looked closely into it to be a less-than-serious object of study.

Yet what need, I wonder, could be more pressing than to understand why we do what we do? The existence of free will was a subject of primary importance to no less than Martin Luther, no slouch as an intellectual. Do we have free will, when governmental and corporate storytellers are steering us, sometimes with carrots, sometimes with cattle prods, toward the acquisition and/or consumption of certain ideological and material products? What’s worse, we generally don’t even know it’s happening.

That, on a macro level, is what storytelling studies is about. How do we know what we know, when did we know it, and how do we transmit it to others? It’s an age-old question, fitting, I think, for this age-old, ageless city that I have come to love so much.

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