reading Tim Gunn's story

I have not ever been a conventional academic.  Oddly, this popular book came to me from a highly academic friend whose research into Oscar Wilde's life has dovetailed with an interest in Tim Gunn.  So I read Gunn's Golden Rules:  Life's Little Lessons for Making It Work  by the man himself.

Gunn has taught at Parsons, and while many of his anecdotes are about Project Runway, his role on that show is as a kind of teacher.  So this book is really a long story about living as a teacher.

It was heartening to me to see that even Tim Gunn must occasionally deal with the scorn of students.  Quote, heavily excerpted:

"Two of the best designers... seemed to have disdain for me.  It was a lot of scorn to soak up.  I said to one of them:  'I feel an obligation to each of you, and an aspct of that is to give you equal time in the workroom.  But if you don't want it, we can talk to the producers.'  But they kept having me there, and it began to hurt." (p. 22)

"My feeling is that people should want to be nice, but even if they don't want to be, they should fake it, because being abusive to someone who's deeply involved in the industry you hope to excel in just makes not sense.  What do they get out of making me, or anyone, into an enemy?" (p. 23)

(Amen, Tim Gunn. Academia, listen up!)

This next quote has become a key element for me in my broad teaching roles now, as faculty member and administrator.  It relates to giving and how much and how deeply to give, especially to those who aren't capable (perhaps yet) of receiving or who are using an authority figure to fail so that they don't have to take responsibility for failing, not trying, or not wanting to reach the goal.  Gunn tells a brief story about a student who was very talented but simply never showed up for class.  He gave the teacher advice to fail the student, who had been a complete absentee aside from some emails (and no explanation).  She did, with the condition that the student could appeal to raise the grade.  The student didn't, "And we all learned something:  The teacher wanted the student to succeed more than the student did." (p. 33)
Here's the gem that I have absorbed and return to often:  "From a faculty member's point of view, I have this refrain:  Why should I want you to succeed more than you do?" (p. 34)

And a few more classically Tim Gunn fun quotes:

"When people have a choice between two similarly talented people and one is a drama queen and the other is responsible and friendly, whom are they going to pick?" (p. 63)

"Call me a schoolmarm, but few things make me angrier than people not taking good care of library materials."  (p. 138)

"Risk taking in fashion is fun, but risk taking in our careers and our education is essential."  (p. 231)

"Maybe that's why I like etiquette so much:  manners help us deal with the way things are, with the place we find ourselves in, whatever that is.  Rules of behavior come in handy when you can't think straight, as when you're extremely happy or sad over a major event like a birth or a death." (p. 250)

interactive storytelling and leading forward

In some ways, these are less storytelling per se and more story play, but it's certainly interesting to see this pop up in the Chronicle blogosphere.

Tomorrow I lead a 3.5 hour workshop for the Leading Forward training on campus for Advancement (read: fundraising).  This is the fourth or fifth such workshop I've developed for them, this one called "Your Leading Story."  Highlights include an overview of storytelling (teller, tale, audience) as a concept and as a practice, ethical storytelling practices, the importance of retelling and listening to the development of a story, authenticity in leadership, and two workshop sessions on "your leadership story" and on using concepts from The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner as a basis for a leadership-focuses presentation illustrated with stories of successful leadership.

Here's a story I plan to tell tomorrow:

Recently, I learned that some of our graduate students were going to host a student-led conference in the building to discuss critical issues in library and information science (LIS) education.  I had multiple thoughts and responses, and I reached out to be sure all the health-and-safety measures were covered, as an administrator and as a supporter of student-led events in general.  I also thought about how I would have wanted to be responded to if I were a student bringing up critical issues in a school like ours.

I thought back to undergrad, when I was one of a group of students who brought concerns to Dr. Gordon "Mike" Michaelson, and the exceptional graciousness and supportiveness of his responses.  I emailed Mike and we tried to set a phone date, but he was busy helping bell hooks with a car situation (I'm not making this up!) so we just emailed instead.  The most important thing he said was this:  It's all about the students.  Always.

I opted to lead in the ways I had learned from his example, to lead in the ways that represented my best efforts to make it all about the students.  This month, I'll be submitting a conference session proposal to the ALISE conference (for which I'm co-chair of the program committee this year) that is authored primarily by some of those students, and I'll participate as a post-presentation discussion leader around the idea of student support.  The story of my own leadership keeps growing and changing, of course, as I hope it does and will for tomorrow's workshop participants.  The session is designed to encourage participants to reflect on their own leadership stories and to think about how those stories can grow and change, through their actions as leaders at any level.

what is reading storytelling?

Welcome to the first post of my newly remodeled (one might almost say reincarnated) blog.  In the past two years, since tenure and the coda (below), I've taken a brief sabbatical (Aug-Nov 2013), started a new position (Interim Assistant Dean for Student Affairs, and then Assistant Dean for Student Affairs as of Aug 2014), and found that reorganizing, managing, and growing a team with eight staff members takes much of my creative energy.  However, it's an honor to be in a position to serve our students at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and to work with such an exceptionally professional team.

Storytelling has been part of my regular teaching for just over a decade, with a course by that same name and a Storytelling Festival every spring.  Here's the latest iteration of the course description:

Fundamental principles of the art of storytelling including techniques of adaptation and presentation; content and sources of materials; methods of learning; practice in storytelling; planning the story hour for school and public libraries and other public information settings; and audio, video, and digital media. 3 undergraduate hours. 2 or 4 graduate hours.

I'm revitalizing this blog as a space to talk about a new topic, bit by bit, as I develop new post-tenure research directions, finally off the "clock."  That topic is:  reading storytelling.

By "reading storytelling," I mean several different but interrelated things.

First, I mean “reading” as in not just listening and hearing, but also recognizing story as story and teller as teller in the moment.  This is the first step to thinking about narrative function in any situation.  Stories flow so seamlessly in and out of our daily lives that it can be tricky to catch the beginning-middle-end structure.  So, first and foremost, I mean to investigate how storytelling pops up in our daily lives, from formal to informal, from storytelling festivals to casual conversations.  While "reading" may seem like an odd metaphor for this, I hope this metaphor emphasizes that we have to activate our senses to catch stories as they flow by.  It's as though life were a Barthesian writerly text, and one has to be an active "reader" to identify storytelling.

Second, I mean “reading” as interpreting.  I mean that, when we hear and see or even read someone telling us a story, we have to look beyond the form to understand not just the sign and signifier, but the meaning of storytelling in a given situation.  Like anthropologists studying culture, the reader of storytelling must interpret what is told, attempting to ascertain both the meaning that the teller ascribes to the story (conscious or unconscious) as well as the meaning that the story conveys to its audience.  One topic I want to explore in greater depth is the overlap and/or tension between the social or personal function of a story and the meaning of that story.

Third and finally, I mean “reading” as in literally reading.  This blog was “what kate reads” for many years, and in that tradition I’ll continue to post things I’ve read here, with a focus on those that analyze, promote, and criticize storytelling.  Reading what others have written about storytelling is fascinating, since we’re at a moment when the topic has exploded—in a very long, slow detonation way—in the public imagination.  This has led to the production of many books and articles, and I’ll write about my reading (one might say, “review”) here.  As it was before, this blog will be a personal tool for me to track my reading path through the vast topic of storytelling.

These days, I'm most interested in storytelling in organizations.  I'm now a storytelling consultant for our campus-level advancement (read: fundraising) team, and I hope that an upcoming conference presentation will launch the possibility of further consulting projects elsewhere.  I'm particularly interested in how storytelling functions and contains or conveys meaning in higher education settings.  In the next post, I'll describe my preliminary plans for investigating storytelling in higher education.