A! Magazine for the Arts

ETSU’s storytelling, communication studies grad students enjoying new curriculum

September 11, 2018

JOHNSON CITY - Graduate students in East Tennessee State University’s Storytelling and Communication Studies programs this fall are enjoying a newly revised curriculum that will help them develop skills applicable in a wide segment of the job market.

The Department of Communication and Performance has redesigned its course offerings to create a master of arts degree in communication and storytelling studies in response to both student and workforce needs.

The well-known Storytelling Program, the first of its kind in the nation, was developed in the late 1980s by Dr. Flora Joy as a degree program that became a concentration in the existing Master’s Degree Program in Reading in ETSU’s College of Education, now known as the Clemmer College. It grew in popularity along with the increased interest in the art of storytelling that resulted from the success of the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough and similar events across the country.

ETSU’s program drew teachers, librarians, clergy and others who wished to incorporate storytelling in their work, with most of them taking courses toward their master’s degrees during the summer.

“About 10 years ago, we saw the faces change,” said Dr. Delanna Reed, assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Performance who serves as interim coordinator of the Storytelling Program following the retirement of former director Dr. Joseph Sobol. “We saw fewer and fewer people coming for summers only, and we had younger people who were coming shortly after their bachelor’s degrees were completed.

“It became more of a full-time program, with Dr. Sobol getting graduate assistantships that would draw students to us full time. Gradually, it became less ‘I want to become a full-time professional storyteller during my later years when my kids are grown’ and more of a broad, academically grounded perspective.”

In 2014, storytelling moved to ETSU’s College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Communication, which later divided into the Department of Mass Communication and Department of Communication and Performance.

After theater moved out and became the Department of Theatre and Dance last year, that left communication and storytelling concentrations in the professional communication degree, according to Dr. Amber Kinser, professor and chair of the Department of Communication and Performance.

“We saw that our students in one concentration were interested in the kinds of training that the other concentration provided,” she said. “We felt like the career readiness we were trying to provide required that students have training in both areas, so we revised the professional communication degree to be a communication and storytelling studies degree. There are no concentrations now - all students are trained in both communication studies and storytelling.

“Students have both theoretical and applied knowledge and are prepared to pursue the workforce from a variety of career or employment positions.”

Kinser noted that the communication and storytelling studies degree does not train students for a particular industry. Instead, it prepares them to move across industries as workforce demands shift and evolve.

“We continue to see study after study of employers who identify communication as one of the top three to five skills that are in demand in the workforce,” Kinser said. “So we’re workforce-focused in that way, and we are also community-focused in that we are preparing students to be active, engaged citizens who can make arguments and present ideas in a way that helps improve the human condition.”

Some graduates may find work in non-profit, community advocacy organizations, using their training to serve communities, while others may seek employment in education or in the corporate world in employee relations, consumer research, communication and other areas.

“Storytelling includes, but is not limited to, entertainment or appealing to child audiences,” Kinser said. “It is the basis for business success, employee training and management, and appealing to consumers. In terms of improving the human condition and public advocacy, we see storytelling as playing a critical role in connecting people across differences and promoting a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences.

“There are a lot of organizations that have great ideas and great passion, but if they don’t have the training and skill to communicate those ideas and convince people to fund them, get behind them or support them in some way, they aren’t able to make the difference they want to make. That’s where our graduates come in.”

In revising the program, the Department of Communication and Performance reworked the core requirements, removed some courses and developed new ways of approaching courses that remained. The resulting curriculum allows students to study cultural and professional issues in communication while developing creative, performance-based orientations to communication, and they will graduate with theoretical, artistic and applied training.

In addition, the department is working to strengthen and enhance its relationship with the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee, which hosts the National Storytelling Festival each year.

“Our Storytelling Program has long had an affiliation with the International Storytelling Center,” Kinser said, “but we are in dialogue with them about how we can work in more pointed and collaborative ways to promote the power of storytelling to connect people and make a better world.”