A! Magazine for the Arts

From left, Dr. Joseph Sobol, Dr. Flora Joy and Delanna Reed.

From left, Dr. Joseph Sobol, Dr. Flora Joy and Delanna Reed.

Storytelling: Flora Joy & ETSU's Storytelling Program

September 28, 2011

Dr. Flora Joy could be described as the "mother" of storytelling in our region. She has either given birth to or nurtured several facets of the storytelling movement. For example:

• The master's degree program in storytelling at East Tennessee State University, where Dr. Joy taught for 41 years and is currently a professor emeritus. This unique program is the only one of its kind in the world, and majors come from practically every state in the union and from a few foreign countries.

• Storytelling World, a periodical that began on a state level in the '80s. Dr. Joy was the editor and the publication was managed and produced by an all-volunteer, unpaid board. Today Storytelling World is an international journal that is part of Storytelling Magazine, published by National Storytelling Network (NSN)

• The National Youth Storytelling Showcase, previously called Storytelling Olympics (see below).

For all this, Dr. Joy has won many prestigious awards, including NSN's Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011 she was inducted into the ETSU Alumni Hall of Fame for the College of Education.

Now retired from teaching, Dr. Joy devotes her energies to the continuing editorship of Storytelling World, to the directorship of the annual Storytelling Resource Awards, to presenting her own brand of storytelling seminars and workshops, and to her personal story writing and telling. She recently traveled to South Africa where she shared stories with a group of orphaned children. "It's a storyteller's dream," she says.

Nurturing Young Storytellers

As Dr. Joy is fond of saying, "Tomorrow's storytelling lies in the talents, interests, and motivations of today's youth. Skills learned during the early years are often more polished than those learned later in life."

Several years ago, through ETSU's master's degree program option in reading/storytelling, Dr. Joy organized an event that encouraged and promoted youth storytelling - the National Storytelling Youth Olympics. She explains, "The sole purpose of this event was to promote and encourage both the art and science of storytelling among pre-adult communicators. While it is recognized that the majority of storytelling events are not - and should not be - organized as contests, this event's underlying intent was to provide students across the nation with a reason to practice numerous non-competitive communication skills."

Each year up to five young tellers from every state were nominated for the Storytelling Showcase, which was a three-day affair held in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. One Grand Storytelling Torchbearer eventually was selected, not just for storytelling talent, but also for ambassadorship abilities in the world of storytelling.

"The goal was to encourage every classroom in America to discover (or rediscover) the beauty and value of storytelling and story performance," Dr. Joy explains. "Unfortunately, the National Youth Storytelling Showcase is no longer held in Pigeon Forge. Nor is the Smoky Mountain Storytelling Festival, which was combined with the youth telling. Officials indicated that it was a financial decision because of the economy. There are several groups currently considering continuing this event, but no final decision has been made regarding its sponsorship. Keep your fingers crossed."

ETSU's Storytelling Program

The Storytelling Graduate Program at ETSU grew originally from the Graduate Program in Reading in ETSU's College of Education. In reading courses taught by Dr. Joy in the 1970s and early '80s, she introduced a unit called "storytelling" to demonstrate how the story could be used as the focal point for all academic skills in the curriculum. Several enrollees suggested that a separate course be proposed called "Basic Storytelling." When the new course was offered, more than 40 individuals enrolled. During the following semester, two sections were offered with more than 80 enrollees. Students soon began asking for a "second" course in storytelling. Subsequently "Advanced Storytelling" was offered. The next request was "why not offer an entire degree in storytelling?" By the late '80s a storytelling concentration was created under the umbrella of the existing Master's Degree Program in Reading.

Much support and inspiration for this degree came from Dr. John Taylor at ETSU and from the National Storytelling Association (previously called NAPPS, the National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, and now called the National Storytelling Network or NSN) in Jonesborough. A liaison with ETSU and NSN has allowed university credit to be given through its events since the mid-1980s. ETSU also works closely with the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough, home of the National Storytelling Festival. The three organizations work together for credit and support, making East Tennessee a national leader in storytelling, performance, professional applications, and education.

In 1999 Delanna Reed joined the program as a full-time instructor of storytelling, with many years of experience teaching and coaching oral interpretation, forensics, and storytelling.

The following year, Joseph Daniel Sobol came aboard as Coordinator of the ETSU Storytelling Program. Author of The Storyteller's Journey, the first full-length history of the contemporary American storytelling movement, Dr. Sobol has worked to steer the program into fruitful collaborative relationships with other ETSU departments and programs such as Theater, Communications Studies, Business, Medicine and Public Health, Folklore and Anthropology, African-American Studies, Women's Studies, Old-time and Bluegrass Music, and the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.

At the beginning of the program, faculty and administrators "held their breaths." What kind of individuals would be attracted to such an unusual degree? What would their academic abilities be?

The first graduate of the Storytelling/Reading Master's Degree option was Tommy Oaks in 1989. Today Oaks is a nationally known and respected seminar leader who continued his education by earning a subsequent Ph.D. with his dissertation in storytelling.

As of May 2011, ETSU has graduated more than 200 students with master's degrees in storytelling. Currently, seven have earned doctorates, including three who entered the program already having a Ph.D. or M.D.