Emory community shares 'Stories from the Pandemic'

By Leigh DeLozier | Emory Report | May 26, 2020

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Living through a pandemic affects people in many different ways. Read or listen to stories about dealing with COVID-19, or become part of Emory’s history by sharing your own experiences through the new “Stories from the Pandemic” website.

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“Telling and hearing stories are inextricably linked,” says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush. “Stories help us understand ourselves and others, what makes us the same and what makes us different.” 

This belief in the power of stories led to the creation of “Stories from the Pandemic,” a new website launched through Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts in collaboration with partners across the university and supported by the Office of Undergraduate Affairs in the Provost Office. It is part of a larger effort to build community across campus through stories, known as Emory Telling and Hearing Our Stories, or ETHOS.

Visitors to the “Stories from the Pandemic” website can explore or contribute through three avenues: the Emory Oral History Program, written or recorded stories, or story circles.

“A great deal of research has shown that simply talking about our challenging experiences in narrative form helps us understand and heal, so the very act of telling a story is an important part of the human process of coping,” says Fivush, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Psychology and director of Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. “When the pandemic hit, we knew that telling and hearing stories would be an important part of bringing the Emory community together.”

Recording Emory’s history

The Emory Oral History Program records and preserves oral histories of the Emory community. Participants have a remote conversation with a trained narrator from EOHP; the interview can be recorded as either audio-only or video.

With the participant’s consent, the recorded histories become part of the Emory University Archives through the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

“We will archive the oral histories about the pandemic and encourage viewing by current and future students, researchers, educators and the interested public,” says Jonathan Coulis, EOHP coordinator. “Oral histories may be used by a researcher studying transformations in education, as a resource for a student’s research paper or in a classroom setting. Recording these stories during the pandemic will create valuable resources for future generations.”

Sharing written or spoken stories

The “Hear a story, leave a story” section of the website allows visitors to do just that: share a brief story of their pandemic experiences and listen to or read a story from someone else. You can upload a written story, submit an audio story through voice mail, or submit a video story through Zoom. 

Faculty, staff, students and alumni began sharing their stories early in the process. One tells of how sewing masks reminded her of hours spent in childhood watching her mother sew clothes, curtains and other items. Another tells one student’s experience of shifting from his spring break trip with friends to packing and leaving his dorm room to experiencing COVID-19 upon returning home. 

“Telling our stories to others helps us better understand our experiences for ourselves,” Fivush says. “Listening to other people’s stories about how they feel and how they cope with similar situations helps us understand that we are not alone.”

Leading story circles

At Emory, a story circle experience begins with a designated speaker sharing stories about a particular topic. The audience then divides into smaller groups to tell their own stories related to the topic. Discussion is led by a facilitator and structured in a way that encourages full and authentic participation in both listening to and telling personal stories.

The Emory community held its first story circle in 2015. The structure is based on the methodology of Roadside Theater, part of the nonprofit multi-disciplinary arts and educational institution Appalshop in the heart of Appalachia. 

“From the beginning, the intention was to bring together people from different parts of the university – faculty, students, staff/administration and alumni,” says Vialla Hartfield-Méndez, director of engaged learning for the Center for Faculty Development and Excellence. “Because we have intentionally worked to include a cross-section of the campus community, we have been able to observe that participants develop an appreciation for people in different roles from their own.”

Story circles normally are held face-to-face, with many at Emory being facilitated by undergraduate fellows in the IDEAS (Interdisciplinary Exploration and Scholarship) program.  Because of current circumstances, the “Stories from the Pandemic” website includes instructions on how to organize and hold a circle online: inviting participants, determining a story prompt, facilitating the gathering and following story circle rules.

As Hartfield-Méndez says, “Telling your story is a gift, but careful listening to another’s story is also a gift. The point is to link the telling part and the listening/hearing part. Together, they can be transformative.”