That Reminds Me of a Story

Stories have always played an important part in my life. In fact, my story begins with a story that my great-grandmother told her assembled relatives at a Thanksgiving gathering. As the story goes, she had consumed her one glass of pivo (Slovak for beer) and began telling her family not to be sad, but that soon she would be going away. They shouldn’t be sad because, as she put it in her heavily accented English, “Linky’s baby, she be take my place.” This seemed a cruel joke to my mother, who had been informed by her doctor that she would be unable to have any more children. Everyone shushed my great-grandmother, reminding her that her health was just fine (it was, as far as anyone knew). Nonetheless, my great-grandmother, a woman who walked miles every day to daily mass well into old age, suffered a massive stroke three weeks later and was dead by Christmas. Almost exactly one year later I was born.

For many years this story affected me. I would wonder why my birth was foretold. Was there something special about me? Did other people have similar stories? What do stories tell us about society at large? During my school years, I alternated between wanting to study literature and wanting to study the social sciences. I wanted to tell stories, but also wanted to understand why the stories were being told. I finally decided on an Anthropology major, and loved my classes, but part of me still wanted to return to stories. One day I heard about a folklorist at UC Berkeley named Alan Dundes, and took one of his classes. I discovered in Folkloristics a perfect combination of story and culture, text and context. Later, at Indiana University under the guidance of personal narrative expert Sandra Dolby, I would spend time living in two convents, one in the U.S. and one in Peru, in order to better understand how and why Catholic nuns told stories about being called to religious life. I found that a particular type of vocation narrative developed, in part, as a result of radical changes to their way of life, and the experience left me with a deeper appreciation for the way particular story forms develop to play particular roles in a community.

Later, I would focus on translating ethnographic research into digital story form, and that approach is something I am grateful to have the opportunity to teach students in the Texts and Technology program. Digital media offers a toolbox for telling stories in new ways, and for translating ethnographic insights into narrative frameworks. Folklorists and anthropologists, like Margaret Mead and Zora Neale Hurston, pioneered an approach to sharing insights into culture through the medium of story. Their work reached large audiences, including people outside the field. New media offers ways to experiment with this creative presentation of cultural information. It is, then, part story and part social science. Or, put another way, part text and part context.

People sometimes ask me if I think new technology will diminish the storytelling impulse. I always respond with a story told by anthropologist Gregory Bateson about a computer programmer who typed this question into a computer: “When will a computer be able to think like a person?” The computer, after a several minutes pause, starts to spit out lines of type. The programmer tears off the printed page and reads the words: “That reminds me of a story…”