Archive for Monday, June 16, 2008

Professor’s storytelling yields insight

June 16, 2008


"I come from a long line of promiscuous women and storytellers," Iris Wilkinson, Washburn University associate professor, told me as we chatted over a cup of tea. I was all ears.

"My paternal grandmother, great-grandmother and great-great-grandmother didn't know who their fathers were," she said.

Wilkinson arrived in Lawrence from St. Louis in 1970 en route to California.

"Students had just burned the Kansas University Memorial Union as part of their protest against Vietnam and racism. I wanted to be a temporary part of all this and then move to Berkeley, California, to sow my wild oats like my female ancestors," she explained.

Fate intervened.

"I met a 'nice Kansas boy' and married in 1973 before I had children, and I've been here since."

She's continued the other family tradition - storytelling.

"It's an art form in my family," she laughed. "Literal truth doesn't matter. In fact, the more you could embellish the story the better; its intention is to promote good, not harm, convey a truth about life, and engage the listener in their own story."

Her personal story took some interesting turns and harnessed her wild streak in a positive way. She graduated in KU's first women's studies class, went on to complete a master's degree in counseling and was involved in the Women's Transitional Care Services. She worked at the Menninger Clinic (then in Topeka) before moving to Washburn University to play a leading role in creating the human services department.

She received a doctorate in educational administration at KU and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in distance education at the University of Wisconsin.

After teaching for 20 years, she noticed students were increasingly bored with textbooks.

"I realized the story element was missing, so I introduced stories from fiction, biographies, newspapers and magazine into my teaching. The students became more involved and interested in the classes."

Wilkinson continued to use storytelling in her teaching to great effect, and her innovative methods will be the subject of a paper she'll present at the 33rd International Conference on "Transforming Higher Education Teaching and Learning in the 21st century," to be held at Strathclyde University, Glasgow, in July.

She's excited to have an opportunity to visit Britain and Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands off the south coast of England) where her more respectable maternal ancestors came from.

"I'm looking forward to discovering some more family stories," she said.

While developing her innovative storytelling teaching methods, Wilkinson struggled with her own story.

"I was teaching counselors how to treat those challenged with addictions, and when I marked their papers, I'd have a glass in my hand and several bottles of wine beside me. My personal life and marriage was falling apart, and I sought solace in alcohol."

A Fulbright scholarship in 1993 took her to Russia, where she was invited to teach in the narcology and psychotherapy department at the postgraduate Institute for Medical and Emergency Problems.

"It's laughable," she admitted. "Alcohol addiction was a growing problem in Russia, and there I was teaching Russian medical teams how to intervene and treat people with addictions, but I was blind to my own problems."

While sharing a meal one evening and drinking her way through several bottles of vodka, a colleague's challenge opened her eyes.

"Iris you're working professionally with addictions, but have you ever considered that you're an alcoholic?"

The colleague, who'd been sober for 15 years, shared her story.

"I put that last glass of vodka down, and I've been sober for 13 years," Wilkinson said proudly.

She went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Russia, including some Russian-speaking ones.

"Even though I didn't understand the language, I was somehow able to understand the stories being told. It was very powerful."

She teaches at Douglas County Women's Jail, where she's encouraging inmates to find their voice and a sense of hope through the process of telling and writing stories.

"So what part of your voice did alcohol stifle?" I asked.

"My spiritual connection," she said after some reflection. "I lost that still, small voice inside myself."

The storyteller gained insight by telling her personal story.

Eileen Roddy, born in Ireland, is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence. She is a graduate of the Citizen Journalism Academy.


bearded_gnome 10 years ago

thank you ms. roddy, this was well written and very a very good story. stories, cultural myths, family stories, have been teaching much longer than have textbooks. there is no wonder that sudents are bored with textbooks! ***The storyteller gained insight by telling her personal story.perhaps this closing statement, which is good, could be improved upon.

supercowbellninja 10 years ago

I for one, could not stand this column today for several reasons:-- The "story" told had a horrible tendency to meander from place to place - we start with a somewhat startling recognition about promiscuous women, and then wait until the VERY END to relay what this person is up to present-day. For a piece about decent story-telling, I thought this was horribly constructed prose.-- What is with the Tea gimmick? I think it has worn out its welcome and has become stale. Why not just write columns about interesting people without forcing some reference to tea into every piece??? What is the point???-- I wish we had focused on this subject's ability to tell stories more - could we have an example? The fact that she is well-traveled, educated and has battled a few personal demons may have helped shape her personal views, but we never get a glimpse at how she tells a story, or what she actually did to make a text book more interesting. Examples, please!!!Overall a frustrating read and I am starting to wonder why I bother at all.

Alison Carter 10 years ago

I, for one, enjoyed reading this article. I find the writing style a delightful easy read.

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