UCI launches Center for Storytelling

A Q&A with Director Barry Siegel

Books, movies, songs, podcasts – they’re all vehicles for storytelling. “Storytelling is at the heart of what it means to be human,” says Barry Siegel, director of UCI’s Literary Journalism Program. And now, a new center under his direction seeks to refine and harness this indispensable skill for UCI students and the broader community. Launched this summer, the UCI Center for Storytelling currently serves as an umbrella for storytelling events and workshops on campus. Eventually, it will also become a physical hub for people wishing to use storytelling tools—from computers to podcast and recording equipment—and those seeking advice from writing mentors. It is the first of its kind in the UC system.

Below, Siegel shares his motives for founding the center and vision for its future.

Tell us about the genesis of the UCI Center for Storytelling.

The idea for the center grew out of conversations among the literary journalism faculty—led and inspired by Patricia Pierson, the program’s associate director—about how we might extend our reach beyond the students who major in our program or enroll in our classes. We felt that many people across the campus and throughout the community have stories to tell—but do not fully understand how best to tell them. We wanted to help; we wanted to share our appreciation and excitement for true storytelling with the academy and the public. Narrative, after all, is at the center of our lives, and human beings are hard-wired for stories. The telling of stories helps us to understand ourselves, connect with others, form memories, and make sense of our world.

Of course, stories can also divide us, and we are seeing this play out powerfully today in the news, our communities, and in our social media feeds. Many are now asking: What is a true story, really? How do people distinguish falsehood from fact? How are the tools of storytelling manipulated to skew truth? How can we employ narrative technique to communicate truths? What is the role of journalistic narrative in a civil society?

We decided that the Literary Journalism Program was perfectly situated to engage these questions. Building on the historical strengths of the School of Humanities, which is renowned for its expertise in critical theory, creative writing and literary studies, literary journalism’s new center would add nonfiction storytelling to this esteemed list. As we developed our proposal for such a center, with Dr. Pierson and Professor Erika Hayasaki contributing many passages, we fixed on a central mission: We want to explore and deepen our understanding of the many ways that storytelling is at the heart of what it means to be human, and central to our recognition of human dignity in ourselves and others.

The pandemic has forced many of us to change course. How will the Center for Storytelling adapt to a remote mode of operation?

We have already had to adapt a remote mode of reporting and research in our literary journalism courses. Since the start of the Spring 2020 quarter, we require our students to take on stories that do not involve them going out into the world to interview or immerse, or in any fashion to meet or talk to people face-to-face. Instead, they report by social media, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, telephone and email. They also draw from videos that their subjects record and provide – such as nurses documenting their day-to-day experiences during COVID-19. Most valuable of all, they now rely heavily on archival research, drawing from library databases, internet searches, diaries, letters, legal documents and shoeboxes in the attic. As many literary journalists do, our students now often straddle the line between journalism and history as they practice the fine art of reconstruction.

The Center for Storytelling will extend this approach to aspiring writers beyond those in our classes. The need for them to report remotely will not necessarily be a limitation; learning to reconstruct through archival research can expand the possibilities of storytelling, particularly for those hoping to chronicle past events and memories. Through the center, we will demonstrate how to do this—both the research and the writing—using as exemplary models a wide range of reconstructed literary journalism.

We will also take advantage of the opportunity that “remote mode” provides to bring the public into our classrooms and guest lectures. We will open guest lectures and events to attendees from the community, who will be able to join us and our students over Zoom to learn about different aspects of storytelling. For example, on October 29th, we are partnering with the Humanities Center to organize a workshop for students with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones that will be open to the community as well.  

The public will also be invited to join conversations with guest lecturers ranging from librarians to archivists to local historians to curators who will be visiting the students of Patricia Pierson’s LJ 198 – “Storytelling and Production” class. Again, as part of an initiative co-led by literary journalism, the Humanities Center, the UCI Libraries, and the Newport Beach Public Library, students in this extracurricular class will learn from experts about how to research and record oral histories, and the public will be invited to join in these discussions.

What types of events and programming are you planning for the academic year?

We plan to launch a storytelling laboratory featuring a StoryCorps Community Hub, where students, faculty and members of the public can record, listen to, and share life narratives, using the StoryCorps interviewing app on dedicated mobile devices. When we are all able to return to campus, we hope to house the lab in a physical space, but for now we can and will operate remotely. Simply put, the lab will be a maker space for stories and storytellers, whether they are hobbyists, students or professionals. We will also use the lab to provide drop-in assistance (for now, remotely) with storytelling apps and technology.

The lab will have storytelling tutors, who may be either undergraduate or graduate students, who will be available on a weekly basis. They will be qualified to provide guidance and assistance to others, but those with specialized needs will have the chance to consult our faculty and advisory board. We believe storytelling is a communal practice that requires both a writer and an audience, and we also believe the best writing emerges from a community. This is what we practice in our core writing workshops, our “Introduction to Literary Journalism” classes, our independent study projects, and our master classes. The lab will serve as one such community space for writers and for all those who love stories.

Besides the lab, the center will host or co-sponsor a range of events this academic year. Among them:
  • We are participating with the Humanities Center’s year-long Stories from the Sea student internship program, working closely with UCI Libraries and the Newport Beach Public Library to train students in collecting oral histories about Orange County beaches and beach communities.  The internship program will kick off for fall with the LJ 198 class.
  • We are participating in the Humanities Center’s fall Oceans programming, which will bring Nikole Hannah-Jones to campus over Zoom for two events on 10/29 (one of them a literary journalism master class), with several panels and other events leading up to that day.
  • The students of LJ 198 will design and plan a spring Stories from the Sea virtual showcase in conjunction with the Newport Beach Public Library.
  • The center will continue our past support of student interns working for campus media outlets, including New University, the student newspaper, and KUCI News, the news division of UCI’s radio station, by offering course credits to students who are selected for internships with either media outlet.
How would you define what makes UCI’s Center for Storytelling unique among any other such centers across the nation?

Our center is unique in that it is dedicated to both the study and practice of storytelling. Our center brings together stakeholders from diverse communities, ranging from community members hoping to record a family history, to undergraduate students learning how to report and write nonfiction narratives, to scholars of literary journalism, to practitioners in the field and career professionals who hope to deepen their knowledge and skills. 

Are there any ways to get involved or support the center?

With changes to campus access due to COVID-19, we have found that students have a need more than ever for basic technical support for the recording and production of digital stories at home. We are launching a program called Sponsor a Student Storyteller, which encourages donors to support a student journalist with a donation of $150, which will supply them with a condenser microphone, web hosting and cloud storage, and an upgraded webcam. For more information or to support a student storyteller, please contact Sean Fischer, director of development, here.