The title of this course derives from the popular Chicago Public Radio program, This American Life, a weekly, one-hour radio program that features stories about, well, just about anything that happens in the lives of people all over America. My course used episodes of This American Life along with several additional models of storytelling to contemplate social issues and philosophical questions with important implications for academic study, civic discourse, and daily life. We spent a significant portion of the semester with forms of audio-visual media such as documentary films and podcasts of radio shows to stimulate discussions on storytelling and on subjects that affect us all as human beings. Yet the course was not a class on radio, journalism or film. It covered a wide variety of general academic topics and focused on communication skills useful to students of all majors, including research methods, the use of new media technology, and general academic writing conventions, in addition to matters of literary structure and style. Despite the course’s radio-program inspiration, then, literature and literary theory played central roles. The course was organized around three basic contentions: first, that we use narratives and stories to organize and give meaning to our lives; second, that we typically do so according to structures and conventions for fiction described in ancient and literary works; and third, that our engagement with academic subject matter is enhanced by acts of personal storytelling. We began the semester with theories of dramatic structure and action from Aristotle and Freytag; we also read short stories, historical narratives, and Hayden White’s “emplotment” theory of historiography.
In addition to episodes of This American Life, we examined various works that, like This American Life, exemplify thoughtful engagement in public arenas. Alongside the episode “Act 5,” on a production of Hamlet put on in a maximum-security prison by incarcerated actors, we read Shakespeare Inside, Amy Scott-Douglass’ personal narrative of getting to know these actors, and watched the documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars. Looking at three different ways of telling the same story, we examined issues of narrative structure and voice while also learning about the intersections of an academic subject and life inside a structure that is very different from the “outside” and the so-called “ivory tower” associated with university life. Course assignments gave students an opportunity to explore library and other resources on campus and contemplate the stories affecting other communities that overlap with the university, including those in Long Island and New York City. Students applied what they learned about style and organization from their reading to a series of audio projects and analytical essays. For the course’s final project, they each produced a long segment for the class’s collaborative series, 50-minute narrative episodes for our own series, “This Hofstra Life.” In creating this segment, students learned the craft of turning daily life and intellectual pursuits into compelling narratives with meaning, but also gained a greater familiarity with Hofstra University and the people who make it the vibrant, diverse, and storied place that it is.