In the sharing of stories humans nurture the wellbeing of one another. Story tellers offer the gift of their learning and experience. Story hearers offer the gift of affirmation through listening to and receiving another’s presence and story. Thus individuals and communities are encouraged towards healing, strength, and wellbeing.
Recently I attended an event at the University of Edinburgh Chaplaincy Centre, exploring the Humane University. Billed as an ‘active event to amplify the things that make us human’, the initiative ‘What’s the University for’ created an event that not only talked about creating a humane university, but actively participated in this creative activity.
As a professional storyteller, I delighted to see this creative participation in the humane university take place through stories. With briefs of courage, vulnerability, isolation and hope, four people told their stories of engagement with university culture and the ways in which it can both inhibit our humanity, and encourage humans to flourish.
Without retelling stories that are not mine to tell, we heard of the expectations we place on ourselves in response to university culture that emphasises success and productivity. Self-doubt must often be overcome in order to embark on university education. Mental illness and private struggles are often hidden, thought to be a sign of weakness and lack of capability. Loneliness and isolation will often result from the pressure to conduct research and publish, alongside teaching benchmarks that must be reached and the constant administrative tasks that help a university department to run.
As we listened to, then reflected in groups on, these stories, my group wondered about the gift kindness can be, to oneself and to each other. Mentors featured in most of the stories, highlighting such a possibility of hope. We imagined boundaries into the broader story of university life, recognizing the need for gardening, cycling – of having a life beyond the institution. What kindness would it be for a university to acknowledge, affirm, and enable, such balance for the members of its community?
Community itself was a theme we heard woven through all the stories; another way of expressing the gift of kindness from one to another. We wondered whether deeper understanding of kindness and community could see flexibility introduced to workloads, allowing seasons for greater focus on research, or teaching, or administration, through which one might be refreshed in one’s work. Or could flexibility allow the team members with passion and strength in one area to take on more responsibility there, freeing up another to thrive within their area of strength and passion?
This hearing of stories and recording them on cards in pictures and words, then reflecting with a small group on what we heard gave focus to our listening. For me, it highlighted that listening is active; that stories involve the teller and the listener together in making meaning of our experiences.
The fourth story, on hope, turned our thoughts from the flaws in university culture, which we had faced with honesty and courage together, towards the gift universities can be and are, encouraging many towards their full potential. The picture of strength and enduring presence in the community, might mean slightly more in a country whose universities are so old – I am from Australia, where even the oldest universities are still babies in comparison to those in Scotland. But even in countries like Australia, whose universities are still young, the human values of learning, curiosity and wonder about the world in which we live are no less present in cultures much older than the oldest educational institutions.
To learn. To share our learning with each other, sharing stories, offering kindness. To be human. A university that connected and operated intentionally out of such values would be a Humane University indeed.
About the author
Sarah Agnew is a storyteller, poet and Minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. She is a first year PhD student at New College, University of Edinburgh, exploring performance of biblical stories. Sarah blogs at sarahtellsstories.blogspot.com