- Outliving the GhostsStorytelling and Community Engagement through Classroom Practice
We begin with a ghost story. When the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend, Indiana, went dark in 1963, hundreds of employees and workers in related industries lost their jobs. The factory buildings remained empty for decades, symbols to many of a lost heyday of prosperity and community identity. In the following excerpt, a Notre Dame student reviews Avanti: A Postindustrial Ghost Story, a 2004 theater production staged in an abandoned Studebaker plant that tried to imagine the implications of that loss through the voices of ghosts haunting the empty warehouse:
Prior to the 1960s, in South Bend Studebaker cars were built and shipped out all over the country. With the growing problems of outsourcing, product competition and labor unions, the company died and left graves in the form of massive factory buildings where memories haunt the production floors like so many ghosts. … Ghosts are the main characters and they try to tell their story to a contemporary audience with the hopes of averting their own fates. There is an unsettling feeling as the audience looks back into the past; the characters of that past seem to be able to see forward into their own fate. In the audience were men and women that were once on that Studebaker assembly line. For them, these are not simply voices of the past, but voices they knew. This is one of the many connections to reality this show delivers that makes it strike a very real chord with the audience. While the acting or [End Page 109] writing of the show may not be stunning, the production of it, the creation of this once real world by tantalizing all the senses, is a compelling experience and worth the trip off campus to hear what these ghosts have to say.(Kenney 2004)
This project takes up storytelling both as a classroom practice and as a research methodology. The fabric of our story—three instructors teaching different classes at different institutions—is woven with several key threads: the story of South Bend, Indiana, the city that forms the geographical and socioeconomic context for our work; the institutional identities of Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) and the University of Notre Dame, which in turn define our identities as scholars and teachers; the stories, often unseen and unheard, that our students bring with them to our classrooms and take from the classroom to the larger community; and the storytelling focus of the specific assignments we use as case studies in this piece. We use these intersecting story lines to explore the fluctuating meanings of community in students' immediate lived experiences and literacy practices within and beyond the university. The quote above, from the Observer, a student run newspaper for the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary's College, is an example of one such story, showing the intersection of the local South Bend community represented in the production of Avanti: A Postindustrial Ghost Story, with the student reviewer's reflection on attending the production. Storytelling becomes the means through which students begin to understand the communities they inhabit, to explore and invent the meaning of community and their place in it. Yet the same storytelling models that provide a powerful heuristic for creating meaningful intersections between classroom and community also bring into focus, as our discussion here shows, ethical and practical dilemmas involving the meaning of audience and authenticity and fundamental questions about the function of narrative to revitalize a community.
This is also the story of South Bend, Indiana, a midwestern city with a population just over 100,000 and a median family income of about $41,000 (Department of Numbers 2015). The city combines an industrial/manufacturing base (machinery, Humvees, plastics, and rubber) with a strong health services economy and a mix of local and national retail chains. Named by Newsweek as one of "America's Dying Cities" in 2011, the city continues to recover from the economic slump that resulted when Studebaker closed fifty years ago, sparking a loss of about a third of the city's population. Yet the city...