A StoryBank for GLSEN

My name is Sean Nonnenmacher, and I am a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Linguistics. At the beginning of the Humanities Engage Summer Immersive, I undertook a project concerned primarily with storytelling for the Phoenix chapter of GLSEN, a national education non-profit that works to ensure K-12 schools are safe, affirming, and inclusive learning environments for all students, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning (LGBTQ) students. As of the end of September, I have completed approximately 20 interviews consisting of many stories about childhood, school, and volunteering with the organization. Due to administrative delays, my timeline has had to shift somewhat -- initially, I intended to finish interviews, transcription, and analysis by the end of August in order to present a report of key takeaways and future directions to the GLSEN Phoenix board of directors. I am now aiming to finish the 25 to 30 interviews for “StoryBank version 1” by early October.

There have been a number of meaningful “aha” moments for me in the course of completing this project, all of which I consider valuable experiences that have contributed to my professional development as a Humanities Ph.D. student. While I have been able to use my training in linguistics to design and conduct interviews for previous research projects, the Humanities Engage immersive afforded me the opportunity to practice a different kind of qualitative interview technique than I am accustomed to. Sitting down with GLSEN Phoenix storytellers -- K-12 educators, former student organizers that were involved with high school LGBTQ student support clubs, and organization volunteers or board members -- has been a much richer and more emotional experience than I expected. Each storyteller, and therefore each interview experience, has been unique. The interview questions I developed in collaboration with GLSEN Phoenix, which sometimes prompt storytellers to remember challenging experiences from their childhood and school years, effectively transport the storyteller backwards through time and into their “child self” and bring me as the interviewer with them as they describe key moments from their life. Through the acts of remembering and explaining during the Zoom interview, storytellers have frequently accessed more than just the details of their memories – they have also retrieved associated emotions. I have witnessed a school administrator with decades of experience cry as they recalled the middle school teachers that supported them most while they navigated challenges at home. I have also watched as a member of the GLSEN Phoenix chapter tearfully recalled their family’s participation in community protests against Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which effectively targeted Hispanic and Latinx people in Arizona and forced them to provide proof of their immigration status or risk detainment, incarceration, and deportation.

As an interviewer, these moments have been both challenging and rewarding. I’m thrilled that the interview format has produced such rich stories, and I have worked hard to practice various means of being present during each interview and supporting the storyteller at the other end of the Zoom call. I have grown professionally from the support and guidance I received from my site supervisor, Dr. Madelaine Adelman, a GLSEN Phoenix board member and cultural anthropologist in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University (Tempe, AZ). I began this project with a theoretical understanding of stories (or what sociolinguists usually call “narratives” and historians call “oral histories”) and a methodological understanding of the interview process. What I am leaving with, among other things, is a much deeper appreciation for the complex affective dimensions of language and communication, which is something my home discipline of linguistics has engaged with only in a very limited way.

Part of why I discuss the affect of storytelling is that throughout my summer immersive I have been interested in the notion of “skills translation” -- that is, bringing something from my training in linguistics at Pitt to the GLSEN Phoenix StoryBank project, but also returning to linguistics and my dissertation with some new understanding. I’m pleased to say that the Humanities Engage Summer Immersive has created an opportunity to think differently about language (namely, its affective dimensions), which in turn has resulted in new possibilities for academic and professional work. The Phoenix chapter is interested in having me continue to work on and expand the StoryBank project in the upcoming year, which I am eager to do. There is also the possibility that this “pilot” project completed with one GLSEN chapter will produce the kind of qualitative evidence (quotes, soundbites, and key takeaways) that GLSEN as a larger national organization would be interested in using. My hope, which I am currently working with GLSEN Phoenix to realize, is to expand the StoryBank project to the other 40+ GLSEN chapters around the country and conduct similar interviews with K-12 student organizers, educators, and chapter folks across the U.S.

Closer to my home discipline of linguistics, I am also in the process of shifting the direction of my dissertation from an in-person, school-based linguistic ethnography to a digital, organization-based ethnography as a direct result of my Humanities Engage Summer Immersive experience. Luckily, I will still retain my original research question, which deals with the technologically mediated relationship between language, gender/sexuality, and childhood in the contemporary U.S. My advisor and I are both excited about this modification and the possibilities it presents for future academic or industry work, given that my dissertation will now touch the nonprofit and K-12 education sectors. While there were certainly challenges in completing a fully virtual project in the midst of COVID, I gained valuable insight into how nonprofits maximize collaboration and achieve new forms of teamwork to move their mission forward. In the short term, I see myself applying many of the professional insights I gained through the Humanities Engage Summer Immersive to multiple aspects of my dissertation research. In the long term, I plan to continue working with nonprofits like GLSEN Phoenix to build storytelling projects in service of the work they do for local communities.

Sean Nonnenmacher
October 14, 2020
Learn about all the Summer 2020 Immersive Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.