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American Magazine: August 2014

this is a story about by

this is a story about by mike unger

From Aristotelian times to the age of Twitter, people have educated, entertained, and enlightened humankind through stories. American University began teaching journalism in the 1920s, when pen, paper, and film were the primary tools of the trade. Nearly a century later, the School of Communication’s new home in the McKinley Building features mindblowing technology like a Sony 4K cinema projector (one of only five deployed in North America) in the 144-seat Michael Forman Theatre and state-of-the-art television and audio studios in a gleaming 2,500-square-foot media innovation lab. You can’t walk through the halls without seeing students pecking at their phones or swiping pages on their tablets. Laptops are rendering desktops obsolete, and digital cameras have made darkrooms feel like relics of the dark ages. In the world of communication, technology seems to evolve as quickly as breaking news. But yet, at its core, SOC’s mission hasn’t wavered. “Things change all the time, but for us, what has been fairly solid is good storytelling,” says professor John Douglass, director of the film and media arts division. He’s been at AU since 1978. “How you use [technology] really depends on your vision and the stories you’re telling. We need to prepare our students to tell their stories in whatever medium is best suited for the story and for the audience that they’re reaching out to.” But stories don’t exist in a vacuum. Like a tree falling in that hard-to-wrapyour-head-around forest with no one in it, they must be heard (or read or seen) to exist at all. “Story is a platform for engagement,” Dean Jeffrey Rutenbeck says. “It’s a construct, a narrative strategy. Engagement is ultimately the concept that unites all the pieces of the school. We are engaging people through the journalism that we do, through the films we make, the campaigns we develop, and eventually the games we make. We’re not just telling stories to do one thing. We seek not just to entertain but to inform, to transform; we seek to revise, to reinforce. There are a lot of verbs that come along with storytelling.” SOC’s January move into historic McKinley, whose cornerstone was laid by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902, is the latest chapter in SOC’s story. Ever since being granted independence in 1984 (prior to that it was housed in the College of Arts and Sciences), it’s been a nomadic unit, its faculty, classrooms, and centers headquartered on the cramped third floor of the Mary Graydon Center but also scattered throughout campus. The relocation to McKinley, which underwent a $24 million renovation that preserved its classic architecture while adding a sleek, modern expansion, was in one sense a reunification. “By occupying such a prominent, historic place on campus, it reaffirms the role that communication plays in the structure and life of the university,” Rutenbeck says. “It’s a promotion of sorts. You go from a smattering of spaces and places to a powerful physical presence.” To celebrate SOC’s new home—and to contextualize it—we asked faculty, alumni, and current students to share with us a story that impacted them in some meaningful way. It didn’t have to be an article that won a Pulitzer or a film that took home an Oscar (though an Oscar winner is among our storytellers), we said, rather, just a tale that for some reason made a lasting difference in your life. In The Art of Storytelling, Nancy Mellon writes that “because there is a natural storytelling urge and ability in all human beings, even just a little nurturing of this impulse can bring about astonishing and delightful results.” We think she’s right. We hope you do, too. FOLLOW US @AU_AMERICANMAG 23