By Colton Faull
Dr. Gerald Driskill has been with the Applied Communication Department at UA Little Rock for nearly 30 years. Dr. Driskill was awarded an off-campus duty assignment last semester to revise and update the third edition of his book, Organizational Culture in Action: A Cultural Analysis Workbook. “I was giving all of my energy to writing and identifying new research and other research that may need to be done. It was just a great privilege to primarily focus there.” Along with being used in Organizational Communication classes across the nation, the book is also used in a class taught in the department that helps students analyze their own cultures, asking the question, “what kind of communication practices will help that culture improve.” This idea is the foundation of Dr. Driskill’s upcoming talk on February 22 at 6:30 p.m. on the UA Little Rock campus, in our Second Annual Leadership Lecture Series, “Co-Creating Counter-Narratives.”
“Dr. Driskill has taught me about what it means to ‘co-construct’ meaning with others,” says Department Chair, Dr. April Chatham-Carpenter. “He continues to challenge me to think about the power of the narrative frame we put on things when we describe something, and how those narratives can create our beliefs about that event or experience, and in turn affect our behaviors towards people in our lives.”
Ahead of his lecture, Dr. Driskill spoke with us about the topic of his lecture, what exactly a counter-narrative is and why it matters, how he got into the communication field, and how his life’s work has made him a better husband and father.
What is your upcoming lecture about?
Dr. Driskill: The focus is on counter-narratives. Counter-narratives in literature focus in on stories that correct missing, incomplete, inaccurate, or even damaged stories. So, for example, one colleague of mine has been doing work in rural communities with the narratives about poverty. The narratives about how to get out of poverty are often missing, inaccurate. People have their stereotypes and prejudice against someone in poverty. Some of their work was about creating counter-narratives and being able to empower those community members to share those stories and live those stories — to show there are pathways that we can navigate, and that it’s not impossible to identify positive stories of change within such communities.
For me, when I think about counter-narratives, they speak hope, but often they run by definition against what people expect is possible. So in the context of the lecture and discussion I want to have, I’m bringing in a counter-narrative from a community organization that is countering the norm in our culture of individualism and non-cooperation.
Historically, religious organizations, in particular, don’t cooperate much. They tend to have been divided by race and ethnicity. What I found this group of leaders doing, is saying, “no, we want to counter that. We want to create an organization that facilitates cooperation for community good, that the kind of endemic problems we have in our culture is not going to be faced with isolation.” It’s an effort then to bring out just how did they create that counter-narrative. What kind of communication practices create a better social world?
What do you hope students and community members get out of your lecture?
Dr. Driksill: A few different things. One is that they would be more alert to the counter-narratives happening around them. In other words, where are their individuals and leaders and community members living out those stories? And they need to do a better job in either joining them or letting them inspire them to be part of creating a counter-narrative. We’ll talk about the role of ritual, for example, and the role of developing certain virtues of the kinds of stories we live out.
How would you recommend people be more aware of these counter-narratives?
Dr. Driskill: Look for things that almost seem too good to be true. Counter-narratives can almost have a fairytale quality. I think we misunderstand the genre. Fairytales, if they’re taken seriously, do speak truth — something about the human condition where we need help. That hope comes in the case of the fairytale when we understand the real enemy and the power of challenging the enemy. Most fairy tales have to do with loving relationships and commitments that are over the top. So look for those stories in the media, stories you overhear in a coffee shop where someone is talking about something – “I can’t believe what just happened,” or “this is way too cool.”
I think part of what a counter-narrative does is that if you find yourself feeling skeptical, it’s because you’ve given up on the possibility of people doing things that are extraordinary. My hope is that others who tend to be cynical or skeptical will be challenged by these narratives. If all I focus on are the stories about people letting us down, about another political leader or an athlete not doing what they could or should, what we’re missing are all the other stories where good things are happening. Someone is showing an extraordinary amount of courage or willingness to cooperate. It’s important to bring those stories to the surface to really break down skepticism.
What made you want to pursue communication as a career?
Dr. Driskill: A mentor when I was finishing my undergraduate said, “I think you would enjoy this. Why don’t you hang around and become a graduate teaching assistant.” The shift into communication didn’t happen because of communication courses as much as a professor who I had one communication course with, and then saw that the kinds of things I’m interested in would be a good fit in that field.
I got my master’s degree from Abilene Christian University in 1985. I valued what I gained there, but I wasn’t really sure where I wanted to do, so I took some time off from school. I did everything from teaching in Thailand to working for a time in Wisconsin doing some volunteer work at a local prison. The whole idea during this break was to say “are there are things I really have a passion to study if I were to go back and do doctoral work.” So I ended up landing at the University of Kansas, and my dissertation ended up being in a multinational organization.
You’re not an Arkansas native, so how did you end up at UA Little Rock?
Dr. Driskill: The short version is my advisor at the University of Kansas had been down here, and one of his former advisers, Dr. Angela Brenton – who helped start the graduate program here and is a former dean – said you really need to go down and check out what they’re doing, and I was sold. Other places may have had bigger names, but none of them were doing what was going on here.
And the longer version?
Dr. Driskill: When I landed here, it was very clear they were on a mission to keep improving what they were doing in terms of helping students really know how to apply theory. They were one of the first in the country to introduce a capstone course before assessment was required across the country, and that particular capstone gave the program feedback on what do we need to do in our curriculum to help students actually be able to meaningfully apply theory to their lives and to their professions. Other programs had capstone courses, but using them for assessment data, where faculty discuss how students perform and what implications that has for us in our curriculum and teaching strategies, was not happening very often in our field. There were no university or mandates coming from higher education that you need to use capstone or something to assess student learning, even though that is now the norm everywhere. So I was encouraged to be in a department where they were taking student learning seriously, and where they really wanted to know students were getting what we wanted them to get.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the department?
Dr. Driskill: There have been a few turning points, but I think one of the most meaningful turning points is when we actually developed together a mission statement for our department. It reflected what we had been doing, but was one our stakeholders, our alumni, and our students could use. So about 5 years ago, the idea of fostering the co-creation of better social worlds through positive communication became our mission. I don’t know of very many departments that actually have a mission that is talked about in every class and talked about when faculty connect with people out in the public. It took us maybe 10 minutes at the start of an all-day faculty retreat to land on it, because we had begun to have so many conversations about what we valued and were doing in our classes. We thought about our students and interactions and what they were getting from our program and what they were doing in the community. They had already been having positive social impact with their projects. So that has galvanized us to have more conversations on what are we doing in every course and everything we’re about, to make sure we’re staying on track with our mission.
What accomplishment in your career are you most proud of?
Dr. Driskill: Truly the beginning place is the kind of people I’ve been around here and in the community. As a result, I believe I’m a better husband and dad. What I try to create in my own family is a positive social world, that’s number one.
Tied to that is being part of something where we’re always looking at how to make it better. So I ask this question, “what does it take to make our department a highly ethical department.” To me, ethics is not just the avoidance of doing certain things, but that we take initiative to do right and good things. We do the things that actually will help students and our communities. We live out the mission of co-creating better social worlds through positive communication.
Learn more about identifying counter-narratives in Dr. Driskill’s lecture on February 22nd. RSVP via Facebook or register here. The suggested donation for the event is $20 for community members and $5 for faculty, staff, and students (with ID).