Cernulf the priest frowned and peered at the sheet of vellum laid out on his writing desk. The sheet was covered almost completely in spidery, tightly-packed letters, leaving only a small border around the edge. ‘Pietatem tuam quesumus domine nostrorum absolue uincula delictorum…’, he muttered under his breath, running his finger back over the lines he’d just painstakingly crammed into the margins. He dipped his quill into the oak-gall ink, positioned the tip in a space following the prayer he’d just written, and began carefully scratching out the next few lines: ‘Against a swarm of bees...Cast gravel over them when they swarm, and say: Alight, victorious women, descend to earth! Never fly wild to the wood. Be as mindful of my profit as every man is of food and home’. Satisfied, he leaned back from his cramped position over the page, and stretched out his tired hand - he’d been looking for something to stop Alfred’s bees swarming, and this charm would be perfect for the job.
That is how the story of my research would begin. And doesn’t it sound more engaging, accessible, and altogether more enjoyable to be around than ‘the aim of this study is to build up a picture of the life of these charms and their recording, use, performance, and transmission by examining the contents and manuscript context of the charms’ (which were the actual first few lines of my thesis)?
The activity that follows arises from the belief that the creation of stories is somehow innate to human beings (after all, we do it all the time: relating our day at the office to our friends, telling jokes, weaving white lies…) and that stories are enjoyable to tell and hear. This activity aims to transform classrooms into spaces that welcome shaggy-dog stories and tall tales that wander deep into the forest of ideas, joining together thoughts and concepts not usually seen together in a learning space.
Participants are encouraged to reflect on a task, experience, or question, either in a group or alone. The activity gives participants the chance to re-frame an idea or concept as a story, told around a crackling campfire. Whether you come up with a murder mystery, a romance, or a hardboiled noir scene is up to you: the key is that participants reveal something new about the topic in hand to themselves and the rest of the group through the creation of the story.
The activity doesn’t necessarily require a facilitator throughout, but you will need to set up the equipment: this can be really basic, from a picnic rug on the floor and the lights turned down low to a full-blown fake campfire. You’ll also need to think carefully about how much structure the session will need. Do you need to pose specific tasks (e.g. 'tell the story of your research, starting with "A dark and stormy night..."') or can the group be left to embroider their narratives without structure? Specific tasks are a good way to start off a group, or encourage participants to think laterally, making tall tales out of subject matter not usually found in stories. Specific tasks can also compensate for a lack of equipment or verisimilitude to an actual campfire!
This activity is a great way to get participants to reflect on a topic by asking them to tell a story about it; if you ask them to build stories collaboratively, participants can connect ideas in unexpected ways.
This activity doesn't require a lot of equipment - but it does require participants to be willing to use their imagination! Depending on the equipment available to you, you may have to structure the activity more clearly, or begin with an introduction in which you help the students to imagine their surroundings.
Is the concept of campfire storytelling culturally bound, and therefore unfamiliar to the participants? Consider prefacing the session with the objectives, or lead by example and tell a story of your own. You might also consider ending or following the activity with a discussion of how effective the participants felt it to be: is story-telling a useful method of reflection? If not, why not? This will encourage participants to think more consciously about how they learn and what modes and methods are best for them as individuals.
Think about the aim of the session. If you’re using the activity to create a relaxed and creative atmosphere, you probably don’t need to worry about recording the stories you tell. But if you expect participants to return to the stories in the future, you should think about how to record them. We have found that a ‘campsite guestbook’ can be a good way to get participants to capture their thoughts.
As always, you should consider whether the participants have any visible or invisible disabilities that may prevent them from taking part (e.g. sitting on the floor).
The campfire has been a central part of each iteration of The Dark Would, always encountered towards the end of the journey through the space. The campfire arose from The Dark Would team’s experiences: we found that when in ‘normal’ classrooms (or office spaces), which are often bare, starkly-lit, and uncomfortable, our thoughts and responses were rigid, formal, and constrained. On the other hand, in spaces that are more physically welcoming and comfortable, we felt more willing to venture into uncomfortable, adventurous thinking (we are by no means the first people to observe this; a great Warwick-based place to start is Cath Lambert’s article ‘Exploring new learning and teaching spaces’). The aim of this particular part of the installation was to give participants time to consider and digest their experiences in TDW - a kind of decompression zone - as well as offering an opportunity to share thoughts and reflections with each other in what could be a fairly solitary space.
Following The Dark Would event, campfires have been igniting all over campus (see Warwick Handbook of Innovative Teaching for examples).
The story of your research
If the story of your research started with 'Once upon a time', what would happen next? Try some of these other first lines:
“It was just for one night…”
“If only he had known…”
“It was over in seconds…”
“Time had been passing so slowly…”
“As he entered the room, there was an almighty crash…”
“A chill ran through her at the sight of…”
“It’s not often that you can say…”
“A memory can last forever…”
“All my life I had been aware of the legend…”
“It definitely hadn’t been worth stealing the…”
“I took a deep breath and said…”
“They say that everyone who looks for a secret will find something they don’t want to see…”
Tell a story about a topic of your choice, with each person making up one line at a time; this can be hilarious, but also asks participants to connect ideas that are entirely unexpected, and can therefore reveal new and exciting ideas as you go.