Aug 28, 2013

New Edition of CNU’s “Wisdom of Age Project / Hampton Roads

(Newport News, Va.) - Lifetimes of stories and wisdom from area elders are available online now, thanks to the work a university class that puts students in the community with audio recorders and camcorders.

“The Wisdom of Age Project / Hampton Roads” 2013 edition features the life stories of more than 25 elders. The multimedia Web project comes from Dr. Terry Lee’s Community Storytelling and Documentary Studies class at Christopher Newport University.

“Our goal in the course is twofold,” Lee says. “First, we work to challenge ageist stereotypes by spending some of our time in the classroom studying issues in aging. Second, we work the entire semester in the community, visiting elders.” Lee is an associate professor of English who has taught literature and journalism at CNU for 20 years.

The “Tuesday Morning Breakfast Bunch,” a group of men who have met for breakfast at the Warwick Restaurant since 1995, is the subject of one student’s project. She recorded the men’s stories, incorporating pages of their scrapbook in her multimedia slideshow. A behind-the-scenes video of that project is available on the website.

Another student got to know her half-sister’s grandmother, someone she had known only casually. “She produced an amazing series of six videos documenting grandmother’s life story and its surprising transitions,” Lee says, “and it is compelling viewing.”

Elders in the videos, audio documentaries and photographs reveal vibrant lives, both past and present. “It’s Never Too Late,” a series of videos, profiles the very athletic life of a 72-year-old man. “She Marched with Dr. King” reminisces about an encounter with a pivotal moment in history. And “Keeping Afloat in Troubled Waters,” a series of audio documentaries, profiles the stories and courage of a man caring for his wife with stage-4 cancer. “She’s the strongest person I know,” he tells the student team recording his story.

“This is a challenging class,” Lee says, “partly because of its interdisciplinary emphasis.” Students study sociology, narrative writing, audio documentary and video production and then apply what they learn.

“There is a strong cultural bias against elders,” Lee says. He makes a point of using the term “elders,” and not “seniors” or “senior citizens,” because it suggests respect and wisdom.

“We all fall prey to ageist stereotypes,” he said. “In the news media, for instance, what are elders? Well, financial burdens, pretty much.” Other stereotypes he sees? "Elders live in the past, have little to live for and, simply put, aren’t interesting."

His students do what Lee calls “immersion documentary work,” learning quickly that by spending time with elders at daycare, at their homes and churches, and even their favorite restaurant, that the stereotypes are harmful and mostly just wrong.

“We made no effort to select any particular group of elders for our documentary work,” he says. “But you’ll find on the website 23 multimedia projects that show active wit and intelligence, active community involvement and moral force.”

The website of student documentary work is available online. Lee has taught the class since 2009.  He has also conducted research and published on aging in leading gerontology journals.

Lee is a filmmaker himself and has produced a documentary film on caregiving and elders, "Your Love Never Fails"; which Terra Nova Films began distributing in July. It follows the challenges of a Hampton family as an adult daughter cares for her mother during the trying transition from living with her extended family to moving into one assisted living residence, then another.

A four-year public university in Newport News, Virginia, Christopher Newport University enrolls 5,000 students in rigorous academic programs in the liberal arts and sciences through the College of Arts and Humanities, the College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences, and the College of Social Sciences, including the Luter School of Business. CNU offers great teaching and small class sizes with an emphasis on leadership, civic engagement and honor.

Media Contact:
Lori Jacobs
Director of Public Relations

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