The Stanford Storytelling Project is proud to sponsor several undergraduate courses that explore the craft, history, and power of storytelling. These courses are offered in a variety of departments at Stanford.  For detailed listings and to register for these courses students should visit Stanford’s course catalog, ExploreCourses. 

COURSES 2018-19

Tools for a Meaningful Life

Fall 2018 and Winter 2019
LIFE 101
Instructors: Jonah Willhnganz, Andrew Todhunter, Fred Luskin, Farshid Oshidari

Explores the foundational skills for a meaningful life. Features lectures by faculty from across the university and labs for experiential practice. Draws on research and practices from fields related to psychology, philosophy, literature, and neuroscience, as well as wisdom traditions from around the world. Focuses on developing human capacities necessary for a meaningful life including; attention, courage, devotion, resilience, imagination, and gratitude. Exposure to these capacities influences personal growth and its development in communities.

Oral Documentary Workshop

Fall 2018, 1 Unit, Fridays 10:30-12:20
Instructor: Jake Warga

This workshop will lead students through the process of turning interviews, archival tape, and other recorded material into an accomplished audio documentary suited for public radio and major podcasts. Students will learn how to build story out of their materials, design and create a script, edit and mix sound, and distribute their final product.  Suited especially to students returning from summer documentary and oral history research projects. Instructor Permission Required.

Counterstory and Narrative Inquiry in Literature and Education

Winter 2019, Wednesdays 12:30-3:20
EDU 141/341, LIFE 124
Instructors: Anthony Antonio and Jonah Willihnganz

Counterstory is a method developed in critical legal studies that emerges out of the broad “narrative turn” in the humanities and social science. This course explores the value of this turn, especially for marginalized communities, and the use of counterstory as analysis, critique, and self-expression. Using an interdisciplinary approach, we examine counterstory as it has developed in critical theory, critical pedagogy, and critical race theory literatures, and explore it as a framework for liberation, cultural work, and spiritual exploration.

Previous Courses


Fall 2016, Mondays, 7:30pm-9:20
Spring 2017, Tuesdays, 7:30pm-9:20
TAPS 21, 2 Units, satisfies WAYS-CE requirement
Instructors: Dan Klein and Michelle Darby

StoryCraft is a hands-on, experiential workshop offering participants the opportunity, structure and guidance to craft compelling personal stories to be shared in front of a live audience. The class will focus on several areas of storytelling: Mining (how do you find your stories and extract the richest details?); Crafting (how do you structure the content and shape the language?); and Performing (how do you share your stories with presence, authenticity and connection?).

Who Killed Jane Stanford … The Podcast

Fall 2016, 4 Units, Mondays and Wednesdays 1:30-2:50
History 50N
Instructors: Jake Warga, Richard White

In 1905 Jane Stanford died of strychnine poisoning. Who may have killed her remains unknown. For this seminar, you will become collaborative historians and journalists to research the case and create investigative audio podcast much like WBEZ’s Serial. Building on research by a previous freshman seminar, you will together you will examine suspects, circumstances, and the often odd actions of central figures and then build an audio story out of interviews, archival materials, and sound recordings. In your application explain your interest, and any experience with, podcasting.

Narrative Design

Winter 2017, Wednesdays 11:30-2:20
TAPS 176A, 4 Units, MemAud 125
Instructor: Jonah Willihnganz

This class examines narrative design in performed storytelling, especially live drama, oral storytelling, and radio, and compares it to narrative design in other forms, such as print, photography, and the graphic novel. After considering what media theory, psychology and neurobiology understand about how different forms of narratives operate on us, students will create a “base narrative” in print and then versions of that narrative in two different other forms. The goal is for students to understand narrative design principles both across and specific to media forms and be able to apply them to move audiences. Students will have the opportunity to meet and work with master storytellers including Anthony Doerr, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, All the Light We Cannot See.

Sound Stories

Spring 2017, Mondays and Wednesdays 1:30-3:20
TAPS 126, 4 units, satisfies WAYS-CE Requirement
Instructor: Jake Warga

This special seminar is designed for students interested in creating stories for radio, podcast, and other sound media. Students will learn both the core principles of telling strong stories, whatever the medium, and the strategies of telling entertaining, persuasive stories for the ear.  Just like film or the novel, sonic stories offer a fascinating mix of constraints and opportunities, and you’ll learn how to invite listeners into an experience or insight that combines theories, facts and feelings into a single space of empathy. This is a hybrid class—equal parts classic seminar and creative workshop—and students will create stories from start to finish and learn skills from pitching and interviewing to writing, editing, and digital production.  Students will work in small groups to document places through the stories that inhabit them—from the Menlo Park Police department to local shelters and community centers.  Recommended for students interested in creative nonfiction, documentary, film, and even sound art.  No prior experience necessary.

Finding Your Story

Spring 2016, Wednesdays 3:00-5:50
PWR 91, 3 units, satisfies WAYS-Creative Expression requirement
Instructors: Jonah Willihnganz and Fred Luskin

This class will feature a special session with US Poet Laureate Billy Collins and Grammy Award winner Aimee Mann.

Life challenges us to become aware of the stories that shape us—family stories, cultural mythologies, even popular movies, television shows, and songs—and then create and live our own story. We face this challenge throughout our lives but perhaps most acutely as we move into adulthood; this is the period when we most need to become conscious of stories and their power, and to gather practices and resources for finding our own story. This class, designed with seniors in mind, will explore how great stories and your own storytelling can help you reflect deeply about what truly calls to you in this life.

We will engage with some of the world’s great stories—myths, parables, teaching tales, modern fiction, even aphorisms, koans, and riddles. In them we can find both elements that resonate with our own story and provocations that help us unearth and cultivate our native gifts—the genius in each of us. We will look at short excerpts from masterworks and myths from around the world, all voices in the largest conversation we have as humans, the one that asks: who am I? why am I here? what truly matters? how can I be happy? Together we will investigate how these stories, and stories like them, can be used to help us find our own story.

The scholar and storyteller Michael Meade says that we live two adventures in each life. The first involves securing our basic needs and making a place for ourselves in the world. The second is learning, deeply and continuously, who we are and what we stand for. This is a class for the second adventure.

Documentary Fictions

Winter 2016, 3:15-5:50
TAPS 176B, 3 units, satisfes WAYS Creative Expression requirement
Instructor: Jonah Willihnganz

More and more of our best fiction, plays, and comics are being created out of documentary practices such as in-depth interviewing, oral histories, and reporting. Novels like Dave Egger’s What is the What and plays like Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy act as both witnesses and translators of people’s direct experience and push art into social activism in new ways. This course takes a close look at a diverse range of these contemporary works and explores how to adopt their research and aesthetic strategies for work of your own. We start with a brief look back at the recent origins of this trend and look at excerpts from forerunners such as Richard Wright, Truman Capote, and Bertolt Brecht. We then turn to the rise of documentary fictions in the last few decades and read works by Eggers, Adam Johnson, G.B. Tran, Maria Hummel, and Daniel Alarcon and watch performances by the Tectonic Theater Project and Elevator Repair Service. Students write one analytic essay and then conduct or study interviews to design a work of their own. The course will feature class visits by a number of our authors and a special half-day workshop with Smith.


Sticky Stories

Winter 2015 Seminar
Jan. 6, 2:00p-5:00p
Jan. 13, 2:00p-5:00p
Jan. 20, 2:00p-5:00p
Instructors: Jonah Willihnganz, Erik Olesund, Emi Kolawole

For designers, the creative process is bookended by stories—we start with the story our users tell and we finish with the story that our product, solution, or service tells. Good designers therefore need to be very good story-listeners and story-tellers. This short course will help students develop the core skills to become both by applying what linguists, psychologists, narratologists, and neuroscientists have learned about how exactly stories generate meaning that sticks.

This class is a deep dive in interviewing, synthesis and storytelling. Students who apply should have a strong familiarity with the design thinking process, a commitment to develop their empathetic capacity, and a curiosity about how the mind makes meaning.

By application only. Undergraduates and graduate students encouraged to apply. Apply here with the Pop-Up common application.

The Mythic Life

ORALCOM 91, Wednesdays 6:00-9:00pm, with dinner
Instructor: Martin Shaw

Contemporary storytelling covers a variety of media—from movies to novels, theatre, and beyond. What this course offers is an in-depth study of the roots of that practice: the mythic tradition. Over the course we will explore many different motifs and structures that arise in the oral tradition, myth, folklore, and fairy tale. What universal themes do we detect, and what separates the progression of a Pacific Northwest Trickster story from an Arthurian romance? Why is it that in the early twenty-first century many of our most acclaimed art forms carry narrative forms that are thousands of years old? Star Wars, Lord of the Rings,and the recent Broadway show Jerusalem all follow scenic progressions informed by myth.

The first encounter with storytelling will be an oral narrative—a myth told unscripted in the classroom. The stories, which range from the Arthurian romance Parzival to Trickster folk tales, will be told in several sections—with a running exegesis and student response alongside. Many of these stories are now transcripts and have become works of literature. We will explore both the complementary aspects of this development, and areas of tension.

During the course each student will research a story handed down within the family—an adventure of some distant relative, or a family migration from one country to another. Factoring in elements from the class, the student will mythologize the story: by writing an in-depth commentary on its implications factoring in contemporary, psychological, and metaphorical associations. The second element will be to tell the story to the class. In these ways we experience myth as a living principle, not something just from “a long time ago.”

The Art of Storytelling

PWR 91A, 3 Units, Thursdays 3:00-6:00
Instructor: Jonah Willihnganz

We live by and through stories: family stories, national stories, stories of personal transformation and spiritual revelation. Stories are the medium of our lives, a vehicle for changing our lives, and thus understanding how they work and how to use them gives us enormous power, as almost any artist, politician, or executive will tell you. In this course we investigate a variety of storytelling forms to build a repertoire of tools for telling the stories that are important to us, whatever form they take—oral, textual, visual, sonic, or some combination thereof.

We will begin with what is arguably still the most common and influential form of narrative, oral storytelling. We listen to segments of Homer’s Odyssey, WPA oral histories from the 1930’s, and public radio’s This American Life, discussing what the fields of rhetoric, linguistics, and neuroscience have revealed about both the nature of narrative and our experience of it in oral form.

We will then look at forms of textual narrative, especially modern fiction and memoir, identifying the principal features that distinguish textual storytelling. Next, we turn to visual storytelling by exploring the “grammar” of forms such as the photo essay, text-less cartoon, and silent film, comparing their strategies to oral and textual forms. In the second part of the course we will turn to forms that combine the oral, textual, and visual—the feature film, the graphic novel, and video games.

Stories for the Air

EGL 191T, 3 Units, Tuesday, Thursday 1:15-2:50
Instructor: Molly Antopol

David Sedaris’ humiliating stint as one of Santa’s helpers. Davy Rothbart’s journey to Brazil in search of a miracle healer. Sarah Vowell’s hilarious road trip to presidential assassination sites across the country. By focusing on personal experiences, these writers have moved readers with their approachable, honest and confessional voices.

With the rising popularity of radio programs such as StoryCorps and This American Life, along with a media revolution that has made recording and distributing audio essays easier than ever, an increasing number of us are finding new outlets to tell our stories. In this course, we’ll read classic and contemporary essays as writers, looking at the ways in which conventions of craft are applied and understood—and sometimes re-interpreted or subverted. We’ll then write and workshop our own personal essays, which we’ll record as a show, dedicated to the work we’ve created as a class.