During the January break, a friend and historian from a nearby college told me about TED, a Web site that she thought I should share with readers. I filed the recommendation away in my head but then promptly forgot about it with the rush of the new semester.
Two weeks later, I was having lunch with a social scientist from our human-services department who also sang the praises of TED. My curiosity now sufficiently piqued, I sat down that evening with my laptop and followed a link my colleague had sent me to the Talks page of the Web site.
That marked my first encounter with the resources offered by TED, an acronym for "Technology, Entertainment, Design." It describes itself as "a small nonprofit devoted to ideas worth spreading." Founded in 1984, it hosted that year a conference for innovators from the three fields encompassed in its name.
The organization now holds annual conferences (the most recent one took place this month in California), but has expanded into other realms since then, including the sponsorship of the TED Talks, a vast number of which are now posted and available for free online. They are easily digestible, ranging in length from five to 20 minutes—just the right length for enhancing a lesson or classroom experience instead of dominating it.
Both of my colleagues had recommended the same TED talk to me, so I settled in with my laptop and began watching a talk by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "The Danger of a Single Story." Adichie delivered her talk in July 2009.
I was especially curious to see how the same video could have drawn such high praise from a historian and a human-services professor. By the time the video ended, 20 minutes later, I had already figured out how I could use it later in the semester in both of my English courses.
Adichie's talk does an incredible job of wrapping a profound and widely applicable lesson into anecdotes from her personal experience. She begins her presentation very simply: "I am a storyteller, and I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call the danger of the single story."
Her first anecdote describes her childhood, growing up in a "conventional, middle-class Nigerian family," and her experiences with learning to read and then to write stories. Because the first books that were available to her were children's stories from England and America, she began her writing career imitating those stories—penning tales about characters who played in the snow and drank ginger beer, even though she had never seen snow or tasted ginger beer. For something to qualify as a story, she believed, it must be about white foreigners.
It was not until some years later, when she discovered African literature, that she realized that it was possible to write stories about people like herself. That realization was the first of many times in which, she says, she was rescued from the dangers of the single story. Awakening to the possibility of African stories, she says, "saved me from having a single story of what books are."
She narrates a second such experience when she describes a boy who worked in her childhood home, and whom her parents taught her to pity for his family's poverty. When Adichie did not finish her meals, her parents would remind her of the boy's poverty, in an effort to encourage her not to waste food.
But then one Saturday her family visited the boy's home, where she was astonished to discover that a patterned basket made from dyed raffia in their home was actually a creation of the boy's brother. Her eyes were opened again: "I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them."
As the talk proceeds, the stories become more disheartening: Her first roommate at an American university wonders why Adichie didn't listen to "tribal music"; a professor says her first novel was not "authentically African" because it does not fit with his idea of how Africans should behave. And then very quickly she builds to the more politically dangerous way in which Westerners frequently understand her native continent with a single story.
"If I had not grown up in Nigeria," she says, "and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I, too, would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner."
The deftness with which Adichie slips from personal anecdote to political and cultural analysis—coupled with her mild, humorous, and unprepossessing delivery—make for a compelling talk about the relationship between narrative and power, stories and action, and individual and political choices.
It didn't take much reflection for me to see how effective her talk would be in my survey course on British literature when I am introducing the unit on Rudyard Kipling and colonialism; or in my English methods course, during the weeks in which we discuss postcolonial theory and read Arundhati Roy's novel The God of Small Things.
I could just as easily see the talk's applicability in history, philosophy, political science, or any discipline that pays some explicit attention to the power and function of narrative. Some creative thought could just as easily land it in the sciences, for example, in which the single story of a specific disease process might exercise a strong hold on the conditions, financing, or directions of new research.
I could even see how we might use Adichie's talk as inspiration for rethinking how we do things in the classroom.
For example, how many of our lectures do we present as the "single story" of our field or our discipline? How many of us expect students to memorize and repeat back the story we have told them? And how many of us, by contrast, invite students to make their own contributions to the stories of our disciplines or fields, or to find a place inside them?
Of course, you might find Adichie's talk less inspiring than I did, or you might disagree with her argument. But if you are looking to enhance your next course—or your course Web site—with some video clips, you should check out the talks offered on TED. You'll find many hundreds of other talks and performances available, all searchable in multiple ways, including by subject, by length of talk, and by the year of delivery.