Journalism professor talks impact of stories

By Jordan Hearne

Robert Darden, associate professor of journalism at Baylor, never thought he would go into teaching, but it has been “an extraordinary journey.” Of course, that’s only part of his story.

As the recipient of the 2011 Cornelia Marschall Smith Professor of the Year Award, an honor that recognizes excellence in teaching, research and community involvement, Darden gave a lecture Tuesday about the impact of storytelling.

After commenting on his slight limp from recent knee surgery and explaining that a student thought he looked like Dr. House from the popular TV show “House,” Darden began with a story not about his own past, but about the life of a gospel singer known as Blind Willie Johnson.

Johnson was a musician who was blinded as a child and learned to play guitar on the streets while struggling to make enough money to survive. At one point, a talent scout asked Johnson to record a handful of songs, which he did,. The record did not bring him great success however, and he then continued to play outside clubs until his death.

“That could have been the end of his story,” Darden said. But as America was preparing Voyager 1 and 2 to be sent into orbit, it was decided a gold record should be included in case any other life forms should ever discover the satellite. Included on the record were the voices not only of presidents and classical musicians, but also Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” This is a story Darden tells his class each year. He said he uses storytelling as a way to teach his students.

“Studies show that students will remember a story longer than notes on a blackboard,” Darden said.

Darden said the most common type of story listeners can relate to is known as “The Hero’s Journey.” Through this design, a hero goes on an adventure for some specific goal and eventually changes due to hardships and circumstances that occur within the story. At the end, the true goal and motivation for the journey is realized by the character, and the hero’s transformation is the real reward.

“The hero must change. Without change, it’s just a documentary, or a Steven Seagal movie,” Darden said.

The story of Blind Willie Johnson is one Darden can relate to as the co-founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project at Baylor, a nationwide attempt at finding and preserving vinyl gospel records.

He started the project after beginning to write a book about gospel music.

“At the end of the book, I was more dissatisfied than when I began, because as I wrote about this music that changed the world, I couldn’t find it. It wasn’t available,” Darden said.

The music wasn’t available because the vinyl records that held this recorded music were slowly deteriorating without any official catalog of the songs.

“It is a project that’s long overdue,” Darden said.

Dr. James Bennighof, vice provost for academic affairs and policy and professor of music theory, introduced Darden and said the journalism professor stood out from other nominees.

Bennighof said in addition to hours of work with the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and involvement with the Baylor community, Darden’s students are affected by his teaching.

At one point there was a website titled “Bob Darden is the Best Teacher Ever,” except between “best” and “teacher” was a mixture of ampersands and dollar signs that Bennighof said “no one ever told me how to pronounce.”