Back from Australia…

I’m suffering a bit from the effects of winging to Melbourne and back for a weekend, but was it ever worth it. I met people doing truly inspiring work with digital stories and communities, and had the pleasure of presenting on digital stories the first day, and then on a blogging panel with Adrian Miles and Jean Burgess, both of whom have done significant research and presenting in the field. Reflections about their presentations, my own and the conference in general will find their way here over the next few days, but right now I am busy pulling up spring course blogs and catching up on the million things I missed in a week.
(I mean, leave the country for a second and all kinds of things happen in the edublogosphere, such as Will Richardson quitting his job!).

For now, I am posting the text version of my first talk, “Digital Storytelling and HIgher Education: Context, Community and Imagination.” I’ll post the audio version soon, too, and then the vodcast.

First Person: International Digital Storytelling Conference Melbourne, Australia, Feb 3-5, 2006

Saturday, February 4 Panel—Storytelling and the Digital Generation

(My presentation consisted of a twenty-minute digital story running behind me–at least the images and soundtrack, did. I was the voiceover, in real-time, in person.)

Introduction (Before the digital story kicks in):

I’m about to experiment here with a digital story of sorts as presentation—some of the examples you will see are excerpts from longer works. I’d like to thank my students for sharing their work. (If you are reading this text without watching the visuals, know that there are stretches of silent voiceover when the visuals and soundtrack tell the story without my voice. I place in bold font where significant slides and excerpts from my students’ digital stories fall. –I hope this makes some sense!)

I teach in a well-known liberal arts college (a small university) in the U.S., a school known for its writing, languages and international programs. Its students go on to hold prominent positions in government and the professions, though many graduates go on in nonprofit work. This is not the first place people think of in terms of digital storytelling as social activism, or groundbreaking work with communities. And yet it is precisely the kind of place where we also need digital storytelling—to open this generation to the relationship between personal context, imagination and civic responsibility in order to combat the racism, social and economic injustice that John O’Neal and Joe Lambert spoke of earlier. It is not enough to work with the communities long without a voice. We must also shift the power dynamic by opening the hearts and minds of those who traditionally have walked into positions of power.


Digital Storytelling in Higher Education: Context, Community and Imagination

“It is important to hold in mind…that each of us achieved contact with the world from a particular vantage point, in terms of a particular biography. All of this underlies our present perspective and affects the way we look at things and talk about things and structure our realities.”

—Maxine Greene, Landscapes of Learning

I have long admired Joe Lambert and the Center for Digital Storytelling as they worked to give unheard communities the voice of their own stories. I saw how social activists and community organizers could use story circles for the greater good. But a liberal arts classroom? Why bring a time-consuming, technology-intense activity into such a world?

It was blogging—and what happens when students blog– that brought digital stories to my classroom. In the fluid, open, linked blog environment as soon as students get over any expectation that I, the teacher, will fill their heads with information and wisdom, they feel the urge to say something meaningful and to connect with the world—and in their case, that means a media rich (though not—to borrow from Adrian Miles– rich media) landscape.

As we are reminded by practically everyone, ours is now a world that largely privileges image over text. We live in Heidegger’s “age of the world picture: the world conceived and grasped as picture” (as cited in in W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want, Chicago: UChicagoP, 2005, p.xiv). We understand Susan Sontag’s contention that “The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one”, that pictures are “less objects to be saved than messages to be disseminated.”

And yet higher education, the humanities in particular, ask students to engage with the written and spoken word almost exclusively. We train students to read and to listen to experts’ stories while they remain shut outside, peering in, silent, even disconnected. They can feel besieged by a bewildering array of jargon, rules, technologies, and processes that float about them seemingly untethered to anything real, anything in the world, in their world. Indeed we often neglect what Ron Burnett calls the subjective nature of education or the fact that our students have lives. We don’t allow them to bring themselves and their world into their studies, effectively isolating their formal learning inside an insular, privileged world rather than the complex, dynamic, messy realities of life in the larger landscape. It’s no wonder that visual ethnographers have to remind themselves of Kuehnast’s, “Visual Imperialism” (Kuehnast, Kathleen. 1992. “Visual Imperialism and the Export of Prejudice: An Exploration of Ethnographic Film.” In P.I. Crawford and D. Turton (eds.) Film as Ethnography (183-195). New York: Manchester University Press). We do not teach our students to read and navigate this world, and yet when they reach the door, they are engulfed by it. And you know, they rather like it, for its entertainment value.

I watched with interest the first Web-based multimedia explorations by my students. They were playful and inventive video-clip footnotes (excerpt from K. Nerenberg–offline), photos punctuating text, but they lacked depth, context, seriousness. (excerpt from C. Nixon–offline) (Excerpt from Tenzin). Images and sound were used more as ornament than as substantive element, much as early hypertext writing experiments often do not exploit the link’s associative potential. It was all just fun. Dispensable. They weren’t yet “getting the picture” which W. J. T. Mitchell describes as “a peculiar and paradoxical creature, both concrete and abstract.” (in W. J. T. Mitchell, What Do Pictures Want, Chicago: UChicagoP, 2005, p.xvii) They weren’t yet convinced of the ramifications of creating in multimedia.

Nevertheless students were having a great time playing and discovering, ways to bring image and audio into their studies, cracking open the imagination that in many cases had done dormant since early childhood. (Examples from Gloss and Quorange)

To build the critical apparatus necessary to media literacy and to transformative thinking, and to capitalize on what Stroupe calls “Visualizing English” (“Visualizing English: Recognizing the Hybrid Literacy of Visual and Verbal Authorship on the Web.” College English May 2000. Reprinted in Visual Rhetoric in a Digital World: A Critical Sourcebook . Ed. Carolyn Handa. Boston : Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2004. 13-37.) students play with John Berger-like Stories without Words, to explore a concept, such as “The Nature of November” (an off-line excerpt from student D. Dums) –an exercise designed to help them grasp narrative arc and perspective by translating an abstraction into visual story.

While these exercises can be considered digital stories of sorts, we had yet to travel the full multimedia narrative as a way to underscore the dialogic relationships inherent in expressive media and in the world, to read the relationship between writer and reader, form and meaning, self and other.
We moved then from text, in this case a narrative poem rooted in childhood, into digital stories of those poems A. Moody’s poem and (digital story: Note how she makes changes from poem to digital story—here’s the the original assignment).

They learned about the dramatic moment, point of view and voice yet they
hated recording their voices–how shy they felt, how they hurled disclaimers about the room on recording day, and yet how listening to their disembodied voices reflected the research of Hendrik and Ornberg, that “audio is more effective than text for creating a sense of co-presence.” (Stephanie Hendrick and Therese Örnberg
“The blog as an immersive space: Moblogging Jokkmokk 2004 “: in Blogtalks 2:/p201) And Doug Brent’s contention that “The metaphorical meaning of print technology is isolation, not communality.” (in Processed World) (B. Treuer’s poem excerpt)

These experiments made them listen intently and actively to one another. Putting their own image, their own, music and text together was initially clumsy but immensely revealing and rewarding. (E. Lee’s digital story) And when we returned to language alone—written words had become new, naked and strange.

But of course more lessons awaited us. The often frustrating, intense process was having an interesting effect on my students: the individual voice and story were folded into French cybertheorist, Pierre Levy’s “collective intelligence”, through reciprocal apprenticeships, students as expert and apprentice to one another. Workshopping the scripts pulled the group together in common yet deeply personal enterprise. The combination of process, product and publication enhanced the community’s shared purpose. Student after student commented on the connection between individual and group. Emergent outcomes included students referencing one another’s digital stories in narrative reflections, in papers and even in subsequent digital stories, evidence of Stephen Johnson’s “decentralized thinking” and Roy Ascott’s “dispersed authorship”; any danger of the blogs veering off into what Christine Rosen terms, “ego-casting” was undercut by digital storytelling’s collaborative process.

Which of course brought us to another revelation — that digital storytelling had another important role to play: contextualizing the course content within students’ lives and the wider world (a key component to efficacious, authentic learning). How often do we ask students to tell their own stories? To consider their relationship to the course materials? Why, in other words, are they taking this course?

To ground the study of contemporary Irish literature and film, students created digital stories about their cultural heritage—how they felt about their roots. This question would surface repeatedly in our study of the Irish and the diaspora: What makes the Irish feel Irish? How could they really get at this question if they had not articulated their own relationship to their cultural roots? DAN’S MOVIE & Reflection Excerpts

Inspired and emboldened by this connection to self, the learning community and the course, students moved collaborative digital stories into research, this time effectively extending their arguments through the visual and auditory realities of their subjects. Instead of image and sound prettying up the text, digital storytelling pushes them to research more thoroughly, to analyze more deeply, sharpening their skills as critical thinkers and writers—they had more to synthesize and evaluate, moving them up through Bloom’s taxonomy in both cognitive and affective domains. DAN & ELISE,
The entire essay becomes a complex digital story. Another pair uses words as image to put pressure on their topic: ethnic slurs: WILLA & COLLEEN.

They take on topics that challenge their perspective and extend their critical thinking and writing skills. Students now integrate multimedia narrative into virtually every kind of academic discourse: literary analysis, sociology and psychology papers, language projects, bridging their subjective view and imagination with the rigor of academic discourse.( BRITT’s Digital Story-Excerpt)

Students are bringing digital storytelling to service-learning initiatives in area schools, working with children on community-based story projects and media literacy skills, which give the schoolchildren a voice in their towns, a sense of control over their own futures.

Still others push digital stories into imaginative realms of poetry and fiction.

The boldest students, perhaps, our budding philosophers–are creating complex arguments and meta-discourse, moving the form into a new realm: experiential reading of the course. JULINA’S FILM excerpt and the script . She uses digital storytelling not only to tell her story, but to comment, analyze, reflect and create something utterly new. These students are using new media to do as Lev Manovich asks us, to “ experience the ambiguity, the otherness, the multi-dimensionality of our experience in new ways.”

As one student, now on a digital storytelling-blogging project in Southeast Asia, wrote me recently: “Cameras and computers have become the tools that have enabled me to blend my life, academics, and adventures together…They have granted me access to an innovative education that is all my own…I am using cameras and computers to relate my own experiences to the books I read and the lectures I listen to…” (Images from Remy’s FlickrFile)

These students are gaining awareness of themselves, and as they engage deeply with their learning and each other, they become resituated within their own educations, their communities and their views of the world, developing empathy, creativity and responsibility.

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