My Visual Research Methods course has ended, and as ever, my grad students in a range of programs at CGU have done inspiring and inventive work to wrap up this class which pushes traditional Humanities grad students to roll up their sleeves, work with their hands, imagine new audiences and formats, and think about academic labor and standards using new rubrics.

This year, our assigned readings—in Nick Mirzoeff’s Visual Culture Reader, the Debates in the Digital Humanities Reader, and two books about the ongoing and ever-widening Center for Digital Storytelling’s project—linked as they were to an ever more frightening and quickly shifting job market for graduate students, seemed to have helped push this batch of students to do some remarkably innovative digital scholarship, for their final work, thinking about the role of digital storytelling as both a subject and method for scholarly output.

I hope you’ll take a peek at these compelling projects:

  • A “nod to Lambert, but in a very deliberate style that was anti-Lambert (no voice-over, no clean or clearly announced thesis) … also an attempt to have this video be a moment of reflection, a meditation of sorts on friendship,” AIDS, place, and memory (from a PhD student in religion)
  • a digital story, made collaboratively with the maker’s high school students to create an “affective space” much like that previously “carved out through the epistle allowing women, a group previously written out of agency to write/right wrongs through new narratives in much the same way that digital storytelling empowers its creator. Telling my story, working delicately against and with the grain of rhetorical confines and the explosively complex element of my students’ personhoods demanded the kind of suturing of disparate intentions so pleasurable to read in the 18thC epistolary novels” (from a PhD student in English, also a High School English teacher)
  • A video focused upon building “community  around and for people dealing with mental illness, who are working to cope with their symptoms in the midst of the exceptional stress of grad school life. My hope is to create a digital story telling circle that will do just that.” (from a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • An argument for the storytelling power of Instagram (so against the Lambert idea that the Internet produces fragments) (from a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • A consideration of #ANA on YouTube and Instragram as digital stories (by a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • A consideration of #Carol Corps in light of Digital Storytelling (by a Master’s Student in Cultural Studies)
  • A consideration of social media and digital storytelling through three voices of a vegan and animal lover (by a Masters student in Cultural Studies)
  • A work on and as digital storytelling about an artist and a friendship (by a PhD student in English)
  • A digital story that draws the story of YouTube drawing stories (by a PhD student in History)
  • An analysis of how the academy is embracing digital storytelling as research method (by a Master’s student in Cultural Studies)
  • A digital story using “a personal narrative of my memories of my aunt’s illness and how I experienced the confusion of coming to terms with her diagnosis as HIV positive. I believe personal narratives such as this are missing from outreach efforts that have aimed to target the Black community in order to bring awareness of the high rates within the community.” (by a Master’s student in Applied Women’s Studies)

I’ve been teaching a Graduate research methods course for several years now at CGU, Visual Research Methods. But this Spring, I have encountered some surprising findings, ones that are echoed in my undergraduate student’s work as well, where I also assign digital coursework that asks students:

  • to account, reflexively, for the changing affordances of doing their school-work online
  • for staying thoughtful about the Internet itself as part of their topical attention
  • while also creatively expressing their findings in a multi-modal environment and vernacular
  • and then, also of course, clearly expressing findings from their own original research

Now, that’s a mouthful, right? And on first pass, I certainly wouldn’t want to be a student with that as my final assignment rubric! I think all my students (this semester in Visual Research Methods, and also, at Pitzer, in Feminist Dialogues in Technology and Feminist and Queer Documentary) start the semester with fear, agitation, bemusement, uncertainty, and maybe even annoyance about the weird assignments. Understood! And yet …

Somehow, this semester, all my students didn’t just do it and do it well; they got it. And, I said to several of them after the fact, I can’t imagine that’s because they are smarter than students who have taken these classes in previous years and semesters … So what gives?

Two, interrelated things, I think:

  • the tools have actually caught up with the radical teaching aims of multimodal scholar/teachers who wish to push our students to think, write, research and engage critically within and about the digital and the world
  • our students’ literacy with these tools, and also within digital spaces, has already been primed

This is to say, that for the first time, this year, I’d tell my students to leave the classroom and make some little digital something (instead of say, “breaking out” into a discussion group then presenting); and they would and they could. This is something I have also been asking audiences to do for the past two years, and their competency has increased markedly in this short time as well. That’s because in 2013 people are making things all the time, and these things are already smart, self-aware, self-reflexive, multimodal, and interactive.

This semester, my students used the analytical frameworks from class, the histories of movements and ideas, and analyzed both new and old objects for new and old audiences. They debated the politics of Digital Storytelling with some of the movement’s founders. They re-wrote Wikipedia pages. They made mash-ups of feminist theory and memes. They found and analyzed multivoiced and third-person stories (on Twitter and Tumblr) and talked to animals. Some of my students engaged for a semester with another group of undergrads at Bowling Green State University, and with students from grad courses at USC who made amazing digital learning resources for us to use.

Others made mobiles or diagrams for a yet-to-be invented feminist UML, some refined and critiqued possibilities for the feminist body and bra!

They worked on and about podcasts, and stories about Study Abroad and Queer Chicanos. They found new forms for telling the stories of Youth Violence and Violence Against Women. One performed a close textual analysis of Facebook commentary while others made keyword videos on feminism and technology.

Given all their amazing work (and I do hope you’ll hit some of these links; you won’t regret it!), what am I (t)here for, then? If literacy has been gained, and critical practice is already happening online, what is the role of the critical digital pedagogue? Well, most likely neither more nor less than what the role of the professor has always been. Remember when we taught writing? Sure, students arrived with literacy and tools, and the professors’ function was no mere thing: to add history, theory, a framework, a community, evaluation, and caring, careful, critical dialogue.

I am blown away by my students’ skills, and hereby simply provide this shining frame at yet another semester’s end. Well done all!

I teach a course, Visual Research Methods, for Cultural Studies at the Claremont Graduate University where I push graduate students who have made a career of paper-writing to express their intellectual work about visual culture, visually. Even as the course provocatively pushes them as individuals out of their comfort zones of expression and audience, it also begs larger questions about field formation, training, authority, the use, ethics and scale of academic work, and its normative vernaculars, media, and modalities. While they start closer to home with video essays, then moving farther afield through documentary and ethnographic media, they end someplace new again: right smack here, in the Internet, asked to think about and through “digital storytelling.”

While you might imagine that a great deal of the writing on the Internet might be considered just such a text, there is actually a sort of academic/non-profit stranglehold on the what this terms means: “A short, first person video-narrative created by combining recorded voice, still and moving images, and music or other sounds” as enabled by the standard workshops given to local citizens at the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, CA, and its many official and kindred sites around the world, institutions where trained experts facilitate the voices of the people. The work that comes out of these centers follows a rather predictable model for both form and content—private often painful or sensational stories, illustrated with personal images and moving scores—while also attaining a level of quality and attention that a good deal of the “bad video” of the Internet lacks. These other “digital stories” sit in some precarious and complex relation with the unruly, undisciplined, and often proto-literate projects of citizens who tell their stories outside of institutional sanction, training, or norms: the blogs, tweats, videos, and tumblrs of web 2.0.

For my students (and for me), this begs the role of the (visual/academic) expert in the sea of the digital: to speak here ourselves in new voices and vernaculars and to different audiences, to train the peeps to be more literate, to look at the work of day to day users and better understand it. This post serves as an invitation for my students currently enrolled in the course to blog about their initial stake in and take about digital storytelling (you’ll find their ideas in the comments here over the next few days). But we’d love to hear from other readers as well: about my opening remarks, or my students’ thoughts relayed on their own blogs (another visual research method for the course). In our readings for this week from Digital Storytelling, Meditized Stories, Knut Lundby introduces his anthology by raising these academic understandings of digital storytelling: as small scale stories that give a voice to ordinary people through self-representation using digital technology; as multi-modal transformations that remix culture to challenge institutions through personal narratives and a performance of authenticity. It seems worth noting that many of these ideas about scale, institutional challenge, multi-modality, authority, and performance are equally critical to understanding scholars moves into a digital (research) voice (note my first paragraph), so I invite some introspection and self-reflexivity (as have many past students in the course) about “digital storytelling” as well:

Audiovisual Thinking

February 21, 2011

A collage of three video essays made by my Cultural Studies graduate students in CGU’s methods course, Visual Research Methods, has been published in Audiovisual Thinking: The Journal of Academic Videos. Their work and the journal itself are worth a good look! I introduce their essays thus:

“The course looks at areas of visual research within Cultural Studies—Visual Culture, Ethnographic and Documentary Media, and Digital Storytelling—linking these traditions to larger fields and methods within Cultural Studies: the Humanities and Critical Theory, the Social Sciences (particularly Anthropology and Sociology), the Arts and New Media respectively. The students were asked to consider visual research by using methods that were themselves visual. A video essay, ethnography or documentary, and digital storytelling project were required coursework, along with one traditional research paper.”

The Journal’s “Academic Video Manifesto” reads:

“For hundreds of years, scholars have been limited to the written word and the occasional 2D illustration, but today, the revolution in affordable audiovisual technology is challenging the dominance of text as the primary means of communication and expression. We believe that scholars should also have the right to express themselves and their research and ideas in any (and as many) formats and media that they see fit.”