Jennifer Ahern Dodson is an Assistant Professor of the Practice in Writing Studies and Director of Outreach and the Thompson Writing Program Director of Language Arts and Media Program at Duke University. Her research focuses on writing-to-learn pedagogies, composing with new media, faculty writers, civic engagement and student self-authorship. In her “Writing for Change,” class, she encourages students to explore activism and community participation through composing digital stories. She can be found on Twitter at @jaherndodson.
For a PDF of the digital storytelling assignment Jennifer uses in her “Writing for Change” course, click HERE.
Acclaim: Tell us about your educational background and research interests. How did you become interested in digital pedagogy?
JAD: I have a PhD in English and study the teaching of writing in higher education and curricular civic engagement, particularly the role learning communities play in helping all writers become more productive, more engaged, or more comfortable with composing and sharing their research and ideas.
I became interested in digital pedagogy because I want to be responsive to the ways that students live their daily lives and how they read and share information, including stories that help them make sense of the world. Digital pedagogy is an approach that recognizes that we are living in a digital age, and we need to be mindful of how ideas may circulate differently—and more quickly—than they did just a few years ago. Digital storytelling is a great digital pedagogy model because it honors the generations old tradition of sitting around campfires sharing stories, while also offering another mode of crafting and circulating these stories. Students can do more than just watch stories on YouTube; they can analyze and create them, too.
Acclaim: What is the course content/ curriculum in the “Writing For Change” course?
JAD: “Writing for Change” is a first-year writing course, and students who enroll in the course represent a wide range of majors. Collectively, we consider the ways effective storytelling, in both traditional print forms as well as in digital and live contexts, can help to build communities, cultivate individual and public reflection, and inspire broader social change. We research undergraduate student activism stories in the university archives, and use rhetorical and literary analysis to examine the strengths and limitations of these stories in the contexts in which they originally circulated. For the final project, writers create and present a personal digital story in which they reflect on our semester-long conversations and on their own commitments and personal philosophies. Rather than writing just about social change narratives, this final writing project asks students to compose a story for social change. By presenting that story in a public forum, they gain practice in using it to work for change themselves.
[Student Video by Imani Moise from Writing for Change Course: “Degree to Nowhere”]
Acclaim: How did you develop this specific assignment in relation to your course?
JAD: The class moves along two tracks: the theoretical and the personal. I’ve noticed that while students are able to talk thoughtfully and constructively about the activist narratives we study in the archives, and the narrative theories we use to analyze them, they still struggle when we pivot to what *they* care about and want to amplify through storytelling. The digital storytelling experience gives students new tools to process what they’re learning about social change narratives and about themselves; it helps them move from collectors of knowledge and experience to reflectors who examine their life at one particular moment in time and produce a story that speaks to that.
Acclaim: How do you teach digital story telling? What kinds of resources/guidance do students receive? What models do students look at?
JAD: Each writer decides the theme of her or his personal story. The theme must, however, reflect in some way our study of writing for change, and the motives, barriers, spectrums, or tensions that activists encounter. The goal is to produce a 1.5 minute digital story that combines an original script recorded in the writer’s own voice (approximately 100 words) with images and audio.
We begin with a story circle process: Writers bring lists of stories they want to tell. In small groups they give each other feedback on the potential of those stories, and what they’d like to hear more about. Writers then develop scripts and share them with peers in the class as well as students from previous Writing for Change classes. In a second round of story feedback, they also get the chance to work with community guests. Workshops on iMovie, image and music searches, and Creative Commons support their composing processes. We screen story drafts mid-way through production, and students revise them based on audience reception and feedback.
Acclaim:How do students aid each other in the development of their projects?
JAD: Students give each other feedback on their ideas and drafts throughout the project. They help each other identify which stories to tell and also share story feedback online and in person. They speak with each other about their reactions as viewers, and offer each other advice on the clarity of their messages, the pacing, and their image and music selection (including how to avoid clichéd or predictable ones). The digital storytelling assignment, more than any other assignment in the course, helps students connect with each other because they share their personal stories publicly and want each other to be successful in doing so. In some classes students develop Wikis to share movie-making strategies and Q &A forums, images they think will be useful for others’ stories, and links to local live storytelling events they can participate in together.
Acclaim: How long have you been focusing on activism in your teaching? How do you see this changing or affecting your students’ sense of intellectual curiosity or academic development throughout college?
JAD: I have been focusing on activism in my teaching since 2002 when I started developing collaborative storytelling projects with university students, as well as public school students and teachers. In my teaching, I strive to create classroom and community spaces that encourage people to be who they are, and to consider how they can both contribute to and learn from their communities. This approach makes activism as a concept personal, and positions students as agents rather than recipients of change. Personal storytelling makes it more difficult to distance ourselves from community problems and to assume that someone else will work to solve them. Students begin to envision ways that their own academic work and disciplines connect to (or need to connect to) those community issues about which they care deeply.