What Makes a Good Story: Digital Storytelling at DPL 2018

DPL 2018 Mar 06, 2018

On July 31-August 3, 2018, Digital Pedagogy Lab will offer a Digital Storytelling course taught by Martha Burtis. This course—which is already filling quickly—explores conventional and non-conventional digital tools for creating narratives, and will consider storytelling broadly in terms of “meaning making.” In this post, Martha explains her approach to digital storytelling in the context of her current ds106 course offered at the University of Mary Washington.


As I write this post, I’m keeping a very close eye on Twitter and Slack. Earlier today, I planted “evidence” around my building, and I’m waiting for my students to find it, scan a QR code on it, and, thereby, reveal it to the rest of the class (and the world) via Twitter and the class Web site.

The class I’m teaching is digital storytelling, a credit-bearing course at UMW in computer science that fulfills one of our general education requirements. Since 2011, this class has also been taught as part of the open, online digital storytelling community known as #ds106.

I’ve taught ds106 on and off since 2011, and frequently taught it using some kind of theme or narrative “hook.” In 2015, I co-taught a version of the class that considered digital storytelling through the lens of noir stories. This spring, I’m teaching solo and the theme is one I’ve long wanted to bring to ds106: The End of the World. My class is reading, watching, and listening to various stories about the apocalypse and they’re creating media and stories that tie into that theme.

The approach ds106 takes is not what many people associate with “digital storytelling.” The focus is not just on personal narrative and the media we work with is not just multimedia video. Rather, ds106 tries to get students thinking about storytelling both more deeply and more simply, across a range of digital media.

One of the things that drew me to teaching this class in the first place was a personal obsession with stories. I’m not a scholar of narrative; I’m simply someone who finds storytelling (and the witnessing of stories) to be a vital way in which I understand my own humanity. On any given day, I can fall down the rabbit hole of following a story from just about any source. Watching a TV show that references historical events, I will stay up late into the night reading online resources about the actual event and trying to understand where the line between fiction and truth lies. Browsing social media, a comment from someone about an experience can lead me to spending an hour or more simply following the trails of their story, trying to understand who this stranger is. Every night before I go to bed, I must read a few pages of whatever book I currently have checked out from the library. And when I’m driving or exercising alone, I almost always have an audio book playing. I simply can’t get enough of stories. I even like bad stories. For years, after being introduced to it in college, I tuned in regularly to All My Children, reveling in the guilty pleasure of melodrama and overacting.

I ask my students to think about the ways in which all these different kinds of stories make up their lives. How many times a day to they tell a story, read a story, listen to a story, watch a story? When they’re trying to make sense of something that’s happened to them, isn’t it almost always a story that they tell to others?

I also ask them to think about what makes a good story. So much is tied up in that question, because it really asks us to consider what a story is for. Is a story for the listener or the teller? Is a story for now or posterity? Is a story a distillation of reality or reality itself?

My favorite books are densely woven, with plots and characters that circle back upon themselves. But I also revel in the notion of the smallest story. At its essence I think stories are simply how we make meaning. And we can make meaning on very small scales as well as grand ones.

One of our favorite assignments in ds106 is having students make animated GIFs. The first time I taught the class in 2011, the first assignment students had to do was make an animated GIF of a scene from their favorite movie. One of my students patiently screenshot frame-by-frame thirty seconds of Requiem for a Dream. The movie had affected her deeply, and this 30 seconds was deeply significant to her. I think about that a lot. Her patience as she advanced a frame at a time, a screenshot at a time, a breath at a time. What careful, meticulous deliberation. Captured in that anecdote is the power of the movie’s story, the power of the story of that scene, and the power of the story of my student capturing and studying that scene. I ask my students, “Can an animated GIF be considered a story?” Some of them suggest that the answer depends upon the length and complexity. But perhaps the answer depends upon whether the GIF succeeds in making meaning for you.

Over the course of the semester, my students make GIFs and infographics and radio shows and stop motion videos. They choose media assignments from an assignment bank assembled over seven years by the ds106 community. They also complete The Daily Create on a regular basis, which gives them a creative prompt every day with the expectation that they complete the exercise in five or ten minutes sometime that day. The goal is to demystify the creative act, suggesting that we all need a daily dose of creativity.

This spring, much of my student’s work ties into the apocalypse, and as the course turns the corner at spring break, my goal is for a larger apocalyptic story to emerge in which everyone can partake. When I started the course, I wasn’t sure what direction the story would go. One of the things I’ve had to learn to understand about teaching ds106 is the value of emergent storytelling. I entered the semester with the idea of teaching about The End of the World, but I really wasn’t sure what that ending would entail. As I’ve met the students, witnessed their stories, and watched, read, and listened to stories alongside them, I’ve begun to have an idea of our story’s scope. The evidence I’ve begun to plant around the building is just that, plantings. Seeds I’ve scattered for them to pick up. In The End, they will show me how the story unfolds.

Register for Digital Storytelling

Martha Burtis

Among with Digital Pedagogy Lab

Martha Burtis is a Learning & Teaching Developer for the Open CoLab at Plymouth State University.

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