#AWP17 Conference Report — Kim MacQueen on “Digital Pedagogy for Beginners”

awp#AWP17 Panel: F124. Digital Pedagogy for Beginners

Description: From podcasts to Twitter essays to .gif novels, digital storytelling is on the rise. This panel is aimed at instructors interested in experimenting with this fascinating and challenging material, but unsure of how to begin. Panelists work to demystify the world of digital pedagogy by offering their experiences integrating new media into writing classes. Panelists also suggest examples, assignments and discussion topics appropriate for literature, creative writing and composition courses.

Panelists: Aubrey Hirsch, Faith Adiele, Brian Oliu, Adriana Ramirez, Erin Anderson

Conference Report

Five faculty members currently teaching digital storytelling in various forms at different institutions shared stories of both success and failure during this lighthearted, completely engaging Friday morning panel. If any one tagline can be said to encapsulate the discussion — which seemed designed to simultaneously pique instructors’ interest and calm their fears about the daunting amount of software they might have to learn in order to float a great digital storytelling class — it would be this one: Put the writing first.

“Remember who you are,” said Adriana Ramirez. “You are not animators, you are not documentary filmmakers. You are not graphic designers. Your focus is writing. Remember who you are and what your students want from you, which is to learn how to write.”

When she was first getting into digital pedagogy, Ramirez said, she “wanted to be all of these things. I would sit down and do all of the online tutorials for all of the software and I wanted to be able to do everything. And it’s not possible to do all of that and be a writer who writes.”

One way to stay focused, she suggested, is to avoid trying to achieve mastery of the tools students use to create their digital projects.

“Keep in mind that your classroom is a space where you’re teaching writing. It’s not a space where you’re teaching students how to use software. I give my students an audio clip of Sylva Plath reading ‘Daddy’ and I give them the piece of software Audacity, and I say, ‘Okay, you’re going to remix this. You have an hour.’ And they have no idea what they are doing. I throw them into the pool, into the deep end.”

The approach, she said, makes the classroom space feel like a place for play, breaks the tension and lowers the stakes.

“I find that play opens up all creative possibilities,” she said, adding that “some students will find that one effect that makes Sylvia Plath sound like a chipmunk that I did not know existed, and it brings me great joy.”

Still, Ramirez noted, sometimes things don’t go that well.

“Some of your students will not take to this. We have this idea that anyone born after 1995 must be a computer wizard. It is not true….” she said. “They’re people. Just because just because they’ve been glued to an iPad since birth doesn’t mean they know how to make things with it.”

Erin Anderson described assignments she uses in her flipped Pitt classrooms to introduce students to video essays in the style of Eula Biss and John Breland’s “Dust Off,” and other digital projects.

“I think there’s a bit of a danger when we approach the media as this tool that we just import our writing into,” Anderson warned. “Audio doesn’t really work quite the same way. Writing for the page is very different from writing for the ear.”

Writing for the page, Anderson said, allows the reader to go back and look at what they’ve seen a few pages ago. But someone listening to an audio essay ideally should be led “to follow you along the path as you’re going through an audio piece. It involves a lot more signposting.”

Aubrey Hirsch noted she was first drawn to digital storytelling after seeing Dinty Moore’s Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge, an essay told entirely through Google Maps, first published in The Normal School in 2010.

“I thought, wow. I didn’t know you could make a story like that,” Hirsch said.

She talked about the importance of helping students to realize what they’re learning about digital writing as they’re learning it, rather than emphasizing successful completion of projects that not all students are ready for. She advocated assigning written reflections on “the process of their creation, how they feel like their story and their chosen form for the story work together.”

“I ask them to tell me about their triumphs and pitfalls, because sometimes they’ll go pretty far down a road with a certain platform and it’ll completely fall apart, and they’ll have to start over and do something completely different. Which I think is great,” Hirsch said. “I want them to have that trial and error, and then I want to give them credit for having done that.”

Brian Oliu described elegant efforts toward his intention to educate students about literary citizenship using social media.

“My goal for my students is to make them recognize that the writing world is an active place that they are welcome to join,” Oliu said. “We don’t wish our students to write as a means to an end, or simply to get a good grade in a course.”

Oliu’s students actively engage in social media, whether they’re tweeting lines of stories in progress, publishing poetry on Yelp.com or following Augusten Burroughs while he live-tweets HGTV shows. The medium helps students educate themselves about their chosen vocation and realize the most celebrated writers are often just like them: “They too struggle with writing. They too order pizza. They too watch sporting events.”

Faith Adiele brought the panel home with a reminder to all writers that digital storytelling can and should reframe the whole writing and reading experience not just for teachers and students in classrooms, but for everyone, globally.

“New media ain’t new,” she said. “New media allows us the opportunity to return to ancient forms of storytelling, which are rooted in the global self.”

“I’m really trying to make my students feel that these are types forms of storytelling that resonate with what we learned around our mothers’ kitchen tables, and that they do belong to all of us,” she said. “This stuff interrupts nonlinear, Western modes of storytelling. So it’s an opportunity to really question what is storytelling about, who’s your audience, and how does writing in digital spaces then change how we’re read as well as how we craft our narratives?”


Kim MacQueen lives in Burlington, Vermont. She is currently a student in the Bay Path University MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She serves as a faculty advisor in Champlain College’s Communication and Creative Media division, teaches in the Professional Writing program and is managing editor of the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. She is the author of the novels Out, Out and People Who Hate America. She has published short stories in The Southeast Review and Creative Loafing Atlanta; her essays have appeared in The Morning News, The Fiddleback and The Stonecoast Review.

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