This American Textbook

When I was planning my Digital Storytelling class for this semester, I really struggled with the idea of not having a textbook. I definitely didn’t want a “Digital Storytelling for Dummies” kind of book. Nor did I really want a digital storytelling cookbook or primer. Actually, I didn’t want anything that had to do with digital storytelling — I just wanted some text that would be a good conversational entry point for the class into the notion of story, in general.

In the end, the only text I asked them to buy was RADIO: An Illustrated Guide with the folks at This American Life put out about 8 years ago. It’s a graphic novel about producing the show. It covers a lot of ground — from how stories are chosen, to interviewing techniques, to some of the technical ins-and-outs of editing.

I read RADIO for the first time a few years ago when I was working with my colleagues in DTLT supporting a theatre class that had a heaving digital storytelling component. The professor for the class, Gregg Stull, actually turned me on to it. And I really loved it.

However, most of my class this spring didn’t love it, for a variety of reasons. Some of them thought the graphic novel format was too forced. Others found it difficult to follow. And few were critical of the fact that it’s a bit dated (it still talks about editing audio by splicing tape.)

I still think I’m going to put it on the list for this summer, though. It’s only $5, it’s a short read, and, even though many of them didn’t love the book, I think they may have actually gotten something useful out of it as they prepared their own shows.

For my summer class, though, I think I’m going to add another “textbook.” I’m going to ask my students to purchase the This American Life USB drive. It’s got 35 episodes of the show on it and 1 1/2 hours of the TAL TV show. I actually got the drive for Christmas, and I quite love it. I’m almost through all 35 episodes, but they are such classic ones that I’m sure in a few months I’ll be ready to listen again.

I did have my students listen to at least one episode of TAL this semester (I gave them a few to choose from), and, in general, I think that they really liked it. But as I’ve been listening to the selection on the USB drive, I’ve been thinking that I wish we’d listened to more. TAL is such a showcase of amazing storytelling techniques. I’m thinking I’ll ask them to buy it and then listen to at least 5 shows over the course of the summer session. I may assign a few, but I’ll also let them choose a few of their own. I want them to think about how the producers and writers of TAL construct narratives, and how varied and multi-faceted the selections are.