What the heck do I know about teaching?

Last summer I mentioned that I might be teaching a section of digital storytelling at UMW this past fall, but then that all fell through. That was probably for the best — it was late in the game, and I still needed to convince myself that I could actually teach this course. I guess I finally managed to wrap my head around the concept, because when the computer science department offered me a section for this spring, I said yes. And now, I’m three weeks out from my teaching debut.

I feel about as prepared for this as I did for the birth my first child — which means not at all. For the last couple of weeks my approach has been to refuse to think about the whole thing too hard. I know if I do I’ll start to freak out. But I have been thinking about it. . .sort of sideways. And it’s helped a lot that I’ve been on the sidelines as Jim plans for his online version of this course, to which he has invited the world.

But the time has finally come for me to put some stuff down in writing and to beg for some advice from my online friends and colleagues.

Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. I’m planning on more-or-less following the approach that Jim has taken for the last two semesters, in which the storytelling is about more than just asking students to produce discreet digital stories but rather to rethink their whole online identity within the framework of a digital story. Through that larger frame, I’ll weave a number of smaller, more targeted assignments. But, ultimately, (like Jim has done), I’ll be asking them to produce an overarching story on a theme of their choosing which may incorporate any number of techniques and theories we discuss in the class.As I read that I think it may only make sense in my mind. Perhaps I need to clarify? Or perhaps my goal for the course is to try and help it make sense to the class.
  2. I have a couple of planned assignments that I’ve come up with that I’d love feedback on:
    1. Understanding the Power of “Story.” This is one I’ve grappled with a lot. The truth is, I don’t feel like I have the chops to do a lot of narrative theory or to delve deeply into the practice and history of storytelling. Plus, this is a computer science class, so it seems a bit weird to approach this aspect of the class from a purely literary/theoretical standpoint. That said, it’s really important to me that we spend time in the class talking about what story is (and is not). I want them to develop a deeper, personal appreciation for how stories are embedded in their lives and how they are likely to have to grapple with storytelling in lots of different domains of their lives.The assignment I have planned (in the first week or so) is to have each student choose a short text that deals with storytelling in some particular discipline/domain of interest to them: business, psychology, gaming, economics etc. They could choose a reading that has to  do with their major or some other area they feel strongly about. I’ve been compiling a list of online readings that I’ll make available for them to choose from, but I’ll also let them search for their own. The reading is supposed to be ABOUT storytelling/the importance of story in that particular discipline or domain, but I may also ask them to find an example of a digital story from their chosen area.I want to use the discussion of those readings to build a foundation for the class to think about the nature of storytelling and the components of stories. I think this will be a nice, concrete way of getting at the topic — and it has the added benefit of letting them explore the topic in an area they care about.Thoughts? Opinions?
    2. An Un-Repository of Digital Story Resources. I plan on requiring students to contribute to a collection of resources about digital storytelling throughout the semester. I’ll probably use Delicious as the mechanism to collect/aggregate contributions (assuming it continues to exist).  I’ll be asking them to contribute examples, tools, techniques, as well as readings that they come across that could be useful to the class. I’d like to build a web front-end to this collection that is easily browsable and can serve as a persistent resource for our digital storytelling classes at UMW.I refuse to call this a repository because I hate that word and it’s not actually going to contain anything — just references/links to other great stuff online.
    3. Technical Stories. One of the assignments I’m planning on having the students do will be to create a digital story that is actually a tutorial about one of the tools or technologies we’re learning. I want them to understand that storytelling can actually be a critical component of teaching someone how to do something. I also want them to recognize that, no matter their incoming comfort level with technology, they are capable of learning how to do something on their own and teaching other people how to do it.One of the things I’m trying to unravel with this assignment is the potential expectation by students that this class is going to be about me teaching them how to use all of the technologies we’ll encounter. I, by no means, have expertise in all of them. BUT I do have complete confidence in my ability to figure out how to use them, and I want them to develop that confidence in themselves (and then share it with others.)
    4. Video. I have no idea how I’m going to tackle this. I know it’s been a huge component in Jim’s versions of the courses, but, the truth is, I’m not the film expert that he is. I don’t have the same background in film (or passion about video). I’m also well aware of how complicated this piece can be technically, and I’m a bit fearful of tackling something my first time out teaching that has the potential to derail things. That said, I imagine a lot of the students will be interested in tackling video for the course. So, I guess I’m looking for advice. How does a non-video person incorporate it into a digital storytelling course?
    5. HTML/CSS. One thing I’m definitely going to get them to tackle in an assignment is telling a story through rewriting HTML/CSS. I’m thinking of using something like Firebug that allows you to essentially locally edit a Web page. I want them to spend sometime thinking about that code they never see and developing a respect for it.
    6. Integration with the Online Course. As Jim’s online course has been developing, I’ve been trying to decide how/if I can integrate with it. At the very least, I’ll be “borrowing” assignments that he and others are coming up with. I’m also thinking of giving extra credit opportunities for students who sign up for his site and regularly complete some of the assignments that are up there. I need to think about the logistics of this, though.
    7. A Novel. I would really like this course to incorporate the reading of some novel or novella. But I can’t decide what. For a while I was thinking of Pattern Recognition because there are definitely some ARGy/digital story aspects to the Footage. Also, the entire concept of pattern recognition has some pretty meaningful connections to story/telling. But there is also a lot in that novel that would have little to do with the class (branding, corporate identity, globalization). Anyone have any other suggestions of a good novel? I’m supposed to teach this course again in the first summer session, so I might wait on the novel until then.

So those are some set pieces that I’m working with and some questions/concerns I’m grappling with. I’ve started the syllabus, but haven’t finished. I’m unsure how detailed of a schedule to plan out. I’ve gotten good advice from some people to NOT include a detailed schedule and, instead, let the course develop in the path that makes sense. But I do want to give some sense of the overall structure of the course. I have at least come up with some course objectives 🙂

  • Develop a deeper understanding of the concept of storytelling and the power of narrative;
  • Define for yourself the concept of digital storytelling;
  • Demonstrate proficiency at investigating technologies for the purpose of storytelling and meaning-making;
  • Develop an online presence that communicates your own intellectual progress through the ideas, theories, and technologies discussed in this class;
  • Participate in an ongoing and meaningful conversation with your classmates about the ideas, theories, and technologies discussed in this class; and
  • Publish online your own exploration of digital storytelling techniques and approaches.

Whaddya think internets?