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┬áThis 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.