The Aesthetics of
Digital Storytelling

By Sondra Perl

All of us on the panel this morning share an interest in how new media can be used in productive and exciting ways within the composition classroom and in composition research. My particular focus today is on digital storytelling. I will begin by explaining why I think digital stories are important; I will then show three examples of digital stories created by three freshmen in an honors seminar at CUNY in the fall of 2009, and I’ll conclude with a few comments about what I think this work does not yet address.

So, first, digital stories:

I first saw a digital story about five years ago. Interestingly, my response resembled the response I had when I first read Janet Emig’s The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders -- about 40 years ago. At that time I was a beginning instructor at the City University of New York and also a graduate student at NYU in search of a dissertation topic. When I read Emig, I knew immediately that she was asking the right question: not what do students write or how can we improve student writing but HOW do students write. What does the composing process look like? Emig’s questions, as we all know, led to new kinds of research, new ways of understanding composing, and according to Maxine Hairston, a paradigm shift in the ways we think, talk about, and teach writing.

I think new media brings us to a very similar place: if understood in all its complexity and used well, new media, I believe, can usher us into another kind of paradigm shift, one that has to do with how we conceive of space and time and that broadens and alters our definition and understanding of composing.

When I first saw a digital story, in other words, I had a sense that the future was here. That composing using not only text but also images, sound, and graphics was exciting, and complex, that it speaks to a student body raised on images, music and film, and that it gives prominence to what often matters most to me when teaching writing which is voice.

As a writing teacher, I am a strong advocate of writing groups, of asking students to read their work aloud, of setting up classrooms in which writers are expected to read and sometimes perform their work. Given the importance I place on listening to and hearing one’s own and others’ voices, it’s not surprising that digital storytelling, with its reliance on voice-overs, would appeal to me. For here, the actual sound of the voice does not disappear. The grain and timbre of the voice, in fact, become central elements of the composition.

I was also drawn to digital stories because they are based on narratives; requiring a narrative flow, they can easily build on personal essays, which is again, to me, an important part of teaching writing in freshman classes or in upper level courses on essay writing or creative nonfiction. And I was comfortable with digital storytelling because as I understand it, the text comes first. It’s the words that matter and need to be in place before the story is created in digital form. So in my classroom, when creating a digital story, the students follow an easily recognizable process approach. They write the story (or the narrative or the prose poem), take their drafts to writing groups, receive feedback, and revise and edit until they are sure the words on the page are the words they want. In the past, the assignment usually ended there, with a class read-around or a paper posted on a class blog. Now, however, the course just begins. Once the students feel as if they have a text, I ask them to go digital: to find images that would work with what they are saying, to locate music that is important to them in terms of style and pace, and to use the tools of new media to tell their story in digital form.

Before I show the three digital stories, let me say a few words about the assignment I used for this particular project. It comes at the beginning of the term; it is based on a larger study of identity and cultural encounters with the arts, and I also use it as a way for these entering freshmen who come from diverse worlds to get to know about each other’s histories and backgrounds. To start off, I use a poem I’ve used many times before, George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” which is a description of where Lyon grew up, the images and foods, the sights and sounds and people that filled her world, all in a series of stanzas that begin with the words “I am from….” After reading this poem aloud and talking about it with my students, I lead them through some guided writing and then they go home and write their own versions of “Where I’m From…”.

Today, I am going to show three different stories, but in essence, due to the assignment and the prompt I use, I realize that calling the results ‘stories’ is not entirely accurate. It may be more appropriate to call them ‘prose poems in a digital format.’ I have brought hard copies of the texts since I was not sure how well the sound would work today, so you might want to glance at the texts before we begin And if you can read them quickly now, I would ask you to consider if you would be satisfied with these as introductory pieces in a freshman course. Do they, in other words, hold up as early pieces of poetic writing in a freshman class?

Now, as you watch the videos, other than enjoying them, I would ask you to think about the aesthetic choices made by the students. What do you think they were aiming to say and do here? And what, if you can stand back and think about it, seems to be missing? Are there places where these prose poems do not exploit the richness and variety available with new media?

Please view the stories by Gio, Mimi, and Rachel.

If time permitted, I’d prefer to stop here and ask for response, but since we need to move on, I will conclude with a few brief comments and hope that we can return to the questions I asked at the end of the other presentations.

First, a few words about selection and aesthetic choices: Although I honestly could have chosen any one of 21 stories to show you, I selected these three stories to illustrate the different kinds of choices made by different students. Rachel, I would say, is the most literal. Her effort to have an image that matches or corresponds to each line becomes somewhat predictable. In the end I think this approach (used by many of the students) ultimately reduces the overall impact of the story although Rachel did write about how interesting it was for her to find the perfect image of lemonade or pan-fried okra. Mimi, I think, uses images in a more interesting way, not trying to synchronize words and images but rather to set up a rhetorical situation in which the audience listens to the language and takes in the images on different levels. She relies more on juxtaposition which I think is, ultimately, more engaging for the viewer. Gio, a student who tends to joke around in class, includes a dark side, using his prose poem as a comment, at least in part, on colonialism and white privilege in the Caribbean. This is a side to Gio that did not come through in his classroom conduct or other writing and hints, I think, at the power of new media for cultural critique.

Second: music. When reflecting on this project, all of the students talked about the importance of music. To them, this is the feature that matters the most, defining who they are and what they care about through the songs they choose. Two students, not included here, recorded themselves, one singing and one playing the piano so that their original music was the soundtrack for their voice-overs. One student used stretches of silence, wanting music only as a transition between sections. But all of them found the selection of music to be crucial to their senses of themselves and their identities.

Third: the value of taking risks in the classroom. Although I became interested in digital storytelling about five years ago, it wasn’t until this year that I had the opportunity to explore it in a classroom. Prior to this class, I studied digital storytelling and learned the basics by making two digital stories of my own. But turning this interest into an assignment in a freshman class allowed me to discover what else I need to know. Although I’m satisfied with the results, I now see that my students and I could spend much more time exploring the use of voice, on what it takes to do a voice-over and how to use intonation and pauses. I now see that it would be useful and important to develop a vocabulary for talking about what works or does not work in a digital story much as we have, as a field, developed and refined a vocabulary for responding to written drafts. And now that I understand how narrative can work in new media, I’d like to explore one of its other signal attributes which is its nonlinear nature. What would it mean to compose in collage form, for example, or to formulate arguments through juxtaposition?

I, for one, am only at the beginning stages of this work. But, in closing, I would like to reiterate a point I made at the beginning of my talk, namely that the use of new media is one of the most exciting developments to enter our field, a development that signals a paradigm shift in our ways of understanding and using composing in the classroom.