by Julien Gorbach, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
The years of the pandemic drove home to me how much I love sharing an actual classroom with students, but as our society plunges inexorably deeper into the virtual, there are amazing new worlds of opportunity now opening up before us. As media historians, we bring a triple threat to digital storytelling: we are already skilled and experienced in multimedia reporting; we know—or should know—digital media collections better than any other category of scholars or professionals; and media studies is our wheelhouse. Our students choose to be journalism majors because they prefer to make stories and media, not just study them, and the same can be said for many of our mass communication majors in general.
When I signed on to teach our first iteration of a graduate-level class on digital storytelling last semester, I did so with trepidation. The course originally had been proposed and designed by a technically adept documentary filmmaker and transmedia storyteller, but he had left our faculty before actually teaching the class, so my colleagues reached out for a volunteer. I had taught historical methods for mass communication before, and I was excited by the remarkable developments with digital collections, as well as by the issues and debates around those. I envisioned a modified media historiography course that would focus on the burgeoning “digital humanities” aspects of our discipline, with online student projects as the deliverables. But I knew my prep time would be extremely limited, and I feared that I’d show up full of ideas but without the practical knowledge and plans to execute them. I was confident that our class would uncover great primary source material and grapple with important debates, but I worried that the software would prove frustrating for us all.
I was therefore surprised and delighted to discover that as dark as our current times may be in many respects, we are living through a period of extraordinary innovation for media history storytelling. Over the past ten years, a broad range of sophisticated and powerful digital tools for creating interactive maps, timelines, and storylines have become available that are not only easy to learn and powerful in themselves, but also become exponentially more powerful when combined. Some AJHA members may already be aware of all of these platforms, but it's worth taking stock to consider what opportunities they present for our courses and programs.
I’m not sure how it has eluded me for so long, but finding Northwestern University’s KnightLab suite of six Storytelling tools was a revelation. I also discovered that our university has the online version of Esri’s ArcGIS, which is far easier to learn and more powerful than the desktop version and could quickly be made available to students for free. This is not just mapping software; it’s also an elegant web builder, with a variety of storytelling capabilities and ways of integrating those tools together. And finally, I found Twine, a tool for interactive non-linear storytelling, the kind of thing many of us are familiar with from the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, or from the interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, which appeared on Netflix in 2018. Again, I’d recommend the online version.
Once I found these tools and discovered how easy they are to learn, the rest of the course design was easy. The goal was for each student team to create a public-facing digital storytelling project by the end of term. We approached the course as a collaborative exercise from the start. We organized the groups by shared interests and by the multimedia skills and experience that each team member brought to the table. Originally, the date for the first project pitch was to be in early March, but within days of starting the semester, I shifted that deadline to early February, in order to provide more time for troubleshooting. That turned out to be a wise decision, for which I must credit the advice of fellow AJHA member Jennifer Moore of the University of Minnesota.
We devoted our first three weeks to the broader debates about media historiography and digitization. In addition to seminal readings by James Carey, David Paul Nord, and Michael Schudson, and chapters of Richard Evans’ indispensable book about historiography, In Defense of History, we covered discussions, for example, of what defines an “archive” and how that’s different from a “digital collection”; how skipping a visit to the physical locale of an archive often strips out crucial context; and how poor Optical Character Recognition, lack of images in a news story collection, or low-quality reproduction can affect what we think we know. Students also read chapters about copyright from Archival Storytelling by Sheila Curran Bernard and Kenn Rabin and took an online multiple-choice quiz that I created for it. But because everything we did was protected by the Fair Use doctrine, and because much of what they used was in the public domain anyway, I was not strict about policing their use of digital content.
We focused on “multimedia” for weeks four through seven—print (and historical newspaper collections); photo and video; and sound, with separate weeks on podcasting and oral history. (These last categories are two great examples of the fresh opportunities of digital storytelling: You combine sound with maps on a website or in a mobile app, and you’ve created a new kind of history.) We carried on scholarly readings and discussion, but also did readings, class presentations, and workshops on the respective skills sets. Weeks eight through twelve covered “digital tools”: timelines, interactive storytelling, mapping, data-oriented storytelling, and VR, AR, and XR. We also did a “field trip” to our university library archives and hosted guest speakers: Puakea Nogelmeier, a founder of the Hawaiian Language Newspaper Project, and Robert Hernandez, a professor of emerging media at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
I took away three lessons from the experience, two of which are technical, but important. The first is that with digital tools you have to be careful, at the outset, with integration: Many of the KnightLab tools did not embed well, or at all, in websites built with Wix, Canva, or other site-building platforms, and ArcGIS is itself a website platform. The second lesson is that while the tools may be easy to learn, finding the right assets—photo, text, video, etc.—and then getting those assets to work within the tools can be considerably time-consuming, even setting aside the time required for the basic historical research. Often links work, but students will also likely need to use software like 4K Video Downloader to capture video, or QuickTime to strip out the audio, and must keep in mind that some websites won’t allow them to grab the content. It is important to warn students about these challenges at the outset.
And finally, I discovered that digital storytelling may be a godsend for drawing students and expanding and enriching our programs. For projects in my undergraduate media history class this fall, I plan to partner with Gale and Readex, two major providers of online historic newspaper collections. Gale has a Digital Scholar Lab that will enable us to experiment with some of the most cutting-edge research tools, while Readex has some fascinating collections of Black and nineteenth century papers. Some mass communication students, I’ve found, love both reporting and archival storytelling, but others, who are fascinated by media past and present, much prefer the storytelling and design to shoeleather reporting.For years, media history has been marginalized by faculty and administrators who have decided the past doesn’t matter much. Digital storytelling offers us an opportunity to not only keep history relevant, but also to present it as vital to the current and future growth of our departments.
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