Public Pedagogy and Placed-Based Digital Storytelling
The need for public pedagogies to complicate place-based identities feels particularly great since the media, fueled by political strategists, classifies citizens as “red state” or “blue state,” as though the state one lives in defines his or her personality. Thinking more critically about one’s identification with place, and places themselves, should be an integral part of critical, public pedagogies that seek to help rural and nonrural citizens alike both celebrate and critique their place as well as gain a greater understanding of the interdependence of their place to regional, national, and global culture. (Donehower, Hogg, & Schell, 2007, p. 188)
Discussions about public pedagogy and culture of place continue to be a topic of conversation in the field of rhetoric and writing (Cushman, 1996; Giroux, 2004; hooks, 2009; Sinor & Kaufman, 2007). Malea Powell’s (2012) Conference on College Composition and Communication address reminded us that spaces are recursive and places have “been practiced into being through acts of storied making, where the past is brought into conscious conversation with the present and where—through those practices of making—a future can be imagined” (p. 388). For educators and students to become active and thoughtful citizens, they need to develop an awareness of the ways they shape and are shaped by the places around them. Understanding our relationships to places and how they impact and shape identity has been taken up in Jennifer Sinor and Rona Kaufman’s (2007) Placing the Academy. In the text, the authors demonstrated how writing can assist individuals in understanding complex relationships to place. Sinor claimed that writing is “an act of healing” that can occur when “writers work to make visible the ties that bind each of us to this quietly spinning planet with an urgency that suggests continued ignorance will mean our extinction” (p. 7). Building such a sense of communal agency requires an awareness of how individual identities are both grounded in and often reactive to cultural ecologies, including time and place.
As Sinor and Kaufman (2007) claimed, composing stories that seek to understand relationships to place and culture can help individuals and audiences at once interrogate and make sense of their own identities and agency in the communities they inhabit. Further, through the act of storytelling, individuals engage with and critique the environments they inhabit. This act of cultural critique can lead to a questioning of the status quo or of the systems of power that often oppress marginalized people. In her memoir, belonging: a culture of place, bell hooks (2009) discussed how our connections to places can inspire artistry and cultural critique. hooks reminded us that multimodal storytelling can serve as an impetus for reimagining places and the stories that comprise them as well as assist storytellers in making sense of their relationships to culture and space(s). hooks also advocated the telling and preserving of stories that celebrate everyday life and that explore “our capacity to engage in critical resistance and our ability to experience pleasure and beauty” (p. 133). Linda Flower (2008) made a similar connection between what she called rhetorical techne, a “powerful art” that has emerged from cultural critique and the requirement that we teach students how to “speak with others or to speak for our commitments in a non-foundational way” (p. 2). The digital storytelling assignment I describe in this webtext worked to build in these tenets: (a) to assist students in exploring their own identities and relationships to the place and culture and (b) to use multiple modes of media to tell a story with and for community members.
Digital Storytelling in Practice
Community organizers, journalists, educators, researchers and others are using the digital storytelling method to assist individuals in the telling and sharing of personal stories for a multitude of purposes and in a variety of settings (Lambert, 2013; Pleasants & Salter, 2014). Research shows there are benefits and constraints to the approach (Sharma, 2013). Scholars in rhetoric and writing have documented how digital stories assist in understanding literacy practices (Berry, Hawisher, & Selfe, 2012; Scenters-Zapico, 2010), serve as a powerful forms of self-representation (Hull & Katz, 2005), and connect students to places and cultures (Burgess, 2006; Chisholm & Trent, 2013; Wake, 2012). The approach adopted for the assignment discussed in this webtext developed as a means to use a digital storytelling approach to build connections between students at a small private college and the rural community and culture surrounding them.
Digital stories are particularly suited to help students understand how identity and agency are embedded in cultural ecologies, because the process of creation includes thoughtful consideration of the ways multiple layers of meaning are “conveyed and recast across linguistic, visual, and aural semiotic modes” (Chisholm & Trent, 2013, p. 316). Additionally, the practice engaged students in considerations of multidimensional rhetoric (Halbritter, 2013) and rural literacies. In their video projects, students employed what Jean Burgess (2006) called vernacular creativity, which he defined as “a productive articulation of consumer practices and knowledges (of, say, television genre codes) with older popular traditions and communicative practices (storytelling, family, photography, scrapbooking, collecting)” (p. 207). Digital stories, such as the ones shared here, focus on everyday life and in some ways (as student interviews allude) serve as vehicles for empathy and understanding. As Burgess pointed out, this potential to serve as a means to relate to others could be because the digital stories themselves are marked by “sincerity, warmth, and humanity” (p. 209). As evident in students’ stories and their reflections, the process of completing a digital story that explored the life and place of someone else led them to engage with and understand the community around them in affective, different and personal ways.
Both the assignment and student artifacts shared in this text were influenced by feminist pedagogy. Each is marked by the relationships I’ve built with the students featured, their own empowerment through the process of creating digital stories, our attempts to build community, an effort to privilege the voices of students and local farmers, and a respect for the diversity of personal experience (Webb, Walker, & Allen, 2002). As explained in more detail in the Background section, the digital storytelling project was conceived with intention to help students understand their own identities and rhetorical agency in relation to a community (century farmers) outside of the university and to assist farmers in archiving the rich history of their homesteads. In completing the assignment, students physically visited the farmand interacted with one farmer, Mark Metzger. As they draw out in their interviews, through the initial visit to the farm and others that followed, they developed a relationship with Mr. Metzger. The sense of reciprocity or “wanting to do Mr. Metzger’s story justice,” as one student put it, occurred naturally for the majority of students as they interacted with Mr. Metzger and his wife, Dina, on their farm.
The connection students formed with Mr. Metzger and the impact of that bond is showcased most prominently in students’ video interviews, during which I used a feminist, semi-structured interview approach. The approach engages participants and researcher in what Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher (2012) described as “a reciprocal, and often intimate, shaping of information” (p. 37). The student interviews featured in this article were conducted almost a year after the video projects were completed, and so they reflect students' evolving thoughts regarding the impact of the project on their personal and professional lives. Additionally, my relationships with students have subsequently matured from the time the project was implemented, as I have continued to work with them in other courses. This feminist approach to interviewing allows for meaningful interactions and data collection as Selfe and Hawisher pointed out in their research:
[I]nterviews informed by such feminist principles quickly escape the boundaries of a single session, a single model or location, or a single medium. They proceed best when participants forge relationships over time, across conventional spatial and geopolitical boundaries, and around conditions of mutual interest (Kivits; Shepherd). (p. 37)
Similar to students’ explanations of their relationship with Mr. Metzger, my own friendship with him has continued to evolve over the past year as we have continued work with the Ohio Farm Stories project.