Digital Storytelling for Creative Writers

TL:DR: Here’s the syllabus. (Links are clickable and they’ll get you to the “readings”, tutorials, etc.)

This last semester I got to teach a class fully focused on digital storytelling for the first time. I’d been adding units on digital stories and essays to my composition and creative writing classes for many years, but this was the first time I got to design an entire class to explore this material.

IT WAS AWESOME.

I’m still waiting on my course evaluations to see if my students had as much fun as I did, but I can tell you they learned a lot of cool new stuff and the digital projects they created blew me away.

In addition to offering up my syllabus with links to “readings” and technology tutorials, I also want to share some thoughts on my goals for the class, some notes on what I covered in each unit (that might not be clear from just the syllabus) and some reflections on what I would do differently next time. (Or, if there is no next time [SO MUCH SOBBING], what YOU can do differently to make this class better.)

THE WHY

My goal for this class (as with most of my teaching) was to make it as practical as possible. I didn’t want my students to just study other people’s podcasts and animated shorts, I wanted them to learn how to make their own. Given that this class was for creative writers, there’s just not much good in knowing what makes an excellent narrative video game if you can’t actually use that knowledge to create one yourself.

So I divided the course into 6 units, which get progressively more difficult technology-wise, and that build on each other. In each unit, students learn just enough to understand the hallmarks of the genre, what makes a story in that medium “work” and how to build one. Each unit culminated in a capstone project. Because we covered a lot of ground, the term I repeated often was “proof-of-concept.” The projects they made might not have felt fully realized or completely polished, but they mastered the skills necessary to take each project to completion after they left the class.

I do think each unit I covered could be spun-off into its own class, but I really wanted them to leave the class feeling like whole new worlds of story-telling had been opened to them. I wanted them to leave with ideas and options. I wanted them to have a mini-epiphany every couple of weeks where they looked at their work and said “Holy shit. I can’t believe I made that!”

THE WHAT

These are the six units:

  • Photo Essays
  • Twine/Powerpoint choose-your-own-adventure-style interactive narratives
  • Web 2.0/Digital Grafitti
  • Podcasting (we used Audacity for audio editing)
  • Computer Animation (we used Photoshop for art and After Effects for animation because the campus labs offered these programs for free)
  • Video Games (we programmed using Scratch, a drag-and-drop programming language made for kids that actually offers some really sophisticated possibilities)

Here are some random notes that might not be clear from the syllabus:

  • Did I have to actually learn all this crap to teach it to my students? YUP. And guess what. I fucking loved it! I spent fall semester learning all the platforms, programs and software I would need to demo them to my students and help troubleshoot their problems (thanks, YouTube!). I also made a project in each medium for myself to help me feel confident in what I was doing. Am I total master at any of these? No. But I knew more than them! When we came up on issues that I couldn’t solve, we used YouTube tutorials and web forums to search for solutions. It was probably the most involved course prep I’ve ever done, but it was also some of the most fun.
  • In general, this was a multi-genre class and the students were able to choose fiction, non-fiction, poetry or something in between for most every unit. I think the only exception in the photo essay, which i required be an essay.
  • Web 2.0/Digital Graffiti is my term for those gorilla lit projects you see from time to time (like poems left as Yelp reviews or flash fiction pieces on Craigslist Missed Connections). During this unit we talk a lot about the differences between public and private art (the different audiences for a downtown mural vs the Mona Lisa) and then extend that to “unsanctioned” public art (like performance art or street art or graffiti). We talk about digital graffiti as a kind of “self-publishing” and questions about access, censorship, etc.
  • When we talk about video games, I think it’s important to make a distinction between narrative games and entertainment games. I love Fruit Ninja as much as the next person, but I want them to make a game that will give the player FEEEEEEEEEELINGS. Just wanted to point that out in case it isn’t clear, or in case you’re not familiar with the rise of the personal video game!
  • The units build and the skills are largely transferable from one to the next. For example, we use our Audacity chops from the podcasting unit to edit sound for our animated shorts and video games. The thought-mapping we use in Twine pops up again when we code. I think the order could be shuffled up a little, but, in general, I’d keep it how it is.

WHERE IT WENT RIGHT

I tried to make the examples we discussed as a class as close to achievable as possible. Or, in some instances, we spent two class periods discussing “published” (I have no idea what word to use there) work: one day looking at “aspirational” work (Oscar-nominated animated shorts) and one day looking at more “accessible” pieces (animations posted by professional YouTubers). I think this is really important. We all know Serial has redefined podcasting, but there’s just no way your students can make Serial in two weeks. It’s pretty useless to them as a model for their own podcasts. Instead, we listened to clips from RadioLab and This American Life that reflected what they could actually achieve with their limited time and resources.

The projects my students made were, largely, amazing. Every now and then a student would have major time-management issues or just not “click” with the project or technology required to build it and turn in something that was barely holding together, but I think that’s par for the course in any class. What happened more often, though, is that a student would fall completely in love with the medium of expression and turn in something that really went way above and beyond what I required. That was fun to see.

In addition, their reflections often contained variations on this theme, “I had no idea I could actually make a podcast/video game/web project myself and now that I actually know how, I can’t wait to make more!” One student wrote about how, having been raised on cartoons, he’d always wanted to make one himself and that completing his project felt like accomplishing a life-long dream he never expected to realize. I may have teared up a little at that. I’m not made of stone, people!

WHERE IT WENT WRONG

On the whole, I really think this was a successful class and I expect my evals will confirm that hunch. But there were definitely a few things I would do differently next time.

First, I never found a really good way to get them to share resources. You’ll see that my syllabus talks about “tech help groups” where they can ask each other for advice, share helpful tips, etc. It became clear really early on that they weren’t using these. Pretty much no communication at all. So, after asking the class for advice on how to make this a better resource, I switched it to one large Google Group (Oberlin uses Google to host its email). A few students used it now and then, but it was pretty much a  graveyard.

This was incredibly frustrating to me because every time we had a “show and tell” day where students shared their projects, they would ask each other in amazement, “How did you DO that??” and the student would email everyone a link to whatever tutorial or forum had helped them figure it out. Or a student would mention a problem they had in their presentation and someone would say “Oh! You just needed to press ‘alt'” or whatever and I would be like THIS IS WHY I MADE A GOOGLE GROUP!!!! WHY AREN’T YOU ASKING YOUR QUESTIONS AND POSTING YOUR HELPFUL RESOURCES ***HEAD EXPLOSION*** But I just couldn’t get them to do it. So that was a bit of a fail.

The next thing I would do differently is I would schedule more “lab” time for learning Photoshop and After Effects. I gave my students a very basic Photoshop tutorial and told them I was fine with all their characters being shape-based stick people, but most of them wanted to be more ambitious than that. I wish I had allowed another day or two for them to work in Photoshop in the supervised lab setting so I could help them figure out what they needed to know based on their individual needs. As for After Effects, it’s notoriously buggy and it’s also pretty complicated. One more lab day would have made a big difference, I think.

Finally, I made a bit of a miscalculation when I was demo-ing Scratch and I had to basically level with them that I didn’t think I demo-ed in the most useful way and re-do the demo next class. That was totally fine and the second demo went great, but I figured I’d mention it here so you don’t make the same mistake.

What I did was basically memorize a tutorial on how to make a simple Brick-Out style game and then walk them through it in the computer lab. That was pretty useless for two reasons: 1. They can watch YouTube tutorials by themselves, duh and 2. They were just doing what I told them to do, but they weren’t absorbing any of the “why”s. I would say, “Now set ‘x’ to 18” and they would set ‘x’ to 18, but they weren’t really learning anything.

A better demo was one that allowed for trial and error and allowed us to think through a problem together. So for take two I started a game where you need to put a key in a lock to open the door and then the students and I came up with the next parts of the “story” together, figuring out what operations we needed to code to make it work. You can see it here. It’s very simple (and silly), but it showed them the process behind building code and that was what they actually needed to learn. Much better.

SOME KIND OF AMAZING CONCLUSION

I don’t really have an amazing conclusion. I loved teaching this class and I hope to teach it again one day. Maybe you’re looking to teach a digital storytelling class, too? If so, here’s my syllabus. Hope it helps!

 

 

 

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