Digital Storytelling in the Composition Classroom:
Addressing the Challenges







The Challenge of Defining Digital Storytelling as a Mode of Composition

"I'm afraid I can't put it more clearly," Alice replied very politely, ". . . being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing." (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll)

Digital storytelling is not a new phenomenon--neither in nor outside of the academy--but it is an evolving practice, a practice which resists definition in a similar way to how Alice in Wonderland cannot describe her experience of growing up.The practice of digital storytelling originated in the "American community theater movement . . . in California in the late [nineteen] eighties through the collaboration of performance artist Dana Atchley and actor Joe Lambert" (Tucker, 2006: 54); this practice was later adopted and popularized by the Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) which still defines it mainly as a genre in which personal narratives in the voice of the author are enhanced with images and music. In community learning spaces where digital storytelling continues to be most widely adopted today, the same relatively narrow definition of digital storytelling is still accepted.

When digital storytelling was gradually adopted in formal school settings, especially in higher education, it started becoming a much more complex practice. Particularly in the case of colleges and universities, because digital storytelling has been used in as a "mode" of composition into which various different genres have been included, the original idea of its being just a "narrative" composition has been left far behind. As reported by McLellan (2006) in her survey of the use of digital storytelling in higher education, the adaptation of the practice has been taken as far as "performances and talks supported by media slideshows or interactive presentations; web-based applications, including streaming media, podcasts, and blogs" (66) and so on. In response to such expansion in the practice and meaning of digital storytelling, Lundby (2008) has argued that in defining the term we should exclude video blogging, media sharing through social networking sites, typical YouTube videos, and the recent appearance of sharing narratives via mobile phone (3). Thus, the first challenge of trying to adopt and use digital storytelling is to define it.

One of the reasons why digital storytelling has taken a complex variety of forms in higher education is that while the practice of using multiple media for composing or enhancing primarily narrative structures seems greatly useful to academic discourse, limiting digital storytelling to straightforward narrative seems inadequate to meet the various rhetorical demands of academic discourse in university classrooms.

Let me illustrate this need to adapt and redefine digital storytelling with an example. Describing her experience of teaching a digital storytelling course, "Digital storytelling in and with communities of color," which is attended by students from across the disciplines at the University of Minnesota, Raimist (2010) states that she and her fellow teacher Walter Jacobs started by adopting the CDS model of digital storytelling, but in order to adapt digital storytelling to the objectives of their college course, they "expanded the CDS model of [it] into a critical process where students were taught not only the technical skills necessary for creating and sharing their own digital stories, but also were provided with a framework they could use to interrogate themselves and engage with other contexts for purposes of responsive content creation" (282). The digital story that they produced for sharing their own experience of teaching, which Raimist incorporates into an article about digital storytelling, shows how much more complex the adaptation of the original digital storytelling can become when it serves the more varied and complex functions of academic discourse. Raimist states that she uses digital storytelling in her classroom in order to let students "build and revise identities for purposes of rememory, reinvention, and cultural remixing" (280); such a purpose makes the narrative the means rather than an end, adding significant amounts of complexity to the works produced.

In another case of effective adaptation of digital storytelling in the university, Benmayor uses digital storytelling as a means of "theorizing personal experience" rather than narrating it. She reflects on her use of digital storytelling for a course titled "Latina life stories" at Georgetown University, arguing that "digital storytelling process enables students to become authors in their own right." In the article, "Digital storytelling as a signature pedagogy for the new humanities," she defines digital storytelling as "a hybrid, multimedia narrative form that enables critical and creative theorizing. As an assets-based social pedagogy, digital storytelling constructs a safe and empowering space for cross-cultural collaboration and learning" (192). Like other college instructors who have used digital storytelling in their classrooms, she focuses not just on the narrative but also on the process of "digital story making" and "theorizing" them as an academic exercise that "empowers and transforms students intellectually, creatively and culturally." The works that Benmayor’s students produce--one of which I use for demonstrating my assessment rubric in a latter section--are not standalone assignments but a part of a larger educational project: they use digital storytelling as a tool of learning through experimentation of the narrative, research, and collaboration. Benmayor says, "I’m more intrigued by digital storytelling as medium of empowerment, a system of representation, and a pedagogical tool. . . . They are transformational stories that engage histories of resistance, struggle, and survival, and affirm new consciousness in the making" (ibid.). If instructors can align digital storytelling with their course objectives and teach it well, it certainly has the potential of what Benmayor calls "a signature pedagogy for the new Humanities in the 21st century."

By the same token, digital storytelling as a mode of composition cannot remain limited to personal narratives when it is adopted in settings like higher education because it is used not only as a means for telling stories but also as a means of argumentation and persuasion, illustration and discussion, and so on. In other words, digital storytelling has evolved in the academy at large for achieving a wide variety of rhetorical and genre purposes. For that reason, I am inclined to view it as potentially a set of genres rather than one genre; the narrative function is one of the various functions that digital storytelling can be used to serve.

Before I move on to discuss how digital storytelling may be defined and used in composition studies, let me link to a few samples that quite effectively illustrate the kind of diversity and complexity that I described above. The University of Houston's College of Education website has a collection of digital storytelling samples that cover topics ranging from art and art history, innovation and educational technology, language learning and language arts, place and memory, and popular culture and religion. As the artifacts in this collection show, certain subjects and themes lend themselves better to certain types of and uses of digital storytelling. For example, the digital story about art describes, discusses, and illustrates the history and other issues the form of art in question, whereas another one about language learning naturally fits into a personal story of struggle with learning a new language; similarly, whereas the video about a place is characterized by description and reflection, a set of videos about popular culture are diverse in their themes and approaches. Thus, digital storytelling in the broader context of education has been used to create digital multimodal artifacts in a wide-ranging set of genres and types of expression and representation of ideas and feelings. And it is this provenance and evolution into a broad set of functions that makes it hard to define digital storytelling.

As I indicated above, digital storytelling has not been as widely adopted in college composition as it is in other areas of higher education; however, composition teachers who have adopted it have used it in a variety of different ways. They have used it as a multimodal counterpart of the "college paper" that includes various genres and types of writing. So, in order to avoid the same complexities and confusion that the term has given rise to in higher education in general, I propose that we delimit the meaning of the term by developing a working definition that is neither too narrow nor too broad, one that also fits the nature of its use in our particular contexts. The narrow definition of digital storytelling as it is used in various settings outside higher education refers to the 3-5 minutes stories told in the voice of the narrator and illustrated or reinforced by stills, video clips, background music and/or other sound effects; the broad definition of it as it is used in higher education refers to all kinds of multimodal composition. The working definition that I propose here is that digital storytelling is a mode or practice of multimodal composition that is narration-based or narration-oriented in content and organization; it should be seen as one of the "genres" of multimodal composition. When using the word "genre," however, it is necessary to remember that, as in the case of traditional "storytelling," digital storytelling can take a variety of forms and can serve a variety of purposes in different contexts. For example, even within college composition, digital storytelling can be used for composing multimodal literacy narratives, multimodal reflective essays, and other narration-based multimodal works.

Dene Grigar (2005) sums up the challenge of defining new practices of composition when she said the following about "electronic writing": "suffice it to say that as a new form, it lacks easily identifiable conventions as well as a large critical and theoretical base, which exists for print" (375). The same is true of digital storytelling because it is still an emerging mode of composition. In my composition classroom, I use digital storytelling as a mediatized* and polysemic counterpart of literacy narratives, other types of narrative-reflective essays, and arguments or exposition of issues that are built upon a narrative core.

In our attempt to define digital storytelling, we must make sure to not view it as mere "digitization" or multimodal enhancement of print-based narratives. It should be seen as the "mediatization" of the materials involved, both old and new, textual and multimodal. We must remember that in a "digital" "story," if this latter term may be provisionally used, the ingredients become radically transformed into a new "synthesis" that is more than the sum of its parts (Lundby, 2008). Due to such transformation, "the author, as one "multi-skilled person, using one interface, one mode of physical manipulation," is able to ask "at every point: 'Shall I express this with sound or music?' 'Shall I say it visually or verbally?' and so on" (Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001: 2). The transformation affects the nature, potentials, and affordances of the media and makes the resulting product a different entity altogether. In other words, the product of digital storytelling should not be seen as simply a voice recorded narrative essay that contains images and sound, because the rhetoric of a digital, multimodal work always operates according to "mixed logics" (Kress, 2003) of the multiple media in a coordinated form.

Finally, there are a few other features that characterize digital storytelling as a mode of composition that are worth noting at this point. First, whenever digital storytelling has been used in the college composition classroom, it has been usually used as video narratives created by students, for telling stories of their own or someone else’s life, about places or people they want to remember or honor, about adventure they have undertaken or accomplishments they have made, and about past experiences whose significance they want to explore. Second, such works are created by using off the shelf equipment and software, as well as using easy to learn techniques; and most often they are narrated in the author’s own voice and accompanied by background music and/or images that reinforce the script. Obviously, such multimodality is not unique to digital storytelling but the technology that has enabled the integration of multiple digitized media is a flagship feature of the practice (Lundby, 2008: 8). Finally, "[d]igital storytelling should not be understood as a phenomenon equivalent to either oral storytelling or to written narratives. Digital Storytelling creates a new composition" (Scheidt, cited in Lundby 2008: 9) that integrates the written and the oral into one form.


1 As defined by Lundby (2008) in his introduction to the edited collection Digital Storytelling: Mediatized Stories, "mediatization" is the process in which a work in the traditional medium is radically transformed when presented in a new form, a process where the nature, potentials, and affordances of the medium is perceived to make the work a different entity altogether; this can be understood in contrast to its counterpart concept of "mediation," which refers to the process of transfer of the content from one medium (say writing) into another medium (say when the writing is read and recorded) whereby the original work is perceived to be basically conveying the same content with a different tool.

Ghanashyam Sharma