Chasing the Course Arc: Storied Workshop for Kenyon College

After engaging with a group of high energy faculty/staff at Kenyon College last week, the answer for the Campbell Consortium may just be… “maybe”.

The question was set up as Seeking Answers: Can a Narrative Tie a Course Together? Whether there is such an organization as the Campbell Consortium is beside the point… or is the point… or is pointless.

Okay, I’ve done nothing in two paragraphs to initiate this story, I jumped right into the “ordeal” stage.

Late last year, Joe Murphy asked me about designing a summer workshop at Kenyon. They have had strong support under a Digital Storytelling Initiative. Joe relayed that they have done the personal video story approach, and the web 2.0 approach, and a few more that are in line of my spate of DS sessions- tools and creativity. I sense Joe was looking or something different- like the Courses as Stories podcast I had done with Bonnie Stachowiak.

Joe recruited a great group of faculty to sign up for this experience, from a cross section of subject areas- History, Biology, International student support, Library, Neuroscience, Education, Women’s and Gender Studies, Russian film & literature, and Dance.

This question, can the idea of finding something to drive a course beyond the schedule/syllabus, what I’ve used in DS106, the You Show, (2014-2015 at Thompson Rivers University) Networked Narratives (2017-2019 at Kean University), be spun into other subject areas? Mine were ones where a backstory was introduced, and my co-teachers and I played characters in it, tied by short weekly episodic, low budget production videos. You have to be nutty to do that much extra work.

Besides the subject matter, what can tie a course together?

Based on the comments of the earlier blog post as well as conversations with my nearby storytelling expert (my wife, Cori whose thesis was a deep study of storying real experiences alongside students) the idea of suggesting a class built around a fictional narrative looked narrow. And I like others may think of “narrative” as being fiction, when it is, as Gardner Campbell reminded me, was more broadly a word for arrangement.

So I built in spaces to talk about other ways to “tie” a course together, what was more important was framing in the storytelling concept of an ‘arc’ for the experience. This could be a large Big Question; a theme, a long term project.

It was a brilliant conversation with Cori on a scenic drive (that was to the Great Sand Hills, right?) where she suggested even making the workshop itself have a narrative. Hence the opening video sent to participants ahead of time, where I introduced the “Campbell Consortium”.

My idea for the workshop was not to come with answers, or magic tech, but questions. We would tease out the idea as well as do media making activities aimed at playing out metaphors and themes that could operate along side their thinking of possible arcs in their own courses.

Ah, there was one more wrinkle I put in there, and credit Joe and his colleague Ashley for being willing to do this… I was not there in person.

What?

You see, with my move to Canada last year, my travel status was uncertain into late Spring, and even though I did get my permanent resident card, I am currently without a US Passport (I had to mail it away for renewal, hoping it returns here soon).

We gave thought to surprising them, but that seemed a bit of a blindside, so we let them the circumstances before the workshop, leaving an exit door if it bothered anyone. They all showed up.

So I was present via video screen, not all that different from the ways last year I taught Networked Narratives and a MA Thesis seminar at Kean. We had a two camera set up in the small conference room, one on the back where the room mic could pick up all audio, and portable “Alan on a Stick” camera, an ipad mounted on a tripod on wheels. This meant they could move it around so I could see who was talking.

Joe set me up with a domain to hang my materials, I had him give me a WordPress multisite, and I pulled out the usual bag of web tricks.

A main site… for general info, agendas at https://storied.kenyoncip.org/

Web site for workshop with title Can a theme or narrative art tie an entire course together?

I also set up a DS106 style activity bank for media creating tasks, a TRU Collector SPLOT for image sharing, and a TRU Writer SPLOT site for participants to write up their ideas as of the end of the workshop.

The days were set up as:

Day 1: Exploring the Narrative Thread – overview of storytelling, more detail on the shape of stories (you know that means the Kurt Vonnegut video). We had a play with the new Epic Heroes card game created by Keegan Long-Wheeler and the rest of the Monomyth Online crew.

They got very engaged in discussion here, and they all wanted to keep their cards (or get a set). They added pictures of their cards and their responses to the Collector site.

Two images of faculty sharing their cards and talking
My view of the room during the Epic Heroes card game

In the afternoon, they picked and choose Image activities from the Make Bank (many borrows from DS106 and NetNarr) — Joe suggested good chunks of hands on creative time (no need to convince me).

One piece I added was inviting participants to contribute to an open Google Doc for the sessions, as one place for shared note taking (see Doc 1 and Doc 2).

Day 2 was The Thematic Thread, an alternative for those who did not feel like a narrative/fictional approach was a good fit, this was looking at thematic/topical ways of course tying. We had a great conversation about non-disposable assignments (with some well deserved pushback on the way I had framed it). There seemed to be good resonance with the Wikieducator type projects and a desire to look more closely at how those work. We also had a nice set of demos/conversations with 4 other Kenyon faculty who shared their approaches of using storytelling, semester long projects, and media making.

For the media making on day two, I set them up with some audio making activities.

Day 3 was aimed more at asking them to develop their evolving idea into some kind of “pitch” to make for some visitors, plus some video/animation type media activities. For the close of the workshop I had invited colleagues to come in via Hangout (thanks Gardner, Ed, Mia) as reps of the Campbell Consortium to give feedback to ideas pitched by participants (these were added to a “Pitch” site).

Yes I could not resist calling this session… Arc Tank (yes, I ripped off my own ripped off idea of Thesis Tank)

Words ARC TANK superimposed on a shape of Kurt Vonneguts shape of story curve, all atop a shimmering underwater view of a place sharks might swim
Pitching to the Arc Tank

For all the atypical workshopness I threw at them, they did not bend or fold. Many stayed in the room working through lunch, and I’m pleased to see the collection of ideas they wrote up. Any feedback you might have would be most welcome:

I did not see a significant taking up of the narrative arc approach. It’s a bit zany to do, is it? My tentative conclusion is that it’s pretty far out there, and likely best suited for the storytelling/media making courses that I have done before. But I’m not giving up on others taking that route.

Mainly I hope the idea of an arc can at least work as a means of thinking of a course more of an experience, a happening, than 16 weeks of assignments leading to an exam and roll the credits.

I sure appreciate Joe being willing to go along with this crazy workshop idea.

We are still waiting to hear back from the Campbell Consortium…


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