Seeking Answers: Can a Narrative Tie a Course Together?

This idea has been bouncing in my head for way too long, it’s time to get some help chasing down an answer. And I would be fine if it’s not the one I seek.

I have been contacted by a quiet, off the beaten track, but legit organization, –call them the Campbell Consortium– interested in the application of story approaches in higher education. It might be better explained in a short video.

Joe Murphey at Kenyon College has stepped forward with interest as well, and we are planning a three day workshop series in June to explore the question; hopefully we can interest some good curiosity and willingness to follow this line of questioning.

A recap is in a post following my conversation last summer with Bonni Stachowiak on Episode 218 of the Teaching in Higher Education podcast.

The question the Campbell people have (and I myself) is, what would it take to apply a storytelling approach in courses outside ones about storytelling. So I need some people to probe for an answer, even if it’s “not very possible”.

Having to explain this should compel me to write some kind of short paper / long blog post about it— this has been sitting long on the To Do shelf. What might it mean to have a narrative tie a course together?

It’s not about turning an entire course into a story, it’s more about establishing some kind of back story, or even genre/metaphor that the work students do in a class can tie into, so that it’s more than just a series of assignments (likely disposable). It’s like creating a some kind of analogue of plot continuity in film. It’s something that creates a backdrop or scene for what happens in a course. It’s making something propel the course with story methods of an arc, of building suspense, of creating something that makes you want to know what happens next.

Maybe it’s just my madness.

But here is my short list of possible examples, mostly drawn from storytelling/narrative focused classes.

  • It starts for me with the DS106 Summer of Oblivion masterminded by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), spinning the class as a web version of the movie Video Drone. The course itself became a story that evolved as it went. As Andy Rush noted, “No one shaves their head in an LMS”. I remember being a skeptical of the claim that a course needed a narrative (as you can see, I changed later)
  • The following Fall Michael Branson Smith picked up with a version for York College of a DS106 built around Journey to the Center of the Internet and a mysterious Dr Olivier (some blog posts are around).
  • In the summer of 2012, I co-taught a UMW summer course version of DS106 with Martha Burtis where we built it around a cheerful summer camp called Camp MacGuffin, where there was something slightly sinister behind the scenes. Our joke was that the first thing we did in planning was design our t-shirts. We had a series of videos done as counselors in front of green screen images of camp. In the end, everything blew up in Minecraft.
  • I taught an online version of DS106 in Spring 2013 (for UMW) where there was a loose theme that, as an online teacher, I was stuck in a black and white 1960s TV show. I taught on online version in Spring 2014 for graduate students in the George Mason University Instructional Design and Technology Program (IDT). — because the students were all working in corporate firm, the theme was DS106 Goes to Work. I had a weekly video series playing out a story of the skeptical “corporate guy” (played by me) visiting the media creative guy (played by me). These were all rather low production value videos filmed at my house on iPads and laptops, edited in iMovie.
  • The 2013 summer version of DS106 led by Jim Groom started a series of versions where there was a genre for the course, so assignments were aimed at, but did not specifically have to, use that genre. That one on 2013 was around the stories of the Twilight Zone, or in this case, the DS106 Zone. Later came ones themed around The Wire (jim Groom and Paul Bond, UMW Fall 2014), Noir 106 (Jim Groom, Paul Bond, Martha Burtis, UMW Spring 2015), Tales from DS106 UMW (a comic theme co-taught by Paul Bond and Jim Groom, Fall 2015), a planned Western 106 I had hoped to co teach with Bill Genereux in 2016, eventually run as an open course), UMW Fall 2016 “The Cover Page” (Kris Shaffer), and UMW Fall 2016 “Mission 106” (Paul Bond). There’s likely more I am missing!
  • Perhaps a peak for me in playing out this concept was during a 2014-2015 Fellowship at Thompson Rivers University. Working with Brian Lamb, we ran a DS106 inspired (meaning there was blog syndication, media creation, a daily challenge) thing we called “The You Show”, an open online course aimed at TRU Faculty. I pitched this idea of it being built around a “TV Show” hosted by two technically inept hosts (played by Brian and me), who were mocked by the two “tech guys in the back” (also played by Brian and me). We had visitors each week who played guest roles (like D’Arcy Norman, Nancy White, and Tannis Morgan). As each episode progressed, the inept hosts got less inept, the logo grew refined, and the video production got better– so that by the end episode, the “tech guys” in the back were not even needed. This plot evolved as we went along; each week I would sketch out some rough notes to Brian, we’d pick a location, and mostly improv the action in one take. It was maybe an hour to film and another 2-3 hours to edit in iMovie. I started doing more with multiple cameras, assisted often by Brian’s son who would shoot extra footage on a second iPhone.
  • I brought a fair bit of this You show approach to the Networked Narratives courses (you might call it a cousin of DS106) I have co-taught with Mia Zamora. The first year, I had suggested to Mia we create some mystery in our weekly intro videos, and after a few episodes, this folded into a theme where are videos were being “hacked” by some outside entities (who later we brought into our Mirror World space where the hackers turned out to be friendly). The videos were not even part of the course content, just something we put out there to build a sense of mystery around the course. We did more of these types of videos in the next two years, more as a means to build out the “spine” approach to course planning, not really as content. Because we were in different places, these were “filmed” in Google Hangouts on Air, and lightly edited in iMovie.

But again, these are all examples for course about media making and storytelling. The challenge is to now see what it would take to find a narrative thread in other kinds of courses. And without it being a significant overhead. Maybe I do it because I am obsessive and like being a bit off center 😉 The theme need not be one of mystery or darkness either, it just ought to be something that makes assignments and activities focus on something other than completing them.

This is what I hope we can get going during our workshop at Kenyon College, plus the extra factor that I will be beaming in via video.

Is this a mad idea? What suggestions do you have? Should Kenyon just run away from me?

Featured Image: Added screenshots of my blogpost on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast and the ds106 site to Arnold Air Force Base image of Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Spectroscopy system placed into the public domain as the work of a US Government agency.

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