On Being a Pracademic

This is a presentation made on March 12, 2015, to students in DMA 527: Digital Media Arts Survey, a foundation course for students in DePaul’s MA in Digital Communication and Media Arts, a program that has some similarities to my department’s MA in New Media Studies. In this talk, I’ve been asked to: 1) provide an insider’s view into my work with digital storytelling (careers, professional experiences, insights), and 2) promote classes that students can take, should they want to pursue this line of study further.

1. A Prompt

To begin, a quick prompt: Spend 3 minutes writing on the following questions, and be ready to share your responses: In your experience, what are the pros and the cons of learning media arts in a university (as opposed to in industry)? What do you like most about learning media in school?

2. My Path

Lisa's professional pathI’ve come to consider myself a “pracademic,” someone who keeps one foot in academia and the other in industry, blending practitioner-oriented and academic approaches. That blend isn’t always seamless, but I enjoy moving between these two worlds.

3. My Focus: Digital Storytelling & How Nonprofits and Cause Initiatives Can Use Personal Stories in their Work

What is Digital Storytelling?

  • Community arts practice invented in the Bay Area of CA in the 1990s
  • Prototypical form = 3-day workshop, run by a trained digital storytelling facilitator or facilitators, in which a small group of ordinary people come together to write, workshop, and learn media production practices. Each participant leaves the workshop having completed their own digital story.
  • Digital story = 2-3 minute video, which consists of a self-written and self-narrated personal story, illustrated with images from the storyteller’s personal archives. The storyteller makes the video him/herself, with the support and assistance of others in the workshop.
  • I learned digital storytelling through my PhD dissertation, which began by observing the work of Creative Narrations, a “social change consulting collaborative.” I observed and volunteered at a series of community training workshops run by Creative Narrations, and then did a year-long study of one of the trainee-organizations, the Boston-based education nonprofit Year Up, as it worked to integrate digital storytelling into its curriculum and other organizational work.

The History of Digital Storytelling

What’s Special About Digital Storytelling?

There are three core values of digital storytelling:

  1. personal storytelling
  2. technology and media empowerment
  3. community process

Individuals and organizations appreciate opportunities to use media for genuine reflection, personal growth, and community building. While digital stories are not glossy and professional, their authenticity can in some cases make them more valuable than polished media.

4. The Work of Storybuilders: Training Organizations to Make and Use Digital Stories

Participatory storytelling projects sponsored by organizations, such as the Massachusetts Pregnant and Parenting Teen Initiative, can:

  • Honor the wisdom of people who have experiences that they want to share
  • Enable peer-to-peer communication and learning

5. The Work of Dr. Dush: Teaching Students How to Use Participatory Media for Nonprofit and Cause-Initiative Work


NMS 509/WRD 530: Digital Storytelling in Organizations: students learn to make their own digital stories, then train staff from Chicago-area nonprofits to make digital stories and use them in their work.

* Next offering: Summer Session 1, 2015


My research focuses on two questions:

  1. How can nonprofit organizations and cause initiatives tell their stories with new media?
  2. What are the ethical complications of using personal media and personal stories for organizational purposes?

What I’m working on now…

Image of Stories That Work
Stories That Work: A Searchable Database of Organizational and Cause-Based Stories (click image to visit site)