Recap: International Digital Storytelling Conference

Photo of boy with UMass bear
Selfie with UMass swag from the 6th International Digital Storytelling Conference, photobombed by brother.

Way, way back in 2006, I presented on my dissertation research at the Inaugural Gathering of Digital Storytellers at MIT. Fast-forward to late September 2015, nearly ten years later, and I found myself at the grown-up version of that early gathering, with many of the same attendees: the 6th International Digital Storytelling Conference, jointly hosted by Smith College and UMass Amherst.

The conference convened on a perfect fall weekend in New England, in parts I know well from my PhD years at UMass Amherst. Beyond many faculty and practitioners from New England, the conference really was a who’s-who of digital storytelling around the world, with representatives from organizations and initiatives including StoryCenter and Patient Voices, among many, many others.

Highlights from the Panels

Panel #1220: New Approaches to Digital Storytelling Practice (my panel)

I thought we’d be lucky to have an audience of fifteen at our panel, given its 8:30 a.m. start time. So what fun it was to find the small classroom crammed with over sixty people. Literally spilling out the door! At an academic conference, this is an epic crowd.

I spoke about how nonprofits and causes are circulating digital stories on the web. My co-panelists—Mark Dunford, Candace Walworth, and Angeline Koh—and I were united under the broad title “New Approaches to Digital Storytelling Practice.” Mark spoke about his digital storytelling work with youth in Romania, Candace about using digital storytelling as a pedagogy in a peace studies course, and Angeline told the funny and inspiring story of initiating a digital storytelling movement in her native Singapore.

Panel audience at conference
Panel 1320: Activist Affordance of Digital Storytelling in the Academy (photo from Masters of Text)

Panel #1320: Activist Affordance of Digital Storytelling in the Academy

After my own talk, I saw fellow Chicagoans Ames Hawkins and Ryan Trauman (of Masters of Text and Columbia College) speak about their work, and more generally how “alt-alphabetic” composition can be a form of activism and a way to explore activism in the academy. Funny how you have to travel 1200 miles to realize that you’ve got kindred minds twenty minutes away. Phil Bratta was also on their panel, and I very much appreciated his incredibly coherent explanation of how Greg Ulmer’s “electracy” pedagogy is put into practice in a class. See the panel’s archived materials.

Panel #2740: Academic and Community Stories: The IRB Process and Community-Based Learning

Another excellent presentation was that by Phil Peake, of Smith College, and Vanessa Pabon, of WGBY’s Telling Our Legacies Digitally project, on the IRB process for academic digital storytelling projects. The IRB has been a real stumbling block for me, and it was good to hear that it also has been for others. Peake and Pabon shared the consent form that they’d hashed out together over a period of years, through a process of negotiating what Peake knew his college needed and what Pabon knew her community would understand and tolerate. This panel also had a lively Q&A: many in the audience were clearly troubled by the complexity of approaching digital storytelling as a form of human subjects research.

Panel #3940: Digital Storytelling and Activism

The last panel I attended was a perfect cap on the event. First was Erin Barbaro from the University of Missouri, demonstrating the GIS mapping tool that her team developed, Community Commons. Barbaro showed how stories could be mapped alongside various publicly available data. Creative Narrations has transported its MOVE project to this platform. What I really like about this tool is how it enables citizens to combine data and stories to make arguments. It’s a great example of what Jeff Grabill called an ‘infrastructure that supports invention’ (from Writing community change: Designing technologies for citizen action, Hampton Press, 2007) .

Screenshot of UMBC Stories site
UMBC’s digital storytelling website.

Another pair of presenters on this panel that made quite an impression were Bill Shewbridge and Beverly Bickel of University Maryland Baltimore County, who spoke about their efforts to build a critical mass of digital storytelling practitioners at their campus. This was the sort of nuts-and-bolts stuff that I love. Their advice was fourfold:

  1. Bring people together and get them invested through annual digital storytelling workshops.
  2. Sustain a community of practice with biannual meetings, to discuss projects and progress.
  3. Make a website to display stories and projects.
  4. Apply for lots of grants.

New things to read, new websites to visit

I left this conference with a lot of new notes scribbled on my “to do” and “to read’ lists, including these:

In Summary

This was an inspiring conference, attended by lots of people doing great work. The conference has historically convened in alternate years, and the early word is that Latin America, Africa, and Asia are high on the list of potential sites for the 2017 conference. Start saving your pennies!