Creative transgression and belonging in digital storytelling

“Sharing stories and listening deeply…changes us… all of us.”

Joe Lambert, Founder and Executive Director, Storycenter


The app on my phone for the learning management system keeps notifying me that my students’ 30 second stories are awaiting grades. I resist and turn off the notifications. Before I can grade these digital stories, before I can think of them as objects awaiting assessment, I need to spend more time with them. Before calculating how well they met the goals and expectations of the project, I need to let their stories just breathe. In that space, what arises is a sense of appreciation not only for the artifacts of their digital storytelling — the stories themselves — but the action and reflection of digital storytelling. As I watch several times and reflect, I’m struck by the way each story individually–and collaboratively–enacts and reflects a sense of belonging.

The Oakland artist Brett Cook defines collaboration in this way:

“I used to think collaboration was something I had an idea and you help me do it. That’s collaboration. Now, I actually think collaboration means, how do we look at the expertise we each have as individuals and combine that to make something that is greater than ourselves.”

When we engage in digital storytelling in educational space, we are designing space for creative collaboration, or co-creation. Each student will approach the assignment in their own particular way, giving it voice and meaning that is specific to their interests and experiences. At the same time, when the stories are completed and we hold space to share them within the learning community, we witness the possibilities of a larger story that is more expansive and more complex than the single stories that join together. Each individual story shares the students’ creative expression, perspective, and sense-making skills. Collectively, their stories assemble into something greater than any one story. This does not just happen spontaneously, of course. It is not a given. Holding space for collective meaning-making is an intentional act.

Digital storytelling provides space for students to exercise agency over how they want to be seen. Storytelling practices, including scripting workshops, story circles, and rough cut screenings for peer feedback, co-create space where students are seen. It is both a space of being seen, and an invitation to see others in new ways. The linked acts of creating stories and making them public joins creative reflection and action in ways that are often transformative. This requires deep attention to and collective care for the ethical implications of gathering and sharing stories, and we draw on Storycenter’s Ethical Practice guide as well as traditions of ethical practice drawn from documentary and participatory media making.

I think of my students’ digital stories as tiny acts of creative transgression. Acts of resistance against the many ways that technology produces dehumanized learning environments. Against the ways that institutional structures and routines can undermine possibilities for students to cultivate belonging. In the commotion of the semester, digital storytelling is a practice that holds possibility for what the late education philosopher Maxine Greene called releasing imagination. In her book, titled the same, Greene offers this: “All we can do, I believe, is cultivate multiple ways of seeing and multiple dialogues in a world where nothing stays the same” (p. 16). In my teaching, and in the work to promote digital storytelling practices more widely across campus and in the community, digital storytelling is a response to Maxine’s call “to work for the ability to look at things as if they could be otherwise” (p. 19). This looking, this cultivating, this collaborative effort, is connected to the work of belonging in community.

In Documentary Research, students have just completed and shared their first short docs, a 30-second “snapshot story.” One still image and their voice. We’re exploring the theme of technology in everyday life this semester, so we co-created some prompts to help them begin to imagine the story they wanted to create.

  • Go back and look at your first post on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, MySpace…(some of them actually remember MySpace). What did it represent? Who were you in that post?
  • Recall an email or a text you regret sending. How might things have turned out differently if you had refrained from pushing send?
  • What device/format did you use to make your first “mix-tape” / playlist? Who, or what occasion, was it for and what songs did it include?
  • Where does play turn up in your tech-mediated life? In a favorite video game? An app?
  • Tell a “tech-fail” story, something that technology is not very good at.
  • Spend 24 hours without any tech (except for school-required activity). Keep a log of how you feel after 1 hour, a few hours, and so on. Was there a point when you stopped thinking about the absence of tech and just enjoyed the space to be otherwise?
  • Picture an important relationship that is/isn’t tethered to technology. Tell a story about that relationship.

Snapshot stories are brief, subtle, and very low-tech. (This is the first production course in the media and communication major, and we use WeVideo for editing before moving on to Premiere in advanced courses). But in the space of our class, they are significant. Each story is particular–a story about a phone call with a mom, a can’t-live-without playlist, a story about being the only kid without a phone in middle school. But as a whole, they gather meaning as a small collective act of creative transgression. Most are sharing their stories publicly for the first time and we recognize the courage and vulnerability in that. In the several decades Joe Lambert has travelled the world supporting storytelling work, he has observed this special meaning-making practice: “Often, we haven’t quite figured out what our stories mean for us until we hear ourselves telling them and feel ourselves being heard. Until we’re really heard, we can’t be present for the stories of others.”

This is space where students both know that they have a voice, and experience that their voice matters. Their snapshot stories–each of them as particular as the lives that brought them to the screen– invite new and unexpected meanings. After each 30 second snapshot story we pause and reflect, offering feedback about what stayed with us in a story, the seemingly small details that stop us in our tracks. Sharing what we notice is there, and sometimes what is not there, gives the storyteller a glimpse of how others are seeing, feeling, and responding to their work.

In these moments, we are unlearning some of the expectations we’ve come to hold about each other, loosening our assumptions and inviting more spaciousness into what we think we know about each other. Sharing stories widens the space in which to appreciate both the diversity among the students’ lived experiences, as well as what is held in common. This paying attention to what distinguishes and what connects their stories is an expansive practice that works in all kinds of learning communities, as a friend recently demonstrated this beautifully in a K-8 context. This is what I care about most in these moments, the ways that students reveal their recognition that each others’ voices matter, the way they listen to each story with care, empathy, and attention. The act of listening and bearing witness is itself learning. And it is the heart, I believe, of what moves each student towards their own greater potential as ethical, imaginative storytellers.

The space that students’ stories and storymaking practices create transgress those things that tend to inhibit deep, meaningful learning and connection (especially at the end of the semester). Disconnect, overwhelm, exhaustion, and relentless systemic attention to outcomes rather than process. The purposeful joining of reflection and action helps restore and cultivate a sense of belonging in spaces where belonging has been frayed. I’m reminded again that even small acts of storytelling–one image, 30 seconds–can help restore a sense of meaning, individual and collective, with enough energy to counter and transform that prevailing end of semester ethos. My hope is that, against the oppressive drive towards some foreclosed endpoint or outcome, students’ stories become a powerful form of participation in a conversation unbounded by the start and finish of a semester, a form of enacting belonging.

Young dubber turns punker. By Daniel Sadler. November 2019.

Digital Storytelling as Instigating Hope

Instructions from Martha in the digital storytelling track today:

Start creating your own designed meaning.

I signed up for the digital storytelling track at DigPed hoping for the space to make some meaning of nearly two decades of digital storytelling work. This has included teaching students in media and communication at Muhlenberg College, Allentown teenagers in a youth media program called HYPE, campus colleagues, and community partners.  My wish for this week is to renew my curiosity about digital storytelling, to unsettle patterns of longstanding practices and explore as-yet-unimagined pedagogical possibilities.

And I know that there is no one better to open doors to new possibilities than Martha Burtis, whose DS106 course is an ocean of inspiration. 

Martha’s call to start creating your own designed meaning interlocks in my mind with the question Heather Pleasants posed to us in opening remarks to set us on our path today:

Why are you here?

In asking this question, Heather meant for us give thought to and honor the people who have made our presence here possible.  Like her grandmother.  Heather’s remarks called to my memory an Adrienne Rich poem first shared with me by my own grandmother, years ago, when I was an undergraduate.

In Those Years | Adrienne Rich

In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to

But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through the rags of fog
where we stood, saying I

In asking us to consider why were are here, Heather specifically called on us to consider those in our past and present who contributed to the possibility of our being here at DPI–to name the we that gives meaning to I.  Rich’s poem, I discover, weaves into this reflection another inspiration, another resource for hope.  Maxine Greene’s 2008 essay, Education and the Arts: The Windows of Imagination opens with Rich’s poem.  Greene asks readers to consider how we might commit ourselves to teaching and learning in times of crisis like the one Rich speaks of in her poem.

Greene figures into other beginnings this week, including Sean Michael Morris’s opening remarks as we got started at DPI on Monday: “She writes again and again of the need to imagine things ‘as they might be otherwise.’ Not to stop at the point where we see things aren’t as we hope they will be, but to plunge forward with daring and to imagine them differently.”

Calling Greene into the space felt to me like an invitation to see, to think otherwise, during this week.  A call –and a space within which–to see beyond what is and into more just and human educational worlds as they might be.  That invitation is real. That possibility is immediate. The necessity is urgent. At many points over the last few days, I have been moved to attempt to practice imaginative work.  This was powerfully present in Naomi de la Tour’s workshop on imagination.  And in the hybrid session with Remi Kalir, it was a gift to bear witness to others, especially Heather Pleasants and Manuel Espinosa, crossing boundaries to imagine (in order to make) a more just social world.

Imagination matters because it instigates hope.  Not abstracted or depoliticized hope.  Situated hope. Hope that is rooted in a political project, a pedagogical project.  A project that offers an alternative to the oppressive present.  What Henry Giroux calls “educated hope.”

In reflections that opened the day today at DPI, Heather remarked: “We don’t seek hope in this space, we create it.”

These words stayed with me as I moved into the morning session with Martha and informed my interpretation of the work we were asked to do in today’s session.  “Start creating your own designed meaning” were the instructions.  With some of the tools Martha assembled for us, I had the space and opportunity to retell some of the narratives shared this morning in another form. Here they are, a tiny effort to call into the present a few instigators of hope. 



The last word here is Maxine’s: “To be enabled to activate the imagination is to discover not only possibility, but to find the gaps, the empty spaces that require filling as we move from the is to the might be, to the should be.”

Odd threads


Image from “Yarn and cloth making; an economic study; a college and normal schools text preliminary to fabric study, and a reference for teachers of industrial history and art in secondary and elementary schools” (1918)

At Digital Pedagogy Institute 2017, Kate Bowles shared with the Intercultural Collaboration group the language of warp and weft as metaphor for the relationship between structure and agency. A colorful woven scarf gifted to her from Maha Bali, track co-creator, surely helped prompt this metaphor.

Prone to invoking knitting metaphors myself–this blog is titled where warp meets weft for a reason–Kate’s reflections on warp and weft, and in particular the idea that it’s the very tension between them that makes the material object possible and particular, just captured me last summer. Kate was helping us make sense of the relationship between structure and agency in a vocabulary that spoke to my identity as a media scholar, and in imagery that spoke to my larger identity as a maker of meaning. Reading these final lines in her blog post published today helped restore within me some of the hope and possibility that I felt last summer at DPI:

Writing is the gift we give to ourselves. It’s the soul work of our agency, our refusal, and our choice.

It’s that important.

–Kate Bowles, Writing to the dark

I took up knitting when my kids were tiny. I needed a creative practice that was easy to carry along with me to wherever they were playing.  Although my beloved potters’ wheel had kept me connected and grounded for years, it lives in the basement at a far remove from where the kids played and rested, too far out of eyesight. I could carry my bag of knitting with me to swim practices, karate lessons, the park.  And in those first years, most of the objects I knit were gifts for others, mostly my children. A poncho and alpaca leg warmers for my daughter, a variegated vest for my son. Their interest in these hand-knit garments waned as they grew, and except for a baby blanket for a friend or mittens for my aunt, I feel about my knitting the same way Kate feels about writing:

It’s a gift we give to ourselves.

But time to write, like time for knitting, has to be cultivated and sheltered. And blog posts started but not finished gather like my yarn stash. Well-intentioned projects I mean to pick up when there’s time. And there never seems to be enough time to make meaningful progress, so I rarely pick them up.

No one observes my digital presence with as much dedication and care as my father.  A typo in a bio. A c.v. in need of updates.  A hard to find article. Aware of what a demanding year it has been in my work, my father has only very delicately hinted at these languishing tasks.  He recently returned to my website and took note of its new banner image–the one update I managed this year that I feel really delighted by. where warp meets weft

Dad: “I’m trying to read it. What does it say? I can’t tell. It’s not very clear.”

Me: *shrugs*

Dad: “It really just kind of unravels.”


Me:  “Dad, you’re right. It really does just kind of unravel.”

We laughed a bit at that. He still thinks it’s hard to read but more importantly I think he recognized he’d helped me grasp at something I was struggling with, something more important.  And instead of feeling impatient with his gentle reminder that my website was much in need of attention,  I mused that his comment would be a great title for a future blog post.

A blog post that never developed beyond a few sentences in a draft, but an idea that continued to stay with me and present in my thoughts.

Present in a conversation with Sean Michael Morris, who kindly suggested to me that “we are all always in a process of unraveling and re-raveling.”

Present in a conversation with Jenna Azar who knows more than anyone that metaphors help me think through complexity, who patiently helped me find some meaning in wondering about the way a particular bundle of yarn you thought was meant for a scarf actually is better suited for a sweater. And so you just unravel and begin over.  You let go of your image of a lovely scarf and turn instead to the shape of the thing the yarn really wants you to make of it. And what any of that has to do with work and teaching and learning and institutions anyhow.

And what happens when the work you care about and love is to create possibilities for becoming more closely knit together but before that can happen everything must first unravel?

Lessons in embracing not-yetness.

ball of yarn

Kate writes that she was startled out of her writing slump by a keynote given by Robin DeRosa last week at St. Norbert. Robin’s keynote (which is terrific!) included a reference to one of Kate’s old blog posts. In sharing her blog post today on Twitter, Kate describes it “a thank you note” to Robin…and to me.  I don’t know why I am gathered into that caring tweet alongside Robin. Nothing that I did last week holds a candle to what Robin accomplished in that timeframe, which includes the keynote mentioned above and another talk at SUNY’s Conference on Instruction and Technology, with a whole lot of airport marvels in between.

But I do know that in her caring “thank you,” Kate has startled me out of my own writing slump, reminded me of “the soul work” of my agency.

And so my own post here is a bit of a “thank you” as well, to Kate, to Robin, to Bonnie Stewart, and to others who are writing to the dark, writing about what is difficult, what unsettles them, about our work, our lives and our students’ lives, in higher education right now.

Practices Beyond Predictions



“There’s still a lot to do, to have commitment rule education and not consumerism.” — Maxine Greene

The new year’s predictions for higher ed are out in the last week.  It’s not surprising that many of the predictions hover around technology.

I want to offer a response to a theme that recurs across many of these new years forecasts, about 2018 being the year that small colleges make a big splash in online learning.  I have no qualifications as an influencer, futurist, or fortune teller.

My response to predictions of online learning in small colleges is rooted in practice, not prediction.

Towards the end of 2017, I had the privilege of joining an ongoing open conversation on digital learning and the liberal arts at the University of Mary Washington.  This post draws directly from my presentation, “Getting proximate, going for broke: On digital learning, education, and social justice” (which is online here).  In the last stretch of the talk, I sought to bring education and social justice directly into conversation with online learning in the liberal arts.  Some of this I tweeted in the days before the talk as I prepared, steeped in the early writings of Maxine Greene (who remarkably did actually predict, in the late 60s, where we would be today with edtech). Some of this I’ve shared since.  But it seems timely now, in response to the predictions, a call to action from the work in online learning Muhlenberg.

What should we say about online learning and social justice, if we speak from commitment not consumerism?

How do we move towards an interpretation of online learning that gets proximate to the issues of inequality and injustice we need to support?

The first social justice issue is this: online learning may open the door to an unprecedented scale of commodification in higher education. This is already underway and what troubles me most is the degree to which this path appears inevitable. We need to think strategically about how together we can challenge the epistemology of efficiencies and scale that dominates the Silicon Valley inspired dreams of online learning.

We must find openings and alternatives, gathering inspiration from Maxine Greene and others to attempt to look at things as if they could be otherwise. To engage our campus leaders in looking at things as if they could be otherwise. To engage our students in looking at things as if they must be otherwise.

We cannot do this independently. As Vinny Mosco writes in his recently published book, Becoming Digital, “to rescue genuine information and communication from the black hole of commercialism requires strong intervention.”

We need to imagine collaborative models and communities of practice that cross institutional, disciplinary boundaries, so that we can work together to limit commercialism in the digital liberal arts, which is also to advocate for limiting surveillance and extraction of student data in digital learning.

We need a vision of online learning that supports democracy, equity, participation, access, well-being, over one that privileges commodification, surveillance, and consumerism.

We need a vision of online learning that values education as the practice of voice and freedom.

We need a vision of online learning rooted in our liberal arts ethos but that also extends outwards towards those for whom a liberal arts education in a small residential environment is not within reach.

We need a vision of online learning that recognizes all students as fully human, as digital citizens, and treats all students equitably, over one that conceptualizes students something even less than consumers, as data points.

We need a vision of online learning that engages pedagogies that practice the value of voice, over one that denies student voice matters.

We need, in short, a cooperative alternative to the dominant political and economic entities organizing rapidly around the production and provision of online learning.

We need to get organized around activist digital learning that aims to expand the range and possibility of digital resources available to educators and learners.

We have models for doing this in multiple areas of digital learning.  Domain of One’s Own, movements around open education, emerging alternatives to concentrated ownership and control of academic publishing.  To my colleagues in the field of media and social justice, I would say that online learning should be recognized as a leading edge of media activism in 2018.

How might we generate with all of this collective spirit an approach to online learning critically and consciously informed by a social justice orientation?

Let’s take up Maxine Greene’s invitation to educators to “take proactive rather than reactive approaches to technology and keep asking what it is for and how it can serve the needs of humankind.”

My close partner and friend in this work, Jenna Azar, keeps me focusing towards one promising path in this text message sent while traveling by train to Fredericksburg:

“What we can imagine, what is possible individually, doesn’t hold a candle to what we can imagine and grow collectively.”




Deep in Domains with Adam Croom

We’re getting ready here for a 2-day visit from Adam Croom, director of the office of digital learning at University of Oklahoma who has done so much to help inspire and and strengthen our still fledgling Domain of One’s Own initiative at Muhlenberg (DoOOM).  Adam’s visit is the official launch of DoOOM campuswide, after a much smaller spring pilot with a faculty learning community and students enrolled in their courses.

On Monday, we’ve scheduled time for students to work with Adam on their domains.  The first Muhlenberg students signed up for domains last spring, just about 6 months ago.  Several more students signed up for domains a few weeks ago with the start of fall courses integrating DoOO in their work.  So time with Adam, who has been working with students on DoOO for a few years now, will be productive and purposeful. The opportunity to look at students’ domains from OU, and to hear about the work and ideas growing there, will hopefully help students at Muhlenberg develop an understanding that the work they are beginning with DoOOM is connected to something larger than our small campus.


The following evening, Adam will headline an event, Domains in Progress, that celebrates and recognizes the time and energy faculty, staff, and students have directed towards their domains since last spring.  This is the part of the two-day visit I’m most looking forward to, because it affords us a much needed opportunity to pause in the work and take some measure of its meanings, early impacts, challenges, and possibilities.  Faculty and staff participating in the DoOOM FLC collectively decided last spring that we’re not quite ready for a “showcase” of domains, like the Creaties at OU.  But six months into this work, it’s a perfect moment to recognize the early progress faculty, staff, and students have made in imagining how domains can be a resource for building a better home on the web for teaching, learning, and scholarship in the liberal arts.


Most of all, in welcoming Adam to Muhlenberg we’re inviting reflection.  Reflection is a practice and a habit that we aim to cultivate among students in the liberal arts learning, but often have too little time for our own regular reflective practices. Without time to reflect, it is all too easy to become detached from the meaning that shapes the work in the first place, as well as the relationships that are at the center of our digital learning efforts. If DoOO is about reclaiming some control over our data, our digital identities and presence, the space of these next two days holds promise as a kind of retreat into reflection and dialogue that is nearly impossible to sustain in our current schedules on campus.  Everyone seems to be juggling an impossible number of projects and pressures.

So we get to slow down just a bit, just enough to reflect on and think collectively about what we want Domain of One’s Own at Muhlenberg to look like. This begins with recognition and thanks for the thoughtful efforts and expertise of Tim Clarke, Jordan Noyes, and Jenna Azar, as well as the Digital Learning Assistants, who play such a significant role in cultivating a community of practice around DoOOM. (And without whom we really would be DoOOMed).

When Students Practice the Value of Voice

Yesterday I published a post based on my Domains17 Conference talk.  There are so many people thinking, writing, speaking critically about A Domain of One’s Own.  My aim was to talk a little about how I approach the project from a media studies background and how it might be connected to the critical social justice mission of the media & communication department where I teach.  Part of the story I was telling revolves around work that is deeply rooted in a commitment to community collaboration: the HYPE youth media program.  

For a decade, Jenna Azar and I have been creatively, boldly, sometimes defiantly working to ensure that HYPE is situated at the forefront of, and integral to, our department and campus commitments focused on critical civic engagement, student agency and voice, equity and inclusion.  We’ve held HYPE up as a model for partnership with community that is rooted in an ethics of reciprocity and recognition that such work must aim to transform our own institution as much as it imagines it is supporting positive transformation within the community.  We’ve also invited our colleagues to consider HYPE a pedagogical space that prioritizes what Michelle Fine calls “critical civic scholarship,” engaging students, ourselves, and community partners “intimately with the thick complexity of what it means to ‘do’ civic.” (Fine, 2012, p. 36).

I wrote in yesterday’s post:

Jenna and I know from teaching an advanced Youth Media course that these collaborations can generate transformative experiences for students who are interested in joining their studies in media and communication with struggles for media justice.  For many, it changes what they study, what paths they pursue after they graduate. 

Later in the evening, I got a text from Jenna, who was just returning from the Intergroup Dialogue Conference at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

Text from Jenna: The most Important Thing

It was a link to another blog post, written by a 2013 graduate who was closely connected to HYPE through the Youth Media course we team teach.  Experience with HYPE and youth media, encountering Freire and Pedagogy of the Oppressed in particular, opened up for Julie new possibilities for imagining her future.  For the first time, in her senior year of college, Julie (a scholar athlete and award-winning member of the college’s women’s basketball team) began to seriously consider becoming a teacher and towards the end of that semester she was interviewing with Teach for America.

Julie was one of the students I had in mind when I wrote the passage above.  I was thinking about the community of learners we try to create around HYPE and youth media.

It’s been four years since Julie graduated.  And on her WordPress blog, where she continues to offer a narrative of her experience as a novice teacher, she quotes Couldry’s Why Voice Matters.


Julie’s post reminds me that this work for students–hopefully–continues long after they leave campus.  That’s one of the ideals, I would say, of a liberal arts education, the habit of making connections across their studies and lived experiences.  Julie’s blog ( offers a narrative of her experiences as a young white teacher, first in Providence, Rhode Island and now in Philadelphia.  “I was a wide-eyed twenty-two year old…”

These glimpses of what she is doing beyond graduation, the identity she is constructing as a teacher, matter deeply.  That she continues to try to enact and embody some of the theory and principles that she encountered through HYPE four years ago is why HYPE matters on our campus.  That she sees her work as a teacher to include, centrally, practicing the value of voice, is perhaps the most powerful reminder of why voice matters.


Reclaiming the Web: Domains 2017


This is a rough transcript of my talk at Domains17.

It was humbling to hear Martha Burtis describe her nervousness about her Domains 2017 keynote.  Reassuring to know I’m in good company there in feeling nervous about this presentation.  It’s was especially difficult to decide where and how to begin this talk.  And then I remembered how we got started with Domains, with a visit from Jim Groom and his public talk on campus, which opened this way:

So what could possibly go wrong here this morning?

While there are a lot of familiar faces here, I’m relatively new to this Domains community. There are a few things to know about me that may help in understanding how Domains is situated within our work at Muhlenberg College, a small residential liberal arts college in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (If you want to know a little more about Allentown and the region, you can take a look at one of the projects a recent group of students completed on the history of slate in the Lehigh Valley, my first collaborative Domains project).

At Muhlenberg, I am a professor of media and communication, as well as the associate dean for digital learning and director of a consortial minor in documentary storymaking.  My teaching, scholarship, and leadership has long been preoccupied with struggles for media justice.  For two decades, my scholarship has been directly tied to youth media, and for the last decade that has been grounded in a rich and transformative collaboration with Jenna Azar, along with our extraordinary colleague Anthony Dalton. Together we co-direct the HYPE youth media program in Allentown (Tony is reimagining the HYPE website this summer so please check back later to see the awesome youth produced documentaries HYPE teens have dropped recently).   

When I started teaching, as is the case for many new junior faculty, I was responsible for teaching the introductory course in the major, “Media and Society.”  The focus in this course was to introduce students to a critical analysis of the political economy of media and communication.  The goal was to help students develop an understanding of the context and impact of corporate media concentration within democratic society.

I imagined that I was providing students with a critical lens for viewing mainstream media, hoping to make their quite familiar media landscape newly strange to them. So that they might see it with fresh eyes, with critical distance, and through the frameworks of critical media theory they were encountering in the course.  I recall vividly, towards the end of my second year, chatting with students before the start of class.  When I asked what they did over the weekend, one student commented that he’d been to the movies and added: “Dr. Taub, you ruined movies for me.”  Other students voiced agreement.  When I asked how I managed to ruin movies for them the student said, “ever since you taught us about product placements, all I can see are products, I’m on the lookout for products, and it completely takes the fun out of watching a movie.” He even added that his friends didn’t want to go to the movies with him anymore because he was so distracting pointing out all of the product placements to them throughout.

I might have thought to myself: good! I’m doing my job then. They’re watching film critically.  Of course, I wanted to help students develop a critical understanding of how media ownership shapes and constrains meaning making in our social world.  But I didn’t want to ruin their media for them.  I didn’t want to deny them the pleasures of engaging in media practices, even as consumers of commercial media.

As we talked about this, students shared that they were leaving my classes feeling empowered with critical theory but also feeling helpless, some even used the term depressed, by their inability to do anything that might counter the hegemony of corporate mass media and popular culture.

A quote from Paolo Freire

Maybe students were developing critical awareness but I hadn’t made it possible for them to extend that understanding into critical action.  Simply put, I had cut off their right to be happy.  While there was satisfaction in grappling with difficult theory, there was no joy in their learning.  In their extended dialogue on learning and social justice, Paulo Freire tells Myles Horton, “Seriousness fights against happiness.” (Horton & Freire, We Make the Road by Walking, 1990, p. 171).

This was in stark contrast to what I was seeing in another core class I had the privilege to teach, Documentary Research.  While the first course in the major focuses on critical media analysis, in this second course, the focus is on helping students develop as responsible, ethical media makers. In this course, originally developed by my colleague Sue Curry Jansen, students encounter the history of documentary expression and connect that to their own documentary practice in community settings.  Students create 2-3 minute digital stories that they research, edit, produce, and share with their peers and community members.  They are empowered with tools, support, and space to construct meaningful narratives in collaboration. Paraphrasing Freire here, inside the difficulty of learning documentary methods, digital tools and editing software, self-knowledge and happiness begins to be generated!  In Documentary Research, while students struggle with the ethics and methods of documentary storytelling, they reach the end of the course happy with their results and proud of their individual and collective efforts as novice digital storytellers. And students recognize that this pleasure and satisfaction and meaning comes from rigorous, difficult work. In fact, when alumni come back to campus and are asked about the course experiences that have stayed with them over the years since graduating, they always talk about this course.

Only a very few graduates of our program go on to pursue lives as documentarians.  But that’s not the point. In the process of learning documentary expression, students are learning ethics, accountability, connecting to community.  They are learning to narrate their own experience in the world through digital storytelling. 

I felt joyful teaching that course, that is where my teaching felt the most engaged, the most connected, the most meaningful.

So I began to consider ways to integrate multimodal composition into my other courses.  My desire was to intentionally weave together through my courses experiences that develop students’ practice in critical media analysis, and their practice as ethical media makers. What if I created at the center of all of my courses opportunities for students to narrate their own experiences as learners?  What would it look like to choose pedagogies that engage media and digital tools for this purpose?

I had the opportunity to begin exploring that through a new general education curricular initiative a few years ago and developed a new course: New Media Literacies. (Some of the work of that course exists here on our course blog).  The course explores how young people, in specific cultural and social contexts, negotiate and construct meaning through their use of and engagement with digital tools.

At the heart of the course is students’ participatory fieldwork with the  HYPE youth media program, where Allentown high school students research, shoot, edit, and produce documentary media about social justice issues in their community. Muhlenberg students collaborate with the teens, in a kind of collegial pedagogy (see Soep and Chavez 2010).  Jenna and I know from teaching an advanced Youth Media course that these collaborations can generate transformative experiences for students who are interested in joining their studies in media and communication with struggles for media justice.  For many, it changes what they study, what paths they pursue after they graduate. 

To illustrate, I want to share a story about a student in New Media Literacies, Erik, who just graduated last month.  Erik enrolled in the course as a first year student, who introduced himself to his peers on the first day of class as a football player, a first generation college student, Latino, and made it clear that he recognized that responsibility and brought it into the space of the class.  He was especially excited about the opportunities for multimodal composition in the course—he had an active presence on Tumblr and Instagram and often came to class excited to share his latest post. Between classes he often sent us provocative posts he read the he was relating to course topics.

One morning, he came into class and asked to share a piece he wrote over the weekend.  He sat at the front of the room and read a powerful spoke word poem, a reflection he described as prompted by one of the course readings and conversations at HYPE. Erik’s spoken word piece overwhelmed us all.  We spent the entire class discussing his piece, which illustrated in so many ways the theories of critical new media literacies that we were reading about.  It went beyond those readings to exemplify and embody new media literacy as practice.

From the intimate space of our course, Erik then stepped out into the more public space of the annual multicultural block party and performed his piece there, mic in hand.  His peers recorded it on their phones and shared it to social media.  It was posted to the multicultural center’s facebook page and the likes alone registered just a glimpse of the impact his voice was having. But the video was rough, the sound was poor. So we encouraged him to film it again.  Here’s what he did, with Tony Dalton’s support.

This was a powerful lesson in what it looks like to create space in class and at the center and corners of campus for students to narrate their experience in the world.  Space and opportunities for their voices to be heard by others.  To know, to experience, that his voice matters. This was a stepping off point for Erik—a moment at which he enlarged the space of his engagement on campus, going on to become the co-president of Comunidad Latina.


Why does this matter?  Here’s where I want to extend the conversation on VOICE already happening in the Domains community. To do so, I want to invoke the work of Nick Couldry, a British media scholar, who argues in his book Why Voice Matters that we are experiencing a contemporary crisis of voice—across political, economic, social domains.  At root, he argues, is a pervasive doctrine of neoliberalism that denies voice matters.

Increasingly, the systems of higher ed in which we work are being reorganized and realigned around the values and interests and logics of neoliberalism. This poses challenges for those of us who see our work as tied to expanding possibilities for student voice and agency. 

Couldry is not, of course, the only critic documenting the incursions of neoliberalism into education and other swaths of human social activity.  But his critique stands out to me for its focus on voice.  I won’t do justice to Couldry’s complex argument here, which engages sociology, economics, philosophy, and other theoretical fields.  But basically the heart of his argument is this: neoliberalism denies voice matters. Neoliberalism creates systems in which people are treated as if they lack the capacity for voice, for rendering an account of their experience.

For Couldry, voice is not simply “expressing one’s opinion or perspective.” Couldry is working with the idea of voice as a VALUE. This includes the act of valuing, choosing to value, frameworks for organizing human activity and resources that put the value of voice into practice.  This means choosing against frameworks that devalue, deny, or undermine voice.

How does neoliberalism deny the value of voice? According to Couldry, 1) by imposing a view of life that values market functioning above all, as the overwhelming priority; and 2) by gutting the place of the social in politics and economics. (just think about health care, education, climate science, we could go on…) The result is a CRISIS OF VOICE under neoliberalism.  According to economists, Couldry reminds us, voice is an “externality of market functioning.”

Note: Couldry published Why Voice Matters in 2010.  Since then, we have seen emerge several critical examples of people’s capacities for social cooperation based on voice, including Black Lives Matter, the 2017 Women’s March, the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.  Couldry would have us see these not only as forms of political representation—but from a broader account of how human beings are in the world.  

One response to this crisis, Couldry suggests, is to actively favor frameworks that value voice as a process.  And what I want to consider in the remainder of this talk is the idea that Domain of One’s Own is a framework for organizing the human activity of teaching and learning that intentionally values voice as a process. 

There are so many ways of organizing teaching and learning that undermine, deny, of variously diminish voice–and while I am thinking primarily of student voice, we might also give an account of the ways that faculty voices are undermined, and the ways that staff voices are undermined.  In the framework provided by Couldry, we might consider Learning Management Systems, Learning Analytics, Machine Learning, etc. as ways of organizing the human activities of education that deny voice matters. They share in common a market rationality that denies the value of voice (beyond consumer voice). 

Domain of One’s Own provides the resources and materials from which a student can build an account of herself, a digital, multimodal narrative of her experience in the world.  That is a form of valuing voice.

A bird's nest

I imagine Domain of One’s Own as a nest—a tiny space in a vast wide open sky nurturing intellectual, creative, political possibilities, nurturing communities of critical learners, makers, producers.  A place where students’ fledgling interests, ideas, projects are nurtured, cared for.  A pocket of possibilities and a structure to shelter new ideas that don’t easily find a home elsewhere online. 

In introducing Domains at Muhlenberg, I’ve closely collaborated with  Tim Clarke, who administers our Domains project, has created outstanding documentation, and co-facilitated a faculty learning community on Domains with me. Tim used to have a Twitter profile with a quote from They Might Be Giants: “make a little birdhouse in your soul.”  So I’m liking nest metaphor, and it fits with our DoOO instance at Muhlenberg, which we’ve titled:  And it fits, too, with the ways that all of us on the Digital Learning Team are hoping to help students, faculty, and staff build their own domains as space for nurturing their creative and intellectual projects.

So many spaces within higher ed increasingly push the value of self-promotion, of marketing one’s skills, and a focus on individualistic gain (grades, jobs, credentials).  Can Domain of One’s Own be part of an effort to renew a culture that values connection and collective action? Inquiry tied not only to one’s self gain but to some notion of the social good?

At Muhlenberg, we’ve only been working with Domains for a semester, so my comments here gesture towards the hopeful.  But even in that short time, I see evidence that a domain can be a nest for developing students’ learning as students and as activists who embody a commitment to critical digital and civic engagement.  As learners who are developing digital presence beyond market narratives.

This is Jazzy’s domain.  An art studio major and a Digital Learning Assistant, Jazzy graduated in 2017.  In her last two months of college, she worked with Jenna and Tim to migrate her work off and onto her own domain,  The site documents her senior art project and other work as an emerging artist.


Jazzy’s project is such a powerful example of Domain of One’s Own as practicing the value of voice.  Here, she’s claiming her own agency, as an emerging working artist, while also using her Domain as a space for other women to reclaim their bodies, a space for female voice.  On the one hand, she’s cultivating a powerful individual presence, making her domain the hub for an already intentional social media presence.  At the same time, she’s connecting her own personal digital empowerment to a call for collective action and participation.  It’s a platform for marketing her work (she sells her work on RedBubble) but it’s not just to market and promote. She offers a narrative of herself beyond and unbounded by market logics.  It’s not just self-branding.


This movement between documenting one’s learning, highlighting one’s growth as a student, showcasing talents and gesturing towards something larger than individual achievements, can be a tricky tension.  If Domain of One’s Own is to hold onto any kind of radical possibility for students, it cannot be reduced to self-branding.  As we introduce students to Domains, it’s necessary to engage in dialogue that frames the value of creating their own domain in a wider lens. As Martha suggested this morning in her keynote, we need to push “beyond the pragmatic and practical goals of the project,” “to grapple with the Web in deep and discerning ways.”  Reclaiming control over their digital identity, their data, their work—that’s important work for students, even vital. But we can also explore with students the need to create the web beyond self-promotion, in ways that hold each other up.  The way Jazzy is using her tiny space on the web to hold up other feminists.  How do we hang on to the possibility of Domains as a strategy that interrupts the neoliberal attack on voice, on education, on the social?  So that it grows as a space for counter narratives like the one Jazzy is offering?

As we grow into our second year, building on the strong foundation and support that Adam Croom, Martha Burtis, Jim Groom Lauren Brumfeld and others have generously offered, I want to think of Domains not only as a student’s individual project to reclaim control, agency, and voice, but also as a project that might remind us of what Michelle Fine calls our “desperate need for rich interdependence” (“Critical Civic Research,” Civic Provocations, Brining Theory to Practice, 2012, p. 35)   This is what draws me to Domain of One’s Own–a rich interdependence among folks at participating sites. 

At Middlebury, the Domains project is called MiddCreate and the landing page pictures three people in a garden—two women are holding watering cans and a man is kneeling and has his hands in the soil near what looks to be some Swiss chard.  Text over the image says: It’s your digital garden. What will you grow?  What I love about this framing is that it lends itself not only to a recognition of the cultivating, nurturing, and growing that happens when students have a domain of their own.  But also, as any serious gardener knows, it’s what’s beneath the soil that really matters:  a deep entangled intricate network of roots sustaining it all.


A nest is a kind of pocket.  I think that Domains can be a small pocket of resistance (this is a reference to another voice we lost recently, the late John Berger, and his book, The Shape of a Pocket).  It can be a resource for addressing the crisis of voice and thinking beyond the neoliberal framework that produces that crisis.  A framework and a set of practices that intentionally value voice.  I’m trying to think about Domain of One’s Own as a framework for cultivating student voice as a process—the ability for students to construct an account of themselves, a narrative of their experience in the world.  A way of organizing teaching and learning that puts the value of voice into practice, so that students–even when confronted with what seem like almost insurmountable injustices–never give in to programmed helplessness.

During the same year that we launched our Domains project, the drumbeat of market competition as the dominant principle in higher education grew louder and louder.  Liberal arts institutions have been especially preoccupied with this, hard pressed to justify the value of the soaringly high cost of a private, residential campus experience.  Domain of One’s Own can be useful as both a tool and a counter-narrative to the neoliberal reorganization of teaching and learning.  Or it can play right into that agenda.  Domain of One’s Own can offer a resource for valuing voice as process, for—as Judith Butler says—giving an account of oneself. (“I cannot give an account of myself without accounting for the social conditions under which I emerge.”)  For holding onto the belief that other alternatives are possible.

We have a long battle to repair the damage of neoliberalism’s assault on higher ed.  The growing precarity for contingent faculty labor, increasing focus on revenue generation, academic capitalism, rising tuition and costs…I’m not suggesting that Domain of One’s Own repairs any of this.  Of course it doesn’t.  But I do think it is possible to situate Domain of One’s Own in ways that might do some repair work around, in particular, technology and voice.  It can at least be a resource to help challenge this dominant view of the neoliberal university.  Where are there spaces to continue to imagine that other worlds are possible?

Where are the radical possibilities within higher ed? How can we connect Domains to those initiatives?  To civic engagement? Global studies? LGBTQ initiatives? Teacher Ed? Departments with social justice missions? Initiatives like Intergroup Dialogue? Where are the spaces/partners working to advance social solidarities? And how can we propose Domains as an ally, an amplifier, to these efforts?

Because voice does matter, not just for one’s own individual benefit, but for the collective.  To emphasize something that Martha Burtis explored in her keynote this morning, I want to ask us to think about how we can keep Domain of One’s Own bold and outrageous. How do we protect it from dissolving into the landscape of higher education individualism? As times grow more desperately unequal, we have to sustain community at the heart of Domain of One’s Own, as well as other forms of digital pedagogy and praxis.  It can easily be eclipsed by the individualism that characterizes so much of the ethos driving tech implementation in higher ed.  Of course we need to know and demonstrate that liberal arts skills are marketable for our graduates.  But I think Jazzy and Erik show us that there is more to the story.

I want to end with a thought from Vivian Gussin Paley.  As a kindergarten teacher and an ethnographer of her own sites of learning, Paley offers some of the most deeply humane and incisive critique of educational technology I have encountered.  

If you believe, as I do, that a brown crayon is also an educational technology.