Digital storytelling is by definition a mashup – -a bricolage of images, music, words, memes, and other cultural flotsam to tell a story.  And, as I tried to point out in a previous post, digital storytelling can really change relationships between students and texts, learning and teaching, and even classroom and extra-mural student identities.  But a big issue posed to teachers by digital storytelling is the question of evaluation.

Most digital storytelling is descriptive – – either documenting personal or (sometimes) public experience.

When I started out using digital storytelling in my lit. classes, my purpose was similar: document your experience of a poem.  However, the more my classes explored multimedia textuality, the more I began to wonder if digital storytelling couldn’t also be used as an analytical medium.  That is, could students explicitly “present” an interpretation of literary texts through multimedia textuality?

To attempt this, a few basic shifts were in order.  I’d already tried “crowd-sourcing” rubrics for evaluating student-authored multimedia texts.  In this semester’s version of digital storytelling, I created a rubric that tried to nudge students away from the illustrative or descriptive.  While keeping them focused on crafting a good video, I emphasized the idea that the mashup was an interpretation, an interpretation that began with the way their voices interpreted the poem through oral performance.  I especially tried to wave students away from simple res et verba efforts: e.g. a Phil Levine poem uses the word “fire,” hence insert a visual image of fire.  I changed the name of the assignment, from “YouTubing Poetry” to “Digital Commentary,” to emphasize the shift from description to criticism.

Still, how was I to evaluate the critical and interpretive dimensions of the digital commentary?  And, how could I demonstrate to the students that a mashup doesn’t just illustrate a poem but also, like good criticism, shifts the ways we understand that poem?

And so, in my Literature of Labor class, my students picked their favorite poems from Philip Levine’s fantastic 1991 collection, What Work Is.  I set them loose with iMovie and some cheerleading.  And, they produced some outstanding mashups.

To think about the critical purpose and effect of digital media, I tried an experiment a few days into our mashing-up of Levine.  First, I chose a couple of the very first posted commentaries.  One of these was a mashup of Levine’s poem, “Gin.”  In class, I first read “Gin” and, after, asked the students to write down: the key words or images that struck them; and, second, to write a paragraph or two explaining the meaning of the poem — – e.g. their snap interpretation.  Then, I showed them their comrade’s digital commentary/mashup version of the poem and repeated my instructions: what key words or images did they recall; write a paragraph or two explaining the meaning of the poem.  Then, we had a discussion about the differences between these two paragraphs, e.g. how the digital commentary had altered their understanding of the poem.

Here’s the mashup we looked at:

Obviously, there’s a lot to talk about in this mashup, especially about how the students have interpreted some themes common to Levine’s collection – – nostalgia, working-class manhood, irony.  But, I want to focus on how the students understood the changes that the digital commentary made to their interpretation of the poem.

First, very few students – – maybe 3 or 4 out of a class of 45 – – said that the mashup hadn’t changed anything.

Many of the students noted how the digital commentary underscored Levine’s sense of humor.

The use of masks in the video elicited a lot of commentary: one student explained how the masks hooked up with Levine’s play on the word “spirits”; another student noted how the use of the masks emphasized Levine’s idea of drinking as a way of “diluting or hiding from oneself”; a student described how the masks seemed to make the digital commentators into “outlaws” and how this worked with Levine’s irony about the ways rebellion, e.g. underage drinking, can be just another way of conforming.

Many students in the class reported that the digital commentary revealed a new, collective dimension to the poem and Levine’s collection.  In other words, the digital commentary shifted the poem from a bittersweet paean to youthful innocence to an exploration of how adolescence is a “communal” experience.  The way the three masked gin-swillers chorused key lines underscored the poem’s real focus; as one student wrote, “Gin” is “not about the gin itself, but the collective experience” of growing up, about how the experiences that shape our individual identities are really “transformations shared among friends.”

Finally, the student responses to the mashup cautioned me to retreat a bit from a simple juxtaposition of the critical and the illustrative.  Quite a few students commented on the images of Eisenhower and Nixon spliced into the end of the mashup.  The overall gist of this commentary was that the “future” so abstractly signified in cliches about “coming-of-age” actually had a much more particular and fatal reference for Levine’s generation: Vietnam.  The invocation of that context – – via images of Eisenhower and Nixon – – cast the speaker’s experience into a much broader national and historical frame.

In comparing their “before and after digital commentary” understandings of the poem, students were evaluating the effectiveness of the digital commentary.  This evaluation helped to clarify the purpose of their own digital commentaries – – to change the way viewers understood the poem.  The process – – of before and after – – also helped me to clarify my expectations and to start forming a more concrete and helpful language for these expectations.

Ultimately, the digital commentary had multiple payoffs.  Students engaged with Levine’s poems, they applied their creativity to a literary text, they shared their efforts, they felt “ownership” of What Work Is, etc.  Something extra I learned: the digital commentaries don’t have to be  viewed as  final and complete “products,” ready to be evaluated and graded.   Reintroducing the digital commentaries into the class – – as texts themselves – – also nurtured more and better critical discussion about Levine’s poetry, allowing us to explore motifs like the “mask” and make connections across the collection and across contexts.  The digital commentaries didn’t close off reading and interpretation, they unleashed yet more, and more productive, reading and interpretation.