Studying for learning media exam

#CertStudy, Day 13: Learning media crib sheet!

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

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OK, I’m basically out of time for doing longer-form writing-to-learn exercises, though I’m still hoping to do at least one writing-to-practice session between now and Feb. 9 to satisfy myself that I’ve gotten my writing speed up to the point where I can write a 6-10 page essay in three hours.

So what follows is my master “learning media crib sheet,” a way of collecting what I have to say about the scholars I’m conversant enough with to possibly reference them in the course of answering whatever question I get asked.

Not sure how useful it will be, to be honest, but if you’re at all interested in this work, I guess having a bullet point or two about a big list of authors in learning media isn’t the worst thing. Probably focus more on the summary/concept bullet than on the connection bullet.

I’m organizing by our program’s social / cultural / cognitive framework, though the categories obviously aren’t mutually exclusive. I just picked the “bin” that seemed best—and helped me equalize my coverage.



  • “Ways of seeing”: There’s always a connection between the person looking at something and what they’re looking at. This includes lots of necessarily-non-neutral “built-in” assumptions, like that the audience for a nude European painting is a man (that this assumption itself assumes all men would be and no women wouldn’t be interested is of course part of the point).
  • Connection: Explicitly identifying religious imagery as constructed and viewed in particular cultural and historical milieus presents an opportunity for faith learners to critically examine their own relationship both to the imagery and to these prior contexts and construct new and personally meaningful interpretations and connections.


  • “Networked religion”: I’ve got this one pretty well internalized, but it’s hard to remember the five attributions so I’m writing them down: networked community, storied identities, shifting authority, convergent practice, and multisite reality.
  • The relationship between religious practices and digital practices is complex. Campbell’s work gives us concrete theoretical tools to name and better understand the empirical realities of religion online.


  • Ritual view of communication (central to thesis of “communication as culture”): We’ve over-emphasized the transmission view of communication (message from sender to receiver) and underemphasized the ritual view (mutual participation in a corporate act that works to create / structure / maintain a shared reality—or at least shared understanding of same).
  • Connection: We can theorize process-oriented meaning-making activities as ritual communication. Indeed, this is an especially appropriate framing in the context of structured community-based faith learning, particularly in so-called “liturgical” traditions that already conceive of ritual as formative/educational in itself (“praying shapes believing,” etc.).


  • Encoding/decoding: Defines communication process according to distinct and relatively autonomous phases (production, circulation, consumption, reproduction). Decoding is as important to encoding in a process that is truly discourse, contra “hypodermic needle” media effects tradition. The codes from producer and consumer can cohere or clash, resulting in hegemonic, negotiated, or oppositional position between encoder and decoder.
  • Connection: These ideas lay a lot of groundwork for social semiotics and other ways of theorizing and enquiring of media and communication. Remix as an activity has the affordance of inviting explicit reflection on how a semiotic resource can be deployed with these different valences. Here we can see where critical media literacy and Digital Storytelling as faith formation practice form a virtuous circle of supporting the construction of complex, agentive understandings of religious and spiritual concepts, resources and practices.
  • Race is a “floating signifier”— changes over times, takes our projections of cultural beliefs and anxieties, etc. The problem isn’t putting people into categories per se; indeed that’s inevitable. Problem is assuming those categories communicate unambiguously and authoritatively. Leads to an applied ethical and political philosophy that resists the desire for a “guarantee” and instead stays curious about possibilities and invites us to engage each other as unique individuals.
  • Connection: It’s an argument in favor of flexible meaning-making activities that don’t assume particular group will be interested in a particular set of semiotic resources. Nothing wrong with using basketball stats as an invitation to authentic mathematics reasoning (Nasir), but it works against both culturally relevant pedagogy and anti-racist approaches to cultural studies if we assume that all black boys love basketball and want to think about math from that lens.

Ito, et al. (book, free PDF)

  • HOMAGO: Collective ethnographic investigation of young people and their media worlds identified as key themes:
    • “Patterns of representation” (textual genres) are engaged with in “social, routinized ways (participation genres); two they saw were friendship-driven and interest-driven (engagement in latter sometimes leads to former); participation frame extends notion of transfer to “supporting social and cultural world”
    • “networked publics”: kids’ participation w/ media production tools in/on social networks is similar to past socializing processes with these differences: persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences; networked publics afford the opportunity for engagement that is multiple and layered
    • “peer-based learning”: very effective, hard to transfer to in-school settings, often mediated by commercial interests at expense of school and family
    • “While what is being defined as ‘new media literacy’ is certainly not the exclusive province of youth, unlike in the case of ‘old’ literacies, youth are playing a more central role in the definition of these newer forms.” (commentary below)
  • Connections:
    • “Participation genres” framing combined with final bullet about NML suggests that young people have something important to teach us about broader patterns of participation in the social and cultural structures of religious practice
    • Digital Storytelling methodologies explicit privilege peer-based learning in a realistic setting and mode and have the potential thereby to positively affect the participation gap in.

Nasir, Rosebery, Warren, & Lee

  • Students who aren’t necessarily high educational “achievers” as understood by normative schooling models and settings learn just fine in the midst of cultural practices outside of school. But young people from nondominant groups need explicit opportunities and support for connecting in and out of school learning in authentic and relevant ways.
  • Connection: Traditional “Sunday school” classroom learning carries many of the same assumptions, approaches, and liabilities as in-school classroom learning. Digital Storytelling has the potential to bridge “in [Sunday] school” formal learning with the everyday cultural practices of faith learners. This is particularly important for learners from nondominant groups.


  • Participatory multimodal ethnography: My interest in Pahl is primarily methodological. She does the multimodality move of considering non-textual semiotic resources (time and space, delightfully) in meaning making, and the New Literacy Studies move of caring about language and literacy as hyper-local social practice (here, in the home).
  • Connection: Methodological mentor text, basically. I also think her stuff on spatiality (“By seeing space as something not given but made, it is possible to interrogate space as bifurcated with
    discourses of power”) can be a useful jumping off point for theorizing the role of the spatiality of church in my eventual sites of learning.
  • Visual culture and social semiotics of space: “My focus on the home as text encouraged me to ‘read’ the arrangement of stuff in the home as a set of signs”
  • Connection: Definitely want to think about churches as a text young people read. Again, the idea of an arrangement of objects comes to the fore, although in this case the young people might not have a lot of agency in that. Though that’s not the case in more participatory churches.


  • “Emplotment” & the productivity of storytelling: The latter is from Aristotle and stresses the process of, as it were, curating a storyline. It’s not just “one thing after another.” History and fiction writing are both creative acts that remake the world by colliding with it: “even the most ironic relation between art and reality would be incomprehensible if art did not both disturb and rearrange our relation to reality.
  • Connection: Story as process rather than product is obviously a structural observation that goes well with the Digital Storytelling ethos. Diddo the creative part about creativity and (meaning) making, which also fits together well with a constructivist theory of knowledge and learning.

Sturken & Cartwright

  • “Viewers make meaning”: It’s an active, curatorial process, a “visual culture” practiced by individuals and communities of viewers (of film, TV, etc.). What they “do with” the products creators put out there is at least as important as what’s in the products themselves. In other words, viewers are as much “sign makers” as creators, to borrow language from multimodality/social semiotics (Jewitt).
  • Connection: Digital Storytelling has the potential both to put faith themes in conversation with the visual cultures that predominate the lives of particular faith learners. And long-term engagement with such methodologies offers the opportunity for hyper-local languages of faith to emerge among particular communities of learners: strengthening group ties and providing opportunities for agentive enactments of identity and meaning.

Taylor (Secular Age definitely goes here—Language Animal is tougher to classify but nevertheless feels to me ultimately anthropological, along with Ricoeur)

  • A Secular Age: Key insight is that “subtraction stories” of secularization (separate spheres, religious decline) don’t tell the whole story. Need to grapple with the cultural reality in which God’s existence is not assumed—there are viable alternatives.
  • Connection: Need a religious education pedagogies that speak to the subtraction story, yes, and increased diversity. But also supports a posture of openness and critical thinking (and clear disciplinary epistemology if we can get to it). We won’t get to Fowler’s “individuative-reflective” moment if faith seems like a fairy tell forced upon us rather than a viable option that we may choose to explore.
  • The Language Animal: Building on Ricoeur, he claims that moving “beyond sentences to texts” (a sort of critique of more cognitivist understandings of language, I think) we see stories as a constitute purpose of language and come to understand that stories are irreducible to the generalized lessons we draw from them—the lesson doesn’t fully signify without the context and the passage of time. Moreover, the creative function of stories is essential: “however I do it, through my story, I define my identity … It is through story that we find or devise ways of living bearably in time.”
  • Connection: Religious educators can’t content themselves with teaching religious texts, however modern or relevant. We have to help the people we learn with treat their own lives as texts with something to teach them (see, of course Lambert).


  • Research pedagogies (w/ Wissman, Staples, & Nichols): An approach to ethnographic educational research that is multimodal, participatory, and (in) (co)-created spaces.
  • Connection: A realistic and relevant research orientation for studying Digital Storytelling in any setting, but particularly one that is at least partly pedagogical (in this case, interested in the development of skills for faith reflection)
  • Digital geographies: “emerging landscapes that are being produced through the confluence of new communicative practices and available media and technologies” (2010, p. 62) that connect the physical sites where people compose and edit new media “texts” or artifacts to the online social spaces where they share, discuss, and remix these texts
  • Connection: An especially rich framework for understanding an activity that (1) is explicitly hybrid (digital media making in physically gathered spaces) and where (2) the material richness of the physical space and its connection to the subject matter of reflection may spark interesting connections (i.e., “How does it change the prompt to ‘tell an important story from your life'” if the workshop is happening in obviously sacred space?)
  • Mobility & multimodality (w/ Leander): experience of online spatiality itself is multimodal (e.g., “map cycling”), and mobility further enriches this relationship (mobility is what makes the “DS in a cathedral” thought experiment possible).
  • Connection: Projects like mine are a response to this article’s call to reconceptualize “current educational practices … in light of evolving digital capacities”


  • Culture is “common” in more sense than one. Yes, it’s shared. But it’s also ordinary. It’s not just or primarily the rarefied formality of the tea room; it includes recognizably valuable productions across class and other dividers.
  • This expansive understanding of culture parallels an important and later conversation about popular / everyday / “lived” / “everyday” religion (McGuire & Ammerman, respectively) as interesting, worthy of study, and always in complex conversation with church- or academy-sanctioned teachings and practices.



  • Dialogic interaction: For Bakhtin, language “comes alive” through exposure to the “dispersed light” passing through an atmosphere shaped by tense and productive ideology, shared and contested meanings, etc. There is a concrete individuality to language in use, and to participate in the dialogue between speaker, hearer, word, and object is to get caught up in both centripetal (unitive) and centrifugal (chaotic) forces.
  • Connection: In addition to inspiring the theoretical lens (watching for centripetal/centrifugal) in studies like Pleasants’s, I believe there’s a lot to say about Bakhtin’s dialogic thinking and remix (where a word or other sign’s “baggage” gets leveraged in creative and often very explicit ways—see also Hall) as well as in the critical move that pulls social semiotics in a more explicitly dialogical direction to becoming multimodal participatory ethnography (this is Kress + Street, I learned Thursday from Lalitha, who had a really powerful story about a particular lunch with Kress and how theory is often the child of researcher relationships). Regarding the latter, we need to better account for the particularity of the participants in the dialogue as we make and remake signs together.


  • Churches as social collectivities: Cheong claims churches today are enacted and even in some sense composed of the communications exchanged between and among leaders and members. Cheong notes that theorizing faith communities in this way presents an opportunity for research into “new forms of spiritual organizing and religious authority.” As social media posts and other online artifacts of congregational communication accumulate, they have the effect of making visible “a social collectivity that acts as a coherent whole, and whose aspirations, operations, and success depends on communicatively constitutive forces.”
  • Connections: I like that latter point of artifacts as “tracings” in the ethnographic sense. And I like that this is a “secular communication scholar” reaching basically the same conclusion about what a church is as theologians Scharer & Hilberath, to whom Hess appeals in the theological portion of her digital storytelling as faith formation proposal.


  • Nones: Drescher’s ethnography of the religiously unaffiliated makes the crucial insight that answering a demographic question in the negative does not a social or cultural group make. Her data clearly show that the very meaning of religious affiliation and non-affiliation is becoming (even more) highly contested. Nones choose not to affiliate for a wide variety of reasons, and many of them nevertheless assemble a rich and often religiously varied palette of spiritual practices.
  • Connection: Expansive understanding of religious education in the age of the None will need to explicitly account what she calls their Noneness. This has implication for sites of learning (maybe not at the church), motivation (certainly not to “become a better Episcopalian”), access, and more. In this respect and for this audience, Digital Storytelling is best understood explicitly as a spiritual practice of identity development rather than a faith formational (and especially not religious educational) intervention.
  • Habitus: Drescher’s extended discussion of the faith implications of today’s digital habitus (marked by immediacy, transparency, interactivity, co-creativity, integration, and distribution) provides both thick description and practice-oriented.
  • Connection: Drescher’s explicit connection between Bourdieu’s sociological concept and the longstanding Christian tradition of a “rule of life” provides an enduring way for congregations to talk about the faith values involved in online participation and offer some faith-based understandings for the critical use (and sometimes non- or decreased use) of new media tools and spaces.


  • Enactive and recognition work: Gee’s “social turn” article helped me get my head around NLS and the broader movement of which it was a part. And it introduced me to these two terms: the work I do to try to get you to see something a certain way, and the work you do (see also Hall’s hegemonic, negotiated, and oppositional readings).
  • Connection: The “enactive work” stuff is one way of framing some of my advocacy for a particular future of religious education (in light of Taylor, Drescher, etc.). Here’s the argument from an earlier post:
    • Educator does enactive work showing that a religious worldview makes sense. Students recognize such work as sensible or not. We who hope to pass on the faith think this piece is the most important, and we are wrong.
    • Educator does (partly enactive, partly recognition) work of modeling moderate, critical religious belief in a world where religious diversity is a fact of life and in which religious fundamentalists of all stripes are a significant contributor to global conflict and play an outsized role in tacitly defining faith amid widespread religious illiteracyThis piece, I believe, is actually more important to the future of denominations like mine.
    • Educator, together with students in either an affirmative, negative, or ambiguous mode, make sense of what these God beliefs mean for the business of everyday living. This piece, I believe, is where activities like Digital Storytelling, play a crucial role.


  • We can understand “presentation of self in everyday life” through the metaphor of theater: “front stage” performances assume a public audience and certain types of social practice and “decorum” between audience and players, whereas backstage different kinds of player-to-player relationship exist. Again, there’s no “neutral,” no stable / monolithic / singular / essentialist identity. There is role and context and the masks associated with them.
  • Connection: Goffman’s understanding of identity is foundational to (but not sufficient for) a paradigm wherein agentive identity negotiation is recognized and encouraged. In particular, the idea of “different stages” whereon we perform our identity has a particular richness for thinking about the relationship between “in church” and “out of church” religious identity and belonging.

Jenkins, et al.

  • New Media Literacies: Jenkins’ could easily be filed under “cultural,” but for me the thrust of the participatory cultures/NML work is that the skills in question (play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking, negotiation) stress, on balance, the sociality of online spaces and the work young people are doing there. Moreover the titular challenges (the participation gap, the transparency problem, the ethics challenge) are predominantly social.
  • Connection: In addition to supporting the conclusion that the various skills Jenkins names and Digital Storytellers employ (play, performance, appropriation, collective intelligence, transmedia navigation, and negotiation—at least) have a role to play in participants identity development, this work also underscores the way that religious education can play a role in broader issues of social justice and social capital. Many of those served by—or potentially served by—congregational after school and (to a lesser extent in historically wealthy denominations) Sunday school, need the opportunities that NML work provide. Opportunities for young people to increase participation in digital social spaces, critically examine the role of media in constructing our social world, and engage/mitigate “[t]he breakdown of traditional forms of professional training and socialization that might prepare young people for their increasingly public roles as media makers and community participants,” etc.—this is the potential intersection where “21st century skills” (a contested term, admittedly) serve both churches’ faith formation mission AND their justice mission.


  • Multimodality and screens: New technologies are remediating reading and writing practices. We can see this via a multimodal analysis of classroom learning artifacts, among other places. School-based conceptions of reading and writing need to adapt to these new contexts, applications, and texts.
  • Connection: This is a secondary or tertiary sort of benefit of my research (wanting to take seriously diSessa’s “tool rich cultures” point and Nathan’s dislike of “21st-century skills”), but I do think that part of “selling” Digital Storytelling workshops to certain participants (or more likely their parents and teachers?) is the promise to get in some “practice” for these new literacies (probably with an explicit appeal to “21st-century skills”), particularly if schools continue to be slow to change curriculum and teaching practices.

Kress & van Leeuwen (especially via Jewitt, Bezemer & O’Halloran, where these quotes all come from)

  • Social Semiotics: Taking “language as a social semiotic” (Halliday) acknowledges that there are more general grammars that apply to a wider variety of modes, of which linguistics is the relevant study in the written mode. Social semiotics “emphasizes the agency of the sign maker”—and note that both “writer” and “reader” ultimately make signs through the original construal and the interpretation (see also Sturken & Cartwright, Hall, etc.). The key insight here is that visual structures “realize meaning as linguistic structures do also … [but] the way in which it will be said is different.” Social semiotics as a multimodal method aims “to recognize the agency of social actors and social/power relations between them.” Extending it to multimodal ethnography aims “to make visible the cultural and social practices of a particular community.”
  • Connection: Basically my whole plan is to operate in the space. The research participants and I are sign makers using the variety of semiotic resources available to us for particular communicative purposes and with particular communicative effects that I want to better understand. I even took a first stab at an overarching research question in an email earlier today: How do young people deploy the semiotic resources of their daily lives and interests when telling meaningful personal stories in a faith or faith-adjacent setting?

Lewis & Moje

  • Sociocultural theories (communities of practice, activity theory, etc.) fail to adequately account for dynamics of identity, agency, and power, including sometimes reinforcing the assumption that there’s a one-to-one correspondence between context and choice of Goffman’s “mask.” Power is claimed / enacted by individuals participating in agentive and non-agentive ways in larger social structures. Incorporating critical theory (e.g., critical discourse analysis) can mitigate this liability of sociocultural theory.
  • Connection: As a straight white male researcher studying a largely white and privileged and very conflict avoidant system, failing to incorporate critical perspectives would be a wasted opportunity and merely contribute to the mire of social problems already active in many faith and faith-adjacent communities. The decision to incorporate multimodal inquiry and learning methods into the work is a first step, since criticality is “baked in” to the decision to expand notions of “what counts” as text (Vasudevan) and as educational activity in learning spaces (recall the “fancy literature” versus “horror movies/comics” anecdote from the article’s introduction).


  • “Stakes of participation”: Youth-oriented online creative activity happens in a social spaces where contributors are especially delirious of the approval of their peers, and in which they are working out a whole host of socio-developmental questions (e.g., anxieties about the 2016 election on Scratch and elsewhere). These windows into youth sociality can help us strategize about social support and new kinds of education for civic and community engagement, etc.
  • Connection: In-person digital making activities may provide opportunities for adult mentors  to provide such support (church people would add “pastoral support”), and the confidence and “precedent” for further creative media making that has the potential to span the spaces and themes of school, home, faith, community, and online setting.

New London Group

  • Multiliteracies: The group’s “attention to the growing variety of texts and design practices made possible in a world of increasing technological, cultural, and linguistic diversity” (a Vasudevan summary) was characterized in my reading by a focus on pedagogy, a concern with various work contexts, a multimodal understanding of text, and a prescient understanding of the need for students to navigate disparate, layered lifeworlds and participate in a newly pluralistic civic life.
  • Connection: Here again, an argument something like this might have a secondary or tertiary place in my study by serving as the sweetener for why one would want to participant in an activity like this (“preparation for 21st-century multicultural working and living” being a somewhat sexier proposal than “development of mature and health religious identity” in an era when the priorities of religious institutions carry little cultural cachet.


  • Theoretical framework for a digital storytelling participatory ethnography (phew): Pleasants attended to Bakhtinian ideas in her study as director of a community digital storytelling project: Centripetal forces “allow[] us to be ‘seen’ by others as enacting recognizable identities,” and centrifugal forces “provide opportunities for innovative interpretations of existing language and discourse in the service of making each of our identities a uniquely fashioned construction rather than an essentialized and static caricature.”
  • Connection: Mentor text for framing a study like the one I’m interested in doing.


  • Social capital: Putnam notes its steady decline in the second half of the twentieth century (and more recently beyond), that is happened across nearly every sphere of American life, and that the Internet cannot be the cause (because it wasn’t around, certainly not impactfully, until very late in the game).
  • Connection: Congregational decline should be interpreted against the backdrop of this wider social story, and proposals for rebuilding capital in and through religious institutions should not be proposed in isolation from that story. Community-based, faith-adjacent Digital Storytelling projects (and broader HOMAGO initiatives hosted or co-sponsored by religious organizations) are just such a holistic attempt.

Scharer & Hilberath

  • Communicative Theology: These theologians make the case for communication as the act of theology (God to humanity, communion and community as communication, etc.) and construct a participatory method from Ruth Cohen’s Theme-Centered Interaction. Could also have “filed” more appropriately under cultural for their emphasis on the importance of theorizing “church-within-world” (“globe”) rather than “church-against-world.”
  • Connections: Love this theological framing and its setup for a sociocultural and social semiotic study of “participating theologians” (!) being the church by working out their theology in community (see also Cheong above).



  • Experiences of artifacts: Ackerman thinks through the consequences of a radical constructivist stance in the context of design, which of course is oriented toward creating objects that others will experience in certain ways: “How can designers take responsibility for the qualities of their creations if they assume—I caricature the constructivist stance—that people will use them as Rorschach stains anyway?” For me her key point is “Artifacts set limits to people’s reconstructions. They do so by opening up greater or lesser mental elbowroom (Spielraum in German).” There’s a parallelism here between sign making (social semiotics) and tool making (constructivist design). And thus: “People learn by switching roles from being producers to being critics, from being actors to being audiences, from holding stage to moving into the background,” and sometimes it happens in their own heads.
  • Connection: Ackerman frames in Piagetian terms (the push-pull of assimilation and accommodation) the same kind of design thinking questions present in frameworks like multiliteracies and social semiotics. I resonate with her warning that to move too far in either direction risks a debilitating over- or under-determinism and robs us of the chance to engage in “Learning as a conversation with artifacts.”

AndersonSchank & Abelson

  • Cognitive structures: Categories (like data types in computing), semantic networks (like trees), schemas (like objects w/ “isa,” member data, etc.), and scripts (duh) are all empirically supported cognitive structures that have implications for how we think about people’s cognition and learning. Hence early educational focus on naming- and sorting-type activities and the usefulness of ritual.
  • Connection: Not a huge connection, but this is my weakest “bin” and so having some basic ideas on the crib sheet is a good thing. The clearest connection I can make is that learning that relies on ritual has a tendency to be undermined by the power of scripts, precisely because scripts allow you to ignore details that may be important. Awareness of how faith learners are using religious categories, ritual scripts, etc. is important for breaking open concepts, i.e., making the familiar strange.


  • Embodied/grounded cognition: Here’s the schematic account of this way of thinking about the body’s role in thinking: “As [a bodily] experience occurs … the brain captures states across the modalities and integrates them with a multimodal representation stored in memory … Later, when knowledge is needed to represent a category … [the] multimodal representation captured during experiences with its instances are reactivated to simulate how the brain represented perception, action, and introspection associated with it.” This has implications for the kind of learning where we move around, including between spaces that represent meaningful difference.
  • Connection: A theory of cognition that speaks to the wisdom of religious tradition like various kinds of movement-based prayer, including movement in space (think pilgrimage, sacred architecture, etc.). This passage ought also to remind us of Lambert’s account of the cognitive “work” of multimodal/multisensory storywork. Basically there’s too much resonance between the embodied account of multisensory memory and multimodal theories of social meaning making. These theories should work well with each other.

Collins & Kapur

  • Cognitive apprenticeship: There are six facilitation methods in this tradition to help pass along the tacit knowledge needed for strategic action: modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection (both metacognitive, note), and exploration.
  • While LPP / community of practice mechanisms may somewhat apply in a digital storytelling workshop, it’s definitely possible to have a room of all novices. Moreover, Lambert’s Digital Storytelling takes its method from both the cognitive model of the work to be done and the media logic of the design task. So it’s worth it to bring to the facilitation task the wisdom of this well respected situated pedagogical framework. It wouldn’t be hard to do a “cognitive apprenticeship analysis” of the Lambert method as a kind of check or extension. A lot of it is built on, I think.

Design-Based Research Collective

  • DBR: Proposes closing the “credibility gap” in education research through a methodology guided by an iterative design process. Critiques the “randomized clinical trials” method for its inability to grapple adequately with context in many situations (required if one is to control all but one variable). Instead, “explicit concern in design-based research for using methods that link processes of enactment to outcomes has power to generate knowledge that directly applies to educational practice. The value of attending to context is not simply that it produces a better understanding of an intervention, but also that it can lead to improved theoretical accounts of teaching and learning.”
  • Connection: I think it’s quite likely that initial learnings from my research would need to inform a program of design-based research intended to iteratively work through the inevitable challenges we’ll identify in developing a pretty radically different approach to religious education from “Sunday school as we know it.”


  • “Conceptual ecology”: Acknowledges the need for greater precision in theorizing of scientific reasoning about concepts, including their type, “grain size,” and configurations. If we’re not clear about the precise nature of a given conceptual ecology, it’s hard to (1) know if students have reached competent understandings, and (2) conduct cognitive research in such a way that leverages the value of complex systems theory as a cognitive model.
  • Connection: I wouldn’t want to lean on this too heavily, but it seems to me there’s an analogous point to be made about research into student understanding of theological concepts. A celebration of the adaptability of theological concepts is surely appropriate, but frequently student conceptual understanding is fuzzy rather than flexible. Especially in an educational domain where assessment is minimal, finding ways to be precise about the concepts we want our students to learn and how we might observe such developing understandings in action might be a useful exercise. One wonders about the existence of conceptual structures representing an entirely different sort of “phenomenological primitives” when you get a group of people talking about their experiences of prayer, for example.
  • “Tool-rich cultures”: “Scientific tools in school are almost always ends in themselves, or they are related vaguely and artificially to ‘doing well in school’ or ‘preparing for the future.’ Problems are assigned and understood by everyone as thinly veiled occassions to exercise tool knowledge or skill rather than as reasons for the existence of the tools. Many schools are really designed around incompetence in the sense that any real understanding is a sign to move on to the next topic. Pride in accomplishment is seldom reached.”
  • Connection: This is the pitfall of “21st-century skills” discussions. Point of my work is not to teach the software or even storytelling per se. It’s to help students develop their inherent desire and skill in telling powerful stories that are meaningful to them. I have a high level of trust that beginning by valuing student perspectives about what’s important and trusting that tool skill, content knowledge, and identity negotiation will happen if they have the chance to explore their perspectives in well-supported tool-rich cultures.


  • Efklides reviewed the metacognition literature and proposed a “multifaceted, multilevel” model. Instead of just the object level and the meta level. She names the object level as explicitly nonconscious and notes that loops of cognition/cognitive regulation and emotion/emotional regulation happening within the object level. The metalevel, reached through monitoring, is the personal awareness level and begins with a metacognitive experience before identifying metacognitive strategies with which to control the object level, possibly with the intervening help of metacognitive knowledge. There’s also a meta-metalevel, a social level, reached through inter-personal monitoring or reflection, that begins with an appeal to metacognitive knowledge before again choosing a strategy with which to control the lower (here: meta) level, possibly with an intervening appeal to metacognitive judgments. (This is what happens when you try to turn a picture into text, and when you study a topic that is so full abstractions, so … well, meta, that you can’t help but resort to jargon.)
  •  Connection: Metacognition is essential throughout the Digital Storytelling methodology. As participants examine the experience and memories associated with a particular digital story, they’re asked to “own their insight” and “own their emotions” through a process of that is inherently metacognitive (What was I thinking when this event happened? What was I feeling? What do those thoughts and feelings mean to me know? How did they change me?). Efklides model is especially helpful for thinking about the Digital Storytelling enterprise in that it incorporates the meta-metalevel, acknowledging that we can skills in monitoring and reflecting on our thinking and experiences through our conversations as we do this work together. On the explicitly religious side of things, I’m surprised religious educators don’t think and write more about metacognition. Theological reflection is treated as the formation activity par excellence, but it is usually theorized as a hermeneutical experience (interpreting the tradition in light of life experience and vice versa) rather than a metacognitive one (critically examining one’s own meaning-making processes). In any event, I believe explicit metacognitive development is probably essential for the tacit benefits of making to be realized in this or maybe any context. Metacognitive monitoring is just too essential to the process of making (and discovering, and remaking) connections.


  • Flawed but useful “stages” model of faith development (following Erikson, etc.) names a key transition from “synthetic-conventional” faith to “individuative-reflective” as requiring the believer “not simply to replace their old tacit ideological system with a new one but to choose from a place of freedom. Authority must be relocated ‘within the self’ (p. 178–179).”
  • Connection: Point of contact between cognitive theories of faith development and the dynamic theories of agentive identity negotiation discussed elsewhere (Bakhtin, Hall, Lewis & Moje, Pleasants, etc.). See also Robert Kegan’s third- and fourth-order meaning-making (cross-categorical connections and constructions, respectively) from his adult learning theory.


  • Clinical cognitive interviewing: If we hold a constructivist theory of cognition and learning, then we expect personal knowledge constructions to vary greatly from person to person. Something like clinical cognitive interviewing—where we ask our participants to explore with us the nature of what and how they’re thinking—is ultimately essential.
  • Connection: In my reading, the move from “pure” social semiotics to participatory multimodal ethnography represents a dissatisfaction with traditional ethnography’s distance from participants’ subjective experience in precisely this way (Sarah Pink via Bella Dicks). Plus I continue to be intrigued by the possibility of researcher-participant podcasting see also Soep & Chavez) as a way of turning the clinical cognitive interview into a more participatory research method.

Greeno & Engeström

  • Activity theory: There are three patterns of learning in this situated theory of learning, a general model that accounts for the interrelations between instruments, subject, rules, community, division of labor, and finally the object of learning that leads to some outcome.
    1. “Top down” explanation where individual learns by participating and the “learning is explained by properties and processes within the activity system”
    2. “Bottom up” explanation where the system (as a whole) gets better through “change over time” and “learning is explained in terms of mental representations and behaviors of the participating individuals”
    3. “Horizontal” explanation where system (as a whole) learns “and this learning is explained in terms of properties and processes of the activity system” (I think there’s some distributed cognition assumptions in here?)
  • Connection: Honestly I don’t really get/like activity theory but I wanted to have some notes just in case.


  • There’s no obviously right bin in which to place Hess’s advocacy for Digital Storytelling as faith formation, but I think cognitive is probably the most appropriate. This is partly from her cautious appeal to the mirror neuron literature, partly from her appeal to Kegan’s adult learning theory (and its attention to cross-categorical connections and constructions), partly because of her desire that religious education join the new educational culture emphasizing learning over teaching, and partly from her sense that it is compatible with a “community of communities” ethos appropriate in light of growing religious diversity.. In many ways, this final aspect of Hess’s proposal taps into the wisdom of Papert’s quip that “the goal is to teach in such a way as to produce the most learning for the least teaching.”
  • Connection: Hess makes clear that these cognitive appeals connect well to the religious values of this kind of learning. There’s a connection, I think, between a “tinkering” mindset and what Hess calls “meditative” meaning-making: slowing down, trying things out, getting feedback, etc.


  • We could put Lambert in any bin, but I really appreciate his synthesis of the cognitive literature of how stories work on us. Memories formed through rehearsal; pathways stronger in the presence of “affective relationship to the sensory information”; “life lesson”-type memories inevitably the result of strong emotion or interaction with people we’re close to; here we have access to the embodied “simulation” (Barsalou) in the form of a multimodal representation (a story that we relive and can retell); retelling sets scene for inter- and intra-personal exploration.
  • Connection: We reconnect with positive experiences and “redeem” negative ones through the rehearsal and reinterpretation of story.

Lave & Wenger

  • Situated cognition & situated learning/LPP/communities of practice: Cognition is situated. It takes cues from the environment as well as from the dynamic and contested goals and strategies that take place (e.g., Lave’s study of grocery store arithmetic). Moreover, learning is situated in that it takes place within communities of practice. Within particular domains, practice is held by the community and passed along (or not) to novices through the course of their “legitimate peripheral participation.” First they make smaller contributions, then larger ones as they gain confidence and experience.
  • Connection: The model here raises important design and methodology questions: Is my learning activity sufficiently “dilemma-driven”? Is there a range of experience within the community of practice, beyond just the “expert” facilitator and “novice” participants? Are activities designed such that peripheral participation is possible/encouraged for people of all skill levels?


  • Constructionism: I’m not going to not cite Papert. We build new knowledge in our minds as we build/tinker with our own creations. Especially rich and meaningful learning happens when we “play with problems.” This gets us a little closer to learning French by going to France than by taking a French class, to borrow a famous example. Papert saw computers as offering the possibility of learning math in “Mathland.” One thing I resonate with very strongly in Papert’s work is his embrace of the concrete, which is refreshing from a mathematician.
  • Connection: My whole interest is getting people to think of their whole lives rather than the church narrowly or “church school” more narrowly still as the analogous “faith land.” Nevertheless we know church is an important (possible) site of religious knowing / being / practicing / meaning-making, so connecting that little island “faith land” to, as it were, the mainland is important. A digital geographies approach (Vasudevan, Leander & Vasudevan) seems especially rich here. And the affordance of creative production really support the movement from abstract theological concept to concrete experiential reality.


  • Constructivism: Have been actively discouraged from citing Piaget directly, but again, certain concepts would be embarrassing to screw up so I want them down on paper. (Yes, I’m literally going to print out this blog post and bring it with me.) Constructivism theorizes that learning is a process of building our own knowledge/understanding. When we encounter something we want to understand, we either assimilate it—fit it into our existing knowledge—or accommodate our existing knowledge to the new information.
  • Connection: This cognitive model fits well with the values of participatory research, communities of practice learning, etc., de-emphasizing expert deposit of knowledge and celebrating the existing understandings and experience of all participants (see also Freire, of course). More specifically, this model supports certain built-in strategies for religious educators, including building on the baseline understandings of theological concepts formed in liturgy and of spiritual experienced formed both in liturgy and everyday life (practices of rest/Sabbath, say).


Photos - digital storytelling - Mary Hess

#CertStudy, Day 12: Why digital storytelling? (Hess)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been effusively thanking/citing my colleague Mary Hess as often as I can in these posts. She really is the thinker in religious education who’s been grappling with the implications of media literacy for communities of faith—and in particular, in recent years, making a case for Digital Storytelling and other media-rich learning opportunities in seminaries and churches.

If you care at all about theological education, I highly recommend her Engaging Technology in Theological Education: All That We Can’t Leave Behind. I think several of the chapters are reworkings of earlier journal articles, but Mary Hess journal articles are a joy and not a chore.

Let me walk you through three related articles. The first, “Mirror Neurons, The Development Of Empathy, And Digital Story Telling” (non-paywall conference version here), speaks into the space of hope and anxiety created by popular acknowledgement of the ways digital cultures are changing social practice. Hess briefly surveys recent neuroscientific findings about mirror neurons, which fire in our brains’ motor pathways when we watch someone else do something, especially a goal-oriented activity. She continues

I am writing this article primarily as a way to juxtapose these three lines of inquiry: religious educators’ concerns for developing practices that support health religious identity, neuroscientific observations of the role of mirron neurons in the development of social cognition and empathy, and digital story tellers’ work with media education. I am not suggesting any definitive conclusions, but I would point to the confluence of ideas that appear here …

I also think that this work suggests that there is a balance to be achieved between the legitimate concerns raised by Sherry Turkle [Alone Together], and the optimism of Cathy Davidson [Now You See It]. That balance requires recognizing the crucial role played by practice, and the necessity of intentionally creating learning environments that allow us to “practice the practices” involved in empathic relationship. We ought neither to be drawn solely into “robotic” relationships, nor into blithe disregard for the importance of slowing down and attending to silence, to practices of presence, and so on. (p. 11-12, emphasis mine)

In other words, we might choose other empathy-building practices, but we need to choose something, and the story circle experience is “a process of attending to meaning-making
that [is] significantly contemplative, in the deep sense of that word” (p. 11).

A couple years later, Hess published “A New Culture of Learning: Digital
Storytelling and Faith Formation
” in theology journal Dialog. Here the framing zooms in a little more closely on learning in/with digital cultures. She summarizes some of the work of the various super-rad MacArthur-funded digital learning initiatives I’ve probably cited a bit, the most well-known of which is Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, aka HOMAGO. Here’s the table:

The MacArthur work describes cultures where facilitators establish a framework through which learners can explore and express their passions and interests subject to the rules that create the necessary tension in any “playful and yet serious space” (p. 21).

After this many days of me writing about Digital Storytelling, you can probably connect the dots of how it relates to the right-hand side of the chart above. In short, Hess believes it provides one such productively constraining ruleset, and as I said yesterday, its use in church communities is consistent with the view that the work and substance of Christian theology is communication.

A more recent paper still, “Playing our way into complex adaptive action in religious education,” moves beyond Digital Storytelling into gameful learning. But it uses some of the same framing (including Drescher) and theoretical underpinning (Robert Kegan’s work on adult learning—which sounds great, but honestly I can’t be reading anything new at the point…). I mention it here primarily because this paragraph so eloquently gets at what I’ve been trying to say throughout the case-making part of my study work in these posts:

Can we embody religious education that educates within and for specific religious communities, but also and concurrently with and for people who are not part of religious communities? Can we reach people who might have very little interest in, or perhaps even hostility towards, religious institutions? I fear that until and unless religious communities can communicate – in all the rich senses of that word – our integral and inextricable commitments to relationship across, among, within, between and amidst various kinds of difference, we will lose even more ground with a generation of people growing to consciousness within the rich and varied landscapes of the US. (p. 1, emphasis hers)

More than anything I’ve been able to cobble together, this short paragraph captures why I think Digital Storytelling and other forms of playful, production/creativity-oriented, self-motivated, community-based practices need to help us remake religious education / faith formation / spiritual learning

  • in the image of today’s culture of learning,
  • for our peculiar cultural moment of decreasing religious affiliation and increasing diversity, and
  • by imitating a God I believe invites us to a kind of divine practice of both creation and communication.

When, OK. Tomorrow: a crash course (for you and for me) in multimodality.

Group process Scharer & Hilberath

#CertStudy, Day 11: Why digital storytelling? (Scharer & Hilberath)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how much attention I should to give in my research to … let’s call it the explicitly theological.

Obviously, my work is going to explore methods for effective religious education / faith formation / spiritual learning in the twenty-first century. And obviously, I care that other religious educators and ministry leaders generally find the work to be valuable from a pedagogical and theological perspective.

But I’m also not expecting faculty members who aren’t religious educators or even necessarily religious to evaluate the theological appropriateness—let alone value—of the work I’m putting forward. I realize I’m hardly the first religious person to be in this situation at a secular institution, and I realize I don’t need to fully tackle the puzzle now. But I want to say a few words in this post for a way I might theologically frame the work.

Some of that framing can come from what we might call “a secular case for a religious/theological need.” For example, anyone can look at some of the thinkers in previous posts (e.g., Putnam, Drescher, Campbell, and Taylor—A Secular Age, though, rather than The Language Animal) and understand that religious educators need new ways of understanding and supporting their work.

My advisor doesn’t need to personally hold Christian convictions to say, “Huh, yeah, these data and stories obviously show that your site of research and teaching is changing a lot. Better take that into account.”

But I do think it’s worth me citing enough explicitly theological work to convince a curious if affiliatively disinterested reader that developing a methodology for incorporating multimodal storytelling into spiritual learning is a sensible idea. That argument should refer to terms that people deciding whether to support, fund, or implement such work (e.g., religious leaders) are likely to care about.

At the advice of the wonderful Mary Hess, one source I’ve dived right into is Matthias Scharer and Bernd Jochen Hilberath’s The Practice of Communicative Theology: An Introduction to a New Theological Culture.

Unfortunately, a lot of the support work for this impressive volume is in German and hasn’t been translated. Thankfully, I studied German for six years and have kept it up by being married to one. Don’t get me wrong—reading German theology would be pretty slow going for me; the only language requirement in my doctoral program is Java or JavaScript.

Still, it kind of makes sense that the kind of theology I need to support my work would come out of Europe, where the trends toward religious unaffiliation and outright secularization are way more advanced.*

Scharer & Hilberath take everyday experience seriously as a site of legitimate theological reflection in a way that too few strands of American theology† do:

Theology springs from the consciousness of and the reflection on one’s own lived faith … in the interest both of internal clarity and of making this faith plausible to others … In denouncing [the] status quo, theology needs to demonstrate to itself that what is at stake here is not only something that affects the mere application of theology … but something that goes to its very heart; Christian theology fails itself if it does not remain oriented to the lived faith of the church as the community of believing subjects. (p. 15)

For Scharer & Hilberath, “theology is not ‘some thing’ that then is to be communicated; rather communication is the central content of theology” (p. 13, emphasis theirs). The act of communicating is both what God does to reach out to people and the world, what we do (or choose not to do) in response, and everything in between. This notion corresponds well with the view of communication scholars like Carey (maybe also Pauline Cheong writing about churches and their leaders), who believe we overstress the transmission understanding of communication and understress the ritual dimension.

So from Carey:

[The ritual view of communication] sees the original or highest manifestation of communication not in the transmission of intelligent information but in the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action … not to alter attitudes or change minds but to represent an underlying order of things, not to perform functions but to manifest an ongoing and fragile social process. (p. 5)

And from Scharer & Hilberath, quoting Peter Hünermann:

Among the many kinds of communicative actions are a few that are constitutive for a particular group. In and through the performance of these actions the group comes into being and preserves itself. Without these communicative actions there would be no group. These constitutive actions become metaphors of living together … Only in an ever-renewed acting out of this metaphor of life does it continue to exist. (p. 17)

Thus, for Scharer & Hilberath, it’s the ongoing dialogue (remember Bakhtin?) of the community of faith that actually constitutes the theolog(ies) of the church(es).‡ That means they advocate “doing theology” via processes that intentionally structure expression and conversation for maximum empathy, respect, understanding, etc.

The method they commend is called Theme-Centered Interaction, developed by Ruth Cohen. It’s basically a group process methodology used in therapeutic and other community working/learning settings.

I don’t think it’s probably the best use of my time with the Cert Exam at t-minus 11 days to do a deep dive into TCI. But it seems pretty clear that it has some values and methods in common with Digital Storytelling, which is also a pretty heavily programed group experience aimed at identity development through self-expression and attentiveness to others.

But the bigger point here is that Scharer & Hilberath conceive of this kind of communicative theological process/reflection—which is a sort of sacramental encapsulation of the churches’ bigger conversations with themselves, each other, and the world—as a venue for “participating and cooperating theologians”:

Only suitable communication procedures, by which we mean those that deny any inherent hierarchy between professional theologians and practitioners, will alter practice in the long run. These are processes of communication that draw on the skills of everyone, where expertise remote from real life has no place, where people cooperate in striving to find a theological practice that answers the needs of the community. (p. 22-23)

If that’s sounding like a set of theological values that resonate strongly with the convictions of participatory research (and of course draw from the well of critical Latin American thinking that educators access via Pedagogy of the Oppressed and theologians access via A Theology of Liberation), well, you’re getting why I’m grateful once again to the wise and generous Mary Hess for putting me on this promising path.

I’m excited to continue with this theological geek-out after Certs.

* I get that the U.S. and Europe are apples and oranges and that representing the Europe as “further along” a monolithic trend isn’t quite right, but cut me some slack for the time being.

† I’m thinking of theology as something like “the churches’ reflection on their own life together,” as opposed to more sociological works like McGuire’s Lived Religion and Ammerman’s Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, and of course Drescher.

‡ These guys are delightfully pluralistic for Roman Catholic theologians. Though again: Europeans.

Dear White Christians cover by Jennifer Harvey

My notes from Jennifer Harvey keynotes at #forma18

I took careful real-time notes via Twitter during the keynotes by Dear White Christians* author Jennifer Harvey at the 2018 Forma Conference in Charleston, SC.

I also screwed up the threading, so it’s not easy to read them all in a row on Twitter. So I’m embedding them below. Hope they’re helpful.

*Full disclosure: Affiliate link.

This talk also inspired me to write a prayer for parents breaking white silence.

Here’s a link* to that second book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

And to pre-order* Harvey’s upcoming Raising White Kids.

*Again, an affiliate links.

Cairn photo

#CertStudy, Day 10: Why digital storytelling? (Putnam, Drescher, Campbell)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

As the test gets closer, I need to pick up the pace a little bit. Today I’m going to do an annotated bibliography-type post citing a bunch of literature and a brief takeaway about how it contributes to a question I haven’t really tackled head-on yet:

Why is digital storytelling an appropriate activity for faith learning ( / religious education / spiritual growth)?

OK, let’s get to it:

Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

I cannot believe no one made me read this book in seminary. Religious leaders tend to talk about congregational decline as if it were the result purely of our insufficient faith / love of—for Christians—Jesus (unhelpful, frequently a tool for blaming progressives, plus an overly optimistic reading of what resulted in prior institutional thriving), the laziness that resulted from our prior institutional privilege (probably a piece of the picture in certain mainline denominations), and a failure to adapt ministry models beyond what worked in the 1950s-1970s (diddo).

But the piece we do not emphasize nearly nearly enough is this: Faith communities are not alone. Social participation and capital were on a steady decline across virtually every sector of American life for much of the second half of the twentieth century. 

This doesn’t mean religious leaders should wash our hands, declare “it’s not about us” and give up on the idea that spiritual community will be important to Americans in the future. It does mean that congregational declines aren’t just about us.

The takeaway: Congregational decline should be understood against the backdrop of decline in social participation generally, including the fact that it is likely to continue. The causes Putnam identifies for diminishing social capital generally—generational succession, “privatizing of leisure time,” suburbanization, and financial pressure (p. 283-286)—should be instructive for congregational leaders in identifying new ministry models.

More the point, traditional models of congregational religious education like Sunday school are likely to be less and less tenable as a means of supporting the spiritual formation of U.S. adults and children in the future.

Drescher, E. (2016). Choosing our religion: The spiritual lives of America’s Nones. New York: Oxford University Press.

Drescher’s ethnography of “Nones” (those who do not claim a particular religious affiliation) is probably the most important recent work for helping us imagine the future (and present) of spiritual practice in the U.S. Among the important conclusions in the book are the following:

(1) Nones are a demographic category, not a demographic group. All that they have in common is answering a particular question in the negative, but not being members of particular groups doesn’t tell us much that is helpful overall about people in the category.

The upshot of all of this is that Drescher seriously challenges monolithic popular portrayals of Nones as young, white, wealthy, self-absorbed, etc. Her portraits attempt to treat Nones as individuals, to capture their diversity, and …

(2) … to push back on the extremely condescending way Nones are described and treated by many academics and many religious leaders. She writes of Nones’ “extra-institutional spirituality” and “self-authorized mode[s] of meaning making” in explicit contradistinction to prevailing terminology for their approach to faith: “narcissistic, non-committal, largely therapeutic” (p. 275).

And she pulls back the curtain on just how similar many Nones are to many “Somes,” the latter being her term for the religiously affiliated, which term emphasizes spiritual and religious practice are spectral rather than binary. It’s not All or None, in other words.

(3) The Nones who do talk explicitly about sites and subjects of spirituality or more generally about sources of meaning in their lives are very likely to name the “four Fs” (family, friends, food, and Fido):

Sites/subjects of contemporary religious practice (Elizabeth Drescher)

(My all-time favorite digital story covers three of the four:)

But in her portrayal of Nones, I recognize my own habits of spiritual practice and the advice I give to the people under my spiritual care, or who just ask my advice:

Find practices that work for you. Find what helps you be centered and grounded. Find what helps you be joyful and generous. Find what gets you out of your own head and puts you in relationship with the people and places around you, and maybe also in something bigger.

A big theme of this book is that many are indeed finding—with gusto. As others from Diana Butler Bass to Mary Hess have been saying for years, the future of religious belonging is likely to have more to do with practices and values than beliefs and affiliations.

The takeaway: The “aha” moment for me was here:

the unaffiliated resist such herding [i.e., overgeneralized labeling] not only as a matter of demographic correctness but also as a matter of spiritual identity and practice. Embracing the very noneness of Nones is critical for those attempting to understand the spiritual lives of the unaffiliated and an important starting point for understanding how American religion and spirituality are changing in general. (p. 23)

Something I hadn’t fully articulated yet is that storywork, like so many of the other practices described in the book, is a mode of spirituality that embraces Nones’ noneness. It is non-affiliative, non-dogmatic, meaning-centered, self-authorized reflection on what matters and how our experiences change us. And methodologies like Lambert’s Digital Storytelling are explicitly communitarian to boot.

Campbell, H. A., & Garner, S. (2016). Networked theology: Negotiating faith in digital culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Campbell, H. A. (2012). Understanding the Relationship between Religion Online and Offline in a Networked Society. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 80(1), 64–93.

Probably the most prolific scholar of how the Internet is shaping religion, and sometimes vice versa, is Texas A&M communication scholar Heidi Campbell. What began with a really awesome digital religion lit review in 2012 and takes a more theological form in her 2016 book is a model of she calls networked religion. It’s characterized by five traits:

  1. networked community – religious community is exercised and experienced in part or in whole through networked publics
  2. storied identities – the Internet is a tool for assembling and integrating religious identity through agentive, narrative meaning-making
  3. shifting authority – “credentialed”/institutional religious leaders and the hierarchies they maintain are less likely to be blindly deferred to; the Internet provides opportunities for both traditional and emerging religious leaders to develop or consolidate authority through blogging, etc. (and wow does this have the theology police freaked out)
  4. convergent practice – digital tools/spaces/media give new and varied expression to timeless rituals and actions; “[t]he internet serves as a spiritual hub, allowing practitioners to select from a vast array of resources and experience in order to assemble and personalize their religious behavior and belief” (sound familiar?)
  5. multisite reality –  digital spaces are generally integrated and connectional and act as a supplement to in-person practice rather than being separate and distinct and acting as replacements to in-person practice

The takeaway: The relationship between religious practices and digital practices is complex. Campbell’s work gives us concrete theoretical tools to name and better understand the empirical realities of religion online.

In particular, trends in the importance of personal story, the creativity with which people appropriate religious rituals and messages in/on new media, declining de-facto deference to what institutions and their leaders think is important, and the use of digital spaces as reflection sites for in-person experiences all speak to the potential of digital storytelling as modality of identity development and self-reflection with great potential to faith communities today and in the future.

As usually I’ve written more and covered less than I intended. Will do part 2 ASAP: Hess, Cheong, Hilberath & Scharer, McGuire, ??.

"Intense conversation" by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) - Bakhtin

#CertStudy, Day 9: Language, dialogue, & digital storytelling (Bakhtin, Pleasants)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Let’s start with a reminder of one of Lewis & Moje’s critiques of … let’s call it naively contextual theories of identity. (I’m one way at work, one way at home, one way at the grocery store, one way online, etc.) Their point is that there’s a radical particularity and a genuinely contested negotiation involved in one’s agentive enactments of identity at any given moment.

The “givenness” is significant: Who am I speaking to? What do I want to communicate about myself? (Especially vis-à-vis the other people I’m with or even just thinking about?) What are the ideological stakes of particular strategic choices in this moment? You get the idea.

Well, near as I can tell, one of the most significant thinkers in examining the role of language in these sorts of negotiations is Mikhail Bakhtin. Bakhtin has a similar (and in Lewis & Moje’s case, explicitly influential) analysis of how individual words establish their meaning (literally “come alive”) in a particular socio-ideological (or to use the Bakhtinian buzzword: dialogic) context.

For Bakhtin, the meaning of a word is dependent on its speaker, in dialogue with both the referent object or idea as well as an anticipated reception and response from the hearer. All these factors (local factors, shouts the New Literacy Studies canon; particular contextual and situational factors, Lewis & Moje specify) are in play for meaning-making:

Indeed, any concrete discourse (utterance) finds the object at which it was directed already as it were overlain with qualifications, open to dispute, charged with value, already enveloped in an obscuring mist-or, on the contrary, by the “light” of alien words that have already been spoken about it. It is entangled, shot through with shared thoughts, points of view, alien value judgments and accents. The word, directed toward its object, enters a dialogically agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judgments and accents, weaves in and out of complex interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from others, intersects with yet a third group: and all this may crucially shape discourse, may leave a trace in all its semantic layers, may complicate plicate its expression and influence its entire stylistic profile. (loc. 3903)

Because it’s just so gorgeous I have to do one more:

If we imagine the intention of such a word, that is, its directionality toward the object, in the form of a ray of light, then the living and unrepeatable play of colors and light on the facets of the image that it constructs can be explained as the spectral dispersion of the ray-word, not within the object itself … but rather as its spectral dispersion in an atmosphere filled with the alien words, value judgments and accents through which the ray passes on its way toward the object; the social atmosphere of the word, the atmosphere that surrounds the object, makes the facets of the image sparkle. (loc. 3916)

All this has lots of implications for thinking not just about identity as it is negotiated through language acts, but also authorship, understandings of audience (and its inextricable role in dialogue), etc.

Healther Pleasants, in a book all about sites of learning as sites of possibility,uses Bakhtin’s idea of the  centripetal (toward the center) and centrifugal (away from the center) forces of language. Centripetal forces “allow[] us to be ‘seen’ by others as enacting recognizable identities,” and centrifugal forces “provide opportunities for innovative interpretations of existing language and discourse in the service of making each of our identities a uniquely fashioned construction rather than an essentialized and static caricature” (p. 210).

In other words, centripetal forces tend toward pushing us in the direction of using language in unitive ways (“speak like everyone else and you’ll fit in”) and centrifugal forces are the more chaotic and creative movements in which our novel uses of language take on their full, complexly “sparkly” effect (to return to Bakhtin’s metaphor for “the living word”).

Pleasants ran an ongoing digital storytelling afterschool program and was especially attentive to the ways her participants used language both to join unitive discourse communities (academic literacies, conventionally accepted storytelling techniques, etc.) and to innovate and even rebel (toward language patterns more typical of their out-of- than in-school usage, unconventional storytelling approaches,  etc.).

I think Pleasants’s centrifugal/centripetal framing is a rich way of analyzing her ethnographic data. For a chapter-length piece, I’m not sure I’d want much more theory bogging things down. But there’s definitely a lot more grist for the “theorizing digital storytelling mill” in even the short excerpt I read from Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination.

Let me speak briefly to two interesting ideas:

(1) What Bakhtin so richly calls the “living word” (rich especially in the context of Christian religious education) is the “stuff” that makes remixing powerful:

The living utterance, having taken meaning and shape at a particular historical moment in a socially specific environment, cannot not fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads, woven by socio-ideological consciousness around the given object of an utterance; it cannot fail to become an active participant in social dialogue. After all, the utterance arises out of this dialogue as a continuation of it and as a rejoinder to it—it does not approach the object from the sidelines. (loc. 3908)

When a digital storyteller chooses a particular piece of popular music to accompany the story, or a inserts a particular photo from a poignant life moment, or quotes a particular poem or song lyric in the narration, that person is bringing along a lot of baggage (an intentionally “loaded” word—Bakhtin delightfully calls these meanings “the sclerotic deposits of an intentional process”).

This interpretive baggage might be associated with that media artifact in the teller’s personal experience, or in the popular imagination. Remixing/sampling is about “using” that baggage, sometimes centripetally (say, the Luther Vandross sample in Kanye’s “Slow Jamz”), sometimes centrifugally (say, a Girl Talk mashup).

In other words, Bakhtin would likely agree that remix is a powerful lens for teaching interpretation, audience analysis, empathy, etc. It’s a way of getting people thinking about communication within communities of shared identity and values as well as across differences. Mary Hess has written about the need for these skills in 21st-century religious education. As Bakhtin puts it elsewhere “language, for the individual consciousness, lies on the borderline between oneself and the other.”

(2) In fact, that quotation continues like this:

[Language] becomes “one’s own” only when the speaker populates it with his own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention. Prior to this moment of appropriation, the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language (it is not, after all, out of a dictionary that the speaker gets his words!), but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions: it is from there that one must take the word, and make it one’s own. (loc. 4131)

Yes, this excerpt further elucidates the point about remix, in ways that also point out the very Piagetian process of gaining expressive facility with language. (We encounter an unfamiliar word or usage of a familiar one, we compare it to what we already know, we either incorporate it into our existing understandings or change those understandings, and then we go about using our new knowledge—first tentatively then with increasing confidence.)

But besides hitting my Piaget trigger, the word “appropriation” fires off another association more relevant to religious education. Fowler’s imperfect but useful work on stages of faith names a key transition (often in young adults) as the individuative-reflective move wherein the believer “need[s] not simply to replace their old tacit ideological system with a new one but to choose from a place of freedom. Authority must be relocated ‘within the self’ (p. 178–179)” (that’s me quoting Fowler somewhere in The Seasons of Adult Faith Formation).

At some point on your faith journey, you have to choose what’s going to work for you. You’ve got to claim it. You’ve got to decide what it means and what that means for how you live your life. You’ve got to, returning to Bakhtin above, “make it [your] own.”

I think the whole reason why making media is a valuable faith formation activity is that in the process of curating/designing/designing—images, music, narration, story arc, etc.—you’re not just claiming the words, you’re claiming the ideas you’re expressing in them. Telling a faith story is a way of first teasing out and then (pro)claiming the epiphanies and convictions to which your experiences have led you.

Image: “Intense conversation” by Sigfrid Lundberg via Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Maze (representing negotiation) - "Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories"

#CertStudy, Day 8: Identity in “Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories”

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

OK, as promised, I finally want to say a brief word about Cynthia Lewis and Elizabeth Birr Moje’s important 2003 piece “Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories”, particularly how the authors treat identity, agency, and power. I’ll end with a few words relating this material back to my project in the making.

Their basic argument goes like this: Sociocultural theories of learning (situated cognition, activity theory, communities of practice, etc.—see my cognition overview) have an important flaw. They do a good job of capturing the richness of the immediate context (the social relationships of the group, or the structure of the activity itself, or the dynamics of moving from peripheral to full participation), and how that immediate context shapes individual actors and vice versa at the micro level.

But Lewis & Moje contend that these theories are less adept at handling how micro-level behavior carries and constitutes broader institutional forces and vice versa. So, yes, local literacies are important (see my discussion of New Literacy Studies), but they’re important precisely because they are a site of the negotiation and exercise of power frequently in conflict with wider (hegemonic) forces.

In other words, sociocultural theory needs a more complex critical consciousness, a view of power, agency, and identity (and discourse, and ideology, etc.) that works not just within the micro-level unit of analysis  but also macro to micro and micro to macro. It needs to acknowledge that “power …  is produced in and through individuals as they are constituted in larger systems of power and as they participate in and reproduce those systems” (p. 1980).

So, for example, they examine some teacher professional development activity transcripts (white teachers learning to thoughtfully read and incorporate multicultural literature in their classroom). They show how activity theory provides a useful framing for studying this group in action, but they bring in critical discourse analysis to better surface the ways the ideologies of the participants are at work in their interactions. This hybrid approach (hence, “Sociocultural Perspectives Meet Critical Theories”) helps us see the participants as partly denying (and thereby reinforcing) their white privilege and partly acknowledging it (to lay the foundation for its possible construction).

What all this has to do with identity and agency is this: taken on their own, these sociocultural theories run the risk of oversimplify our thinking about identity. These theories may not fall victim to the notion that identity is singular and fixed, but they can lead to an only slightly less naive idea (represented in some ways by Goffman and certainly by my “masks” GIF) that identity corresponds neatly to context.

Following Bakhtin, Stuart Hall, and others, the authors claim that identity “can be considered ‘an enactment of self made within particular activities and relationships that occur within particular spaces (geographic, social, electronic, mental, cultural) at particular points in time'” (1983). It’s always being negotiated, and that means the same activity might give rise to different performances or enactments depending on the other factors at play in that activity in that moment.

This leads to an understanding of agency that grapples with both the potentialities and the limitations involved in an individual’s exercise of power: “Agency, then, can be thought of as the strategic making and remaking of selves; identities; activities; relationships; cultural tools and resources; histories. Agentic acts can also remake relations of power, although we want to assert that acts can be agentic even when they do not remake large-scale structural relations” (p. 1985, emphasis added).

I need to wrap up here (some exciting work to finish for tomorrow …), but a few comments on why all this theory matters to a research program in digital storytelling:

  1. Digital storytelling gives participants the opportunity, to some extent, to break the spatial, temporal, and other contextual boundaries that necessarily frame any shared activity. If you’re telling stories about your life, you’re constantly referencing other times and places, other relationships, other activities, and bringing the meanings of those memories to bear on the learning taking place in your more immediate surroundings. The activity itself brings to the surface the identity negotiation by crashing other life and learning contexts into the context of the digital storytelling workshop.
  2. Another interesting methodological possibility (one I plan to write about more in future posts) is the idea of making that boundary crossing even more explicit by doing the research in two parts: first doing the story circle workshop together, then reflecting back in a different mode and context to further discuss the meanings brought to the fore. First make the media, then take a step back and interpret the media. (Spoiler alert: I’m trying to work in podcasting as a second mode of participatory ethnographic sense-making between researcher and participants—there could even be the possibility of some podcast stories comprising part of the dissertation proper.)
  3. Speaking of making media, the emphasis I added to the quotation above about agency as the strategic “making and remaking of selves” points out something I think is especially powerful about digital storytelling. The strategic choices one makes in choosing “the moment,” writing the script, “seeing” and “hearing” the story through visuals and music, etc.—these decisions make explicit in the storytelling process the decisions we implicitly make every day as we enact our identities. That’s why Lambert and his colleagues consider StoryCenter both an arts organization and a site for (therapeutic, almost) identity work, which is what they identify explicitly as the stakes of their mission.
Image credit: "Camping" by cotaro70s via Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0) - reminds me of research pedagogies

#CertStudy, Day 7: The “research pedagogies” tradition

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Part of what has vexed me in my first three semesters of doctoral studies is how to connect my interests in religious education and my advisor’s expertise in literacy studies.

I’m not likely to ever have a job teaching reading and writing per se, especially to young people. And even the highly specialized areas of reading and writing (broadly conceived) that I do teach—i.e., digital literacies in ministry settings—are a little too instrumentalist to be very interesting to very many people in a research context.

Increasingly, what gets me most excited, and what meshes well with the literatures I have good institutional access to, is the notion of making meaning (by/while/through) making media. Quite a few folks in religious education and digital religion have spent time with these questions, particularly in the context of “networked publics,” aka social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, plus online forums for religious people and that kind of thing.

What I have to offer from my positioning as a student of Lalitha Vasudevan (and also of Nathan Holbert, in a slightly different tradition), is experience with what Lalitha and her colleagues call “research pedagogies“—multimodal participatory ethnographic research within “created spaces.” Let’s break that down:

  • Multimodal refers to the process of combining/crossing/juxtaposing multiple cognitive tasks, modes of expression, genres, and media to interpret, critique, and create “texts” in the broadest sense. Creating multimodal artifacts in the research pedagogies framework means recording “pieces of the cultural narrative of the research space … to trace how the cultural dynamics within a research space evolve. By embodying additional narratives about the research in this way, the focus and directionality of the ethnographic gaze shifts; … adolescents produce knowledge in embodied, tangible ways” (p. 189). In other words, studying young people making stuff allows you to learn about the young people partly by looking carefully at what they’ve made—and listening carefully to what they tell you it means.
  • Participatory means “youth and adults are guided by aims that are emergent and negotiated” (p. 189). In a necessarily limited but nevertheless real way, both the objects of learning and even the trajectory of research is an act of co-creation between researcher and participants. This is not ethnography as a “fly on the wall.”
  • Created spaces are where you do research when you’re pretty convinced that institutional spaces are missing something important. In practice, they are often open-ended after-school programs or camps or informal relationships in community spaces. People with the research pedagogies ethos, like lots of folks in New Literacy Studies, need these spaces because they have ethical and pedagogical convictions that don’t lend themselves to manageable study in business-as-usual classrooms, especially in the era of No Child Left Behind and beyond. If you care about local and culturally relevant literacies, for example, it’s hard to get much traction in “schooling model” classrooms increasingly hogtied by “yearly high-stakes testing cloaked in the language of accountability” (p. 6 in Media, Learning & Sites of Possibility).

OK, so research pedagogies is the “how” (and “where”), but where’s the “why”? Let me briefly sketch an answer to nod toward the post I thought I was writing today.

To review, the question is why would someone interested in religious education questions use the methods of literacy researchers, and the research pedagogies methods in particular.

In a general sense it has to do with that idea that literacy is better thought of as a social practice than as an area of content knowledge or even an academic skill per se. Especially in an increasingly digitally mediated world, literacy just means (or if not “means” then “significantly impinges upon”) how we go about our business as social beings.

We write each other text messages and compose elaborate selfies and have to decide in emails whether to have a confrontation in that medium or redirect it to an in-person conversation. Point being: literacy, broadly conceived, is an increasingly important tool in how we make meaning.

And more specifically, in the course of our lifelong learning of the literacies we need to navigate our social worlds, we perform our identities via the agentive/constructive process of encoding and decoding meaning in the “texts” we “read” and “write.”

So if a group of religious learners gather to (in the macro sense) tell stories by (in the micro sense) engaging multimodal literacy practices, what they’re really doing is putting the cultural texts and practices of their religious tradition in conversation with the texts and practices of their broader lifeworlds.

If you sit in space designated in some way as “religious” or “holy” and you tell a story in response to a prompt about a “meaning-full” moment in your life, and if you grapple with how that moment changed you, and you begin to appreciate how the process of telling your story is itself constructing the meaning of your story, and along the way you’re telling bits and pieces of it to your friends and getting advice about communication techniques from your mentor (and hopefully vice versa), and if when you finish your story it’s shared with members of your wider religious community and …

Well you get the idea. If you’re doing all that, you’re exercising your agency to construct your religious identity in the context of community and your own unfolding life story. It’s faith formation at the “intersection” of your story and the Great Story (to borrow an idea from the church I serve).

It’s deep, reflective, relevant, empathetic work, and a religious educator and/as research pedagogies researcher could do a lot worse than to be a co-participant in that unfolding process and be a part of figuring out—from a jointly negotiated frame—what it means for the storyteller’s life and faith—and for the life and faith of the storyteller’s community. We haven’t cared much about that latter directionality, notice, and that’s to our detriment.

OK, next time I really will say more about dynamic theories of identity, which is what I really meant to do today.

Image credit: “Camping” by cotaro70s via Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

Theater Stage photo

#CertStudy, Day 6: Dynamic theories of identity, part 1 (Goffman)

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

I missed yesterday so I could push hard on a journal article and finish a video I’m excited to post soon, but I’m back in the saddle today to start writing about theories of identity.

The place where most people interested in identity and the Internet begin is Erving Goffman’s Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. It is a delightful read—a bit old fashioned and hegemonic, to be sure, but lucid and provocative and mostly right, I think.

Goffman uses the metaphor of players onstage (and backstage) to explore the ways we “perform” identity in public (and private). Onstage we engage in “impression management”; we wear the mask associated with our performance; we adhere rigidly to a carefully cultivated script. Backstage we let our guard down a bit, attend to biological needs, engage in “coarser” banter. But there are “standards of decorum” here too, albeit different ones.

Goffman masks gif
I used this illustration of our different “masks” for different social situations (at home, at school, at church, at work) while teaching this summer in Germany.

I like the way Goffman writes about the This Is Water phenomenon:

In the study of social establishments it is important to describe the standards of decorum; it is difficult to do so because informants and students tend to take many of these standards for granted not realizing they have done so until an accident, or crisis, or peculiar circumstance occurs. (p. 68)

Making tacit social practices explicit is, of course, what makes “social turn” disciplines both rich and challenging. In particular, the process is precisely the “stuff of learning” in Lave and Wenger’s situated account of cognition.

Germane to my interest in religious spaces and how they shape the learning that happens there is Goffman’s account of the materiality of these regions.

The decorations and permanent fixtures in a place where a particular performance is usually given, as well as the performers and performance usually found in it, tend to fix a kind of spell over it; even when the customary performance is not being given in it, the place tends to retain some of its front region character. Thus a cathedral and a schoolroom retain something of their tone even when only repairmen are present, and while these men may not behave reverently while doing their work, their irreverence tends to be of a structured kind, specific ally oriented to what in some sense they ought to be feeling but are not. (p. 76)

The mobility afforded by Digital Storytelling on iPads, etc., strikes me as interesting in this regard. What would it be like to hold a faith-based digital storytelling workshop in a Sunday school room? Or better yet a Cathedral? How might the “spell” interfere with or enrich the learning? I don’t have a hypothesis, but I definitely want to know.

We can see a little more clearly some of the implications for reflections on online identity in passages like this one, pondering what happens when we “witness a show not that was not meant for us”:

The answer to this problem is for the performer to segregate his audiences so that the individuals who witness him in one of his roles will not be the individuals who witness him in another of his roles. Thus some French Canadian priests do not want to lead so strict a life that they cannot go swimming at the beach with friends, but they tend to feel that it is best to swim with persons who are not their parishioners, since the familiarity required at the beach is incompatible with the distance and respect required in the parish. (p. 83)

Technology affords (an at least theoretically possible) segmentation of audiences pretty effortlessly, either through choice of public platform, multiple accounts, or scrupulous attention to privacy settings and follower lists. But consider Elizabeth Drescher’s portrait of today’s “integrated digital habitus,” or Meredith Gould’s advice that clergy share not just in their “official voice” but in a more personal mode as well. These reflect a recent blurring of Goffman’s front and back regions (i.e., “there’s no such thing as privacy” online).

Still, we can understand the effects of this blurring in Goffman’s terms. For instance, audience segregation for religious leaders often leads to a problematic lack of accountability (think of the acts we reserve for private spaces and how often they get abused by people in power). It can also create a “peerless pedestal” effect that renders the advice either feeble (for the skeptical hearer, who may not be interested in, say, marital counseling from a celibate priest) or overly rarified and likely unachievable (for the hyper-reverent ones, usually).

By way of a transition now, note that Goffman quotes Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex as an example of the performance of gender, where the unit of analysis is not so much public/private but in the presence/absence of men:

Confronting man woman is always play-acting; she lies when she makes believe that she accepts her status as the inessential other, she lies when she presents to him an imaginary personage through mimicry, costumery, studied phrases. These histrionics require a constant tension: when with her husband, or with her lover, every woman is more or less conscious of the thought: ‘I am not being myself:’ the male world is harsh, sharp edged, its voices arc too resounding, the lights are too crude, the contacts rough. With other women, a woman is behind the scenes; she is polishing her equipment, but not in battle; she is getting her costume together, preparing her make-up, laying out her tactics; she is lingering in dressing-gown and slippers in the wings before making her entrance on the stage (p. 70)

The matter of whether we “lie” when we perform our identities is tied to questions of both agency (from a socio-cultural perspective) and development (in a more cognitive vein). I’ll consider these issues in the next couple posts.


Martial Arts - Ricœur

#CertStudy, Day 5: Paul Ricœur on plot and “productivity”

This post is part of a series wherein I blog my way through studying for the doctoral certification exam in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Read the first post here.

Full disclosure: Amazon links in this post have my affiliate code built into them. If you follow one and purchase something, I’ll get a small commission. Thanks for supporting Learning, Faith & Media and my other work.

Today was a St. Michael’s Day, so this is a short post from a short study session. I have a feeling that I won’t be able to escape the gravitational pull of Time and Narrative, but for today two quick thoughts from the introduction to From Text to Action:

(1) Ricœur’s reading of Aristotle on plot (from the Poetics) is really useful. His emphasis is that, from the compositional perspective, plot is best thought of as a sort of process, i.e., “emplotment”(blech, I know).

The point is that plots aren’t some platonic form, aren’t out there in the ether waiting to be discovered or released like Michelangelo’s Prisoners. Plots are designed, basically. Curated, even. They’re pieced together in an intentional order. That order is what forms the narrative “arc” we’re always hearing about, the emotion journey of rising and falling action.

This process of emplotment involves choosing a beginning that lays out the premise of the story, a middle where a change happens, and an end where that change comes to be understood. If emplotment (plot as process) goes well, then the plot (as product) succeeds in “hold[ing] together” context, actions, and consequences.

This all matters to Digital Storytelling as exploration of identity because emplotment is especially difficult (and therefore especially meaningful) when you know (indeed, have lived) the larger series of connected events from which your story is drawn.

Why choose this incident to be woven into a story? Why include this detail to contextualize it? Why do I believe these actions changed me? Why start it here and end it here? The storytelling process opens up an rich exploration of the shared meaning of elements that will recognizably “hold together” (in a way where the meaning really depends on the story).

(2) Ricœur is interested in comparisons between history (as an interpretive endeavor, rather than a purely descriptive one) and fiction writing. He thinks they’re not as different as we might believe, given that the “world” that history describes is not the world immediately in front of us, which of course is true of the artist’s fictional world as well.

This is interesting, for starters, because autobiographical storytelling is a little like history (interpretation of an imperfectly remembered past) and a little like fiction writing (the production or assertion of meaning through deliberative emplotment). Ricœur seems an especially helpful theoretical companion given that he’s interested in their relationship.

But it’s interesting as well because of what storytelling as a creative act (what Ricœur calls narrative’s “productivity”) can do:

“Because it is a world, the world of the text necessarily collides with the real world in order to ‘remake’ it, either by confirming it or by denying it. However, even the most ironic relation between art and reality would be incomprehensible if art did not both disturb and rearrange our relation to reality.” (p. 6)

I want Digital Storytelling in any setting, and maybe especially in a faith setting, to “rearrange my relation to reality.” I want the impact of my created world upon me to change how I see my real lived experience each day. Digital Storytelling isn’t just about weaving a nice plot to illustrate some change that happened to me in the past, it’s about giving that change a fighting chance to genuinely transform me for the future.

Moreover—and this is a bit of a nod toward some new material in the days to come—how I choose to name and act upon these transformations is part of what gives me agency in claiming and living into my identity.