The value of storytelling in the Digital Humanities
With the recent establishment of the Digital Art History Society, it seems that art history as a discipline has finally, officially staked out our own corner of the Digital Humanities world. It was a long time coming, and many brilliant people had a hand in it—including those here at AHTR. It’s fantastic to see an acknowledgement of the many ways that technology can enhance what we do as scholars, teachers, and learners, and to have a growing community of practitioners and thinkers supporting that work.
Digital Art History is a necessarily ambiguous term that encompasses a wide range of technologies and methods—everything from gamification to GIS, data visualization, and the publication of Open Educational Resources. (Hannah Jacobs has authored a fantastic post on how to utilize some of these technologies in the classroom, as well as things to consider when using tech to teach.) But what is often conspicuously missing in journals and other literature on DAH is one of the methods that I would argue has the most power to change the way art history is practiced today: the utilization of digital narrative media like podcasts and videos for both teaching and scholarship.
Here, I want to make a case for why you (yes, YOU!) should be making videos and podcasts if you don’t already, and why there should be more conversation about this within the discourse on Digital Art History.
- Engagement. Storytelling grabs us. How many of us use Smarthistory videos in our classes? Listen to podcasts on our way to and from work? We know that these things capture not just our students’ attention, but ours as well. They’re compelling in a way that text is not, and they make us think differently about the material they present.
- Wide reach. Videos like the ones produced by Smarthistory or The Art Assignment have been viewed thousands—in some cases hundreds of thousands—of times. That is more reach than any of us can reasonably hope to have through traditional publishing or teaching.
- Rigor. When I assigned a podcast to my students and told them to make it conversational, they realized that they actually had to be a lot more thoughtful about the material than they would if they were just writing a research paper! Knowing we have a (sometimes judgmental) audience keeps us more honest about what really matters.
I’ll bet you more or less agree with the three points above. So why haven’t you been producing videos or podcasts? I am guessing it’s because of one or more of the following:
- Learning curve. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard colleagues say that they “can’t” when it comes to using narrative technologies. But we’ve all managed to figure out our way through the Kafkaesque labyrinths of our schools’ Learning Management Systems, so why do we say we are afraid of tech? I’d guess that this fear is actually more about the conceptual learning curve. We have all spent years becoming good writers. We start in high school and hone those skills all the way through college, grad school, and beyond, along with a community of teachers, colleagues, and editors who help us improve our work. Learning to create audios and videos is an entirely new set of skills that takes time to learn about and ideally benefits from a community of practice where others can help you make your work great. Nothing like that exists for us within Digital Art History right now, but it should! In two upcoming posts I’ll be covering how to make videos and audios, how to teach your students to do it, and how to assess the work in both a classroom setting and for yourself.
- Cost. If you’ve ever been in the position to commission a video at an institution, you know that it’s astronomically expensive. You may think it’s out of your reach. This is not true: Smarthistory videos are made with just a simple audio recorder and a still camera, and video editing software that costs around $100. (Check out Jade Davis’s work on using tech cost-effectively in the classroom.) The only significant cost to you is time. However, I’d challenge you to think about the number of hours you have spent authoring an article or book chapter, and think about the potential reach of a video that takes a similar amount of time to produce. I would argue that it’s worth it, considering the broad impact your video could have!
- Bias. Right now, video and audio are generally thought of as teaching tools rather than avenues for presenting research. Thus, they’re seen as less rigorous than text-based presentations of scholarship. I would like to challenge that assumption—a well-researched documentary film involves just as much academic rigor as an article or book. Video doesn’t have to be superficial or gimicky. It doesn’t have to be for a public audience. It can even have footnotes at the end if needs to! We need to think about new visual and audio formats that can accommodate higher-level academic work.
Digital Art History is just getting started, and it needs great stories just as much as it needs computational methods, mapping, games, and teaching resources. We need more folks to try their hands at making videos and podcasts, and we need to start a conversation and a community around it.
If you’re doing this already, or you’re interested in doing it, I’d love to know and start a conversation. If you want to learn and need help, please reach out. I’ve authored a set of how-tos for this as part of my work for Smarthistory, and in two upcoming posts on AHTR I’ll be sharing how I taught the same skills as an undergraduate class.
Stay tuned for more on AHTR in the coming weeks on how to teach your students (and yourself) to make compelling podcasts about art history.