Courses as narratives

In her timeless TED talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown jokes about how taken aback she was when someone called her a storyteller. How dare someone call her a storyteller. She’s an academic, dammit! Of course, Brown goes on to say how she grew more comfortable with the label and how she began to see stories as “data with a soul.”

I was reminded of this during a brief Twitter exchange with a VCU colleague the other night. In that conversation, Lyndsay Durham wrote:

Amen, Lyndsay.

My experience is that most faculty members don’t think of their courses as stories or narratives. Mostly, they are a series of activities strung together for the purpose of teaching to a set of learning objectives. So, how can we help faculty members think about creating learning experiences that have a coherent narrative arc that draw learners in the way a good storybook or movie or TV show does? Here are some ways we might get there:

1. Course trailers – our innovative media team, under the leadership of Molly Ransone, is working with faculty members to develop course trailers. We are by no means the first university to be doing this, and the Courseras and edX’s of the world have used course trailers (even if they don’t call them that) effectively. Here’s a recent course trailer that Molly worked on with Ryan Cales, a faculty member in our Department of Focused Inquiry:

Course trailers might be used as a recruiting tool and/or as an introduction to the course for students who have already registered. Regardless, our experience early on in the game is that the exercise of planning and designing a course trailer forces the faculty member to think about the overall narrative of the course. That is, they are confronted with the question of “What story do I want this course to tell?”

2. Course site – whether your course is online, face-to-face, or anything in between, you’re likely to augment the course with a course site. At most universities, these days, every course has a site within the LMS. At VCU, every section of every course has a Blackboard site.

Still, we are working with faculty members to think about taking advantage of the affordances of the open web for course sites. An LMS is customizable, but within very tight limits. You can change the shape of buttons, for example (“Woohoo, rounded buttons. I love this course!” – Nobody, ever). But, for the most part, as an instructor, you are forced into a bunch of constraints built into the LMS (the LMS vendors sell these as features; I see them as bugs). Building a course site on the open web, using a platform such as WordPress, means the possibilities for a course site are almost limitless. The images below are from the Blackboard site of a section of a course I taught last summer and of the course site I created on WordPress for the course. Which is more inviting? Which helps tell the story of the course site as a treehouse where we gather for conversation?




Take a look at the course site Brian Croxall at Emory University created for his Introduction to Digital Humanities course. Do you want to hear/read/see more of *that* story? I do.

3. Syllabus – related to the course site, what does the syllabus as a technology tell us about a course? When presented with a 20-page syllabus constructed in MS Word, are you sucked in wanting to read/see/hear more? Yeah, me neither. Most syllabi are curiosity drains; they suck the joy of learning out from the very beginning. Furthermore, the “story” most syllabi tell is one of “musts” “wills”and compliance.  Sure, there is boilerplate language that students must be notified about, but that language can be placed on a course site instead of the syllabus.

We can think differently about syllabi. I’ve gathered some examples of interesting syllabi in my Diigo collection. How about this syllabus for a course called Internet Resistance? Doesn’t that syllabus give you a sense of the overall narrative of that course? The great Howard Rheingold introduced me to the idea of a mind map or concept map as a course syllabus. What you see below is the image of a mind map of a course on Network Literacy. Each node on the map is a link to information and activities for the course. Furthermore, it’s a course about networks and uses a network representation as a course syllabus/platform.



If we tie course sites and syllabi together, the possibilities are endless. Our awesome new colleague at VCU, Chioke l’Anson, used a Story Map as the launch point for his course. How could any history course not be framed as a story? Enter StoryMap. Click on the image below to see how that works. Students are asked to navigate back-and-forth across a map to learning artifacts; they can actually see the geography of the story using this tool.



So, thanks, Lyndsay, for prompting this blog post.

What story do you want your course to tell and what design elements have you crafted to help tell that story?


9 thoughts on “Courses as narratives”

  1. I like it and although I’ve done this with my own courses, I’m wondering what the lesson is here for K-12? How does a Kindergarten teacher see their “course” as a narrative? How do they tell that story? Do they need to? I’ll think more on this.

  2. I wonder what each instructor’s story would look like if each wrote a story of their own intellectual development? Would would any one be a good model for students to follow? Would they collectively be a good model(s)?

  3. @enoch I’m intrigued. How would you differentiate someone’s intellectual development from their educational journey – or are they one in the same? This seems like one of the exercises in the leadership text ‘True North’ – by Bill George where he asks readers to construct their Life Path. In doing so the reader is guided through an exercise where they identify significant influences, turning points, and roadblocks.
    I wonder what our educational journeys or intellectual development ‘paths’ might look like if mapped out in this same way and if laid side by side – where they would overlap.

  4. @lyndsaysdurham I think that one’s intellectual journey is synonymous to one’s educational journey if we are speaking of education in a robust, life inclusive manner. However, if by education we mean schooling, then the intellectual journey (how we learn, why we learn, our roadblocks, our triumphs, turning points, etc.) is very different. My interest has been to challenge people to create a story or record of what they do when they think creatively, critically, when they empathize, or explore the extent to which they have developed some sense (disposition) to think with flexibility, open-mindedness, or perseverance. There is so much, so I want to see what people choose. I ask: “If I had a blank slate to write my story of intellectual development, what would I put on it? What examples could I offer up of successes and failures? Would it be a good model for my students to follow to develop their own intellects?” I’m using the word ‘intellectual’ here in a dynamic way to include the whole person, but focusing on the extent to which I am aware of the thinking (feeling and acting) I do. Does that clarify? I’m afraid it doesn’t.

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