Author Archive

Investigating Everyday Objects

Here is my attempt at using Animoto to produce a video for teaching about cultural interactions over time, and their relation to the present using commonly used articles in our homes.  History of Everyday Objects: Pots, is part of a larger presentation on several other objects, including textiles, ornaments, paper, and ceramics.

Here is another attempt, since people had trouble viewing the link. It seems to work. S Douglass video

Category: W5: Animoto  One Comment
Dead Certainties as Detective/Crime Novel

The most fascinating insight into the book and the American Experience documentary on Dead Certainties was when one of the commentators made the connection between the mid-nineteenth century public’s early encounters with the genre of crime fiction, and the trial of Dr. Webster for the Parkman murder. She noted that the real story of the trial and its protagonists and antagonists had all of the elements of detective or crime fiction as it was developing at the time. The significance of this statement brought the issue of fictionalization by Schama full circle. The events surrounding the murder were real, and the written as well as physical sources consulted by historians were authentic. The surrounding human response, both at the time and today, involved imagination and fictionalization. Literate observers at the time, which may have included journalists who covered the trial, had been exposed to the elements of crime fiction—a new and stimulating genre of literature. Perhaps some of its elements came from broadside sheets—penny news sheets that contained quick narratives, or from journalistic stories built around standard elements. According to the observation shared in the film about crime fiction, then, the public would have projected these elements onto the story that was unfolding about the murder. This, the observer implies, may have influenced the outcome of the trial. Fiction affecting history.

Simon Schama’s fictionalized historical version today may be seen as projecting these elements of a well-worn genre back into the story even more strongly. This is perhaps most evident in the conclusion to the film and the book, in which he feels it necessary to say what he thinks happened—to reconstruct the murder scene according to his reading of the historical evidence. This is a very common aspect of crime fiction. The writer cannot leave the audience without solving the mystery. Historical studies may not always be so neat, but Schama doesn’t leave much room for any other outcome but the one he postulates. In the documentary, all we get for the alternative (Webster was not the murderer) is a brief statement by an armchair historian. It is not very convincing. So, Schama’s view of the story prevails, both in the book and the movie.

The background segment to the documentary, “Behind the Scenes,” tells us that the style of videography chosen by the directors is reminiscent of film noir. So the viewer is also being intentionally influenced (manipulated?) to view the historical incident through this lens. Other conventions were followed as well, especially the way in which the characters were introduced, their possible motives and personalities that led them into the position they inhabit in the story, the various props, vocational aspects, and so on, even to their dress. So, with this circular observation about fiction influencing the historical event, and Schama’s fictionalization along the lines of crime novels, the contemporary reader/viewer is left in the middle of a dilemma.

As for comparison of the film with the book, I find that the film did a much better job of bringing to life the social and cultural history of the period. Schama’s personal style in the book got in the way of that—he is too much in the story. The film-makers, however, skillfully wove this aspect of the story into the documentary. As a part of the American Experience series, this is to be expected, but it is a particularly well done aspect of the film. It answered the “so what” question in many ways. The historical issues that the book raises became very graphic as well—such as the legal aspects that applied to the use of forensic evidence, the lack of testimony by the accused, and the standard of evidence. Schama’s use of thick description obscured some of these points. It seemed sometimes as if he was channeling Charles Dickens in his character portraits, for example, of the lawyers for the defense and the prosecution.

A final note on the book and the film. Wisely, the filmmakers resisted any temptation to include Part I of Dead Certainties, which was the story of General Wolfe and historian Francis Parkman’s telling of his story, as well as the digression (interesting though it was) into Benjamin West’s dramatic painting of Wolfe’s death, and the whole business of dramatic, authentic, and classical models for those theatrical history paintings that have mangled history by appearing in textbooks for generations. It was amusing to learn that convention dictated that the characters in such historical paintings should appear in classical dress—togas and chitons. This would have saved generations of students from graphic editors of textbooks who put these paintings as authentic, period illustrations of the events they stand for. They were misled into thinking that there was no—or only minimal—theatricality and artifice because they were wearing period costume. As for Schama, however, it makes little or no sense that he has put this segment into the book about the Webster/Parkman affair. The connection with Boston and with historians, as well as with some of the characters’ families, is too tenuous. The linkage with temperament and obsession is another possibility (Francis Parkman sharing Wolfe’s infirmities, for example). I can only wonder if Schama is perhaps indicating that he, too, has some affinity with either Parkman or Webster that made him delve into their stories. That is not a matter of great importance, however, and mercifully, it was not included in the documentary. It detracted from the book, and should have been a journal article, perhaps, for Schama.

Category: W4: Murder at Harvard  Comments off
Definition and reflection

I think it is important not to put too fine an academic point on a definition of digital storytelling so as not to limit a new medium, but rather to leave it open to various uses, formats, and modes of creation and dissemination.

At the most obvious level, digital storytelling is different from oral, pictorial, or written storytelling in that it is created and/or disseminated using those little electronic 1′s and 0′s in some combination. The digital medium is convertible. It is possible to convert a digitally created or disseminated story back into one of the traditional (non-digital) forms by printing it out, telling someone about it, or reading it aloud.

The most important way in which a digital story makes a difference is in the variety of media that can be used to tell the story. It might be a video or merely audio production of and by more than one person. It can involve sound–voice, music, or sound effects. It can make use of images, both moving and still, photographed or created using art media (crayon, pencil, paint, collage, digital graphics), alone or in combination, manipulated artistically or kept as they were created. An in-person storyteller could use all of these effects in various ways by acting, using props, and incorporating sound. Such a performance could be videotaped or otherwise archived in digital form and become a digital story.

Two aspects of the digital story are decisively innovative: the ease of its creation with inexpensive equipment, owned or borrowed, and the ease of its dissemination to potentially everyone with Internet access through posting online. As a corollary, unlike a non-digital story shared with an audience limited to those present, or those who read it, a digital story can be archived and given permanence. In oral cultures, storytelling was a persistent presence–meaning that story performances happened continuously on various occasions,  usually either by designated persons with special skill or knowledge, often hereditary (a griot, for example), or by individuals in familiar roles–a grandmother, a mother, a male or female elder. In digital storytelling, the persistence of storytelling comes through archiving, viewing many episodes or different examples of people’s stories. The unity and persistence of a body of story material that is common to a group is exchanged for persistent, continual access to a world of stories. Exclusivity is traded for ubiquity. There will be those who feel that stories are enriched by such wide dissemination, and those who feel something is lost because of the potentially infinite access to all the world’s stories–or at least those that come to the attention of those with digital equipment. What is ubiquitous can seem superfluous. The gain or loss equation depends at least in part on the use to which digital stories are put. They can raise awareness, move people to action, change attitudes, or just give pleasure (or pain in some cases). Meaning is what gives a story its value, and it is relative to the listener/viewer.

Category: W3: What is Digital Storytelling?  Comments off
The Morning After

A Nisei’s Fight for Freedom

From the series Stories of Service at the Digital Clubhouse, I found the story A Nisei’s Fight for Freedom compelling and well told. It was produced and narrated by the subject of the story, a Japanese American named Rudy Tokiwa. In a scant 4:46 minutes, mostly against a simple piano background, Rudy tells the story of his life after Pearl Harbor, to the internment camp, volunteering for a segregated  Japanese unit in the US military. The 442nd was ultimately the most highly decorated unit in US history, though the decorations were not all realized in a timely manner.

The format of the story is very simple and linear. The images move in a linear manner, closely matched to the details of the narrative. The style of the story is spare, yet smooth and powerful. There is nothing extraneous or gimmicky. Even the images are unvaried landscapes rather than close-ups or varied-angled shots. The power of the narrative to reveal its significance–heroism against a background of discrimination and mistrust–and takes its emotional impact from the direct way in which it is told. The digital storyteller did nothing to enhance the emotional impact. The voice of the narrator–the main character in the story himself–takes its power from its clarity, its maturity and unwavering tone.

S Douglass bio-info

To introduce myself, I am a student who has done higher education in three pieces–undergraduate at the “normal” age, followed by 12 years total overseas in Germany and Egypt, the M.A. eighteen years later in the middle of having my 4 children, and now my doctorate, as the last of the four prepare for college. I have in the meantime sewn production clothing for a decade, taught history on and off for a decade in various venues and age groups, written books and other instructional projects for the past two decades, and worked on education policy research and review in between, as related to teaching world history. Not sure where it goes from here, but acquiring multimedia skill, knowledge and art seem the most interesting frontier to explore.

Category: W2: Bio  Comments off