Case Study: Brendan Stone and David Forrest on working with multimedia

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 15.10.51

The School of English’s Prof Brendan Stone and Dr David Forrest discuss the Storying Sheffield course, which sees students from all walks of lives learning through creating digital media.

Storying Sheffield is a course run by the School of English, led by Prof Brendan Stone and Dr David Forrest. It brings together a mix of English students, and people from around the city, including people from disadvantaged background, to create narratives about everyday lives.

Video has become an increasingly popular part of Storying Sheffield, but other media are used, including audio and photography.

David says: “You don’t have to have incredible directorial or editing skills, but simply relocating an image, and putting it alongside some sound, you completely change the stories that image may tell. It’s those kind of conceptual questions, those questions of interpretation, that any student of English Literature should be thinking about really.

“Film is something that students use a lot of, but Brendan and I are keen that they don’t get too hung up about technical perfections or aspiring towards technical perfection. They think about the ideas that they can convey.

“We really want them to not be fearful of using media, but instead see it as something which liberates them a little bit, and gives them an alternative vehicle for expressing their ideas.”

But it’s not all digital. As Brendan says: “While students do use a lot of media, they’re also perfectly free to use non-digital ways of building narrative. We have considered directing them to produce only digital media, but we haven’t done this yet. So we just put these new technologies against very old ones, like paint, or making things out of objects, or writing. All of those things are technologies, they’re media. There’s a menu on offer, but inevitably, due to the popularity and prevalence of digital stuff, more and more students seem to like to use that.”

David identifies the Creative Media facilities as important in the course. While both agree it was nice in a way to have a bit of “chaos” previously, David says: “When the media suite came around, and specific provisions and support became available, we could say to students ‘these are the options for you’. That’s one of the great things about teaching here it’s quite a fluid space. There’s technical support on hand if they require it.

“Initially before the media suite is was quite chaotic, but really I don’t think we should be afraid of putting students in the deep end saying ‘here’s the technology’. It’s there to empower them, not there for them to be deferential with it.”

Brendan says: “The course is not about using media, but it’s a challenge that students have to overcome. In the same way that in other types of teaching, I don’t teach them how to write an essay.

“Storying Sheffield is about narrative, but there’s also various transferrable skills that come out of it, and a very important one is mastering software packages, learning editing, finding visual ways of thinking about the world.

“It’s also a way to open up different opportunities for thought for students. To write an essay takes a particular type of thinking. To make a film you may be engaging with a lot of the same ideas, but you have to think about them in a different way. For me it’s a way to develop thinking skills.”

David sees it as a different kind of writing, in a way. “It’s the same sort of knowledge and creative ideas that go into it, but it’s a different way of expressing those ideas.”

The media content isn’t assessed in itself. Each student has their own blog or website, so they write weekly, embedding the media they make. As David explains: “The students still write incredible amounts, more so than they would in courses that don’t use digital media. Digital media on this course is a vehicle for ideas, it’s a use of practice and practical methods to enable a more visible means of enabling the students to reflect. So we’re not assessing them on digital media, we’re allowing them to use digital media as something else to write about.

“Fundamentally we’re still assessing their ability to construct ideas textually, but I think the process of digital media can really enliven that process, and make the assessment that little bit more dynamic.”