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Digital Gender Story Project: Teaching Gender in the Digital Age—Ayu Saraswati (2009)

Professor saraswati lectures to her classOverview

A Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies professor integrates digital story-telling projects into her class as a way to provide students alternative methods of demonstrating learning.


Personal storytelling can be a medium for social change. This is the idea that the Center for Digital Storytelling advocates and one of the reasons I developed the Digital Gender Story Project assignment for my course, Honors in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.


Students worked on this project for an entire semester. They had the opportunity to choose whatever stories they wanted to tell that would allow them to make visible how gender, as it intersects with other categories of identity such as race, sexuality, class, nationality, ability, and age, shapes their lives. I asked them to contextualize their stories within the larger institutional structures of (hetero)sexism, racism, etc., and to see their own agencies in negotiating these social hierarchies. It was a big project, so I divided it into smaller steps: taking photographs; writing an analytical paper; attending library research, visual literacy, and film-making workshops; presenting unfinished version of their digital project in class; and meeting with me to discuss their progress throughout the semester.

Student Work

The students’ work on these projects absolutely met my expectations for the course. The videos were high quality productions that integrated personal narrative and critical analysis based on research. They were in general also successful at proposing specific suggestions for social change based on their research, something I’d emphasized throughout the semester.


I was very pleased with the outcome of this project. Breaking the project up into small steps disbursed throughout the semester gave students a much longer period of time to think about their projects and also gave me a chance to give them feedback along the way. I also think that the digital form of the project worked very well for today’s students. It allowed them to be creative and critical thinkers in this digital age and to engage, reach, and get feedback from others in ways that are specific to its digital form, such as posting it on social networking or other sharing-driven websites. Students in general were very enthusiastic about the process and the format, and I have already used both this process and this format in a number of courses since this one.

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Professor saraswati listens to a student commentBackground

The course I taught was WS 202: Honors in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (pdf). WS 202 is a core course for the major, usually taken in the first year of the degree. The course is typically small; the semester I am examining was enrolled with seven students, all women. There were three seniors, one junior and three sophomores in the class. There are no set prerequisites for this course.

The main subject matter of the course is how and where we learn about gender; how gender matters in our everyday lives; how intersecting gender with other categories of identity such as race, class, sexuality, and ability helps us understand the complexity of gender hierarchy, gender inequality, and gender oppression; and how women have resisted and mobilized against various forms of gender discrimination. Specifically, I want students to be able to reflect on how they learn to perform gender and to locate their own agency within institutional structures of (hetero)sexism, racism, classism, etc.

I’ve taught this course two times. During the first rendition of the course, the final project was structured as a group project. This didn’t end up working very well because of some of the problems often associated with group work, and though group work skills are important ones for students to develop, they were not what I wanted to focus on in this particular course. The second issue that I encountered, in some ways associated with it being a group project, was that students’ topics were too broad and unfocused. Each student in the group might have her own research agenda, and they seemed unable to reconcile these differences. Consequently, the project failed to articulate a coherent argument.

During the second version of the project, I made two key changes, which will be explained in detail in the Implementation section of this portfolio. First, I changed it from a group project to an individual project, which allowed the students to focus on the project instead of on the dynamics of group learning. Second, I shifted the focus to the students themselves—their lives and how they learn about gender. This resulted in students being able to see how they experience, learn, and perform gender in their lives and how they negotiate and navigate the various gender, racial, sexuality, and class hierarchies in their lives. Since the project was a “social” diary of sorts, they had to jog their visual and emotional memories to create it, all the while situating themselves as individuals within social institutions. The “social” diary format also was ideal for the social change aspect of this assignment. It allowed them to thoughtfully and thoroughly contemplate the changes they would like to see happen and to clearly articulate these suggestions in their project.

For this portfolio, I’ll be examining the final project for the course, which was a Digital Gender Story Project. I have several goals in writing about this project in a teaching portfolio:

  1. Simply to share what has worked through trial and error.
  2. To share my feminist pedagogy (see below).
  3. To demonstrate how to incorporate different learning styles into a final project.
  4. To demonstrate how to assess these different learning styles. The project allows me and the students to value a variety, instead of one set, of skills.

Feminist pedagogy
The final project for this course was a Digital Gender Story Project (a five- to six-minute digital movie). The project was originally adapted from the Center for Digital Storytelling, a non-profit arts organization that helps people produce their own stories using digital media and advocates personal storytelling as a medium for social change. The Digital Gender Story Project, as its name suggests, focused on personal stories about gender as it intersects with other categories of identity such as race, sexuality, class, nationality, ability, and age. Students were to contextualize their stories within larger institutional structures of sexism, racism, etc., while narrating them in a way that frames them as a site for social change and a way to better women’s lives. This story can be based on their lives or the life of a woman as was represented in the woman’s diary (these diaries were available from the Spencer Research Library). There are several reasons why I chose to develop this digital project rather than assign them a term paper. First, I tend to give students assignments that allow them to be engaged learners, to be aware of their agency in producing knowledge, to be a critical thinker by employing different modes of thinking and challenging their own assumptions and prior knowledge, and to be as creative as possible in showcasing all that they’ve learned throughout the semester.

Second, because this class focuses on the way gender matters in our everyday lives, including how gender ideology shapes and structures the representation of people in media, a digital project gives students a chance to create a visual text that challenges, complicates, and complements other texts they have been studying throughout the semester. This assignment allows the students to be a producer of knowledge in every sense of the word. I tell them, “Now you have the camera. You have the tool. Now what do you do with it? What kinds of representation and knowledge will you produce?” This exercise is in line with my feminist pedagogy that reflects a commitment in teaching to transgress the boundaries of disciplines, genders, and forms of power, and to produce knowledge that Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledge.”

Finally, in developing this assignment, I wanted to make sure that it could be useful beyond the classroom and beyond the mere purpose of getting a grade. This means that after taking this course, students will not only have a much better understanding of gender and sexuality, but also be competent in producing a digital film and in using at least one type of film production software and be able to list these skills to augment their resumes. The form of this assignment also allows for follow-up conversations in a way that papers do not. That is, we don’t usually see students post their papers online for their friends to read and comment on; they’ll be much more likely to view and engage in a conversation based on a film their friend has made.

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screen shot from a student videoImplementation

Because of its format, the project was easily able to fulfill all the major goals of the course (see the Background section of this portfolio). Students could reflect on how they learn about and perform gender in their lives, how gender structures their lives, and how they exercise their agency in navigating their lives. They were also able to practice analytical, oral, and visual literacy skills as they produced the project. In order to ensure students were prepared to fulfill each of these goals in the project, I divided it into five parts.

These five parts are:

Part I: Visual Narratives of Gender: The first part of the project was the collection of images to use in the digital story. Students were asked to take as many pictures as they could that showed how they learn, do, and perform gender in their lives. Those who did the project about another woman’s diary submitted at least five images related to her story. Each photo was accompanied by 1–2 sentences that explained what the image was about. This assignment was submitted digitally on Blackboard. Students could submit this assignment as a pdf, a Word document, a Powerpoint file, or any other suitable digital format. As a model for this project, I showed them Lauren Greenfield’s photo gallery on her website that was related to her book Girl Culture.

Part II: Critical Narratives of Gender: For this portion of the project, students submitted a five- to seven-page paper that provided a critical analysis of the images submitted for Part I. They analyzed these images using the texts we had read during the course, as well as additional materials from their library research. Successful papers needed to have an argument and use the images and texts we read in class to support that argument. A successful paper also needed to evoke debates and discussion, be critical, original, thought-provoking, well-argued, and well-supported. For examples of two successful critical analyses, please click the links below:

Part III: Meeting with the Professor: For this required meeting, students were to bring a storyboard with them that consisted of a minimum of ten “panels” or “frames” to illustrate what the final project would look like. Students were also asked to bring in a timeline that indicated when each step of the project would be completed. I used these meetings to give critical feedback on the project to the students. I therefore encouraged students to bring as much as possible with them to the meeting so that they could get better feedback.

Part IV: The Presentation: Students presented their digital story (about five minutes of the video) to the class. The videos were not fully completed at this time. During the presentations, students talked about their interest in the project and the class gave responses. Classmates were generally very supportive and gave both general responses and specific suggestions. Students submitted their projects, in lieu of taking exams, during the university-scheduled exam time.

Part V: The Gender Story Project: For this portion of the project, students pulled together the “Visual Narratives of Gender” and the “Critical Paper” assignments into a final “Gender Story Project.” The purpose of this assignment was for students to demonstrate the notion of personal storytelling as a medium for social change. Thus, students were asked to examine these previous assignments critically, reflecting on class materials and various theories they’d learned in class. Like their critical paper, this project needed to articulate an argument and be supported by theories they’d read in class, as well as additional theories. Most importantly, it needed to tell a story about gender as it intersects with other categories of identity such as race, sexuality, nationality, and ability.

I provided the students with several examples they could follow for the project:

Throughout the semester, I held four workshops for students designed to introduce them to the research and technology skills they would need to complete the final project successfully. Our first workshop was a visual literacy workshop during which I taught them how to read visual texts. Specifically, I focused on one particular method: semiology—the study of signs and their meanings.

For the second workshop, we met with Sherry Williams at the Spencer Research Library. She introduced students to a rich collection of materials available at the library including women’s diaries, as well as other types of materials that would help them provide some context for their projects.

A few weeks later, we met with Tami Albin, the WGSS librarian. Tami taught them how to use the library catalogues and databases and how to conduct library research. During this meeting, she also offered, and students indeed took up her offer, to schedule an individual meeting with her so that she could further help the students with the library research aspect of their projects.

Finally, about two months before the final project was due, I gave them a basic workshop on iMovie to prepare them to create their projects.

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screen shot from a student videoStudent Work

Overall, I was extremely pleased with the quality of work I saw in these presentations, and in fact, all students (seven) ended up earning A’s in the course. When determining the grades for the project, I paid attention to:

  • how well students articulated their argument
  • how well students organized the project around the primary argument
  • how well students used research materials to support their argument
  • how well students chose relevant images—these images had to function as visual evidence for their argument and signify something
  • how creative the project was as a whole

What I found was that the arguments were in general much easier to follow when the students were able to state clearly and concisely what it is they were arguing at the very beginning of the project. This helped the other students and myself follow the points made in the rest of the project and understand better how the images fit in with the overall argument. For example, Stephanie Palmer, whose project addressed the topic of gender socialization, pointed out how as a child she learned that pink was the color for girls and she therefore loved pink. The images she chose for her video depicted her as a child pushing around a pink stroller and playing with pink dolls. The key here is that she used her photos explicitly and efficiently as visual evidence, which is what I frequently emphasized in class.

Finally, I made sure that each project concluded with a call to action. I wanted the students to make very clear, explicit suggestions for social change that should occur based on the new understanding of gender that each student had come to. In a number of cases, I really had to push the students to make specific suggestions for social change. I did this much earlier on in the project when the students submitted their papers and then met with me. I made sure to talk to them about what they wanted to see change as a result of their project. They needed to go beyond simply narrating a story of being discriminated against and to use their projects in instigating social change. Stephanie Jordahl, for example, whose project problematized how dance shaped, quite literally, girls’ bodies, suggested that dance needed to focus more on skill and technique rather than on the size of the dancer’s body.

The arguments were in general of a pretty high quality. I really pushed them to take a firm stand on the issues they explored. For example, Meredith Pavicic’s project was about all-girls’ education, and she was hesitant at first to claim outright that it was fundamentally better than co-ed. But I told her that she had to pick a side and argue it, pointing to all the quality research she’d done. Ultimately, she did decide to argue that all-girls’ education was the best form for girls to receive. On the whole, they all did a fine job of picking a single line of argumentation and following that line throughout the project.

The projects

The Socialization of Gender

Gendered Body Image

Gender and Religion

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professor saraswati listening to a student comment

Ayu Saraswati

Having the project broken up into smaller steps really allowed the students to devote ample time to working on it. Since they received feedback throughout the entire semester, they also had plenty of opportunity to improve the quality of their projects. Having feedback all along the way about the quality of their images, the quality of their argument, and the quality of their storyboards helped them a great deal.

Providing all this feedback along the way was definitely time-consuming, which is one of the issues I discussed with other faculty members at CTE. In a larger class, say of 50 or 100 students, providing the kind of feedback that I did would probably be impossible. However, it’s so beneficial to the students, and I therefore would suggest that alternative methods of providing feedback in small steps throughout the semester should be pursued. I’m particularly enthusiastic about breaking the final projects up into steps and providing feedback along the way because the students themselves find it helpful. Students often mentioned how useful the feedback was for them and liked how I divided the project into smaller steps.

I also think that the students were largely more invested in their projects because they get to tell stories about themselves. It was so exciting for them to see their own lives as part of the material they’re studying and to be able to tell that story to others. These projects, however, were not a futile exercise of narcissistic behavior, nor do I cultivate such behavior in the class. Jill Dorsey’s outstanding project, for instance, painted an emotional and critical picture of the social landscape of gender, sexuality, and religion in which her subjectivity is formed.

In helping students choose their topic, whether for this specific project or my other courses, I always first ask my students, “What are you passionate about?” This is important to me, because students’ passions will absolutely color the type and amount of research they do. So we always start with students’ personal interests and then develop a theoretical framework that could best serve as their tool of analysis.

Although it was a complex assignment, I was pleasantly surprised to see how students’ projects turned out and how enthusiastic they were about them. I asked them to produce a six-minute project; some ended up submitting 20-minute films! They took pride in their projects when they showed them in class and to a group of faculty members at a special session at CTE. I was also happy to see how they helped each other and shared whatever knowledge they had about the software. Certainly, healthy competition and productive collaboration were the dominant modes of interaction among students, and clearly the digital project helped shape such an environment. Hence, when a student mentioned that the project allowed her to embark on a journey that is part of a long-overdue emotional healing process that involves social activism, I was speechless.

Contact CTE with comments on this portfolio:

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