Digital Gender Story Project: Teaching Gender in the Digital Age

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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.


- Ayu Saraswati (2009)

Portfolio Overview

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.

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.

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 Storytelling9, 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.

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

  • “For the Bible Tells Me So”

Website products

During previous semesters, the creativity involved in the creation of the webpages was quite astounding (see Best Sites below). Some teams had solicited the help of friends, who were not enrolled in the class, to provide their expertise with drawing, creating music, and/or video samples. Additionally, the webpages were for the most part well researched and designed, although many technical details were overlooked or inconsistent across the class pages. Students appeared invested in the quality of the final project—some students even corrected small mistakes after final exams!

Student performance during the Fall 2006 semester (see below) was surprisingly markedly poorer than during previous semesters. Except for one team, student groups consistently handed work in late and really did not engage in serious research until it was too late to create substantial documents. This lack of enthusiasm is clearly discernable in their websites. Although the Fall 2006 websites were virtually free of technical errors, they were less interesting visually compared to websites from previous semesters.

During earlier semesters students went out of their way to exploit the available technology to its fullest, and some teams created fun profiles of the team members that clearly reflected the students’ pride in their work. During the Fall 2006 semester, only one team worked to achieve that same high level of performance.

Still, numerous students expressed that they enjoyed the complexity of the tasks involved with making the web page. They also expressed appreciation for the degree to which they were exposed to all phases of the profession of art history.

The website as a team project

On a positive note, students enjoyed working together. All of them benefited tremendously from other students’ of their written contributions. Many students made new friends and, in general, students reported that they loved the dynamics of the classroom. Students reported that getting to know their team members helped them feel more secure in the classroom environment and that this created a livelier atmosphere than in most classrooms. One anecdotal measure of success in the class was the fact that students always talked to each other before and after class (compared to the silence among students in other courses!). In fact, I often found it difficult to get the students to settle down at the beginning of class and to suspend their conversations, and likewise, at the end of class, students often stood around in clusters continuing their discussions.

As was to be expected, some students complained a lot about the amount of work and the distribution of work among team members. Team members, with some supervision, divided work amongst themselves based on particular interests, talent, and time management concerns. The division of labor took many different forms. Usually one or two students took on a leadership position, sometimes quite aggressively. Where this happened, other students in the group tended to become more passive. Some students found it nearly impossible to find the time to meet with others outside of scheduled class periods, and others complained about the difficulty of cooperating with peers. But there were just as many positive reports about teams, where team members quickly became very good friends and worked together fruitfully.

Students also complained about being evaluated as a team. They were given a chance at the end of the semester to provide feedback about their own involvement with the project and about their peers’ contributions. These peer evaluations were taken into consideration when a final grade was assigned. Overwhelmingly positive comments about a student’s participation by more than one peer resulted in extra points (half to one full grade) , while consent among team members that a student had done nothing or next to nothing resulted in a reduction of points (half a grade).

The website as service

The virtual gallery arose, in part, in response to a political debate on campus regarding issues such as the importance of the African art collection, accessibility of the collection, and the future of the collection. The student-created websites helped to draw attention to the collection, both on and off campus. At KU, the website helped to demonstrate that the collection was needed for classes and valued by the students. The political issues around the art objects made the students feel that their effort was meaningful and relevant to a world beyond the classroom. Ultimately, in part as a result of the student-created virtual tour of the ethnographic collection, 10,000 objects from Africa, MesoAmerica, Oceania and Native America were taken out of storage and transferred to KU’s Spencer Museum of Art, where they are currently being integrated into displays of what was previously a museum focused exclusively on Euro-American and Asian artworks.

Moreover, my colleagues at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association mentioned having seen the website. And recently, a representative from the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco requested to borrow the Yoruba Dundun drums for an exhibition called “Africa.Dot.Com:  Drums to Digital.” She saw the drums on the website, initiated contact with me, and in her correspondence expressed her appreciation and admiration for the students’ work.

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.