President's Blog

Storytelling in the Digital Age

Bryan's new book is available on Amazon

Yesterday we had a lively and engaging visitor on campus. Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at NITLE, visited several classes (in Dance, Art History, Journalism, Anthropology — a wide range of fields) to talk about digital storytelling. In the evening he gave an open lecture which I found especially thought-provoking.

Some of the thoughts it provoked: as Dr. Alexander pointed out at the start of his talk, storytelling is a pervasive human activity. We tell stories verbally, we dance and mime and enact stories, we write our stories down. When new technologies evolve — writing, printing, television, radio — we use them as vehicles for our stories. As we are doing now with digital technologies. . .

The really interesting question is what difference technology and media make to this central human activity. Does telling our stories in writing make them different stories from the ones we tell face-to-face? Or are writing and recitation just two different ways of telling the same story? How different is a story crafted today through the intersection of Twitter and YouTube from one crafted a decade ago through hyperlinks, really? And how different — in meaning, in impact — is a story disseminated on a web site from one disseminated from a printing press and through a book store? Questioners posed some version of this question, both during the session and at the reception afterwards.

Walking home, I thought about the fact that we simply can’t say, yet — and about how valuable and exhilarating it is to pose precisely the questions to which we don’t yet know the answers! Academically, storytelling is studied in many different fields: literary studies, of course, but also anthropology, folklore, and psychology. Professors discuss the sociology of storytelling, study the economics of the distribution of stories, and analyze the history of narrative forms. (As well as the narrative forms of history.) Storytelling is one of those profoundly interdisciplinary topics, and last night it seemed to me fundamental to the liberal arts.

It was one of those evening when I felt strongly what a gift it is to live and work in a place like Sweet Briar, where the opportunity to be part of wide-ranging and interdisciplinary conversation is everywhere.

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