Reflections on Ira Glass (pt. I): Storytelling for Scholarly Multimodal Texts

Trying to get back on the horse. Lots of time spent on my dissertation. Trying now to get back to my blogging. Whew… I’m sorta outa blogging shape nowadays.

I’m headed back to DMAC (Digital Media and Composition) at The Ohio State University beginning next month, and I wanted to get back into the swing of teaching and producing media-rich digital texts. I figured that Ira Glass (who is one of my touchstones) might be a great place to start, so I’m posting a few short videos of him thinking about audio textual production. I think that most of what he has to say is highly applicable to most scholarly multimedia texts.

I’m gonna post one video today, with a little reflection, and then post another couple of them in a day or two. I’m hoping that you watch them, think about them, and maybe post your own response or question.

Enjoy him. He’s a genius.

Yes, you’re right. Glass is talking about storytelling. Maybe you’re thinking that storytelling isn’t what we do. We do scholarship. Sans narrative. Maybe we have a short anecdote somewhere in our article explaining how we came to our question or describing the data we’re studying. That can often be true, but I think that really misses the point of what Glass has to offer here.

Though he structures his talk in terms of two building blocks, I’d like to split them into three: Sequence, Question, Reflection. And these three elements can really help me think through how it is that I might want to structure a digital text. Let me take them one-by-one.

Sequence: Instead of thinking about texts as a sequence of events (narrative), it might be useful to think in terms of a sequence of ideas, syllogisms, and facts (argument). Breaking a text into these sorts of parts can be useful in a couple of different ways. First it allows a writer to consider how important a specific linear order is to a text. Where linearity is necessary (think syllogism), then more linear modes of textual production might be more useful (pages in a sophie book, videos, audio texts). If sequence isn’t so important or even counterproductive (examples, bibliographic entries, footnotes), then hyperlinked technologies might be more appropriate (flash, websites). Regardless of how the text is sequenced, Glass’s second point is absolutely essential…

Question: This is something that scholars are really good at. But we don’t necessarily always think of textual questions in terms of mystery. Instead, it might be more akin to thinking about ideas as markers on a map. We have a sense for where we want to arrive: a response to an articulated question, a solution for a problem, the conclusions of a study, etc. The trick is to create a sense of momentum toward that question. It’s important not just to open a space to do the scholarly work, but it’s also important to compel the reader to follow you on your way there. This isn’t necessarily a new idea with scholarship, but it’s important to consider as we move into multimodal composing. Whether we like it or not, there’s a lot of cultural baggage that goes along with the incredible opportunities for multimodal texts. Call it the attention economy. Call it the click-through generation. Our on-screen pointers are restless. We have to keep thinking of strategies, even if we borrow them from storytelling, for keeping the reader/user engaged and moving through the text. Create a need. A mystery. A payoff. A new perspective. A missing link. Let us know you’re getting there… soon enough.

Moment of Reflection: At this point, I want to remind you of Glass’s own words: “Here’s why you’re listening to this story. Here’s the point of the story. Here’s the bigger something that we’re driving at. Here’s why I’m wasting your time with all this.” It’s the payoff. We’re already good at this. It’s just important to keep in mind Glass’s suggestion that there’s a back-and-forth throughout the text between sequence, questions, and reflection. Sure, maybe there’s a big reflection/conclusion at the end of the text, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be multiple points of reflection throughout.

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