This idea has been bouncing in my head for way too long, it’s time to get some help chasing down an answer. And I would be fine if it’s not the one I seek.

I have been contacted by a quiet, off the beaten track, but legit organization, –call them the Campbell Consortium– interested in the application of story approaches in higher education. It might be better explained in a short video.

Joe Murphey at Kenyon College has stepped forward with interest as well, and we are planning a three day workshop series in June to explore the question; hopefully we can interest some good curiosity and willingness to follow this line of questioning.

A recap is in a post following my conversation last summer with Bonni Stachowiak on Episode 218 of the Teaching in Higher Education podcast.

The question the Campbell people have (and I myself) is, what would it take to apply a storytelling approach in courses outside ones about storytelling. So I need some people to probe for an answer, even if it’s “not very possible”.

Having to explain this should compel me to write some kind of short paper / long blog post about it— this has been sitting long on the To Do shelf. What might it mean to have a narrative tie a course together?

It’s not about turning an entire course into a story, it’s more about establishing some kind of back story, or even genre/metaphor that the work students do in a class can tie into, so that it’s more than just a series of assignments (likely disposable). It’s like creating a some kind of analogue of plot continuity in film. It’s something that creates a backdrop or scene for what happens in a course. It’s making something propel the course with story methods of an arc, of building suspense, of creating something that makes you want to know what happens next.

Maybe it’s just my madness.

But here is my short list of possible examples, mostly drawn from storytelling/narrative focused classes.

  • It starts for me with the DS106 Summer of Oblivion masterminded by Jim Groom at the University of Mary Washington (UMW), spinning the class as a web version of the movie Video Drone. The course itself became a story that evolved as it went. As Andy Rush noted, “No one shaves their head in an LMS”. I remember being a skeptical of the claim that a course needed a narrative (as you can see, I changed later)
  • The following Fall Michael Branson Smith picked up with a version for York College of a DS106 built around Journey to the Center of the Internet and a mysterious Dr Olivier (some blog posts are around).
  • In the summer of 2012, I co-taught a UMW summer course version of DS106 with Martha Burtis where we built it around a cheerful summer camp called Camp MacGuffin, where there was something slightly sinister behind the scenes. Our joke was that the first thing we did in planning was design our t-shirts. We had a series of videos done as counselors in front of green screen images of camp. In the end, everything blew up in Minecraft.
  • I taught an online version of DS106 in Spring 2013 (for UMW) where there was a loose theme that, as an online teacher, I was stuck in a black and white 1960s TV show. I taught on online version in Spring 2014 for graduate students in the George Mason University Instructional Design and Technology Program (IDT). — because the students were all working in corporate firm, the theme was DS106 Goes to Work. I had a weekly video series playing out a story of the skeptical “corporate guy” (played by me) visiting the media creative guy (played by me). These were all rather low production value videos filmed at my house on iPads and laptops, edited in iMovie.
  • The 2013 summer version of DS106 led by Jim Groom started a series of versions where there was a genre for the course, so assignments were aimed at, but did not specifically have to, use that genre. That one on 2013 was around the stories of the Twilight Zone, or in this case, the DS106 Zone. Later came ones themed around The Wire (jim Groom and Paul Bond, UMW Fall 2014), Noir 106 (Jim Groom, Paul Bond, Martha Burtis, UMW Spring 2015), Tales from DS106 UMW (a comic theme co-taught by Paul Bond and Jim Groom, Fall 2015), a planned Western 106 I had hoped to co teach with Bill Genereux in 2016, eventually run as an open course), UMW Fall 2016 “The Cover Page” (Kris Shaffer), and UMW Fall 2016 “Mission 106” (Paul Bond). There’s likely more I am missing!
  • Perhaps a peak for me in playing out this concept was during a 2014-2015 Fellowship at Thompson Rivers University. Working with Brian Lamb, we ran a DS106 inspired (meaning there was blog syndication, media creation, a daily challenge) thing we called “The You Show”, an open online course aimed at TRU Faculty. I pitched this idea of it being built around a “TV Show” hosted by two technically inept hosts (played by Brian and me), who were mocked by the two “tech guys in the back” (also played by Brian and me). We had visitors each week who played guest roles (like D’Arcy Norman, Nancy White, and Tannis Morgan). As each episode progressed, the inept hosts got less inept, the logo grew refined, and the video production got better– so that by the end episode, the “tech guys” in the back were not even needed. This plot evolved as we went along; each week I would sketch out some rough notes to Brian, we’d pick a location, and mostly improv the action in one take. It was maybe an hour to film and another 2-3 hours to edit in iMovie. I started doing more with multiple cameras, assisted often by Brian’s son who would shoot extra footage on a second iPhone.
  • I brought a fair bit of this You show approach to the Networked Narratives courses (you might call it a cousin of DS106) I have co-taught with Mia Zamora. The first year, I had suggested to Mia we create some mystery in our weekly intro videos, and after a few episodes, this folded into a theme where are videos were being “hacked” by some outside entities (who later we brought into our Mirror World space where the hackers turned out to be friendly). The videos were not even part of the course content, just something we put out there to build a sense of mystery around the course. We did more of these types of videos in the next two years, more as a means to build out the “spine” approach to course planning, not really as content. Because we were in different places, these were “filmed” in Google Hangouts on Air, and lightly edited in iMovie.

But again, these are all examples for course about media making and storytelling. The challenge is to now see what it would take to find a narrative thread in other kinds of courses. And without it being a significant overhead. Maybe I do it because I am obsessive and like being a bit off center 😉 The theme need not be one of mystery or darkness either, it just ought to be something that makes assignments and activities focus on something other than completing them.

This is what I hope we can get going during our workshop at Kenyon College, plus the extra factor that I will be beaming in via video.

Is this a mad idea? What suggestions do you have? Should Kenyon just run away from me?


See the comments below for new ideas and thoughts (and hey add more!)

Jon certainly posted (and seeded my idea maybe) in 2015 on the same question; see Courses as Narratives. I like the idea of Course Trailers; see the ones collected at AGU100 and another episode of Teaching in Higher Education (where I land on the Video Course Trailers at Duke University), and well heck, more in a reach of a search.

Here is the thing- a trailer is the teaser- where is the next segment of the trailer? The sequel? It’s a worthy activity to do as generating interest in a course, and might be done in narrative style, but does it create an arc for the course?

Maybe “narrative” is not the best word, it leads to ideas of fiction and imaginary places. Maybe it’s more a question of- does your course have a plot?

I hope Holly can point me to some of these examples! And she did…

Not a response, but perhaps Project Based Learning is an avenue?

Also came across this fantastic activity based on the Hero’s Journey:

…leading also to Monomyth Online which features a framework for doing what I am suggesting– the resources include a Google document for planning an activity or a whole course mapped to the Hero’s Journey.

Weaving narrative structure into online course design can serve as a compelling force in supporting student engagement and persistence in meeting articulated learning outcomes. But how do you leverage effective practices and technology in order to actually make it happen? Use the resources below to design instruction around the Monomyth Online framework.

Some possible ideas tagged in twitter as #unessay.

From Kevin Gannon’s The Dreaded Survey Course, comes 4 suggestions that fit a course-tying approach:

Structure the course around questions. Design a survey course in which the purpose is to help students answer some fundamental question — or figure out how they might begin to answer it. A sociology survey could challenge students to answer the question “Why is our society the way it is?” A physics survey could be organized around the question “How does the universe work?”

Pick a particular theme. It could be one big theme (similar to the idea of a fundamental question), or you could divide your course into modules and assign each a different theme. For example, a survey course in communications might organize itself around the themes of interpersonal communication, mass communication, advertising and propaganda, new media, and communications theory. Or a biology survey might be divided into sections like cell biology, plant biology, physiology, genetics, and evolution.

Offer the course as a “disciplinary tool kit.” Is developing certain skills or competencies the primary purpose of your survey course? Then try using those specific “tools” to organize the class. For example, build a survey course in computer science around particular programming tasks students will need later in their studies.

Employ a case-study approach. Rather than inundating students with content throughout the course, think about how case studies could stand in for larger course themes or competencies. Some history instructors, for example, use biographies for their survey: People’s individual stories are a window through which students can look at a particular historical event or period. In a social-science or business survey, a specific “real world” application exercise can be a more manageable focus for students’ engagement with the broader areas of your disciplinary content.

Also see Amy Burvall’s ideas on #rawthought: What’s the Big Idea? A Thematic, Inter-disciplinary Approach:

Why not center the entire school-wide curriculum around umbrella concepts that spur big (and little) questions? I’m talking total multi-generational and interdisciplinary. I’ve previously pondered a curriculum derived from the lenses of philosophy and the arts (I’m still loving that idea), but I wanted to play with what grande topics could be the anchors of study. Here’s what I came up with…

Featured Image: Added screenshots of my blogpost on the Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast and the ds106 site to Arnold Air Force Base image of Coherent Anti-Stokes Raman Spectroscopy system placed into the public domain as the work of a US Government agency.

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


    1. Thanks Jon- I did cite/link to that post from here because it had stuck in my memory cells (see the trackback ping in your post!).

      While I like the concept of course trailers, they are more like sprinking around the edges of the course- does the way the course is set up, the personality of the video format in trailer carry forward into the course?

      And I should add your team concept site used in UNIV200, that fits. I did poke around trying to find the map from AFAM 111 but the link breaks; I do think a map makes a great metaphor to apply.

  1. This is a fascinating post for me to read, because I remember the first piece of work of yours I encountered (back in the tin-cans-connected-by-string days was the MLX – now deceased(?)). A learning object repository with a brilliant warehouse conceit. I remember one of our first conversations, and I asked what the secret was to your much higher than normal participation from the community. You said, “it’s the metaphor”.

    And I think about all the times we’ve done stuff together, and you’ve asked something like, “where’s the story here?” Pretty sure you said that as we (and by “we” I mean “you”) were hacking the You Show.

    So, maybe this isn’t the most helpful comment, other than to acknowledge that if this mysterious organization wants someone to explore story approaches in higher ed I can’t imagine a better person. Can’t wait to see where this goes.

    1. Brian’s recall of your “it’s the metaphor” nails much of this I think. Your performance on “The You Show” is 99.2% responsible for dragging me into this community of educators and then you put the nail in by hooking me into the #UdgAgora project later that year Alan. I can never thank you enough for that btw.

      This reminds me of an excellent presentation/keynote by Kent Beck at OOPSLA 2002 in Seattle titled “The Metaphor Metaphor” where he made a last attempt to convince people why Metaphor is a key practice in Extreme Programming (others may know about Agile methodology which this is part of). You can still see the outline of that here:

      (side note. I *love* how we screwed up that URL but it remains the same 17 years later).

      I know Kent from my many years on OOPSLA committees organizing the conference and getting “free” (volunteer work is real) travel to hang out with brilliant people. We have had many conversations about how Extreme/Agile overlaps education and I have a crap-tonne of blogs (a book?) that I should write about how my two worlds collide.

      Now, back to the topic. I want to make this happen in my courses next semester. I’m game, I’m ready and I have no problem experimenting. Ask my students, they’ve seen my mad experiments every other semester.

  2. Alan,
    I’ve been circling around this very question since the early 1980s when I first met Joseph Campbell and he mentored my first Hero’s Journey Creative Writing Class. I went on to teach dozens, even hundreds by now of writing courses—mostly Freshman Comp and Argumentation and Research around the infrastructure of the Hero’s Journey (or Heroine’s—I’ve also worked extensively with Murdoch’s framework). I structure the (I used to—I don’t know why I don’t do this anymore—not sure I could even put my hands on a syllabus, although I have file drawers and notebooks stuffed to overflowing with an archeological site of my teaching midden) I structure the course around the cosmogony round and teach it as I go. At quarter term, they’re in the Belly of the Whale, and by mid-term they have The Meeting with the Goddess (that would be me), then Magic Flight and Elixir of Life ending with Master of Two Worlds.

    I have in-class writes with dozens of different ways to relate the coursework to the stage of the Round that we are in collectively.

    The Hero’s Journey, which I am not sophisticated enough to sniff at, is The Great Story; it is itself archetypal and morphs to fit any class, any topic, any age.

    I remember I first met you through your efforts at Maricopa College with the Hero’s Journey. II think its applications in the classroom are ever fresh.

    This is a topic I am extremely interested in and will follow along closely.

    Loved that video—Peter says he’s glad to see you’ve got the ponytail thing going on:)

  3. Cogdog!

    I dig this post. It reminds me a bit of some of the stuff in Brian Boyd’s On the Origins of Stories book, especially the stuff about multi-level selection theory.

    The idea (in a nutshell) is that all things being equal, selfish people do better in closed groups, but groups filled with cooperating people do better than groups filled with selfish people, anthropologically speaking. Storytelling is one of the things that can help coordinate and enforce sharing, cooperation, and collaboration.

    Class-based narratives seem to be to be executing the same function: pointing everybody in the same direction, encouraging collaboration, discouraging competition and competitive thinking. Two cents!

  4. 1. How do I get in on these Kenyon shenanigans?

    2. Just yesterday in my Media & Politics in the Middle East & North Africa class I was reviewing with students their final video projects, and hammering home with them the difference narrative can make to what information they retain. I had them individually answer questions about what they recalled as the key points of other groups’ videos that we watched last week, and then we discussed. It was striking how much more they retained from a video with clear narrative structure. Conversely, they retained relatively little content from a very entertaining video set up as a sequence of interviews with invented/composite characters, but had noted a lot about its form. So there’s a sweet spot somewhere in there about supplying information and provoking ideas through narrative design without diverting all the attention to style over substance.

    1. Hey Ed, get in touch with Joe Murphy @joefromkenyon

      That’s useful to consider where this sweet spot is and how we get there. What kind of video project was this? And maybe there is something to consider that narrative form need not be pure fiction or imaginary, that the narrative mode of communicating has a place in discussing/presenting real world stories.

      1. Students worked in one of four groups to put together videos answering specific research questions I gave them, building on work they had done throughout the course on their blogs as well as in class. I left format open to them—documentary style, newscast style, whatever they thought would effectively convey the information. They had a couple of training/workshop sessions on imovie, audacity etc., but not intensive training: it was in big part about learning by doing, and hoping to prompt some meditation on questions of form/content (style/substance) along with getting them to work together on a research project.

  5. Nice one.

    while I was reading this I kept thinking ‘a syllabus is always a story, it’s usually just a shitty one’

    That’s what passes for insight around here 🙂

    Txs for getting me thinking

  6. 2 things on storytelling from the student perspective.

    1. When asked how to read difficult materials , one so st. Ben’s students in Minn wrote a brochure and said that she was learning disabled and the way that she found most helpful was to use storytelling. Her brochure is published on http://www.howtostudy,.org under textbook reading.

    2. Dr Crystal Bickford from Southern NH, ha a whole web site on digital storytelling with examples from students. Some students are using programs like sketcher overlaid with voice. Will blow your mind away. Time for faculty to catch up or turn the students loose.

  7. It’s remarkable how much we can go back to the ds106 well because it is was both deep and rich with awesome people. And I agree with Dave that every syllabus is a story, but being more deliberate and intentional about the story brings out a lot of the gold Ed is talking about with his Media class.

    The first college level literature course I taught in 1997 was on Early American Literature up to the 1850s. What struck me about that experience was how much of what we were reading was not necessarily what you would deem literature, it was full of journals, sermons, court transcripts, etc. I was using an anthology, and what struck me about that experience, which was one of my favorite teaching experiences ever, was that it was up to me try and connect these texts that often seem unrelated into a complex and loosely cohesive vision of that period. It was incomplete, biased, and flawed, but the process was teaching for me. I think ds106 was the evolution of that because that narrative turned bak on the student and in many ways sidestep content all together.

    In fact, I think the story needs to emerge from the student in an exchange of a creative prompt, it can be to refuse the story, to play along, or to take it in your own direction. Many of the course themes were creative prompts that imposed loose structure and limits to work within, and the idea that this could not be the case in the sciences or other “non-narrative” disciples is ridiculous. Everyone of those disciplines has a narrative of thinkers and development of thought that brought the discipline to where it is now. The real question is do faculty have the time and willingness to let go and let students explore more freely. One good example for me was Steve Gallik’s Histiology course at UMW. He had students take digital pictures of cells with a particular disease and then upload them to a blog and then narrate what the viewer was seeing; it became a tapestry of visual cell tissue that told a story of the microbiotic world we take for granted. It was magic, and it had everything to do with the instructor being will to take a chance.

    I think we have heard again and again that you can do that with ds106 because it is about storytelling, but that is BS. Every course in every discipline tells a story, and it is about finding a new, creative way to do it, and that’s why your workshop will rule all.

    1. Nobody slips a blog post in a comment like the Bava, NOBODY!

      I so agree that the theme flavor for doing this is maybe the better route than an idea of making the course itself a full blown stop on every Joseph Campbell tour. I remember this vividly from the Twilight Zone theme for DS106. As a participant, it gives you a direction to aim the assignment work, but is not required. You can still got through and do all the media creation and projects– I will be borrowing this phrasing “creative prompts that imposed loose structure and limits to work within.”

      The same concept was in mind doing the YouShow videos with Brian and the NetNarr ones with Mia. Most everything I have been researching that covers use of video always keeps it in the box of course content, where what we did was create the backdrop. If a student did not watch the videos, it did not matter in terms of the course part, they could motor along without it. That’s the hump to climb over- why spend time creating content that is not core content? Because of the energy it gives.

      If you think of more examples please drop ’em this way.

      #4life means #4life

    2. Yes Jim: “The real question is do faculty have the time and willingness to let go and let students explore more freely.”

      When I talk with faculty about putting their courses into the blender and really shaking it all up, this is the trick. Where do I get the time? My answer is always that one needs to really step back and look at where we are spending all of our time. Alan points to this to the David Wiley blog post on disposable assignments. In a Flipped Learning view, this is the “I” pillar (Intentional Content) that asks us to really think about the intent of each activity or each minute that we are asking our students to work on (and for us as well).

      Alan showed me (again looking back to my inspiration of The You Show which led me to look at your work in DS106 and more) that these projects and videos can be fun and low-budget and not “just the content”.

      Alan’s other point that doing this fun stuff keeps our energy up during the semester/term is important to think on as well. Let’s admit that a full semester can drag and finding a way to keep the excitement about learning going is gold.

  8. one short sweet comment: I’d love to be involved.
    (I imagine there are a thousand and one ways music and thoughts on music can tell a story, and I love the idea of mixing mediums/media with words, image, and sound.)

  9. CogDog,
    A friend and I just finished attempting this very thing! We decided NOT to adopt the Hero’s Journey and other structural narrative frameworks for our courses. Instead we identified a deep, fundamental conflict within the subject matter of the course (kinda like a fundamental debate within the discipline), then planned course activities that would appropriately expose students to that conflict and that would let students resolve it for themselves. We layered that subject-matter conflict on top of the normal class activities, deepening (and thus sustaining) the conflict throughout the semester as our collective knowledge increased.
    Because of our approach, we feel like we genuinely engaged our learners in a narrative-like journey through the subject matter of the course and the genuine conflicts it contains, but without inventing scenarios with supporting characters. The students were the characters in their own journeys. We’d love to join you at Kenyon to share what we’ve done and what we’ve learned!

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