Writing. Design. Social Change.

As a Writer-in-Residence at Wildacres Retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, I was awarded a cabin for a week to write in peace and seclusion.

Dedicated “to the betterment of human relations” Wildacres is a wilderness destination and public foundation for nonprofit groups, musicians, artists, naturalists, and writers. The generosity of the dedicated staff makes the place feel like a second home.

Deep in the woods in Owl’s Nest, I spent most of the week binge writing, making progress on my book manuscript which details the work of the Beautiful Social Research Collaborative, where students lead digital research projects with local nonprofits and community-based organizations.

There is no internet or cell reception in the cabins – which is the kind of isolation I need to get writing done.

A short hike up the mountain there is a thriving retreat center, where the Kumandi drum group convened for the week. I listened to their West-African rhythms into the dark nights. I heard their drums in my sleep.

Although Wildacres provides meals to all at the lodge, I mostly worked in seclusion and cooked in my cabin, living on spinach omelets and frozen cheese pizzas.

When I wasn’t writing, I hiked trails along the mountain ridges lined with rhododendron and mountain laurel. If all this sounds too pastoral, I also spent an inordinate amount of time killing stink bugs in my cabin. There were also crickets, black flies, bees, wasps, and giant wild turkeys, but no brown bears or snakes —  at least not ones that revealed themselves.

One muggy afternoon I headed to Asheville for a much-needed break. I had been charmed by Asheville a few years ago during an ACE Camp filmmaking workshop.

I arrived in Asheville without a plan, which was in the whole spirit of the week. However, I soon found myself following a woman in bright blue scrubs and her friend. The woman in scrubs was placing an order for lunch on her phone:

. . . I’ll have the avocado taco.

. . . Do you have plantains today? Those, too.

. . . Okay!

This has to be good, I thought. She obviously knows what’s what in Asheville. In anticipation, I followed them from a distance past the artsy shops and galleries.

Through a park.

Behind a brewery.

Across a parking lot.

Around a hotel.

Alongside a stream.

Through a pedestrian walkway.

Past a residential neighborhood …

Finally, as they moved toward an industrial complex, I wistfully gave up the mission.

Heading back the way I came, I sat for a while at a café and then perused Malaprop’s bookstore. An hour later, saw them return from their walk with two plastic shopping bags from Lowe’s. And no tacos.

All was not lost. I discovered 12 Bones Smokehouse and Wedge Brewing Co.

I also drove the Blue Ridge Parkway and stopped at every single scenic overlook.

In the cabin journal, past residents left their accounts of their week, each seeming to have an equally productive time.

I feel a strange, unexpected affinity to those who have stayed here in this place before me. Here are some snippets from the cabin journal:

“Dearest Cabin Dwellers, Collaborators – Welcome to the lineage and don’t worry about a thing. You made it here and the rest is gonna take care of itself.”

“This is a special place where time has the ability to stand still, where you have the ability to become invisible, like the animals and really become part of the forest.”

 “I think this was the most alone week of my life. Every bride should do this before getting married.”

“I left my journal entry in song. You can hear it in the creak of the wood floor, the acorn percussion on the tin roof.”

“I hope this solitude does its work in you and that you discover good and new paths to creativity and love of who you are.”

“Be open to whatever species chooses you as a friend. (ha!)”

“Look for GIANT TURKEYS. If your thoughts start getting too serious, they will appear.”

 “When I walked into this magical cabin, I totally felt like Ma Ingalls.”

“Laughed a lot at night – all alone.”

“I needed this week.”

“It’s a special place that cannot be described—only felt.”

The Wildacres Residency Program has my highest recommendation. Please let me know if you apply or have any questions.


A commitment to community building and civic action offers faculty and students in our field opportunities to address immediate real-world needs in our own neighborhoods.

Join us for a half-day workshop on Thursday, May 24, 2018, from 9-12 at Computers and Writing 2018 at George Mason University. With John J Silvestro, Bill Wolff, and Aimée Knight.

This workshop features several models to involve academic courses in digital projects with local nonprofits and community-based organizations. Learning to leverage digital media platforms to advocate for and with communities provides students a meaningful way to engage in designing communication for social change.

We discuss an array of research and creative projects that 1) serve the needs of community partners and 2) can be accomplished by students in one semester. We provide examples from completed projects in areas ranging from professional writing to digital production, including advocacy campaigns, social media audits, website design, digital storytelling, data visualization, video production, and social media content creation.

During three hands-on work sessions, we will provide guidance and support as workshop participants move through the process of designing and developing their own project or assignment that can be worked into a new or an already existing or a new course. Each participant will leave the workshop with a blueprint for a project which responds to community-identified needs and creates real-world deliverables that benefit students and communities. For more details, contact me @aesthetically.




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What are the essential elements of a story?

What are the rhetorical moves of a short film?

How can short films help students become better multimedia storytellers?

During the 13th annual Traverse City Film Festival, I attended the workshop “Anatomy of a Short” at the festival’s film school led by Lesley Tye and Andrew Hiss, instructors of Motion Picture Arts at Interlochen Arts Academy, I came away from the workshop not only with a new appreciation for the short films genre but with inspiration to produce short films with my Digital Storytelling class at St. Joe’s. 

My write-up of the workshop titled “How to Get started with Shorts” can be found at agnès films. agnès films is a generous and supportive community of women filmmakers, scholars, and instructors who make and teach films. The article features five essential elements to create a successful short film and shares details from the films that we examined during the workshop. 

A film still of a woman smiling

3:18 I’ll Wait for the Next One

Building quickly to a “moment that matters” is one of the secrets to a successful short film. For example — what happens to this protagonist in a mere eighteen seconds to cause her expression to change so dramatically?  I’ll Wait for the Next One (2002).

A close-up of a woman's forlorn expression

3:36 I’ll Wait for the Next One

Read the article at agnès films to learn about the five essential elements of shorts.


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We are hiring a colleague with a specialization in Civic Media to begin Fall 2016. Since the day we started the Department of Communication Studies (at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia) we have been committed to working at the intersections of digital media and civic engagement—and this position is a reflection of that ethos.

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This is not a traditional academic department. My colleagues come from many disciplines and continually extend teaching beyond traditional boundaries to help students become agents of social change. While many universities sit isolated in relation to the communities in which they’re isolated, we seek to better locate our teaching within the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. Our goal is set an example for how teachers and scholars can take into account the ways in which students and community members can use new media to make positive social change.

We have an open mind about what “Civic Media” is:

  • communication and social change
  • race, gender, and ethnicity
  • networked social movements
  • transmedia activism
  • community literacy
  • collaborative design and democracy and the web

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This fixed-term, renewable Assistant Professor position is for someone who wants to work in the classroom and in the community. The successful candidate will teach Civic Media (COM 371), one of the department’s core courses, which focuses on media, communication and social change. The candidate will also teach foundational courses in the program, such as Communication Ethics (COM 201), as well as develop upper-level specialty courses. The position is 4/4.

We are looking for someone who might want to:

  • Put the academic resources of the university to work in communities for social change
  • Learn how digital spaces can be a platform for influence in our neighborhoods
  • Create technologies or practices that revitalize civic engagement

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This position helps to redefine faculty work in our department – applying expertise to make real world change. We are a group of people devoted to creating a reciprocal partnership with the public sphere, extending new models of new media literacy into local community contexts. This is the foundational value on which this department was built and each faculty member plays a committed role to its success.

My colleague Mike Lyons is currently working on the Redemption Project, a multimedia documentary that tells the stories of four juvenile lifers. The goal of this project is to “disrupt” traditional narratives of incarceration and to tell the stories of people who are “conveniently” overlooked by the mainstream media.

I founded the B-Social Research Collaborative in 2010, which my colleague Bill Wolff now directs. This ongoing initiative has collaborated with more than 55 Philadelphia nonprofits to assist in social media strategy, web design and digital media production.

My colleague Steven Hammer developed a course last semester in which students collaborated with persons with disabilities to co-create Arduino-based instruments, to expand directions in physical computing and accessibility.

My colleague Rachael Sullivan recently held a Wikipedia Edit-A-Thon to Write Women Back into History to change the low percentage of female contributors to the site (only about 13%).

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This is the kind of work my department celebrates. This particular kind of work often entails a long-term commitment to working with local citizens and organizations. Building trusting, mutually enriching relations with community partners takes time. We are looking for a colleague who is interested in joining us to create a culture of civic action and participation within academia that is accountable to the broader public.


Parker Posie seductively holds a raw herring by the tail as Louis C.K. bites it in half.

When we go to New York we should do this.

Sure, I squeaked.

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When the day arrives, we stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the Lower East Side waiting for the fishmongers to call our ticket number. Then we head to the park with our prize – Irish smoked salmon, bagels, and two giant raw herring wrapped in heavy waxed paper.

They say a phobia is a fear of something that, in reality, poses little or no rational danger. As someone with a fish phobia, I will eat fish, but do not like to see or touch them. I love swimming in pools, but I panic upon entering lakes and oceans. Because there are fish in there. (That I could see. Or touch.) Usually, I simply avoid lakes and oceans for this reason. And I readily admit, avoidance is not a great life strategy.

This is about trying to overcome adversity. And also about storytelling.

I’ve been teaching digital storytelling for about 5 years now, and am still asking the most basic of questions. What is a story? What does a story do? How do you tell one? So, when someone dares to delve into these dark waters, I always listen. In the hopes that the way will become a little less murky.

In her latest book, Brené Brown (vulnerability expert and TED darling) discusses the sacred 3-part story arc. She refers to the classic hero’s journey (revered by time-honored storytellers Joseph Campbell, George Lucas and Nancy Duarte). Here is Brown’s version:

  • Act 1: The protagonist is called to adventure and accepts the adventure. The rules of the world are established, and the end of Act 1 is the “inciting incident.”
  • Act 2: The protagonist looks for every comfortable way to solve the problem. By the climax, he learns what it’s really going to take to solve the problem. The act includes the “lowest of the low.”
  • Act 3: The protagonist needs to prove that she’s learned the lesson, usually showing a willingness to prove this at all costs. This is all about redemption – an enlightened character knowing what to do to solve a conflict.

What strikes me about Brown’s version is her emphasis on the all-important 2nd act, where the “messy middle” lives. She talks about how often we want to gloss over the “messy middle” when we tell stories. Including the stories we tell ourselves.

We all know we eventually have to “face our fears” if we want to grow. We have to “look them in the eye.” Preferably, as quickly as possible.


There is much less emphasis in our culture on the part that leads up to how we actually face those fears. How do we leave behind the old to the point where that shame and the damage it has caused no longer has control of our decisions, our words, our deeds –in short– our lives?


Back to the park with our pound of stinking wax paper.

Just touch it with one finger, first.

Fleshy, firm, oily, fishy. Okay… I touch it. It isn’t going anywhere. And either am I. Let’s get this over with. I pick it up by the tail and shriek as it flings across the table. I fought and it won.

You’re going too fast. Breathe.

Embarrassed, hysterical laughter ensues. It turns out I can’t just close my eyes and it will be over. There is no way to do it comfortably. I have to deal – deeply –with the 2nd act.

How do you truly face a fear? It turns out, this has a lot to do with stories. When you have a fear, you spend a lot of energy telling yourself how bad the outcome is going to be – all while underestimating your ability to cope with the situation.

But by being vulnerable and doing the thing that scares you, you are exposed to different stories. Usually the non-fatal kind. Over time you expose yourself to new stories where you become more confident and in control of the outcome, while the fear (whether that be a fish monster or the Wicked Witch) begins to fade and lose its power.

If you shut down, avoid or otherwise try to protect yourself from harm you never get the chance to learn how to face those fears and reframe the story – you never learn how to experience control over the situation.

This is the hero’s journey, and its lessons can be applied to just about anything from storytelling to phobias to relationships to parenting to leadership strategies. We live by our stories. And we can die by them too.


Shonda Rhimes (writer of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal) says,

I don’t even know who a character is until I’ve seen how they handle adversity. Onscreen and offscreen, that’s how you know who someone is.

The more I learn about storytelling, the more I learn that falling down is necessary for a character to be whole. Adversity is a necessary part of life. Failure is the flip side to success, two sides of the same coin. Both are necessary, in order to live a complete life.

But if failure is necessary, why do we fear it so much? If failure is the only way to risk, succeed and to grow, why is there so much shame attached to falling down? Why isn’t vulnerability a celebration instead of a humiliation? If vulnerability is the very thing that makes us human, why do we resist it so much?

In Rising Strong, Brown says:

Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; its our greatest measure of courage.

And after we fall – what determines what happens next? (Do we avoid the situation in order to protect ourselves? Or do we attempt it again? Or do we try a new approach?) We know that it is that next decision that defines who we are.

Does it scare you, even a little? I ask across the picnic table.

Not at all.

Chris grasps the fish high in the air ready to chomp down. I watch with fascination. Could this be happening? This was someone who obviously didn’t believe in the story I was telling myself.

Fish Phobia Sometimes in our moments of vulnerability we fall. And sometimes we rise.

After a few more failed attempts, and much encouragement I hold it.

I  raise it up in the air, get used to it– but without looking.

Then I peek.

Then I bite.

And it is good.

Truly, having someone by my side helped. But at the end of the day, I made the decision to change the outcome.

Brown writes:

“The only decision we get to make is what role we’ll play in our own lives: Do we want to write the story or do we want to hand that power over to someone else? Choosing to write our own story means getting uncomfortable; it’s choosing courage over comfort.”

So in my quest to become a better teacher, a better storyteller, a better human, I am trying to face fears. Certainly my fear of fish. Especially my fear of failure. Fear means that we want to protect ourselves from pain. But fear also means giving up our power to write (and rewrite) the story. If we don’t take a hold of the story, if we don’t attempt to control and reframe it – then it will certainly control us instead. As it turns out, I fear giving up that power more than anything else.

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