Design research. Social good.

Posts from the ‘Teaching’ category

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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.

SJU Comm Dept 2014

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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I’m currently teaching visual storytelling through the creation of Cinemagraphs  — photographs with a whisp of narrative. Cinemagraphs are compelling images which feature a cinematic twist through the isolated animation of multiple frames. These animated images capture a moment in time or a living portrait of a person or place.


Cinemagraphs are the animated GIF’s sophisticated cousin. My  Visual Rhetorics students had seen them all over the Internet, but had no idea how to make one themselves. To create one, students first learned to approach and compose a video shoot to convey mood and meaning. Students also learned about the basics of composition and lighting. After trimming their videos, students imported their clips to Photoshop where each video frame became a separate layer, which they then manipulated, adjusted, colored, and animated.

Although it took some effort, students loved making them.


Students in the course followed free online tutorials from Phlearn: Part 1 (video capture) and Part 2 (Photoshop editing). Spoographics and Lifehacker also have decent Cinemagraph tutorials. I’d like my students to create their own tutorial in the weeks to come.
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Since my arrival at Saint Joe’s I’ve been knee-deep in classroom design. Thanks to the unified forces of the Communication Studies Department, IT, Media Services, facilities, and administration at Saint Joseph’s University, I am happy to report that we transformed Merion 174 into an innovative collaborative technology classroom.

Merion 174

This classroom is an ideal space for teaching and learning in our department. Our curriculum, centered on digital production, emphasizes hands-on, experiential learning. All students in our Communication Studies department combine theory and practice as they “learn by doing.” Projects focus on the creation of media-convergent texts that combine multiple modalities including sound, image, and user interaction.

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The room features wall-mounted HDTVs, breakaway tables and chairs, sound domes, XBox video game consoles, Tidebreak’s collaborative learning software, and a technology cart with notebook and tablet computers for student use.

Cones of Silence

The custom-made Brown Innovations Sound Domes installed in the classroom have directional speakers which localize sound. They focus the sound for small groups directly under the speaker dome, which keeps the overall classroom noise to a manageable level.


Remote Control

The classroom features Tidebreak’s collaborative software ClassSpot. Students are able to share screens and files with each other. They can remotely take control of any screen in the room, which speaks to the student-centered pedagogy we value in our department.

_MG_5493 copyFlexible focus areas

With moveable white boards, couches, and comfortable chairs, the room can easily be re-arranged to suit a variety of needs, including small group work, usability testing, and gaming. We invite everyone to visit Merion 174 to see the new space.


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PUGLIA – Italy
40.8167° N, 16.5500° E

Update:: Thanks to all who participated in our spring workshops.

Original post:: My passion is to learn about cultures and customs different from my own. Like other inveterate travelers, I want to understand different approaches to life, to knowledge, to meaning making. This is about expanding our views of the world and our place in it. With each journey – we understand a little more about the ethnosphere — what anthropologist Wade Davis calls “the sum total of all the thoughts, beliefs, myths, and institutions brought into being by the human imagination.” So, our mission on this trip was to learn how food, people, and place are all connected. We wanted to celebrate the living food cultures of Puglia and the traditions and festivities that surround them. 

Picnic in Puglia

The boot heel of Italy is known for its hospitality, its ancient olive groves, its white washed villages and its deep blue Adriatic seas. The region of Puglia has a food and wine culture that remains relatively unchanged through the centuries. It’s for these reasons that my colleague Tenaya Darlington (aka Madame Fromage) and I are organizing food and storytelling workshops there this Spring. We welcome you to join us. Although we will learn to employ digital tools to chronicle the stories we encounter – we are perfectly happy if you want to use this time to unplug and leave the tech at home. 


We invite you to:

  • Stay on a working farm in Puglia

  • Make mozzarella and Pecorino

  • Apprentice a shepherd

  • Bake bread from wild yeast

  • Learn about regional wines

  • Shop the local markets

  • Taste olive oils in the field

  • Rediscover three-hour meals

This week in Italy is for everyone who loves food, culture, and travel to authentic places. We hope you join us in Puglia for an amazing week. Visit Live Cultures to reserve your spot at the table.

Seaside Table, Puglia

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