Historical amnesia blocks the construction of potentially successful social movements. As the gap between the past, present, and future diminishes, individuals can acquire a greater sense of becoming the “makers” of their own history. Thus, for the oppressed, the act of reconstructing history is inextricably linked to the political practices, or praxis, of transforming the present and future.
— Manning Marable (Living Black History)
When we entered racist, desegregated, white schools we left a world where teachers believed that to educate black children rightly would require a political commitment. Now, we were mainly taught by white teachers whose lessons reinforced racist stereotypes. For black children, education was no longer about the practice of freedom. Realizing this, I lost my love of school.
— bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress)
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrative Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).... Education is suffering from narration sickness.
— Paolo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
Storytelling is the norm in the field of history. While other disciplines discussed in this book, including public health and STEM fields, have discovered new ways to introduce storytelling as a method or mode of communication or intervention, history relies fundamentally and explicitly on narrative techniques in order to organize and animate the past. Beyond historical research, history education (from elementary through high school) has relied upon conveying a narrative of the past, or varied pasts, to students. Various critics have denounced the limits of traditional educational methods, including in the field of history. For example, as Brazilian educator Paolo Freire observes in the third epigraph to this chapter, which derives from his radical education text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, education generally suffers from “narration sickness” (52). In the case of history, where narrative is unavoidable, the problem is with a specific narrative relation between the teacher as narrator and students as passive recipients. Freire identified and described this hierarchy between teachers and students in the 1960s, but this relation remains common even in contemporary schools with experiential or alternative curricula. As his influential concept of a “banking” model of education suggests, a teacher’s “task is to ‘fill’ the students with the contents of his narration” which turns education into “an act of depositing” (53 and 52).
Writing originally in Portuguese in 1968, Freire posits that we can do significantly better in how we conceive of and practice pedagogy. As opposed to a form of education that serves those in power and reinforces the status quo, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (53). While an older paradigm of critical thinking remains important, the early twenty-first century has also introduced new modes of thought that accompany computational technologies. Such technologies open up and layer on new opportunities, but also restrictions. This is to say that digital computers and computer networks have not merely inaugurated liberatory change across the board. In fact, this is far from the case, especially if we consider phenomena such as algorithmic bias, surveillance technologies, and platforms that are designed to promote hatred and discrimination. We have already seen decades of uneven access to emergent technologies, which is evident in the ever-present gap between public and private schools, let alone between schools in a country such as the United States versus the Global South. Even with growing accessibility, technology has not proven a panacea within education, as we see with the limits of massive open online course (MOOC) offerings by companies such as Coursera and edX in the 2010s or the ambivalent affordances of widespread online education during COVID-19 in the early 2020s. Nevertheless, when coupled with older critical pedagogies introduced by practitioners such as Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Gloria J. Ladson-Billings, Ira Shor, Howard Zinn, and others, new technologies have introduced experimental possibilities for motivating, engaging, and transforming both learners and teachers.
This chapter explores ways that narrative can exceed “narration sickness” in historical education that takes place with Black and brown youth. Following an overview of the benefits of critical media making and project-based curricula, I turn to the case study of the first year of a two-year workshop-based program entitled Transmedia Collage: Histories of Violence and Futures of Health on Chicago’s South Side that began in 2017. This project explored how a climate of structural violence has historically impacted the health and wellbeing of youth of color and the communities they live in on Chicago’s South Side. In addressing a social and economic climate that disadvantages communities of color and neighborhoods that face persistent poverty, this project actively countered narratives that describe these communities as essentially violent or historically productive of violence. Instead of beginning with a model of interpersonal violence, we adopted a frame of structural violence. Such violence is apparent across the South Side of Chicago and exceeds actions committed by a specific person against another. As I elaborated in the introduction, this part of the city has some of the city’s highest rates of school dropout, obesity, commuting times, drug arrests, and incarceration. Across these areas, young people have been among the most heavily impacted. The case described in this chapter seeks to counter these forms of violence through participatory design and collaboration.
The Transmedia Collage workshop serves as a case of the method that I will call transmedia history. The project was designed in a collaboration between the University of Chicago’s Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) and the University of Illinois Chicago’s History Moves (HM) initiative as a way of creating new narratives about the city of Chicago. The team recruited students of color from a group of South Side neighborhoods. During the program, youth learned to conduct and record oral history interviews. From this information, they created text, image, and sonic collages in order to reimagine the pasts of their neighborhoods. Each collage exemplified how both participatory maker culture and digital media can alter how we understand key concepts including urban space, publics, and the relationships between violence and health. Alongside this analysis, we include reproductions of the original youth collages, images from the workshops, an audio file of remixed oral histories and historical recordings, and original collages created by TSL team member and co-designer of this book Ireashia Bennett. To disrupt (in an admittedly modest and local manner) the processes that fuel structural violence, we turned to the method of critical making and the specific form of collage. A key underlying question of the project is: how can universities both public and private, which seek to work in ethical and equitable community partnerships with young people, grapple with histories of structural violence by incorporating digital technologies, artistic tools, and cultural forms of the historical present? In order to think through how social structures are produced, maintained, mediated, and changed, we worked with young people to understand and use transmedia tools to mediate and transform historical knowledge.
Before turning to the case of Transmedia Collage itself, I would like to introduce the critical making paradigm that that guided our work in this program (Jagoda 2017). Critical making is an interdisciplinary mode of research, culture, and pedagogy that departs from traditional forms of critique. Anne Balsamo explains that this mode draws from DIY culture, the maker movement, the creation of handicrafts, and modes of tinkering, “modding,” and hacking (177). David Staley has argued that, in academic fields such as design, media studies, or human-computer interaction in the twenty-first century, there has been an expansion of critical making practices, many of which involve engagements with non-textual physical and screen-based objects. Matt Ratto describes a broad range of “critical making projects” that undertake “scholarly research on critical social issues and design methodologies” and that further “critical knowledge through joint material production” (252). Instead of creating polished objects that can be monetized or broadly disseminated, critical making focuses on “the act of shared construction itself as an activity and a site for enhancing and extending conceptual understandings of critical sociotechnical issues” (254). In this category, one might include projects such as the prototypes of nineteenth-century wearables and the early twentieth-century optophone created at University of Victoria’s Maker Lab in the Humanities, the experimental video games and game mods developed at the UC Davis ModLab, the “tech for good” prototypes designed at the University of Waterloo's Critical Media Lab, or the speculative design projects constructed by the Design Fiction group at MIT.
Instead of being opposed to a concept like critical thinking or more conventional humanistic activities such as reading and writing, critical making combines analytical capacities with more experiential, creative, and collaborative work. From another perspective, the experiential dimension of critical making might appear as a version of clichéd hands-on education that promotes a neoliberal concern with skills over the liberal arts. Yet as I seek to emphasize across the projects described in this book, experience can also entail a deeply ethical and involved approach to creating knowledge with other people. To this point, architect Christopher Alexander argues that there is a difference between an architect “designing” versus “making” an object like a building. In this case, “design” implies a more abstract, specialized, and distant contribution. By contrast, “When I make something . . . I am deeply involved with it and responsible for it. And not only I. Whether I am head of some project, or a person making some small part of it, the feeling of total responsibility is on my shoulders. In a good process, each person working on the building is—and feels—responsible for everything. For design, schedule, structure, lowers, feeling—everything” (13). Making, especially collaborative making, foregrounds a connection to the created thing, but perhaps even more importantly emphasizes our responsibility to and interdependence with others. As opposed to the rote memorization encouraged by the banking model of education or the distanced mastery that sometimes accompanies critique, making also emphasizes materiality. Even more importantly, making involves a learner in not merely accumulating knowledge but transforming it.
Another advantage of critical making is that it promotes what Freire calls “problem-posing” education that celebrates “acts of cognition” over “transferals of information” (60). In this system, according to Freire, “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (61). Both Alexander and Freire prioritize a sense of mutual “responsibility” among everyone who participates in a making process. Beyond the care for one another, this responsibility extends “problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world” (62). The construction and response to live problems in the world encourages a sense of active and motivated commitment to learning.
Since Freire’s articulation of problem-posing education in the late 1960s, education scholars have developed versions of this idea. Problems that are difficult to solve, or even address, can serve to engage students in an active manner (Jonassen). Social problems, such as racism, sexism, immigration policy, or climate change, can all motivate students to investigate, generate mental models, and construct creative responses. Particularly since the early twenty-first century, scholars have also examined the benefits of a “multimedia learning environment” for supporting problem-oriented curricula (Saye and Brush 77). While such environments might not improve “disciplined inquiry,” studies have suggested they have “considerable potential for encouraging engagement and empathy” (Saye and Brush 82).
Though critical making practices and problem-posing curricula have become more prominent in research university contexts, including in emergent humanities labs, they have not become equally available to BIPOC youth or even most students at lower grade levels. Even at universities, there have been numerous critiques of the ways that the digital humanities, for example, have historically neutralized or limited critiques of power or media in favor of methodological contributions (McPherson; Hall; Allington, et al.). At the same time, digital humanities work has also started attending more carefully to matters of race, class, gender, and sexuality (D’Ignazio and Klein; So ). Regardless of these scholarly dynamics, and more importantly in this context, the availability of both technical and sociopolitical resources is still more abundant at the university level than at the high school level or below. In the next section, working through the case study of Transmedia Collage, I argue that a curriculum based in critical making, problem posing, and transmedia making offers unique advantages for co-constructing marginalized histories that have previously been ignored or silenced.
Transmedia Collage was an Andrew M. Mellon Foundation funded collaboration that was supported by the Humanities Without Walls consortium. This project emerged between two organizations: the University of Chicago’s Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s History Moves (HM), an organization led by History and Gender & Women's Studies professor Jennifer Brier. Prior to this project, TSL worked primarily on digital stories with LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color. For this project, the collaboration with HM allowed us to learn from their expertise in oral history and design methods to create community-engaged public transmedia history projects.
The Transmedia Collage program promoted collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multimedia investigations. Specifically, we explored the history of structural violence, the health and well-being of young people, and community identity on the South Side of Chicago. In 2017, the first year of this two-year project, on which this chapter focuses, we ran daily workshops that introduced historical research and oral history interviewing skills to high-school-aged participants. Following an introduction to historical content and interview skills, students were introduced to critical making methods in which they created collages, across different media, in small groups. The goal was to use humanistic and artistic methods to influence research, policy, and public discourse about the city of Chicago. The team included historians, literary and media theorists, storytellers, a graphic designer, community elders, and fourteen high-school-aged youth. This group joined a workshop at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park in order to create narratives about the city of Chicago. We also incorporated speakers from fields such as history and journalism. In this pilot project, we were less interested in scaling (a topic to which I return in the coda of this chapter) than in creating an intergenerational community interested in learning about and transforming the history of the South Side.
During the first year of “Transmedia Collage,” young people learned from both historical archives and participating elders about the neighborhoods of South Chicago. They read and imagined new narratives about the South Side, one of the largest contiguous Black communities in the United States. They consistently sought to counter the national and local media’s representations of the area, and its young people, as dangerous and even criminal. Over the course of three weeks, the youth participants created transmedia collages in text, visual, and sonic forms in order to reimagine the pasts of their neighborhoods. Each collage exemplified how digital media and participatory maker culture can enable transmedia storytelling and a reimagination of history. The storytelling, in turn, fundamentally altered how we understood key concepts including urban space, digital publics, and the relationships between violence and health. Through engaged study and critical making, participants brought to life the history of Black and brown cultures, including the effects of racial segregation on South Side communities that have been isolated from the rest of the city. The remainder of this section provides an overview of the recruitment process, curriculum, and three weeks of the program.
Even in a smaller workshop or collaboration, every detail of the process matters and contributes to shared dynamics and the possible parameters of trust among participants. For us, this began with the recruitment process, which unfolded over the several months leading up to the first set of workshops. The Transmedia Collage team, especially our graduate student colleagues, focused outreach on schools, churches, youth programs, community councils, non-profit organizations, and community centers across the South Side of Chicago in order to find youth who wanted to commit to this shared project. In particular, the team focused on the South Side neighborhoods of Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, North Lawndale, Washington Park, and Woodlawn. As such, we communicated with youth from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, educational settings, and geographic location, while also being mindful to tap into organizations committed to community organizing, adolescent health, recreation, spirituality, and social justice. Recruitment yielded fourteen youth who were all enrolled in high school, most of whom were about to become second or third years. Additionally, we recruited seven community elders (most of whom were in their 40s and 50s) from this same grouping of neighborhoods.
The recruitment of even a modest number of participants was difficult for a variety of reasons. One key factor had to do with a history of distrust by the communities of the South Side of Chicago about the motivations of a program organized at the University of Chicago. I elaborate on this point in the introduction to this book. Nevertheless, it is worth remarking again that while this university has national renown and is regularly rated as a Top 10 research university in the United States, it is part of a layered history in relation to its surrounding and proximate communities that suffer from institutionalized racism and inequality at every level of sociopolitical life. While a single project could not possibly overcome this history, or transform relations between the University and the South Side community, we sought to acknowledge and address it across our shared conversations, including at the moment of participant recruitment. The project team was composed primarily of people from the academic class who belonged to two prestigious universities. At the same time, the group of organizing adults was diverse, especially along lines of race, gender, sexuality, and age.
Another reason that recruitment was difficult had to do with the economic situations in which some youth in this area find themselves. Taking three weeks off of work, which many young people needed during the summer, was not a realistic prospect. For this reason, in planning the project, we prioritized giving youth stipends for the work. Arriving on site at the University of Chicago each day was also a nontrivial logistical matter. For this reason, we offered lunch and covered transportation to the University of Chicago throughout the program. These elements, however modest, were crucial for our ability to recruit and retain students over the summer.
Following recruitment of the collaborating youth, the first part of Transmedia Collage ran for three weeks in the summer of 2017. The students met with members of the project team each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for six hours on each day. Given the complexities of the racial histories of the South Side of Chicago, as well the meanings associated with running the program at the University of Chicago, we recruited Black storyteller Marquez Rhyne as a lead facilitator, instead of the two white scholars (myself and Dr. Jennifer Brier) who served as principal investigators on the project grant. Rhyne had years of experience working with Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ adolescents on a range of storytelling projects, and I was fortunate enough to work with them for several years at TSL. Alongside Rhyne, core participants included digital storyteller Ireashia Bennett, media studies graduate student Gary Kafer, and myself (from TSL) and history graduate student Chelsea Ridley and Brier (from HM).
The focus of this three-week sequence was on historical research, interpretation, and critical making. Following an orientation session about shared goals, the first week introduced students to core methods of oral history research and the transmedia collage format toward which we would be working. The second week focused on practice-based methods of collage making. Finally, the third week opened space for collaborative work that involved polishing historical narratives and composing collage projects. For the remainder of this section, I offer a more detailed overview of this curriculum as a model for critical historical education with youth of color that focuses on critical media making and project-based work.
In the Orientation session, the facilitators shared cases of what we called transmedia storytelling, which addressed structural violence on a local and global scale. In particular, we discussed projects such as High Rise and Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Both pieces illustrated ways that digital technologies have unique potentials to transform and disrupt dominant narratives and to compose historical narratives that foreground marginalized voices. In response to these cases, youth began to share stories they had heard from family members who grew up in the public housing project of the Robert Taylor Homes, challenged dominant narratives of Black and brown youth in Chicago, and shared their own lived experiences dealing with structural violence. These moments of sharing introduced language and tangible experiences to abstract concepts. In addition to this historical introduction, we also introduced collage as an artistic expressive form and storytelling technique. The facilitators discussed elements and genres of collage. We also presented curated cases created by Black artists such as Krista Franklin, Romare Bearden, and Wangechi Mutu who use remixed and reused images to communicate ideas, build new worlds, and promote Black radical imagination. In addition to examples of audio-visual collages, we also presented cases from contemporary meme culture, transmedia storytelling, remixing and sampling in hip hop, and contemporary Black art and culture.
In Week 1, we began by exploring historical narratives that offered different types of responses to the question “What happened?” From the beginning, we were interested not only in traditional history, but also speculative historical narratives that could address counterfactual questions such as “What if something else happened?” and ethical questions such as “What should have happened?” In terms of core activities, facilitators guided participating youth in locating archival materials via online academic archives, research databases, and university library resources, so that students could engage with historical documents, photographs, and audio clips. In advance of the workshop, we also compiled media packets unique to different South Side neighborhoods that youth could read, interpret, and curate. For example, one of the packets focused on Englewood: a neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago that, in 2010, had a population that was made up of 98.5% Black residents (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning 3). This packet contained 15 historically and culturally diverse items, including items specific to Englewood:
- A JPG of a 1933 advertisement of the Englewood Sears building
- A JPG of a Chicago Tribune headline of the protests and riots that broke out in Englewood after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. from April 6, 1968
- An MP3 of a 2014 Outside the Loop radio interview with Elaine Hegwood Bowen about her book Old School Adventures from Englewood
- A YouTube link to a trailer for the film Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015), set primarily in Englewood
Each packet, including the one for Englewood, also contained materials that were more general to the entire South Side of Chicago, such as:
- An animated GIF of a map of Chicago that shows the changing racial demographics, by decade, between 1910 and 2000
- A PDF of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s report, STD/HIV/AIDS Chicago, from winter 2005-2006
- An MP3 of Chance the Rapper’s song “Summer Friends” from the mixtape Coloring Book (2016)
- A PDF of a research report from the Metropolitan Planning Council, “The Cost of Segregation” (2017), which is focused on Chicago
These packets introduced a range of scenes, topics, and media in order to jumpstart the historical imagination of the youth and encourage additional research. Youth participants used their engagement with archival material to begin to form sharp critiques of the dominant narrative of the South Side of Chicago in popular media where more nuanced histories of neighborhood practices and inequalities have been historically ignored.
In addition to research, we also introduced youth to oral history interviewing techniques. The goal was for pairs of youth to interview adult participants from five different South Side neighborhoods. For this activity, we recruited seven adult participants. Based on the archival online research they had conducted, youth developed and workshopped questions for each interview. Youth focused on topics that included the elders’ lived experiences of structural violence, their memories of the changing economic landscape of Chicago since the 1960s, the role young people played in civil rights, and models for community building in the face of structural disinvestment. In addition to these stated topics, elders also shared childhood memories and family histories, which allowed youth to foster personal connections on topics such as play, transportation, school, and music. Following the interviews, the Transmedia Collage team generated transcripts and distributed them to all the interviewees and interviewers for further review.
These oral histories encouraged youth to build intergenerational connections with elders and to collect local, first-hand accounts of various neighborhoods directly surrounding the University of Chicago, where we learned together each day. Beyond the archival research, these interviews contextualized the current climate of each neighborhood. These interviews introduced issues of housing, employment, healthcare, and police brutality that became central to the entire Transmedia Collage program. Observing how elders envisioned the future of their communities when they were young also served as inspiration for the critical and artistic work produced through the remainder of the workshop.
In Week 2, we moved from an emphasis on historical content to narrative form. Youth gathered the material elements they would need to work on their collaborative collages. Though research and interview methods integrated digital tools, we also made analog materials available for the initial collage work. Based on interests in different media, we divided youth into three groups: Text, Image, and Sonic. For this division, we drew loosely from theorist Roland Barthes’s tripartite media aesthetics scheme from his book Image, Music, Text. Instead of beginning work on collages, each group was first instructed to create a collaborative fictional or speculative historical narrative that focused on young Black and brown people whose livelihood, health, and sustainability were affected by structural violence. A central part of this process involved establishing a protagonist or key characters to inhabit the world they were constructing. Facilitators challenged groups to contextualize these stories and characters based on their research and interviews. The groups ended up landing on three major events around which to construct their narratives: the Great Migration of the 1940s, the criminalization of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, and the school-to-prison pipeline of Black and brown youth in the 1990s. This process of composing fictional narratives encouraged youth to challenge history as a chronological sequence or already-existing resource in order to question and talk back to dominant historical narratives. During this week, we also welcomed guests, including Pulitzer Prize winning historian of U.S. race and ethnicity Marcia Chatelain. Chatelain spoke with the group about the lives of Black girls during the Great Migration in Chicago, sharing examples from her book, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. She also encouraged responsible social media usage around topics related to race, gender, and politics, and shared her own experience of growing up as a Haitian-American in Chicago.
In Week 3, once groups finished conducting research and saved their acquired materials, they began world-building with text, image, and sound media. Collage construction began with storyboarding and prototyping. Collage is fundamentally a form of recombination and revision, and the young people embraced the significance of this work in the final full week of the summer workshop. The Text group focused on collected quotations from New York Times and Chicago Tribune articles from the 1980s and archival excerpts and prepared to combine them with their own narrative and formal work. The Image group created a visual collage and filled negative and positive space with repurposed images and photographs. The Sonic group created sonic collages with archival materials individually before combining them into one master audio file. Throughout this process, adult organizers offered light guidance but ultimately took a step back from the process to allow teen participants to lead. In this sense, we attempted to act less as teachers who had the correct answers to deliver (as in Freire’s banking model of education) than as facilitators who could guide participants through the historical and formal dimensions of their projects. On the final day of the three-week workshop, each group presented their narratives and collages.
Before analyzing the implications and benefits of this combination of oral history and collage-based historical storytelling methods, we offer an overview of each of the three stories, team processes, and collages created by youth who participated in the first year of Transmedia Collage. Instead of providing the full story, we share an overview of the premise, characters, and key themes that the students created during the workshop in order to give an impression of the process. We imagined each of these narratives as operating within the realm of historical fictions that drew from historical details but speculated about the way that singular subjects might operate within that context. By considering the socioeconomic climate of each era, youth reflected on how humanistic methods and digital media tools might aid in the fight against structural inequity locally in Chicago, nationally, and globally. Youth did not merely recognize the role dominant narratives played in silencing counter-narratives and counter-histories, but also used their collages to intervene in those narratives. These projects operated at the intersection of archival research, speculative imagination, and transmedia storytelling that combined academic theory, historical methodologies, and creative outputs.
It is 1983 and the Green family lives in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. During this period, HIV/AIDS is on the rise while both the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are significantly impacting Black communities. Matt Green has recently graduated high school and is attempting to enroll in Kennedy King, a local community college. Matt has a job but also feels that it is necessary to sell drugs in order to support his family. His sister, Maddie, is slowly turning to the streets and finding herself in frequent fights. His mom has become addicted to crack and is not doing anything to benefit herself or her family. Matt and Maddie’s father is not in their life, having been shot by the police and then unjustly prosecuted. One day, while making a sale, Matt notices in the midst of a crowd, that his sister Maddie is in a fight with a local teen. Matt quickly stops what he is doing to break up the fight when the police arrive and wrongfully accuse him of causing the fight between the two young women. While searching Matt, the police find his last bag of cocaine and rejoice when stating that up to five years will be added to his sentence.
Through their story, the Text team addressed themes including the War on Drugs, homophobia, and their characters’ responses to structural violence. The collage is fully text-based, employing different colors and sizes of script. The youth participants explored online materials from newspapers, websites, books, journals, magazines, and Google searches to research issues of structural violence during 1983 in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. The final collage places positive and affirming text inside the silhouette of their protagonist Matt and negative text on the outside. During the three weeks, the team became more proficient at locating sources that pertain to their story and began to use multiple search engines for better results. They also learned how to work collectively, both in collaboration with their team and with facilitators, in order to combine individual ideas into a shared collage. Their research led them to conclude that their contemporary society had not changed as much as is commonly claimed, particularly for Black and brown folks living in Chicago.
It is 1995 and Chicago has been hit by its deadliest heat wave, which took 739 lives across the city. The story follows Alex, his girlfriend Jessica, and their friend Keisha. Alex (17), Puerto Rican, poor, and homeless, lives a life of petty crime to survive. He lives under the Dan Ryan expressway while the rest of his family lives in the Cabrini Green public housing projects. Jessica (16), Mexican-American and pregnant, faces shame and abandonment from her family who disapprove of her pregnancy. Keisha (16), Black American and bisexual, is a basketball player who excels in school and hopes to attend college. During the height of the heat wave, the youth ride around the neighborhood in a car that Alex stole as they search for cool, fresh water and a place to rest. Alex parks his car and walks into a corner store. While in the store, he pretends to shop for a few minutes. He robs the store while Keisha and Jessica wait for him in the car. He rushes out with money in his hands and drives away. Keisha and Jessica wonder what is happening but quickly recognize that Alex robbed the store in order to take care of them. The remainder of the narrative involves a series of risky choices that result in the incarceration of both Alex and Jessica.
The Image team produced a visual collage in which the youth participants collected photographs of Chicago from the 1980s and 1990s in order to create what they thought Alex, Jessica, and Keisha’s world might look and feel like. Given that the story takes place before the youth creators were born, this process involved historical immersion and speculation, as well as learning from the interviews conducted with elders who had lived through this era. In particular, the team dwelled on the ordinary effects of housing inequity and poor living conditions heightened by severe poverty. To explain why Alex might have robbed the corner store, they explored the structural violence that might lead some young Black and brown people to resort to interpersonal violence as a means of survival.
In the 1940s, in the Bronzeville community on the South Side of Chicago, Gus (16) and his mother DonnaJo find themselves in a financial crisis. Having traveled from the South during the Great Migration, DonnaJo and Gus live in poverty. DonnaJo asks Gus to find a job. Gus finds work at a steel factory, but quickly becomes sick, contracting tuberculosis. As a result, he is immediately fired. From here, he has a difficult decision to make: he can either attempt to find another job or sell stolen items as part of the street economy. He chooses the street, survives it, and fortunately is successful enough to be able to start his own legitimate business in Bronzeville in later years.
The Sonic team crafted a minimalist frame narrative that explores the economic transition of South Chicago in the 1940s. For many Black folks during this period, the economic transition could be felt at many levels. Globally, World War II had dynamic effects on the economy. Locally, however, Black folks faced limited access to transportation within the city and mixed employment opportunities in factory settings. The Black experience at this moment was difficult and complex as it responded to events like the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and War World II. One axis of response by the Black community to structural violence took place through the Black Renaissance in places such as the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. To capture this historical moment, this team researched sounds in the 1940s, particularly around the end of the war. Their collage is structured around the economy in three parts: the war, transportation, and industry. The collage includes sounds from the Black Renaissance, including jazz and blues songs, speeches, poems, and atmospheric audio. This group learned that after WWII, there was still economic hardship in the U.S., but this period also saw the rise of a new Black culture. Throughout the process, this team reflected on the difficulty of sound-based research. For optimal results, they could not rely on platforms and search engines they already knew, such as YouTube and Google. Instead, they had to engage in research to discover and allow themselves to be surprised by sounds from the 1940s.
Disregard for standard chronology; emotional association of persons as a primary organizing principle; clustering of oral accounts around significant events or persons; reliance on visual imagery and striking detail; compression or telescoping of historical time; displacement of original actors in a historical event with others; migration of dramatic narrative elements among historical accounts; and patterning of oral accounts of different events along similar lines (Allen and Montell 26).
The format of oral history “collects spoken memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews” in both audio and visual formats (Ritchie 1). In just this way, during the Transmedia Collage program, youth learned about oral history alongside practical skills that included interview techniques and recording processes, so they could study interviews for later application in their collage projects. UIC’s History Moves initiative, under the leadership and disciplinary expertise of Dr. Brier, was crucial to this training process. There were three primary reasons why we turned to oral history as our primary technique for this program, including (1) the importance of the method for recovering stories from marginalized communities such as the South Side of Chicago, (2) the link between oral history on the one hand and visual and sonic collage on the other, and (3) the appropriateness of the form to relational or non-hierarchical pedagogy that we sought to foster. I will now elaborate briefly upon each of those forms.
First, instead of exclusively textual or media-based history, we identified oral history as the ideal fit for the specific space and marginalized community with whom we were working. To be clear, our goal was never the production of academic scholarship that relied on oral history methods. Instead, we sought to use oral history as a method or technique that could make history more accessible and present as well as to garner engagement among our high-school-aged participants. Many of the youth with whom we worked had encountered history primarily via generalized chronologies and top-down lecture, which often excluded histories of Black Americans and the South Side of Chicago. Oral history provided an alternative. Starting in the 1970s, oral history took off as a method for bottom-up histories, including more popular examples such as Studs Terkel’s Hard Times (1970) and the fictional text Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), which drew from these methods. Given the exclusion of Black experience from mainstream American history, “oral histories and ethnographic interviews” have become a crucial source and resource for filling in archival silences and transforming historical pedagogy (Robinson, Cambrice, and Earles 172).
Beyond general oral histories of South Side neighborhoods, we were interested in emphasizing sociopolitical histories. Often, a pedagogy like Freire’s “problem-posing” approach is connected to political or civic competency (Parker, Mueller, and Wendling). Such competency involves using “critical reasoning” and a knowledge of social problems to foster “the ability to make competent civic decisions” (Saye and Brush 78). The Transmedia Collage program was not opposed to this kind of thinking but also had a more activist dimension. Civics emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of citizens who, in a democratic society, engage in activities such as community participation and voting. In some ways, this language implies a rational and equitable public sphere. However, the access to historical information and rights has never been so straightforward for Black and brown people in the United States. As historian Manning Marable writes, “Everyday events that have occurred under a racist society, such as a lynching, or the unjust arrest and incarceration of an innocent black person, are denied historical significance or merit, and are therefore not mentioned in standard narratives about the past” (20). In other words, civics relies on learning about the rules of political engagement as they already exist. Unfortunately this approach is inadequate by itself because white hegemony has ensured that those rules have never been equivalent for large parts of the U.S. population. Moreover, the histories of inequality that demonstrate these crucial differences have been silenced or eliminated altogether. For this reason, a focus on social movements and historical struggles took on greater emphasis in our exploration of South Side Chicago histories. At the same time, we also did not focus merely on histories of trauma, such as slavery, which are important but are already the most common dimensions of Black history taught in many schools today to the exclusion of other complex factors (Garcia and Tanner; Provenzo, Shaver, and Bello; Childs).
Second, oral history provided us with connections to the sensory dimensions of collage making toward which we were working with the participating youth. The link between audio interviews and the sonic collage was perhaps the more direct. However, it is worth emphasizing that a fundamental understanding of oral history already includes a sense of the visual. As Allen and Montell note, “Orally communicated history contains a wealth of images and details that serve to conjure up, in the minds of listeners, vivid mental pictures of the past” (33). Moreover, “Through the use of visual imagery, whole events in a community’s history can be compressed into emotionally powerful symbols” (34). Our oral history interviews built on this principle, and we supplemented those with images from the history of the South Side of Chicago through the twentieth and twenty-first century. We did not ask students to memorize and regurgitate key dates or chronologies via tests or to make standard academic arguments in a paper writing format. Instead, we used the materiality of history to engage with what Manning Marable calls “living history” that is not merely about the world but also contextualized within the process of that world’s unfolding. Marable calls for method that uses a transmedia approach ranging across “oral history, photography, film, ethnography, and multimedia digital technology” in order to “stimulate a new kind of historically grounded conversation about race and the destructive processes of racialization” (xx). Indeed, one example of a project that uses multiple media in order to encounter history is the 2000 web-based version of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to which Marable himself contributed (32). The power of this kind of approach is that it inspires students to know their history well enough to intervene in it and imbue it with new life. Instead of fetishizing technology through this process, we used it as one of many methods for historically informed storytelling.
Third, oral history was the right methodological fit with the non-hierarchical or relational pedagogy that we hoped to model within the workshop. This kind of pedagogy depended, first and foremost, on all participants marking their situatedness and embodiment. For example, even within our curricular team, my own status as a white tenured professor at the University of Chicago who served as a principal investigator on the grant that supported this project was different from that of my collaborator Ireashia Bennett, a Black media artist who worked as the audio-visual production specialist for our Transmedia Story Lab, or Chelsea Ridley, a PhD Student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As curators of the workshop, all of our statuses departed from those of Black South Side high school students such as Lauren Johnson or Kaya Thomas who participated in the entire program or community elders such as Regina Dixon-Reeves and Terrence Miller who generously joined us as interviewees for the interview portion of the workshop. Acknowledging and naming these differences, up front, was meant neither to neutralize them nor to inscribe the same forms of hierarchy that are inherent in most pedagogy. Without dismissing the hierarchies across the group, we celebrated the benefits of intergenerational participants from high school students to graduate students to faculty and staff to community members who brought different knowledges and experiences to the project.
Our use of an oral history method served as a microcosm of our broader pedagogical ethic insofar as it made interviewers and interviewees crucial collaborators in the process of remembering, conjuring, and constructing history. Youth did not merely record or write up the interviews in which they participated. As I attempted to show in the description of the workshop, they found notable convergences and divergences between interviewee experiences and their own, and they weaved together the stories that they heard with their own stories that they expressed through various collage formats. Drawing again from Freire, we began with the belief that the efforts of an educator “must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power” and a willingness to become “partners of the students in their relations with them” (56). As he further emphasizes, thinking that engages with and shapes reality cannot occur in “ivory tower isolation” but only in “communication” among students, teachers, and others that encourages “action upon the world” (58). Building directly on this idea, bell hooks describes a pedagogy in which “everyone’s presence is acknowledged” in order to spur “collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community” (8). Beyond articulating a utopian discursive desire, we attempted to model this mode of relation by participating in exercises and sharing our own stories both during the workshop and in conversations during breaks.
Oral history was certainly not the only route into the way of thinking about and acting upon history that we sought to emphasize through our pedagogy. Nevertheless, oral history helped us all encounter and practice a materialist engagement with the world. It built up a relation that was sometimes non-hierarchal, sometimes multiply hierarchal, but almost always reflexive and communal during our weeks together. The historical and artistic work of this intergenerational cohort sought to imagine and build a more equitable and just community. This working method also changed how we all understood what history could be — not just in the past but in our ongoing present and future.
In other writing, I have asked the following question with different collaborators: what does it mean to scale up modes of learning or play from intimate to larger groups? (Jagoda et al.). On its surface, the terms “scaling” and “play” may appear to be opposed, the first as an industrial-era ambition for standardization and the second as a postindustrial-era mode of improvisation (Davidson). For the Transmedia Collage team, the concept of “play” was very closely linked to the radical pedagogy imagined by thinkers such as Freire. So, for us, the classroom space was sufficient for the kind of collective experiment to which we aspired.
A related question that follows on this seeming paradox that I would like to add now is: what is the value of a curricular case, beyond questions of replicability and circulation? Indeed, this book is filled with cases, only some of which have been scaled beyond individual workshops or classrooms. Despite the digital ideology of instant distribution and spreadability of media, there is value in thinking with the singular case (Jenkins, Ford, and Green). Arguably, one of the major differences between the humanities and arts on the one hand and the physical, biological, and social sciences on the other is that the former are committed to the irreducible value of the cases. While social science research may seek to generalize from either quantitative or qualitative data, humanistic thought proceeds from the wisdom gained from a close reading of a novel or the cultural nuance of a well-contextualized and carefully constructed artwork. One can and does generalize from a case as interdisciplinary methods such as “critical theory” demonstrate. At the same time, the value of a case is what can be borrowed, learned, modded, or improved based on a careful engagement with all of its non-abstracted dimensions. Indeed, we present the Transmedia Collage program here with the hopes that this case can inspire related and even more robust programs in other contexts.
Beyond scaling itself, one can study a case through social scientific research. Though we did not implement an external study in the specific case of Transmedia Collage (as we did with the projects analyzed in Chapters 2 and 3), this would be a next possible step for understanding the efficacies of such a program. A possible lens to pursue such research through would be that of a design experiment. As Saye and Brush note, “Design experiments view innovative teaching as an experiment occurring in the ‘multiply confounded’ world of real classrooms rather than controlled environments” (83). Such research might not feel as clean as the randomized controlled trial or clinical trial that is regularly used to study a new medication or vaccine. However, classrooms will always remain “multiply confounded” spaces that resist more systematic forms of research, except in artificial conditions that entail their own limitations. Nevertheless, uncontrolled or less controlled studies can still have value when coupled with humanistic methods and orientations. Through the Transmedia Collage project, and the other cases in this book, this is the type of hybrid method toward which we hope modestly to gesture. In the next chapter, I move this way of thinking from possible pasts to preferable futures, with the method of speculative design.