Tagged digital storytelling

Earth viewed from space, with Africa lit up in the sun.

Experiential Approaches to Teaching African Culture and the Politics of Representation: Building the “Documenting Africa” Project with StoryMapJS


In the fall of 2018, Dr. Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (Ohio Wesleyan University) and Dr. Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Albion College) conducted a teaching collaboration through their courses “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions” and “Introduction to African Art.” Supported by funding from the Great Lakes Colleges Association and the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, the courses explored the artistic traditions and literary, journalistic, cinematographic, and visual representations of African peoples and cultures. Students in both courses were encouraged to confront and ask difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate Western perceptions about Africa, African peoples, and cultures; and to become attentive to the problems of history, misrepresentations, and the importance of historiographic revision. In this article, Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi show how connecting these courses through an active, experiential, creative, collaborative culminating project, namely the digital platform called “Documenting Africa,” built with StoryMapJS technology, proved a particularly effective approach for students to satisfy the learning objectives for each class and grapple with those questions at the heart of the courses. In addition, the piece explains each course’s assignments and learning individual objectives individually, united through overarching philosophical underpinnings and objectives.

Introduction: Common Learning Objectives, Description of Project, Theoretical Underpinnings

This article describes a collaboration between two courses, one on African art and another on immigration from and through North Africa, that culminated in the collaborative digital project “Documenting Africa.” Because the course on African art was an introductory course, the text in this article specific to that course focuses on the pedagogical rationale that drove both the materials included on the syllabus and the nature of the digital work and preparatory assignments. On the other hand, because the course on immigration was an upper-level course with many complementary parts, the narrative specific to that course concentrates primarily on describing materials, assignments, and learning outcomes.

Before delineating the elements undergirding the mission of our collaboration, it is important to see where Africa sits vis-a-vis the majority of American undergraduates. Most American students who come to African Studies (with few exceptions, like heritage students), especially in an introductory course, typically have little to no informational knowledge—historical, political, sociological, cultural, regional, or topographical—of the African continent. The sparse background that they do bring usually comes in the form of monolithic assumptions and overly generalized, misrepresentative, received ideas about the continent and its peoples. They might imagine a “‘global diaspora, an international culture and a metaphor with fantastical associations for the West: gold, savages, ‘darkest,’ ‘deepest,’ liberation, devastation’” (Phillips 2007, 97–98). Imagery in students’ minds often derives from such sources as nature documentaries on the Serengeti to pop cultural touchstones like The Lion King to news reports about war and child soldiers. It is not uncommon that, in the first few class meetings before certain myths have been debunked, students will unmaliciously, but naively, refer to and treat Africa, the continent, as a holistic, homogeneous entity. This is not surprising, since current events happening throughout the continent today typically surface on major Western media outlets with reportage on disease or scourges (e.g. Ebola, AIDS, etc.), acts of violence or terrorism (e.g. Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, etc.), poaching and wildlife conservation efforts, and more recently, the effects of climate change on widespread famine and territorial struggle for resources. Collectively such journalism exacerbates an already maligned imaginary of places and peoples. This is what the brilliant, late Nigerian art critic Okwui Enwezor called Afro-pessimism and the exact kind of generalized, vague, negative, ahistorical representation of the “other” that formed the basis for Edward Said’s Orientalism (Okwui Enwezor 2006, 10–20). The socio-cultural and political conditions of Africans, for many American undergraduates, typically remain abstract, conceptually, just as the immense heterogeneity and regional nuances of this landscape remain elusive to them, at the outset. To make matters even more urgent and challenging, not only do most students possess a gap in their current, geopolitical understanding of African peoples and nations today, but they lack the critical thinking skills to question the history of why some of those gross misrepresentations persist to this day. As a result, Africans today, as well as their rich cultures and nations’ histories, remain largely under- and/or mis-represented, foreign, and woefully divorced from notions of progress and potential for many American undergraduate students.

With the aforementioned problems in mind and with a desire to address them in a particularly experiential mode of teaching and learning, Professors Mary Anne Lewis Cusato (French, Ohio Wesleyan University) and Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi (Art History, Albion College) decided to pursue an opportunity through the Great Lakes Colleges Association to connect two courses, Lewis Cusato’s Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions and Dr. Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art, primarily through a collaborative digital humanities project called “Documenting Africa.”

The employment of digital platforms as a means of encouraging students to actively engage with unfamiliar content and problematic misconceptions was informed by such thinkers as Mary Nooter Roberts and Ruth B. Phillips, to name just two. Indeed, Roberts’ articulation of exhibiting as “always in some measure the construction of a cultural imaginary and never a direct reflection of lived experience” (2008, 170) resonated with both Professors Lewis Cusato and Demerdash-Fatemi as a useful way of conceptualizing the integration of digital work into their respective courses. When working not only to fill a knowledge gap, but also to correct misconceptions, a constructive, visible, experiential mode struck them as particularly promising and appropriate. In order to see and understand African objects and representations, students were asked to work with, comment on, and display those very objects, texts, and representations. In the same way that Roberts describes “the museum exhibition as an arena for translation” and exhibitions as “objects of knowledge,” so, too, were students in the courses asked to translate their knowledge for audiences in a curatorial, reflective, but also creative mode in which learning, creation, and reflection were intertwined and integrated.

So it was through four weeks of curricular planning during the summer of 2018 that the pedagogical philosophies at work began to crystallize to ensure, first, a focus on comparing cultural representations of Africa from the African continent with Western representations of African cultures and, second, successful completion of the digital humanities project. Furthermore, Lewis Cusato was concurrently awarded a second grant, the Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award, to secure a student research assistant and assistance from the Five Colleges Post-Bac to help build and maintain the digital humanities project. Assistance from the Post-Bac, Olivia Geho, proved absolutely instrumental in moving the project forward in a thoughtful, productive, efficient, and reflective manner.

In tandem, these courses shared the following three learning objectives, albeit through different resources and in different languages:

  • Broadening knowledge about, and appreciation of, African material culture;
  • Examining inherited understandings about African cultures;
  • Comparing the stakes of self-representation with those of “representing the other.”

The conceptual and theoretical overlap between these two courses was rooted in some key learning outcomes. Firstly, both professors expected students to develop more nuanced notions about African literary and artistic traditions and cultural practices, and visual/material cultural patrimonies. Secondly, students were asked to confront sometimes difficult questions about the biases and mythologies that permeate our own popular culture in the West about Africa, African peoples, and cultures. The professors hoped their students would become attentive to the problems of history and representation, and understand that for alternative histories to emerge, we need historiographic revisions, which can come about only through different types of primary source engagements (through oral interviews or analyses of visual cultural objects, for example). Thirdly, these questions of the historiographies of African arts and cultures, in the end, point students to the high stakes and direct impact posed in how these diverse peoples are not only represented, but remembered.

At its core, this collaboration sought to ensure that students grasp the deep connections between the politics of representation and historical memory, especially given that “once an African object has entered the epistemological arena of a different time and place in, say, the United States, France, or Japan, it cannot be divorced from that world of thought and presented from an exclusively African point of view” (Roberts 2008, 174). In sum, the connections among history, representation, and memory were foundational for this project.

Technology is rapidly changing the way that the humanities are pedagogically envisioned and taught: three-dimensional reconstructions of archaeological sites enable students to imagine ancient spaces; various forms of digital scanning alter the manner by which conservators restore paintings; digitizing maps opens up new forays in critical cartography. The digital humanities is not solely invested in analyzing data, producing new quantitative analyses or statistical metrics, or amassing or preserving cultural artifacts. Digital art history is often perceived to be apolitical and uncritical (Drucker 2019, 325), preoccupied with data collection (Battles 2016, 329), and lacking the intellectual rigor of conventional methods of visual analysis.

Yet as the work of N. Katherine Hayles exhorts us to consider, the digital is changing the ways we think—our epistemologies—and tell stories. For her, narratives (whether literary or artistic) and databases are fundamentally intertwined, integrating ideas of temporality and spatiality (2012). For both the fields of literature and art history, digital modes of instructional technology can render course content more accessible, interactive, and therefore familiar. If, as Hayles asserts, “the ability to access and retrieve information on a global scale has a significant impact on how one thinks about one’s place in the world” then surely, our students’ digital research and interactive exhibitions might enable them to reevaluate their own relationship to peoples and places previously unbeknownst to them (2012, 2). In teaching comparative literature and art history, the close reading of literary texts and images is paramount to pedagogical methods, though Hayles suggests that this needs to change to adapt for a new age of media literacy and that the traditional close reading of texts needs to accommodate a new type of digital hyper-reading, the fragmented ways we all consume media via filtering, skimming, hyperlinking, and so forth (2012, 61).

To account for these trends and shifts in the digital mechanisms of media consumption, what if the tools of the digital humanities could also be repurposed in the classroom to confront and debunk representational injustices and complicate conceptual or epistemological problems of a subject or discipline? Can a digital tool challenge misrepresentations or assumptions on African cultures and peoples? This essentially was the key methodological and pedagogical question we sought to tackle.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for Introduction to African Art

Teaching African art history presents instructors with the immensely tall pedagogical order of rendering places, peoples, and cultures that are mostly alien to students familiar, through experiential learning, connection, and creation. In Demerdash-Fatemi’s Introduction to African Art course, students encounter a range of original artistic practices from cultural groups all over the geographical and political terrain of the continent. Lesson units are broken down by considering the visual culture and communal usage of objects within specific ethnic and cultural groups of a particular region (e.g. sculptural practices and cosmology of the Dogon peoples of Mali, the divination objects and storytelling memory boards of the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the royal paraphernalia of the Bamum peoples of Cameroon, etc.). Students examine the artistic qualities, fine craftsmanship, and contextual roles of an array of objects—wooden sculptures, masks and headdresses, gold bracelets and staffs, buildings and materials, garments and regalia—to comprehend the socio-cultural significance of such objects within these peoples’ lives, and to grasp the epistemological connections such peoples make about the environment and the places they inhabit.

Like any introductory course, this too was a survey in its general format. The key challenges of any art history survey are to balance depth and breadth, and to instill in students both the detail-oriented skills of visual analysis, on the one hand, and the macro-level conceptual abilities of asking broad, theme-based questions, on the other. And so over the course of any standard curriculum in African art history, students not only gain an intricate understanding of how diverse peoples and their visual and material cultural practices throughout the continent, but they are encouraged to identify similarities and connections in how many of these cultural groups construct their art, societies, and conceptualize their worldviews in relation to pivotal political and historical events, as well as centuries of economic trade and cross-cultural exchange. Methodologically and theoretically, however, African art history is fraught as a subfield by virtue of its heritage. Its origins lay not within the field of art history, but in the discipline of anthropology and the problematic, unethical collection practices of colonial ethnographers and bureaucrats on military expeditions in Africa throughout the long nineteenth century. Thus, the very study of African art was founded under exploitative conditions, and as a consequence, has given rise to a number of methodological and epistemological debates about how African art should be approached, analyzed and understood (Hallen 1997). As the noted art historian Sidney Littlefield Kasfir remarks in her much-cited article, the eventual field that formed out of these geopolitical inequities—mostly work undertaken by anthropologists—followed the “one tribe, one style” paradigmatic model, in which the artistic production of one ethnic and cultural group is correlated to one quintessential style and set of formal qualities (Kasfir 1992). Such ethnic and cultural groups become siloed entities, treated homogeneously, accounting little for cross-cultural encounters and exchanges across and among groups. Paradoxically, this method of treating ethnic and regional case studies in a singular, tribal fashion still generally predominates in African art history pedagogy at the introductory level, due to the diversity and sheer multiplicity of African peoples and cultures and the need of instructors to render the material digestible to undergraduates. In our course, we used Monica Blackmun Visona’s textbook, A History of Art in Africa (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008), which navigates through the rich artistic traditions of peoples and groups with chapters divided according to regional domains (e.g. Sahara and the Maghreb, West Africa and West Atlantic Forests, Central Africa including the Congo Basin, Eastern and Southern Africa, and the diaspora).

Time/temporality and authorship are yet more variables that add complexity to African art historical analysis. Contrasting with conventional or Western art historical methods, which privilege historical chronology and periodization, African art history preoccupies itself more with conceptual epistemologies and indigenous knowledge systems—often derived from contemporary cultural phenomena and observations (Ogbechie 2005)—to arrive at an historical art work’s interpretation. This approach to time is complicated by gaps in the historical record (Peffer 2005) and the fact that many African artists may acquire fame and repute, but their notoriety may not be socially linked specifically to the art works that they produced in their lifetime. Objects’ lives and meanings are not defined by their authorial makers, but instead by their social lives circulating among the patrons, the groups who wear or use said objects, or the religious officials and diviners who control and activate them (Vogel 1999).

Such methodological and epistemological issues bear greatly on pedagogy and student learning outcomes as well. The rationale for assigning a digital final project to students of African art history is multi-pronged and motivated by a desire to decolonize troubling pedagogies. Firstly, in order to problematize those aforementioned methodological questions of tribe, style, cross-cultural exchange, history, collecting, time/temporality, and authorship in African art objects, students must engage in cross-cultural and comparative thinking straight away. The rote memorization and connoisseurship-focused pedagogy enforced by an old guard of art historians does not serve to enliven either the African art objects, peoples or cultures in this generation of students. By encouraging students to think about the axes of time and space in African art, they resist notions of fixed, homogeneous peoples and instead become attuned to the dynamism of cultural exchanges and processes of transformation. Furthermore, to break free from and challenge those ubiquitous misrepresentations of African cultures in the Western media, students must acquire some interactive sense of intimacy or immediacy with African cultures and current events so as to break the barrier of foreignness. And crucially, reception is a vital facet of any African art history course, in probing students to empathically position themselves in the role of the makers, interlocutors, recipients, and beholders of such works of art.

Throughout the course, students had the tall order of absorbing the content and material of each unit, but the final digital project was conceived to help integrate their knowledge through comparative, analytical thinking. Students were divided into three groups of three and four by the professor (balanced based on their respective standing, research experience, critical thinking skills, reading abilities, and academic readiness) and instructed to curate their own digital online exhibition of African art objects, centered on a specific theme across time and space; just like real art curators in museums and galleries, students had to critically examine issues of representation, conceptual and narrative coherence, and sub-thematic division and arrangement in designing their own online exhibition. At the outset, Neatline and Omeka were briefly considered as potential software tools, but ruled out because of their relative complexity; ultimately, in consultation with Albion College’s instructional technologist, Sarah Noah, StoryMapJS was chosen due to its facility for a general audience.

To aid students in envisioning their digital shows, they were taken on two local field trips: firstly, to see the special exhibition, Beyond Borders: Global Africa, which ran from August 11 to November 25, 2018 at the University of Michigan Art Museum (UMMA) and was curated by Dr. Laura De Becker; and secondly, to tour the permanent African art exhibits at the Detroit Institute of Art, known by Africanists to be one of the richest collections of African art in the United States (Woods 1971). By selecting at least twenty images of African art objects now residing in US museum collections from a minimum of five disparate cultural groups, students had to create and curate their own show around a story arc (e.g. power and kingship; adornment and beauty; women’s authority; masking, performance and spirits; ancestors and memories; apotropaism and protections; slavery or imperial encounters; kinship and communalism; etc.).

Assignments were scaffolded so as to break down tasks and ensure genuine collaboration among group members. The first of these benchmark assignments asked students to construct their story arc or narrative theme. Next, because StoryMapJS enables one to render stories interactive and visual over geographical space and chronological time, students had to build on their narrative outline by selecting their base map, through which their audience will navigate through the digital exhibition; and most importantly, their objects and regional sites. For each object, students had to conduct research on the piece and write their own object label–just like an explanatory placard on the wall of a gallery—providing their viewers with the necessary content to understand the cultural significance of that piece and how it fits into the overarching narrative arc.

The students’ final, digital exhibitions successfully exemplified those desired learning outcomes of understanding the heterogeneity of African artistic traditions, cross-cultural exchange, and regional specificity. The three projects differentiated and compared the creative output and cultural practices shared by various ethnic groups across the continent: the exhibition “Initiation Ceremonies and Rites of Passage in African Arts and Cultures” dealt with masquerade practices, sculptural traditions, and sacred rituals in the transition from youth to adulthood; “Passion, Power, Perfection: Marriage and African Arts” examined the role of courtship, public displays of fidelity and the place of marriage in African artistic traditions; and finally, “African Funerary Practices and Traditions” highlighted the central position of objects in honoring ancestors and funerary rituals, proving that death and collective memory are intertwined in African artistic practices. Pedagogically, these exhibitions were a success in that they challenged students to think about conceptual and representational issues and through research encouraged familiarity with the objects. The digital exhibitions brought to life material that otherwise often remains static and foreign in an African art history course.

Students’ digital exhibitions were graded on the following criteria: narrative coherence, informational accuracy and depth of research, facility of the exhibit (e.g. cleanliness and user-friendly qualities), aesthetic appeal, and teamwork professionalism. A major drawback of StoryMapJS is that only one student could be the user/owner of that project account, and so edits to the digital exhibition could not be implemented simultaneously by other group members; this proved to be inconvenient for collaboration, with inevitably one student in each group shouldering more of the burden of entering data into the program.

Course Specifics and Benchmark Assignments for “Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions”

The benchmark assignments designed for the Fourteen Kilometers class were conceived with the objective of preparing students to answer such weighty questions as the following:

  • What does it mean, first, to record an oral history both responsibly and ethically and, second, how do stylistics, such as camerawork and sound recording, affect such a project?
  • Second, what are the stakes of creating an outward-facing project that is a carrier of meaning, especially for cultural documents that represent and / or come from Africa?
  • Are exhibition and translation, both defined here as extensions of the original object(s), “all one can ever know”? (Roberts 2008, 183) If so, what does this mean in terms of thinking about “original” vs. “translation” or “exhibition”?

To these ends, several benchmark assignments were designed to prepare students to learn and create with a sense of depth, purpose, and reflection. As a class, Fourteen Kilometers: Mediterranean (Im)Migrations in Contemporary Francophone Cultural Expressions was preparing to collect, edit, and publish an oral history from a French-speaking immigrant in the Columbus area, and these benchmark workshops and assignments were essential training tools for the students. First, the Fourteen Kilometers class held a workshop in the campus library with the Director of Media Services at Ohio Wesleyan University, Chuck Della Lana, who demonstrated framing techniques with video cameras and discussed the implications of various manners of video framing, camera angles, and relating sound to image. Students then paired off to interview one another briefly on a topic of their choosing, and returned to the media center to share the product with the class to analyze various techniques related to the recording choices of both sound and image. In a second round of interviews, partners switched roles and finessed those elements upon which they wished to improve before concluding discussions. This benchmark assignment was crucial in training students to understand the deep relationship; whether in videography, cinematography, or oral history; between message and stylistics. Camera angles, shots, manipulation of sound, and other tools associated with video recordings all shape, both literally and figuratively, the narrative at the center of the story. Students were encouraged to reflect on such different modes of recording as recording-as-art vs. recording-for-knowledge. What does it mean to take an oral history, to record and disseminate someone else’s story? How is the oral historian, literally and figuratively, framing the story to be received by anyone who views it later? By the end of the workshop, students understood these concepts in a deeper and more concrete way.

The second benchmark workshop and assignment deepened students’ engagement with questions that arose from the first. On Friday, October 26, 2018, Wendy Singer, Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College, came to campus to lead a workshop for students and other Ohio Wesleyan University community members through a presentation and a series of exercises and discussions training students to consider the ethical issues that can arise when conducting, editing, and publishing oral histories. When an oral history is given, how do authorship, subjectivity, ownership of the story, and voice shift? To demonstrate this notion, Singer asked students, in pairs, to designate a storyteller and a listener. The storyteller told the story of their first day on campus, and the listener retold the story to the group. The original storyteller then noted differences between the original version and the retelling and offered reflections on subtle differences between the two tellings. This workshop, building on the first, guided students’ thinking about the overarching goals of oral history and the subtle ways in which retelling is also, whether willfully or not, a reshaping. If the objective is to record an oral history with as little intervention as possible, with as little reshaping as possible, then great care and attention must be paid.[1]

The third benchmark assignment took place on November 16, 2018, the Friday before Thanksgiving, when Lewis Cusato and the students in the “Fourteen Kilometers” class boarded a university van to drive nineteen miles to visit the Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) organization in Columbus, Ohio. Lewis Cusato had arranged for an oral history given by a local French-speaking refugee and a follow-up Question and Answer session to be recorded by a colleague. Upon arrival at CRIS, it became clear that the person sharing his story did not wish for any recording to be disseminated. This was surprising and disappointing for the students, who had devoted significant time, energy, and thought to developing appropriate questions to ask him in French; considering how to approach such questions in the most respectful and productive ways possible; and to learning about how to record, transcribe, translate, and present the oral history. He presented his story with both narrative and images, students did ask their questions, the session was recorded, and the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator spoke with the group about the state of immigrants and immigration in the United States under the current presidential administration. The visit lasted some two and a half hours and generated much discussion for the drive back to campus in Delaware, Ohio. Lewis Cusato asked students to articulate their reactions to the visit. They expressed enthusiasm at the poignancy of hearing a first-person, in-person account and were grateful for the opportunity to nuance common media reports, many of which consistently depict immigrants as a homogeneous, problematic group. Engaging with one man’s personal narrative about what it truly was to leave his country, what it meant to wait for eleven years in a refugee camp in Uganda, what it was to be examined and checked by the Department of Homeland Security and finally granted asylum, and what it entailed to move and find his way in a new country and a new language allowed students to see the phenomenon of immigration in a more realistic, complete, personal, and thorough way than they would have by simply relying on the news. The students expressed gratitude at hearing from the CRIS Volunteer Coordinator the staggering statistics about just how few refugees are in fact granted asylum to the United States and how such numbers pale in comparison with many smaller, less wealthy countries. Rich discussion ensued, and the class collectively decided to use the Thanksgiving break to reflect on potential paths forward, given that the original plan to record, transcribe, and disseminate the oral history would no longer be possible.

During that first class session following the visit to CRIS and Thanksgiving break, Lewis Cusato asked students to reflect on what they had done so far throughout the semester’s work in the class. As they spoke, she noted both content and skill development work on the board. Their discussion hinged on the progress of the course to that point. Yes, there had been an emphasis on the oral history component of the class, but students had also watched and analyzed a documentary, La Saga des immigrés (The Saga of Immigrants, 2007); engaged with street art throughout the Mediterranean that comments on immigration; read a novel, Les Clandestins, about clandestine immigration from Morocco; watched and interpreted a film, Harragas, about clandestine immigration from Algeria to southern Europe; watched and discussed a special report on the SOS Méditerranée organization that saves migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea; read and discussed news articles from African, French, and American media about immigration throughout the Mediterranean; and studied the photojournalistic manifesto I Am With Them, which was exhibited in 2015 in Paris at the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute). The course participants realized that the course, at its essence, tells the stories of the journeys taken up by the protagonists, the subjects filmed, the characters written, and the people portrayed. Hence, the StoryMap mode would likely work best. When all the materials studied throughout the term were listed on the board so that all could see them together as parts of a whole, the structure for the website began to emerge, founded on valuable insights gleaned through comparative analysis of the syllabus’s content. The point here, too, was to move beyond such common Western aspirations as “the experiences of ‘resonance’ and ‘wonder’ that are produced by the presentation of objects as artifact and art” (Phillips 2007, 98) and to move towards a multi-layered, multimodal, multifaceted narrative that emphasizes originality, individuality, reflection, sophistication, and art and knowledge alike. Informed by Turnbull’s work theorizing maps as knowledge, maps as languages and networks, and maps as narratives in and of themselves, this new digital project emerged with a sense of depth and complexity that had the potential to allow the narratives of journey to emerge in a vibrant, full digital display.

The site would begin with an introduction, in both English and French, by Lewis Cusato. At the bottom of the page would appear an image, title, and short explanation to introduce each of the five students’ StoryMaps, all of which would be connected through an overarching WordPress site. As their final project for the course, then, students would work either individually or in pairs to choose images, quotations, and to create explanations and analysis of their source or sources. The students’ first step was to curate the text and images they would like to include on the map as well as decide on the map’s pinpoints. Once this was accomplished, each student or team would present their proposed focus to the group to solicit feedback from their classmates. Bit by bit, as students worked alone, presented their proposed contributions to the site, gave one another feedback, and revised and reframed as necessary, the site began to take shape. From November 26 through December 14, 2018, then, students built the site in consort with Lewis Cusato and Olivia Geho. In retrospect, it is clear that devoted the first three months of coursework (August 22 to November 16, 2018) to content coverage and assessment as well as benchmark assignments, followed by spending three weeks (November 26 to December 14, 2018) building the site worked well as a timeline. Finally, since the Fourteen Kilometers course is an upper-level French course, significant time, energy, and focus were necessary to correct and finesse the students’ translations. Fortunately, a senior student in French particularly interested in translation approached Lewis Cusato about pursuing an independent study under her guidance with an emphasis on translation. Thus, in the spring of 2020, through this independent study, this student and Lewis Cusato painstakingly examined, corrected, and finessed all the text and translations associated with the project.

To balance and integrate such elements of a course as content and skill mastery with a culminating, collaborative digital project requires purposeful and consistent pedagogical movement among the various modes of input and output, whether textual, visual, digital, cinematographic, political, journalistic, popular, or some combination of these. The syllabus and course timeline must therefore be constructed with an eye towards balancing the content work with the benchmark assignments, consulting experts, digital work, and time for collectively checking in with one another as a class and revising both the plan and the culminating project as necessary along the way. The ability and willingness to rethink and pivot if necessary proved foundational for the course, as did maintaining open dialogue with the class about best strategies for progressing, even unexpected obstacles rendered the original plan unfeasible. Furthermore, the notion that “a person is always operating within the structures of his/her own culturally prescribed formats for understanding the world” (Roberts 2008, 172) reminded all involved that the project must take into account potential lack of familiarity on the part of visitors. With these elements in mind and with transparent, clear communication among all members of the class, such a course can become, and indeed was, a particularly collaborative, engaging, relevant, and constructive experience of learning, thinking, reflecting, and creating.

Concluding Reflections

The courses described above allowed Demerdash-Fatemi and Lewis Cusato to teach students about the stakes of cultural production related to Africa. Students were asked to take their time, look at, contextualize, study, and reflect on the objects, images, and texts upon which each respective course was founded. Furthermore, these courses asked students to consider the stakes of representing oneself, as compared to being represented by others. Students were asked to compare and contrast Western representations of Africa with African representations of Africa in order to begin to be able to see and articulate the politics of representation always at work. Finally, these courses facilitated students’ creating something that could be shared with others from their readings, their viewings, their discussions, their analysis, their research, and their interpretations. This is the great value of coupling a course with the creation of a digital humanities project: it asks students to curate and create something visual, textual, technological, outward-looking, and helpful for others who might wish to explore the topic. It asks them to engage with layers of meaning as they interpret and to be meaning-makers themselves. The students literally become the teacher, and they emerge from the course experience having moved from input, from learning, to creation, to teaching. It allows them to show anyone interested how—though the news media often portrays immigrants as a problematic, troublesome group—artists, journalists, filmmakers, writers, and activists tell the story of immigration in very different ways and paint very different pictures. Finally, this project encouraged the students to reflect upon and comment on, to connect to and share new learning about traditions, novel aesthetics, and communities throughout the African continent. You can find such stories and such pictures, as well as associated commentary and analysis, on this site, where learning begets reflection and creation, and where engagement with resources begets the genesis of a new resource. The cycle, the learning, continue.


[1] Open to the wider campus community, Professor Singer’s visit was made possible by support from The Five Colleges of Ohio Mellon Digital Scholarship Award and from Ohio Wesleyan University’s Department of Modern Foreign Languages.


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Turnbull, David. 1993. Maps Are Territories: Science Is an Atlas: A Portfolio of Exhibits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. http://territories.indigenousknowledge.org/.

Vogel, Susan Mullin. 1999. “Known Artists but Anonymous Works: Fieldwork and Art History.” African Arts 32, no. 1 (Spring): 40–⁠55, 93–⁠94.

Woods, Willis. 1971. “African Art in the Collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts.” African Arts 4, no. 4 (Summer): 16–⁠23.


We, the authors, wish to acknowledge the following people and organizations, without whom this work would not have been possible: Simon Gray (Program Officer, Great Lakes Colleges Association and Global Liberal Arts Alliance), Wendy Singer (Roy T. Wortman Distinguished Professor of History at Kenyon College), Tyler Reeve (Volunteer Coordinator at Community Refugee and Immigration Services in Columbus, Ohio), Ben Daigle (Associate Director of Consortial Library Systems for the Five Colleges), Deanne Peterson (Director of Libraries at Ohio Wesleyan University), David Soliday (Instructional Technologist at Ohio Wesleyan University), Eugene Rutigliano (Digital Initiatives Librarian and Curator at Ohio Wesleyan University), Olivia Geho (Ohio 5 Digital Collections Post-Bac), Brandon Stevens (student assistant for Dr. Lewis Cusato), and Sarah Noah (Instructional Technologist at Albion College). This Digital Humanities resource is housed at Ohio Wesleyan University and managed by Dr. Lewis Cusato, in cooperation with Ben Daigle, Deanne Peterson, Eugene Rutigliano, and David Soliday.

About the Authors

Mary Anne Lewis Cusato came to Ohio Wesleyan University, where she serves as an Associate Professor and the Director of the French Program, from the Yale University Department of French. She was promoted and granted tenure in 2019 and awarded the Sherwood Dodge Shankland Teaching Award in 2020. Dr. Lewis Cusato teaches French language at all levels, as well as courses on the French-speaking world outside of France, with an emphasis on francophone Africa. She publishes regularly, and her work has appeared in Contemporary French & Francophone Studies: SITES, Expressions maghrébines, The Journal of North African Studies, The Chronicle: Vitae, and The Limits of Cosmopolitanism: Globalization and Its Discontents in Contemporary Literature. Dr. Lewis Cusato also co-founded and co-directs OWU’s Palmer Global Scholars Program.

Nancy Demerdash-Fatemi is an Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Art History at Albion College (Michigan, USA), where she teaches a range of courses in global visual culture and art and architectural history. She holds graduate and doctoral degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University, respectively, and publishes widely on modern and contemporary art and architecture of the Middle East and North Africa. Her broader research interests include postcolonial and diaspora studies. Her articles have appeared in edited volumes as well as in journals such as The Journal of North African Studies, The Journal of Arabian Studies, Perspective: actualité en histoire de l’art, among others. Additionally, she serves as an Assistant Editor for The International Journal of Islamic Architecture.

A digital camera stands next to a laptop computer.

The Digital Story: Integrating the Personal and Academic through a Multimodal Approach

Julia Brown

This assignment was created for a First Year Writing Inquiry Seminar (FIQWS) at City College of New York. FIQWS is based on the principles and pedagogy of the learning community. Students are enrolled simultaneously in a topic course in which they learn about a specific subject, in this case “Truth, Fiction and Photography,” and a composition course in which they learn and practice composition skills. This assignment for the composition section asks students to apply what they are learning in the topic section to their personal experiences through a personal photograph and compose a digital story.

Read more… The Digital Story: Integrating the Personal and Academic through a Multimodal Approach

Empowering Local Women through Technology Training: A Sustainable Income-Generating Model in Hyderabad, India

Ioana Literat
USC Annenberg School for Communication



In an effort to increase the local sustainability of a digital storytelling program in Indian public schools, the author piloted a professional development program to train young Muslim women and employ them as digital storytelling teachers in all-female public schools in Hyderabad. Drawing on this experience, and on interviews with the trainees and their fellow teachers, this article discusses the elements contributing to a critical participation gap in terms of Muslim women’s acquisition of digital skills, education and employment, and outlines the potential benefits of such locally sustainable training programs. The article concludes by presenting a set of best practices and lessons learned, which will hopefully facilitate a better understanding and implementation of digital training programs for women in Muslim communities.



Before starting my doctoral studies, I worked in Hyderabad, India, as the field coordinator of The Modern Story (TMS), a non-profit organization that teaches digital storytelling to children of daily wageworkers from traditionally underserved religious and caste minorities. Through extensive fundraising, TMS donates cameras, computers, and multimedia equipment to public schools in India, and places young college graduates from all over the world as digital storytelling instructors in these classrooms. The young instructors – called TMS fellows – teach these students (aged 12-14) how to use photography and video to create and share stories of personal, social, and environmental relevance. The students select the topics themselves; past topics for these video projects have included educational opportunities for women, healthy nutrition, child labor, traffic safety, marriage and life choices, pollution, and other various issues that affect the students and their communities.

Figure 1. The Modern Story digital storytelling program, in the words of its students, fellows and teachers


In order to increase the local sustainability of the project – which was one of my main objectives as field coordinator – I piloted a professional development program whereby we recruited disempowered young Muslim women from the Hyderabad slums, trained them in digital media-making and, upon completion of the training process, employed them as digital storytelling teachers in all-female public schools in the city. Drawing on this training experience, as well as on interviews with the trainees and their fellow teachers in the pilot stage of the program, this article explores the social and cultural complexities associated with implementing such technology-based pedagogical initiatives for women in Indian Muslim communities. I will discuss the socio-cultural and economic elements contributing to a critical participation gap in terms of Muslim women’s acquisition of digital skills, education and employment, and outline the benefits that such tech-based training and employment interventions bring to the various social groups involved in the educational process. Finally, I will devote the last part of the article to presenting a set of best practices – as well as challenges, or lessons learned – that will hopefully facilitate a better understanding and implementation of future digital training programs for women in Muslim communities.


The Digital Training Process

Rationale and Genesis

Henry Jenkins (2006) identifies the “participation gap” as a principal challenge to the acquisition of digital skills and new media literacies, noting that this problem is particularly acute in economically or socially disempowered communities. Indeed, the participation gap goes beyond the scope of the oft-cited digital divide, and is described as the inequality of access to the full range of “opportunities, experiences, skills, and knowledge that will prepare youth for full participation in the world of tomorrow” (Jenkins et al. 2006, xii). In this research community, we most often talk about the participation gap in terms of the students’ acquisition of digital and information communication technology (ICT) skills, and yet, in my personal experience working in education in developing countries, I have found that it similarly applies to teachers as well, and especially to female educators coming from disempowered or underprivileged communities. Indeed, young female educators like our TMS trainees are subject to the same inequality of access that characterizes their students, and are most often denied the professional development opportunities that would allow them to take part in meaningful communities – digital and non-digital alike – and to cultivate the digital skills that they hope to pass on to their students.

Our initiative focused on Muslim communities at the expense of other social groups in Hyderabad, because of our understanding that women in these communities face a much wider array of obstacles in their personal and professional development. We believed that these women would thus benefit to a greater extent from a boost in self-efficacy and empowerment, as well as mastering practical ICT skills that would enhance their autonomy, social participation and future job marketability. Due to cultural restrictions limiting their mobility and their interactions with men, young Muslim women in the impoverished inner-city areas of Hyderabad do not usually get to benefit from ICT training programs or professional development opportunities. Instead of pursuing further studies or specializations, the vast majority of these young women take up full-time domestic work and handicrafts such as silk embroidery or jewelry-making, usually within the confines of their homes.

Since TMS had not worked with these Muslim communities before and thus had no direct experience with this group nor established relations of trust with the larger community, we were fortunate in finding an early partner in Technology for the People (TFTP), a Hyderabad-based NGO with a long track record of working with young women in inner-city Muslim areas. A paragon of social innovation, TFTP showcases the potential of capitalizing on the target population’s existing practical skills in order to help them gain new media literacies and digital skills. The organization taps into the creative potential of young Muslim women (aged 16 to 22), who are skilled in Henna tattooing and silk embroidery, by using this propensity for visual creativity and design to train them in multimedia software, digital design, and animation as a strategy of social and economic empowerment. Identifying our strikingly similar core values and objectives, TMS and TFTP collaborated to devise a symbiotic training and employment program that simultaneously aided two underserved population segments (young Muslim women and, respectively, female public school students), with a focus on education and job placement as closely linked processes.



The intensive month-long training module was designed to accomplish two main goals: the mastering of digital production skills (which included both hardware and software) and, respectively, the acquisition of pedagogical skills that would allow the young women to function as successful digital storytelling instructors in public schools.

Our first task was made considerably easier by the fact that TFTP had already offered these women practical training in graphic design, animation, and web design basics. As such, in terms of software, the young women were comfortable working in CorelDraw (for graphic design), 3DSMax (for 3D modeling), Flash (for animation), and basic HTML (for web design). Their experience with these programs translated, importantly, into an overall familiarity and intuitiveness with multimedia software in general, which could then be channeled into the specific area of digital storytelling production. Therefore, in addition to these extant skills, during their month-long TMS training they learned how to operate audiovisual hardware (specifically: digital cameras, video cameras, tripods, microphones, and other multimedia accessories), and how to use relevant software (primarily, Photoshop and PowerPoint for photography projects, and Windows Movie Maker[1] for video storytelling).

The other key objective of the training module was to address the pedagogy of implementing such curricula in secondary schools. None of the trainees had any pedagogical experience, and our aim was to make them feel confident and comfortable in their role as teachers. We discussed the cornerstones of successful teaching – such as mutual respect, patience, and investment in students’ interests – that can be applied across disciplines and subject areas, but we also addressed, in more specific terms, the pedagogical requirements of digital storytelling programs. We talked about the elements of a good story and the transformation of narratives into digital stories; we discussed what makes an effective assignment, and how to encourage and guide students to convey the stories and topics that they find relevant in an audiovisual format.

Perhaps the most significant challenge during the training process was the language barrier: the training module was in English because the digital storytelling program that they would be teaching is in English as well, and is meant to simultaneously hone the students’ English-language proficiency in addition to their digital skills. However, at the beginning, the young women felt highly self-conscious about their English abilities, especially in front of me, a foreign trainer. Thus, a considerable amount of effort was devoted to encouraging them to express themselves assertively in English, and, by the end of the training, most of them had overcome their shyness with the language and were speaking it confidently.

To assess the effectiveness of the training program and to gauge their comfort as digital storytelling instructors, I designed two final assignments that all trainees completed. The first assignment was to create a digital story, using their newly acquired hardware and software skills. The young women chose to focus this digital story on the educational activities of TFTP and their training in graphic design at the TFTP center. The resulting video story – conceived, written, filmed, and edited entirely by the trainees – is embedded below:

Figure 2. The young women’s first digital assignment: A video introduction to Technology for the People (TFTP)


The second assignment was meant to assess their pedagogical skills, and determine whether they felt confident in teaching these skills to younger students. For this assignment, we identified a local orphanage that was in need of volunteer instructors and whose children would benefit from an introductory course in digital media-making. The young women then did a week of practical training at this orphanage, teaching an abbreviated digital storytelling course to a cohort of around twenty children. They taught the children the basics of using digital cameras and video cameras, although time did not allow for an in-depth video editing tutorial. The novice teachers really enjoyed working with these children, and the feeling was certainly mutual: when the women left, on their last day of teaching, the children were mischievously blocking their way out, saying “Don’t go, sisters, teach us more!”


figure3-ioana-JiTP-e1406222581847Figure 3. The TMS trainees showing the children how to use digital cameras, as part of their practical training at a local orphanage


Throughout the training process, the young women proved to have a deep yearning for learning and self-betterment and often had to overcome substantial obstacles to attend the TFTP and TMS training sessions: many of them commuted for hours by bus to reach the center, and many had to defy their families in order to continue with the professional development program. But in spite of the women’s desire and drive, we had a difficult time recruiting trainees in these patriarchal communities, and convincing their families to allow them to commit to a year of employment as teachers proved to be an even harder task. Therefore, following the training phase, we selected two young women – Asma (age 19) and Neha (age 20) – to participate in the pilot employment program at the secondary schools, on the basis of their commitment to the training, their heightened interest in teaching, and, last but not least, their families’ willingness to let them follow through with a year of employment in public secondary schools. Following the procurement of written permissions from their families, Asma and Neha signed a one-year contract – which, given their enthusiasm and excellent performance, has since been renewed every academic year – and were placed in an all-female public school to work as digital storytelling instructors alongside our own TMS foreign teachers.

Together with the foreign TMS fellows, the young Muslim women teach a digital storytelling curriculum focused on the acquisition of ICT and multimedia skills, as well as English language proficiency and an understanding of social justice issues affecting the students’ communities. The course begins with a theoretical exploration of storytelling (oral, written and digital) and of the elements of a story. Once this foundation is laid, the students are taught how to use digital cameras, upload and manipulate photographs, and use these pictures to create stories, primarily in Microsoft PowerPoint. After they master the photography module, the remainder of the course focuses on using the video camera to create and share more complex narratives around topics of personal, social or environmental significance. Some of the practical video skills they learn are: conducting interviews, recording voiceovers, filming via specific camera angles, editing sound and video, uploading footage, publishing and sharing digital stories. As an illustration of their work, the video below, produced under the supervision of Asma and Neha, addresses the topic of what it feels like to be a young girl in today’s India:

Figure 4. “Who We Are: Being a Girl in Modern India”: A digital story produced by the students of Railway Girls High School, Hyderabad.


Benefits for All

Teaching these young Muslim women how to use technologies of such current relevance and to hone their digital skills is an enormous step forward in their individual empowerment, professional development, and economic independence. However, the manner in which the training and employment program is designed extends the range of social benefits to the other groups involved in the process as well, enhancing the potential for positive change at a variety of levels. Thus, the women’s involvement in this program also benefits, as I shall explain in this section, the young secondary school students, the TMS fellows, and – through a significant ripple effect – the women’s Muslim communities as a whole.

For the young teachers themselves, perhaps the greatest benefit that comes out of this experience is the newfound feeling of self-efficacy and empowerment that they derive from meaningful employment. According to Bandura (2009), self-efficacy is an individual’s needed confidence in his or her own skills and abilities to implement specific prosocial behaviors. In the case of these young women, it emerges from the confidence and fulfillment they derive out of putting their new skills to practical use in the classroom and beyond, and succeeding in this endeavor. Given their lack of pedagogical experience and their young ages (at 19 and, respectively, 20, Asma and Neha are by far the youngest teachers at the school), they were initially quiet and subservient, refraining from contributing to lesson planning or making conceptual suggestions and, instead, merely offering to help translate for the foreign teachers and to provide technical assistance to the students in the computer lab. Soon enough, however, Asma’s and Neha’s increased sense of confidence in their abilities as teachers became apparent both in their general manner and speech in the classroom, but also in their desire to take on more and more responsibilities as their first semester went on. They began by teaching sections of the class, and then moved on to crafting original lesson plans and providing feedback and instruction entirely on their own.

Participating in the training program and then pursuing regular employment made these young women fully aware of their own capabilities, while encouraging them to dream bigger, and have greater aspirations for their future. Kara and Ilana, the two American TMS fellows who first worked with Asma and Neha in the classroom, had a first-hand perception of this gradual transformation. “Their ambition, already high, seemed to find a footing that reached out, as well as inwards,” said Ilana (Millner 2011). And Kara agreed: “Asma and Neha are both strong women to start with, but their work with TMS creates a particular role to identify themselves in. They very much recognize themselves as capable and experienced teachers, which only increases their strength and drive to build fulfilling lives for themselves while also supporting their families” (Newhouse 2011). Neha now wants to stay in the teaching field and continue as a computer studies instructor in public schools, while Asma wants to work in IT and animation.

By participating in this training and employment program, the young Muslim women gained digital skills and English language proficiency, two essential ingredients enhancing their future perspectives and career marketability. It is important to note that these women understand the relevance and necessity of new technologies and digital media, both on a personal level and in terms of regional and national development. They also understand the value of educational initiatives promoting these skills and knowledge. Speaking about digital media education, Neha considers it to be “very important for the future of our country,” and wants to avoid falling into the participation gap: “in a few years, everything will be done on the computer and if you don’t know how to do it, you will have a big challenge….When I will have children, I will of course teach them about computers and media, because I want them to be successful and creative,” she adds, and this is perhaps the greatest indication of the value she places on this educational current (Nuzhath 2011).

However, there is a risk of overemphasizing these practical skills at the expense of other consequential changes in their personal development and social behavior. As such, one must not underestimate the significance of the social and emotional learning (SEL) they underwent as a result of their exposure to this program. The SEL framework is based around the development of five core social and emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making (Durlak et al. 2011). Because of the conservative nature of their communities, these young Muslim women in Hyderabad had lived sheltered lives, where interaction with men, foreigners, and representatives of other religions, castes, and social classes was limited. Working for TMS, they came into contact, in a safe and culturally respectful setting, with male teachers, foreigners from Europe and the United States, young Indians from other cities and provinces, Hindus, Catholics, Buddhists, and many other cultural and religious varieties. By interacting with these diverse groups, Asma and Neha gained relationship skills – in Asma’s own words, “learning how to communicate with others” (Allaudin 2011) – as well as an important sense of social awareness and self-awareness, including a better understanding of themselves and their own social roles and potential. This inter- and intra-cultural exposure is vital for their empowerment; by being exposed to different lifestyles and outlooks beyond their immediate community, the women gain a wider perspective and eclectic knowledge.

The financial aspect of this opportunity is also consequential, facilitating an enhanced sense of empowerment and personal autonomy. Specifically, by pursuing this type of employment, which brings a secure monthly income, they can contribute to their families’ welfare in ways other than performing domestic chores and craftwork. And, as the foreign TMS fellows observed, while in Western cultures, success is often associated with breaking the financial ties with one’s parents and extended family, in these women’s communities, success is measured in the ability to contribute to the family’s economic welfare (Millner 2011; Newhouse 2011). Neha, for instance, says she uses most of her paycheck to help out with her younger brother’s tuition and her nephew’s educational needs. The rest, she saves up in order to buy a laptop for herself. Beyond direct contributions to their household welfare, having a sustainable personal income offers them a further degree of economic freedom, confidence, and social independence within their communities, and also allows them to have a greater say in their households regarding issues such as pursuing higher education or postponing arranged marriages. In addition, holding a regular job and administering their own money also teaches them the vital SEL skill of self-management, all the more valuable for their development since these women had never been employed before and seldom traveled alone across the city.

Because of the patriarchal norms that characterize these young women’s conservative Muslim environment, their families often prohibit them from working in the commercial media and animation industries, as that would require being in public spaces around men. Our project aimed to work around this social prohibition by providing the young women with jobs that are seen as highly respectable for women: teaching in all-girls government schools. Thus, beyond their vocational and professional development, the training greatly enhanced their social status in their communities, as they learned to act as role models to the younger generation of girls in these traditional Muslim neighborhoods. “In my community and my family, this has changed everything,” says Asma. “Before, they were behaving with me like a regular person. But now, they are behaving differently and respecting me more, for being a teacher and teaching at a public girls school, especially in a foreign organization. They say, ‘she is something now, she is a teacher!’” (Allaudin 2011).

The collaboration with these local Muslim women had significant benefits for the foreign TMS fellows as well, both inside the classroom and outside of it. In the classroom, the presence of local instructors like Asma and Neha proved to be an enormous help for the TMS instructors, who could now share teaching and supervision responsibilities with these women. Because of the technology-intensive digital storytelling curriculum, instruction worked best when the class could be broken down into three or four smaller groups or stations, each led by one teacher: thus, while one group is researching on the Internet, another can be filming an interview, while yet another group can be editing the footage recorded the previous day.

It is clear, furthermore, that these young women have specific skills and attributes that the foreign teachers do not possess. Beyond the obvious language skills – helping to translate tricky words and concepts from English to Hindi and vice-versa – that often facilitate the students’ comprehension and their interaction with the foreign teachers, local instructors like Asma and Neha also have a consequential sense of cultural understanding and are able to contribute culturally-specific ideas for homework, projects, and class activities. For instance, being familiar with the annual calendar of Indian festivals and holidays, they can ask the students to draw parallels between class themes and upcoming cultural rituals and celebrations; or, using examples from the girls’ favorite Bollywood films, they can launch an important discussion about female body consciousness that the students can understand and relate to. Finally, their ability to engage the girls and to joke with them is really useful in helping make the classroom a comfortable, safe space for the students, especially in the first weeks of the digital storytelling course.

The benefits of this collaboration for the TMS fellows extended outside of the classroom as well, as the friendship with the young Muslim women enhanced their cultural immersion and facilitated their adjustment in this new and unfamiliar environment. “They were really eager to be our friends, and we were eager to be theirs, so our relationship was mutually beneficial,” said Ilana, the American TMS fellow working with Asma and Neha. She adds, “Working with these young women was a key part of my experience in Hyderabad, and definitely a huge reason why Kara and I were successful teachers at [the school]” (Millner 2011). Kara, her fellow teacher, agrees. “Seeing Asma and Neha build engaged and fun relationships with the students (in ways that I couldn’t because they shared a language and culture) as they themselves learned non-traditional educational methods was one of the most inspiring aspects of the fellowship” (Newhouse 2011).

What is more, these local women proved to be an important point of support for the foreign teachers in Hyderabad. They were eager to show the TMS fellows around, and to make sure that they are safe and comfortable in Hyderabad; in Neha’s words, “we are all part of the TMS team and we have to take care of each other” (Nuzhath 2011). They were also instrumental in providing continuity and an established support system for each batch of new teachers – since the TMS fellowship consists of only one school year, and new fellows are selected annually. In addition, TMS will be working with these “veteran” local teachers to recruit and train more local staff from these Muslim communities. As such, Asma and Neha are a great resource in identifying future digital storytelling teachers from their own social circles and training them in the curriculum, by sharing their technical knowledge and pedagogical experience gained thus far in the program.

For the students they are teaching at the all-girls school, the involvement of these young women from the Hyderabadi Muslim communities was a defining aspect of the digital storytelling program. In addition to making the classroom environment more comfortable through their familiar presence, they serve as role models for the young girls, in a social milieu where women coming from their disadvantaged backgrounds do not have many training or employment opportunities of this type. Their ambition and eagerness to learn is an inspiration for these 12- to 14-year-old girls, and the women’s personal experiences can make a significant and positive impact on their students’ future life choices. For instance, when Asma and Neha led a class debate on arranged marriage, it was a profoundly significant moment for the girls, and a lesson that could not have been achieved with the same efficiency and emotional impact by the foreign teachers, who are outsiders to this practice. Furthermore, unlike the TMS fellows, who come and go every academic year, these local teachers, who live in Hyderabad on a permanent basis, represent a stable support system and provide lasting mentorship, maintaining a close relationship with their students and encouraging them, beyond secondary school, to make responsible decisions and to continue their education.

The same role-modeling process is taking place in these young women’s Muslim communities as well, albeit in a more indirect manner. Asma and Neha, for instance, are the only young women in their immediate community who have a regular job that does not involve domestic work or handicrafts. Their involvement with digital technologies and their mastery of these skills is seen as extraordinary and unique; they report receiving a lot of questions from the other girls in their neighborhoods about the experience of employment and of working with computers, multimedia and new technologies. Asma says, “The girls on my street always ask me about my job, and they say ‘Sister, how is it to work?’ and ‘Sister, what kind of job do you have? …Are you working in a government school? …How can we learn computers?” (Allaudin 2011). By setting a positive example in their community and sharing their experiences with their peers, these young women can be a powerful force for change and, in time, stimulate a feeling of collective efficacy in these communities. According to Bandura (2009), collective efficacy is the degree to which individuals within a system believe that they can effectively organize and carry out courses of action in order to achieve collective goals. While collective efficacy is a systemic change that happens in a longer timeframe and with more difficulty than self-efficacy does, the ripple effect of these women’s behavioral and attitudinal modeling in their communities is a promising first step toward a significant communal change.


Challenges and Best Practices in Digital Pedagogy Training with Muslim Women

These young women’s experiences have the potential to teach us some critical lessons about the implementation of ICT training programs in Muslim communities, so this final section will focus on discussing the challenges and lessons that can be drawn from this initial experience. First, what this example demonstrates is the need for professional development programs in underprivileged Muslim communities to be preceded by a comprehensive preliminary research process that properly identifies the causes of the participation gap, and then works to address these specific factors. If we are to analyze the root causes of the participation gap in the case of our initial batch of trainees, three principal factors emerge: socioeconomic status, gender, and cultural restrictions. The latter two, however, are intertwined, given the patriarchal nature of traditional Muslim communities. Indeed, one of the most pronounced themes in conversations with Neha and Asma was their difficulties in reconciling their own aspirations with the traditionalism of their families and community. During the initial TFTP training, for instance, one of the women was so determined, that she even went on a two-day hunger strike when her father forbade her from continuing with the training. While the decision to go to such extreme measures in order to reach their educational goals adds further testimony to these women’s strength and dedication, such actions simultaneously represent a worrisome threat to their wellbeing. Therefore, knowing that cultural restrictions play such a critical part in these women’s ability to follow through with the training, it is important to involve their families in the training process and to speak to the parents, brothers, or husbands personally, providing them with detailed information and assurances about the nature of the program, so that the women will not have to face this obstacle alone. Given our own hardships concerning the reticence of the families to allow them to pursue employment, this experience has taught us that there is a consequential need for programs like ours to work with the young women’s families and make sure they understand the safe, culturally respectful nature of the program and the significant benefits that it brings to their futures.

It should be clear that training must always be free of cost and feasibly accessible via available means of transportation. Moreover, when employing the women in official teaching positions in the aftermath of the training, it is important, even when funds are limited, to offer some kind of recompense. This recompense can take the form of a regular salary, or some other kind of material incentive, such as meals, IT/digital equipment, etc., in order to boost the young women’s independence and self-efficacy and to ensure that the families will let them pursue this employment opportunity in lieu of domestic work. Similarly, special care must be taken in order to ensure that both the training circumstances and the work environment are culturally respectful and in line with the behavioral requirements of the target population. For instance, the presence of male teachers or male students may be seen as culturally inappropriate, threatening or intimidating; thus, an all-girls school may be more desirable as an ideal working environment than a co-ed school, since this choice would be respected by the women’s families and would also enable them to act as role-models for the younger girls.

Another critical function of the formative research process is to identify potential community partners that can facilitate in the recruitment of the trainees and the establishment of trust relations with the target population. This is especially important in cases where the training organization has not worked before with Muslim communities in that area and therefore has limited knowledge of the specific obstacles that may prevent their participation in the program. By finding the right community partners and developing clear terms of collaboration, both for the short term and the long term, the training organization can thus use this formative research stage to develop flexible, cause-tailored solutions that will help ensure the sustainable success of the program.

Prior to the start of the training process, the organizers should also identify the baseline skills that the participants need to bring to the table, in order to better build on these existing competencies, passions, and inclinations. Once the TFTP trainers found out, for instance, that Asma is very visually-inclined and talented at drawing and design – as a result of her work with silk embroidery and henna tattoos – they decided to start with animation and 3D modeling, since these activities would be more enjoyable and also more accessible to her as a starting point. It is also vital to make the learning process highly transparent: when they made this decision about animation and 3D design, the trainers explained this rationale to Asma and she therefore understood this progression.

Once the training is over and the trainees successfully complete their final requirements, in order to fully facilitate their sense of self-efficacy, they should be allowed to have a high degree of autonomy in the classroom, as long as support systems are in place. The fact that Asma and Neha were trusted with coming up with their own ideas for projects or lesson plans, but could always call on the TMS instructors for help, gave them an immense amount of encouragement and self-efficacy. And while their young age seemed to be an obstacle in the beginning, it proved that it could actually facilitate collegial pedagogy – a non-hierarchical, participatory mode of learning – in the context of a digital storytelling classroom (Soep and Chavez 2010).

In terms of professional growth, however, Asma’s and Neha’s example – as well as my daily experiences working in education in India – certainly point to the need to move away from the foreign model of centralized, nonprofit educational programs and toward more locally sustainable professional development programs that allow these young people to craft a rewarding, and autonomous career path leading to an independent future. Therefore, training local educators in underprivileged or disempowered communities to learn and teach digital skills can alleviate the participation gap that is hindering their personal and professional development, while simultaneously building local sustainability and ensuring a scalable implementation of the program in the future that avoids overreliance on foreign management and coordination.



Ultimately, what Asma’s and Neha’s case best illustrates is the concept of empowerment, and the relationship between the ICT training, self-efficacy, and collective efficacy. Their sense of empowerment and newfound confidence is apparent in their very words; they really did find their “voices,” and I am not only referring to their new style of “talking like a teacher.” During their training, I got to know these young women well, and I am simply in awe of their strength, ambition, and dedication. They are exceptional young women: unconventional, stubborn, witty, and the most knowledgeable cricket fans you’ll ever meet. But what also sets them apart is their desire to transcend the barriers stifling their development, and their having found the courage and the drive to be, simultaneously, learners and educators, and role-models for an entire community.

For the next multimedia project in their digital storytelling portfolio, Asma and Neha want to make a video report about “differences between girls’ education and boys’ education in Muslim culture.” “We raised this point in our community, asking why people think education is important for the boys but not for the girls, and why the girls can’t work in a job. We would like to ask this to the elders in my community” (Nuzhath 2011). Asma’s and Neha’s strength and self-efficacy will hopefully inspire other women in their community to follow their example and transcend the various obstacles that are stifling their personal and professional growth. With the digital storytelling program in Hyderabad currently expanding as a result of these young women’s initial success, we sincerely hope that the ICT training of more women in the Muslim inner-city areas will bring about a lasting improvement in their future prospects and act as a catalyst of development in their communities and beyond. When asked whether she will continue teaching after she gets married, Neha becomes pensive. “I will have to convince my husband to allow me,” she says. “How will you do that?” I ask. “I will take him with me into the classroom, and show him that I am doing nothing wrong, just teaching children.” She pauses, then smiles. “If I am not able to continue teaching, I will feel something is missing in my life” (Nuzhath 2011).



Allaudin, Asma. August 2011. Personal communication (audio interview).

Bandura, Albert. 2009. “Social Cognitive Theory of Mass Communication.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 121-154. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. OCLC 878705231.

Durlak, Joseph A., Roger P. Weissberg, Allison B. Dymnicki, Rebecca D.Taylor, and Kriston B. Schellinger. 2011. “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” Child Development 82: 405–432. OCLC 704625500.

Jenkins, Henry, with Katie Clinton, Ravi Purushotma, Alice J. Robinson, and Margaret Weigel. 2006. Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. White Paper for The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Accessed September 2013. http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF OCLC 820248240.

Millner, Ilana. August 2011. Personal communication(e-mail interview).

Newhouse, Kara. August 2011. Personal communication (e-mail interview).

Nuzhath, Neha. August 2011. Personal communication (audio interview).

Soep, Elisabeth, and Vivian Chavez. 2010. Drop That Knowledge: Youth Radio Stories. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. OCLC 340961369.


[1] Windows Movie Maker was selected at the expense of more powerful video editing software like Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premier, because – due to limited financial and technological resources – it is the most common editing software available in Indian public schools.



About the Author

Ioana Literat is a PhD Candidate and Provost Fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. Her research explores the educational, cultural and transnational aspects of digital participation, with a current focus on crowdsourced art and online creativity. Ioana’s background is in media education. Before coming to USC, she worked as the field coordinator of The Modern Story in India, designing and teaching digital storytelling courses to underserved youth in public schools.

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