A digital camera stands next to a laptop computer.

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

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.

Literature review

Based on Amy Robillard’s (2003) argument that composition instructors should teach the ways narrative and argument are interdependent, and Deborah Mutnick’s (1998) claim that drawing boundaries between academic and personal writing limits development, this assignment asks students share a personal narrative and analysis through a specific lens. In academia, “We ask our students to accept meaning that has already been created” (Robillard 2003, 76). The meaning I ask students to accept in this assignment is that photographs do not always document “truth.” Photography is subjective despite often being passed off as documentary evidence of a truth. The personal narrative in this assignment gives students agency by asking them to “create their own meanings from their own histories” (Robillard 2003, 76).

Breaking boundaries even further, this assignment links the creative and the intellectual (Benmayor 2008). The multimodality of the project gives even more agency to the students (Kitalong and Miner 2017). Not only are they empowered to tell their own stories, but also to choose music and images that help them tell that story, rather than being limited to a formal academic essay. This assignment gives students who are non-native English speakers, or whose learning style does not align with the traditional essay, a chance to shine and “to inscribe emerging social and cultural identities and challenge unified cultural discourses in a new and exciting way” (Benmayor 2008, 200).


The multimodality of this assignment requires more scaffolding than a traditional essay with each step encouraging students to think critically about the rhetorical choices they make. The project was broken down into four progressive parts over four weeks: a written narrative draft for peer review, the final narrative recorded, a storyboard, lastly a video incorporating all audio and visual components.

This class was held in an active learning classroom, and laptops were provided for all students. On the day the narrative recording and storyboard were due, I devoted the full class period to creating the videos so I could help if students had questions regarding the video editing software.

Since one of the main concerns with this project was technology access, I instructed students to use the free version of WeVideo, a cloud-based editor, ensuring students could work on their projects from any computer outside of class.


Community building

By scheduling this as the first assignment of the semester, it both utilized their writing skills and knowledge gained from the topic section, while also building community. As students were asked to analyze a personal photograph, they chose what aspect about themselves they wished to share with the instructor and the class. Students connected with each other based on common experiences. I, in turn, learned more about my students’ interests and challenges they face.

One student, often quiet in class, shared a picture of themself on a trip with a large group of people, narrating:

Many people may think I am such an outgoing person to go on the trip with a group of strangers. In reality, that is not true. I am a reserved and introverted person… Ever since I can remember I had a problem with making real friends.

I suddenly had context for this student’s reserved nature and was able to work with them from a new and pedagogically advantageous perspective.

Addressing the “fiction” of photography

The final products did an excellent job showcasing the “fiction” a photograph might portray in contrast to the truth behind the image. One student chose a photograph of themself at a dance studio, mid-dance move, highlighting:

Some might say that dance was easy due to the position I am holding … One of the things this photograph does not showcase is the amount of blood, sweat and tears I had to go through in order to be valued as a professional dancer.

Throughout the narration, the student used other verbal reminders like “in reality” or “one might assume” to demonstrate the idea of subjectivity in photographs. These were common phrases in many students’ narratives.

Rhetorical awareness

One student chose to write about their experiences with competitive fitness noting in the picture they looked happy and fit. They explained how open they were about sharing the positive aspects of their lifestyle when asked about how they achieved such incredible fitness goals. The tone of the narrative changed when the student wrote:

I was becoming a new person, but change is not always welcome if it affects how others interact with you. So eventually, many friends stopped calling me to go out and to eat or have drinks, since I would always say no; I missed out on a few family celebrations because I didn’t want to be around any food that I wasn’t allowed to have so I became very isolated.

With this shift in narrative tone, the music also shifted from an energetic song one might hear at the gym, to a more dramatic and serious song; the pictures also became more serious in nature, demonstrating rhetorical awareness in “[synthesizing] modes, genres, ideas, and skills” and practicing “more fluid and flexible” composition (Kitalong and Miner 2017, 40).


Many of the rough drafts of the narrations focused solely on telling the story behind the photograph rather than incorporating the analysis of truth versus fiction. I theorize the students leaned in this direction because personal narrative is familiar to them while the concepts of analyzing truth and fiction in photography were new. Much of my feedback consisted of asking questions to encourage students to apply this lens to their personal story and engage with their personal stories as though they were strangers to it. Most students skillfully incorporated this into the final project, though the concept proved challenging to some.

As these stories were being shared to the student’s digital writing portfolios on the CUNY Academic Commons, they were limited to using sound effects, music and supplemental images with creative commons licensing. Several envisioned their videos with a soundtrack of their favorite music, but instead spent a significant amount of time sifting through creative commons music to find what closely approximated the mood they were trying to create. Additionally, the stock photographs they used to supplement their personal photography did not always fit with what they were trying to convey.


This assignment can be adjusted to fit nearly any theme or topic, though it lent itself especially well to the visual medium of photography. Merging the personal and academic can bring to life any number of subjects for our students allowing them to engage with material in a way traditional composition simply cannot match on its own.

Assignment Sheet

For your reference, here is the original assignment sheet used for this assignment.


Benmayor, Rina. 2008. “Digital Storytelling as a Signature Pedagogy for the New Humanities.” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 7 (2): 188–204. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022208088648

Kitalong, Karla Saari, and Rebecca L. Miner. 2017. “Multimodal Composition Pedagogy Designed to Enhance Author’s Personal Agency: Lessons from Non-academic and Academic Composing Environments.” Computers and Composition 46 (December): 39–55. https://doi.org/10.1016.j.compcom.2017.09.007

Mutnick, Deborah. 1998. “Rethinking the Personal Narrative: Life-Writing and Composition Pedagogy.” In Under Construction, edited by Christine Farris and Chris M. Anson, 79–92. Louisville: University Press of Colorado.

Robillard, Amy. 2003. “It’s Time for Class: Toward a More Complex Pedagogy of Narrative.” College English 66 (1): 74–92. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3594235

About the Author

Julia Brown has her Master’s degree in English with a writing studies emphasis and a minor in medical humanities from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. She is currently teaching writing and literature at Queensborough Community College and City College of New York. She also serves as the Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at City College where she mentors faculty in digital pedagogy.

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