Fluid Matter(s): An Interview with Shigehisa Kuriyama and Natalie Köhle on Image-Based Storytelling, Part 2

This is the second of two posts about the innovative academic publication Fluid Matter(s), which was created with the storytelling platform Shorthand and published by Australia National University Press in 2020. You can read part one here

Below, I continue the conversation with the principal organizers of the project, Dr. Natalie Köhle and Dr. Shigehisa (Hisa) Kuriyama, touching on the uses of image-based storytelling tools in classroom teaching and peer-to-peer learning. Shigehisa Kuriyama is Reischauer Institute Professor of Cultural History at Harvard University. Natalie Köhle is a historian of medicine, culture, and the body and assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.

BH: I wonder if we can talk more about image-based storytelling and teaching. I first came across Fluid Matter(s) in a graduate school seminar, in which we read the entries alongside more conventional forms of secondary scholarship. How do you envision digital storytelling being used in a classroom setting? 

NK: Right now, there is a free version of Shorthand for teachers. With this you can create and publish Shorthand entries on their website, but without the option of exporting. This option is really great to use for creating assignments because it gets students to focus on their output in a new way—which often seems difficult to achieve for a typical writing assignment. With writing assignments, students rarely think about audiences beyond their teacher. But when they compose entries in Shorthand, you can start to have students peer-review others’ entries. And just the knowledge that they are going to be peer-reviewed makes them focus on how their writing comes across. It really makes them think deeply about the presentation of their work.

HK: This semester I am teaching a course, and Shorthand is a central part of the assignments and the final project. A typical assignment that I have is composing a Shorthand piece with a synoptic exercise, where they take, say, five images from my lecture slides, and five key concepts and then incorporate them in a narrative—weaving in other images to show what they’ve learned in the course so far. Another is a database exercise, where they combine database research and weave it into a Shorthand story. These have become my ‘final paper assignments’. 

BH: How much class time do you set aside to train students in new competencies, like using Shorthand? 

NK: In previous semesters, some students found that the workload for Shorthand assignments was quite high. So, when introducing them into the class, you may have to reduce time on other kinds of assignments to give them space and time to learn it. This allows the students to focus on what they are doing and makes them want to do it well. For every class, I would give them small assignments or tasks, like “make a transition” or “change the color,” to introduce the skills. In general, they are very quick to learn. The next generation is very knowledgeable about image manipulation. 

SK: I don’t carve out much time for training. That’s why I like Shorthand. It’s pretty easy to learn, and, in my experience, I don’t think people have had to receive special training to be able to use it. I do have some short videos, where I explain to students some basic features like “highlighting,” but mostly Shorthand doesn’t require as many programming skills as, say, Webflow. It doesn’t have much of a learning curve. Once the students see through examples the kinds of effects that are possible, they can innovate and do new things on their own. 

With respect to pedagogy, one of the things I discovered with non-paper assignments—like Shorthand or podcasts—for all of these, it is much easier for students to learn from reviewing each other’s projects than it is from reading each other’s papers. I like Shorthand because the preview mode is easy to share. And I think that through this sharing function, by being able to look at what your classmates have done, everyone very quickly picks up. Everybody improves. That aspect of students teaching each other is always an ideal for teachers, but it is much easier to realize in these media formats than it is in a standard paper. 

BH: How do you imagine people pursuing projects like Fluid Matter(s), or other forms of digital media, in the future—in or beyond the classroom? 

NK: A project like Fluid Matter(s) presents some challenges to readers because it contains a whole different register of things to be commented on. People who are familiar with digital media production may be able to see all the effort behind it, but others may just see the final publication as smooth—and a lot of the credit goes to the staff at Shorthand for all the work they have put into their platform to make it run smoothly. But it is my hope that more universities will adopt this format and that we, as scholars, will have more chances to use it for publishing. 

SK: There are a lot of ways to incorporate digital media into teaching. Something like Shorthand, where you can scroll, is a bit different from iMovie. The advantage of Shorthand, or whenever you have reading, is that it allows you to mull over. Mulling over is something that’s not quite the same with media like movies. In the New York Times, they are doing something similar, with the “close read”—and I like the example of “A Poem (and a Painting) about the Suffering That Hides in Plain Sight.” It’s much nicer than a simple paper.  

‘Mid-scroll’ screenshot from Kuriyama’s entry, “Life and Excrement: The Reimagination of Flow in Edo Japan (1603-1868).” Image source: Mirror of Food and Drink and the Nurturing of Life (Inshoku yōjō kagami 飲食養生鑑, c. 1850).

I’m also a big fan of podcasts for incorporating sound into teaching. I’ve discovered that it’s very difficult for students to read their own prose and see the deficiencies of their prose. But when they read it out loud and record it, these things become much more apparent. Just the simple act of recording the voice—it is almost like magic how students become more aware of their words. They are aware that people, not just the professor, are going to listen to them. That awareness of the audience also makes people better writers. 

The addition of music to movies and other media also interests me a lot. The thing about music is that it is honest. If you put a musical score to a movie, it has a transparent quality, if it works. Because you become very upfront about what you feel about something, or how you want people to feel about something. People tend to be anxious about the introduction of things like music, but the introduction of affect into academic life just takes it into a whole new dimension.

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