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Great Expectations, by Dr Alistair Brown

In the 2019 pilot of Digital Storytelling workshops in English Studies, I was privileged to sit on both sides of the fence as both instructor and participant. In working with Dr Teti Dragas, I helped design the sessions, and delivered elements linked to my own research in the creative industries, copyright, and digital skills. But in the process I also developed my own digital story.

Just as the students found Digital Storytelling elicited powerful reflections on their status as English students, this produced in me a very significant feeling of productive unsettlement about what constitutes me as a ‘teacher’. Finding myself in the peculiar position of being a student in my own classroom, I was reminded how permeable the boundary between students and teachers can – and perhaps even should – become.

I knew I wanted to draft my story around a meaningful moment created by a teacher in my own life, which had shaped my approach as student and then as a teacher ever since. That’s the first sense in which Digital Storytelling led me to reflect on the relation between teachers and students. My story in the video above is shaped around this particular experience, but since this experience is one that I’ve often thought about, albeit never so thoroughly expressed, this in itself wasn’t the major revelation.

More important for me was the moment when in the second workshop, I exchanged drafts with a student who, until recently, I’d been actively teaching in the formal curriculum. Thus I found myself explaining my pedagogic philosophy to someone who had been on the receiving end of it – whether to a good or bad effect. It was as if had been a puppet performing in the classroom all year, and here I was suddenly showing the tangled and worn strings that secretly made that puppet dance.

And university is indeed a dance, or performance, in which we act parts that don’t always reflect the real structure of our relations to one another. Even if I’m the designated teacher in the classroom, we all belong to the same community of adults, all there by consent rather than by law; while we might bring different levels of knowledge and experience to the subject, we’re all able to express valid experiences of the same common object, a literary work; English teachers constantly reassure students there’s not necessarily a singular ‘right’ response to a literary text. Yet despite this theoretical equality, somehow I have power bestowed upon me as a ‘lecturer’ elevated above the ‘student’. And further confusing this, students are today ‘consumers’ who pay for my performance to attain their degree ‘product’, and are increasingly confident in calling out failures on the part of teachers. My Digital Story asks where my power actually comes from; the process of working with students on digital storytelling shows that our stories can equalise us and expose hierarchy for the illusion it is.

Watching other students’ videos that year, I was moved to tears by realising how little I actually know of my students’ personal lives and the diversity – not always visible in the colour of someone’s skin or the sound of their accent – that they bring to a classroom. That’s something I’ve determined to do better, to take and talk myself down, to hold conversations and to listen to students’ stories.

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