Bringing tech to tales at RIT

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Rochester Institute of Technology is ready to ride the storytelling wave, combining technological prowess and creativity.

Through its Center for Engaged Storycraft, which went live last November, RIT aims to address the technological transformation in content dissemination and the ability to share narratives across mediums. It plans to offer evening and weekend workshops to RIT students, faculty and staff, as well as educators outside the university. 

Topics for workshops may include gesture, performance, interactive storytelling, transformational storytelling, storytelling using data, digital storytelling software, technological transformation, and ways to combine text, film, computer-generated and virtual reality to tell a story, RIT notes.

“The development of mobile devices, do-it-yourself technology and social media have given more people than ever the ability to write, share, assemble and archive all kinds of narratives – multimedia, textual, visual, signed, spoken and emojied,” says Laura Shackleford, associate professor at RIT and the center’s director. “These new approaches to the telling and sharing of stories have also brought new perspectives to older analog story forms and practices and to the ‘craft’ of storytelling in all its diverse forms.”

CES calls itself an interdisciplinary center working and playing with story-based creativity, research, and technical craft. Based at RIT’s English Department, the center brings together experts in story creation, technical media practices, narrative studies, education, interactive media, game design and development, and story-based analytics.

“At RIT, we’re at the cutting edge of research, technology and creative practices in these areas,” Shackelford says. “There are so many people doing amazing narrative research, creation, technical and design work in storytelling methods, but there hasn’t been a central focal point or effort to bring together faculty and students working on narrative in different media, storytelling technologies, digital creation, publishing, archiving, ASL storytelling and performance.”

The center collaborates on research projects and new pedagogies to increase awareness of “story.” Research includes gesture, performance and embodied story practices which showcases American Sign Language storytelling from RIT’s creative writing classrooms and around the world; examines the importance of storytelling traditions to deaf cultures; and increases access for ASL and other forms of embodied storytelling. Another research area istransformational story telling where projects will aim to engage people to “to creatively, analytically, experimentally, physically, sonically, or tactically interrogate and change the ‘stories we live by.’” Yet another area of the center’s research focuses on the combinations of data and story that inform knowledge-building. 

Storytelling has become a trendy catchphrase, used by entrepreneurs, philanthropists and marketers. Knowledge-building storytelling has become a way for marketers and others to build brands and, hopefully, lasting connections. Google, which has won numerous accolades for its own advertising campaigns, takes it a step further creating a storytelling framework to enable its clients to sell differently. A couple of years ago, its digital marketer, Avinash Kaushik, hoped a shift in culture would make everyone at Google a storyteller.  

Then, there’s the effort to create social awareness through stories. Countless projects around the globe tell stories about those in need to connect and inspire action. California’s Story Center, formerly the San Francisco Center for Digital Media, for instance, has worked with several organizations to train people to share their stories.

“Across the world, people are turning to story as a way of co-imagining shared futures at a time when we have bigger social problems we need to address, such as climate change, war, racism, gender-based discrimination and economic inequality,” Shackelford says. “Story has the potential to bring people together as a powerful form of community-building and a kind of cohesion amidst uncertainty, precisely because it is such a primary way through which we engage each other and understand our experiences and a larger world.”

Now, Rochester has its own storytelling trainer. Last week, RIT screened an example of storytelling with the 2009 documentary “The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox,”which chronicles the evolution of ASL poetry and content, In April, the center expects to show“Containment,”which combines animated graphic comic segments and film to reconsider the future of nuclear waste on Earth. Peter Galison, a science and history professor at Harvard University, co-directed and co-produced the 2015 film and is expected to attend the screening. CES, which is looking for a permanent home, has several projects in the mix in categories that span various topics from women and power to interdisciplinary digital creation.

NTID finalist in global contest

RIT’s National Institute for the Deaf recently advanced as a finalist for the Sign On For Literacy Prize, a global contest to source technology that increases access to local sign languages and advances language and literacy outcomes for deaf children in developing nations.

RIT’s prize money—$150,000—will be used to develop the “World Around You” open source platform that enables communities to create literacy content in their country’s local and national sign languages to be shared via an open-content digital library of folktales. These digital libraries will be viewable from any web browser, can be hosted locally on Linux-based computers and mobile devices, and remixed by individuals with simple text and video editing tools.

The additional funding, RIT previously received $25,000 as seed money, will enable the university to work with Rochester’s Second Avenue Learning, to develop technology to help with the creation and implementation of stories and language games.

The Sign On For Literacy prize is part of All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development, launched in 2011 by the US Agency for International Development, World Vision and the Australian Government. All Children Reading is a series of competitions that leverages science and technology to source, test, and disseminate scalable solutions to improve literacy skills of early grade learners in developing countries. One such contest, the Sign On For Literacy prize competition received more than 100 applications from innovators in 39 countries.

—Smriti Jacob

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