A Flood of Research: Storytelling in the Digital Age
In the midst of uncertainty, and of what one hopes will be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, there is always an opportunity to learn. As a soothing balm of sorts, people recall memories and tell stories with the hope that they will educate others and eventually eradicate the problem. At University of Findlay, a few students and their professor have filled that role in order to learn more about the past and present flooding problem in Findlay and the surrounding areas.
Started by alumna Sarah Stubbs ’17, the Findlay Floods project is an interactive documentary project that contextualizes the history of the flooding of the Blanchard River that runs through Findlay and the flood mitigation efforts in Hancock County and the city. Megan E. Adams, Ph.D., UF’s assistant professor of communication, along with three students – Betsy King, a digital marketing and graphic design major, Leah Alsept, a journalism major, and Olivia Wile, a broadcast journalism major who graduated in May 2020 – have rebooted Stubbs’ efforts, and turned the project into an ongoing hub of information. The group works closely with Sarah Sisser, executive director of the Hancock Historical Museum in Findlay, to ensure that the information is both up-to-date and interesting. “With Sarah Stubbs’ graduation and the arrival of Stantec [Engineering, a company that was hired to do flood mitigation work on the river a few years ago] we saw the need to switch gears,” Adams said. “The focus was turning a bit and we had lots of beautiful pictures digitized, but the information gathered to that point was being changed by the mitigation plans.”
Adams was approved to create an upper-level digital storytelling class, and was looking for a project to get students out into the community for some experiential learning. She and former UF grant manager Tricia Valasek worked together to apply for, and eventually procure, a grant for the project from the Council of Independent Colleges, and things were off and running. “We intentionally made the grant more concentrated as well,” Adams mentioned. “When I met with [Sisser] over the summer we came up with a list of perspectives that hadn’t been represented as much. We wanted a real diverse picture.”
The group gathered research by going out and meeting people to collect stories as well as by calling for stories on social media. “We switched the purpose from a journalistic approach to more of a historical archival piece,” Adams explained. To represent the diversity they were searching for, they homed in on agricultural perspectives, stories from small businesses, tales from bigger industries, suburban developments, and all of the other specific areas from which they needed a greater viewpoint. Not only did they get a broader outlook, the students got a glimpse into the heart of Findlay’s residents.
“This project was definitely rewarding,” said King. “When conducting interviews with questions that hit so close to home for the interviewees, it was beyond rewarding to see them open up their hearts and be vulnerable with our team – let alone in front of a camera.”
In April, after the culmination of a semester’s work, they were set to attend a conference in Baltimore, Maryland where they would share their research with other universities across the country as well as the effort they made to collect, record, and disseminate nine video stories showing the different perspectives of Findlay’s 2007 floods, in particular; however, the conference, also funded by the Council for Independent Colleges, was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. “We did it digitally, and it went well, but, of course, it was a disappointment for the students. They worked so hard,” Adams said.
“In some ways, though, [not attending the conference] was a good thing,” said Alsept. Digital conferences will happen more often as time goes on and after this I’ll have experience with them in the future.”
“Although it was a letdown when we heard the event was cancelled, we made the most of it and still had the opportunity to present from the comfort of our homes,” King added. “It was a really neat experience being able to hear about what other groups had been working on all year.”
For now, Alsept said she’s thankful that the project will continue, and, while it may take on different forms and focuses, Adams added that the relationship with the Historical Museum will go on and the group will continue working with it to archive community stories. “A lot of dedication goes into this work,” Adams said. “I’m really so proud of the work of these students, and it’s so rewarding, so it makes sense to keep going with it.”