Communication Professor’s Digital Storytelling Experience Enlivens Undergrad Projects
A University of Findlay communication professor’s Appalachian roots, revealed in conversations she had with her grandfather about family history, led to work on a Peabody Award-winning documentary, inspired an award-winning dissertation and to this day informs her teaching.
Megan Adams, Ph.D., was hired last year as an assistant professor of communication, in part because of her intriguing sociological and academic projects.
Beginning in the spring of 2012, Adams voluntarily began working on “Hollow,” an interactive web-based documentary that launched in 2013. Created by Elaine Sheldon, the project focuses on an area near the neck of the woods where Sheldon was raised – McDowell County, West Virginia. Economically depressed, geographically isolated and aesthetically beautiful, the residents featured in this online storytelling initiative offer valuable insight and context to the complexities of Appalachian life. McDowell County residents were the first in the country to receive food stamps, and were featured in the book, “Rocket Boys,” and subsequent movie, “October Sky.” Its population, which had peaked at nearly 100,000 in the 1940s, mirrored the coal mining industry’s severe decline.
“Hollow,” which continues to be active online, can be found here: http://hollowdocumentary.com/ Residents can contribute input. Online visitors can select from a wide variety of video clips to view, scroll through narrative material, read about the county’s history and absorb information via other multimodal means, such as photos and sound.
In 2012, Adams saw something about the “Hollow” on Twitter and instantly knew she had to become a part of it. “It was this crazy, serendipitous journey. It as not anything that I ever would’ve planned at all,” she explained.
At the time, Adams, who graduated from UF with a master’s degree in English, was enrolled in Bowling Green State University’s rhetoric and writing doctoral program, seeking a dissertation topic and learning about her family’s history. Conversations with her grandfather sparked her interest in Appalachia and rural literacy. “Hollow” gave her the opportunity to learn more about the culture of a particular community from a participatory perspective. She said her duties included everything from fetching groceries for the film crew to recording footage.
Her Ph.D. multimedia dissertation then focused on how McDowell County residents were and continue to be empowered by “Hollow.” She specifically addressed how community members’ identities and agency shifted because of the access of the digital storytelling tools and spaces that the project provided. The documentary, she said, humanizes the participants, who are often narrowly viewed as welfare recipients and nothing more.
“I really felt like I was a member of the team, and I was ethically and morally connected to these people. They read a lot of the pieces in the dissertation. I got feedback from them every step of the way,” Adams said. “Another aspect was that I wanted my dissertation to somehow give back to the community in some way. And so I hope that some of them were able to become more aware of their roles as changing within the community based on conversations we had about that.”
Adams’ dissertation is titled, “Through Their Lenses: Examining Community-Sponsored Digital Literacy Practices in Appalachia.”
Adams now uses her experiences and learning from “Hollow,” and the documentary itself, to teach. This semester, for her digital media course, students for their first assignment completed a rhetorical analysis of interactive documentaries. “Hollow” was used as an example, and was available as an analysis option. The project’s director and producer will be Skyping to the class later this semester.
Influenced by “Hollow,” Adams is also having her students create a documentary trailer. Their project is an expansion of the 2014 “Life on the Farm” oral history project, made possible with the partnering of UF and the Hancock Historical Museum. Students this semester are recording videos of Hancock County farmers who are sharing their own stories about their work, land and families. The goal of this project is to hopefully encourage more grant funding and presentations at the historical museum, Adams said.
Many of her students are enjoying this hands-on assignment, Adams maintained. “A couple of them have really connected to the stories of the farmers because they are going through similar things with their families, or they grew up on a farm,” she said.
Adams’ teaching techniques, which are clearly informed by her own experiential learning, are also enhanced by her sheer enthusiasm for her craft. She “enters class with such a high energy level that even her 8 a.m. class is eager to learn and is responsive,” said Cheri Hampton-Farmer, Ph.D., associate professor of communication and Communications Department chair. Outside of the classroom, Adams makes a point to get to know students during office hours, and takes more time than is expected to provide students with positive feedback that will empower their learning, Hampton-Farmer added.
Adams said she has “learned to appreciate the intricacies and contributions Appalachians have to make to mainstream culture, and I try to champion these causes whenever I get the chance.” She hopes to instill that same sense of responsibility, interest and justice in her UF students, too.