Reaching Through Time
By Jim Brown
As I was driving to L.A. Fitness, I caught part of an NPR interview with a teacher who said, “Teachers have the ability to reach through time.” That was the last thing I heard as I switched off the engine and went in to start my workout. That phrase kept lingering in my mind. I had never given the concept more than tangential thought.
My parents were teachers of others and of course me. Their influence still reaches me though they died more than two decades ago. My university teaching career spans 37 years and a few more as a graduate student in a teaching capacity. I sometimes hear from students across that time span and I am surprised at the influence that I had. But I guess I should be not be surprised because there are many teachers that had a major influence on my career: Walt Craig, C. William Horrell, John Mercer, Harvey Frye, Ralph Veal, Clancy Flaten, Wilmer Counts, John Ahlhauser and James M. Utterback. Bob Jones hired me at the University of Minnesota and Richard Gray hired me at Indiana University. To all of these teachers, I owe a debt. But I have spent the most time with my wife of 43 years, Becky. She is also a continuous inspiration to me. That is just to say that whatever we are, part of the sum is the influence of our teachers.
“Teachers reaching through time” is really an understatement.
Though I was already teaching multimedia stories back in the 1970s albeit in a much more crude form than today, I was inspired when I heard Dana Atchley at a meeting of the American Press Institute’s New Media program. Dana is the first person that I knew that used the term “digital storytelling.” His work so moved me that I decided I had to bring his stage show “Next Exit” to my campus in 1999. I brought him because I knew that his methods would soon be daily practice in journalism. There was a respectable audience, but not a single journalism faculty member or student came. It would be hard for a new graduate to find work today without basic knowledge of Dana’s methods. Late in his life, he conducted workshops for people to learn how to tell their own life stories with digital artifacts. Though Atchley died in 2000, you can still get a flavor of his work through his website ( http://www.nextexit.com select The Digital Drive-In, then Next Exit stories). His interactive stage show was way ahead of its time. The host for the show needed to supply an LCD projector and screen, a small combo TV and VCR, and a pile of wood. The wood was laid up as if ready to light a box fire. The TV/VCR was placed on top. The show started by hitting play on the VCR. The TV showed a video of a fire burning. The metaphor was sitting around the campfire telling stories. The projected image from his Mac laptop was a Flash program showing a drive-in theater and a large number of icons—all representing a family story. Atchley would talk with the audience and pick from the 90 or so icons 12-14 that would represent the show for that evening. The icons would be dragged to a double yellow line running horizontally across the bottom of the screen. That line represented a highway. Atchley’s father would pile the family into a car and take a Sunday drive. He would randomly take an exit just to explore what was there—hence the name of Atchley’s show Next Exit. The sequence of the icons from left to right on the highway was the sequence of the show. Atchley sat at the side of the stage and provided bridge narration between the stories and sometimes commentary within them. All the stories were created from family artifacts. My favorite story is not represented on the website so I will describe it though it has been 23 years since I have seen it and some of the detail may not be correct. But as we all do, I will tell it as I remember it.
Atchley’s parents divorced and at some point his father was going to remarry. My guess is that Atchley was about 10 years old. His mother decided he was old enough to travel by bus or train to the wedding by himself. She let him pack his suitcase though she thought she should check it after he was done. When she opened the suitcase there was among other things: a boomerang, part of his rock collection, part of his comic book collection—you get the picture. As I remember it there were no clothes, tooth brush, etc. His mother took out a piece of paper and wrote down the list of contents.
As an adult, Atchley decided to make this story one of the possible 90 for the stage show. With a video camera running, he framed his mother at the kitchen table telling the story. When she gets to the part about her making a list, she opens a piece of paper and begins reading. It was the actual list from 40 or so years earlier. The camera cuts to a closed suitcase. Hands come in at the side and open the suitcase. As she reads the list the hands take out the actual boomerang, the actual comics, etc. Apparently no one in the family every throws anything away. By this time in the story, the audience is uncontrollably laughing.
What made the story connect to an audience was the visuals and that they were from a real story from an actual life. That’s what Atchley’s later years were about, teaching ordinary people to tell extraordinary personal stories using readily available tools on a computer.
Atchley’s stage show was powerful in its simplicity.
My present workshops to teach others how to tell better stories for online media are really just an extension of Atchley’s influence on me these 23 years after his death.
This website is a collection of resources to aid others in learning how to tell stories and to support those students to become teachers helping others to do the same thing.
Collectively, we can really reach through time.