The diversity of human experience explored through digital storytelling

May 23, 2022

U.S. Fulbright Scholar Award recipient Kristian Stewart, a Composition and Rhetoric collegiate lecturer, is about to embark on a new adventure to Greece in the name of digital literacy education and connecting people through personal narratives.

Photo of Kristian Stewart in Greece with graphic treatment
Collegiate Lecturer Kristian Stewart stands in front of the Colosseum in Greece during a previous trip to the country. Graphic treatment by Violet Dashi

College of Arts, Sciences, & Letters faculty member Kristian Stewart goes the distance — literally. 

At home, the Composition and Rhetoric lecturer often rides her bike for miles to accompany her son, who is on the UM-Ann Arbor cross country and track and field teams, when he trains. In the classroom, she travels even further. Stewart makes connections with college campuses throughout the world so UM-Dearborn students can learn about experiences that go beyond our communities.

In one popular campus course, Being Human Today, Stewart works with students on creating three-to-five-minute videos as a way to use digital storytelling to present life through their individual lenses. “You combat stereotypes by having experiences outside of your own. You find solutions to world issues by learning from other people and seeing how they solve problems. Exposure is key.”

But, as an educator who pushes herself to explore new ways of learning, Stewart — who has previously taught in multiple countries (China, Germany and Italy) — didn’t stop there.

She partnered with a university in South Africa to expand the classroom boundaries of her digital storytelling course. In 2016 and 2019, Stewart’s UM-Dearborn students learned how to express themselves through digital story forms and used the medium to create connections with South African students. “We broke down barriers and gained understanding of what it’s like to live in South Africa. My American students tried learning Xhosa and could tongue click and say hello. They learned how far some students in South Africa had to travel to get to a grocery store. We shared stories and friendships grew out of class.”

Photo of Collegiate Lecturer Kristian Stewart
Collegiate Lecturer Kristian Stewart

Now, thanks to the U.S. Fulbright Scholar Award, Stewart is about to embark on a new adventure in the name of digital literacy education and connecting people through personal narratives.

Stewart will spend five months at the beginning of 2023 in Greece. Working with the University of Peloponnese, she’ll tailor her digital storytelling course to fit the needs of the Greek campus’ curriculum, available technologies and student population.

The U.S. Fulbright Scholar exchange program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, awarded multiple grants to UM-Dearborn faculty in the 2022-2023 cycle. Sociology Professor Paul Draus and Linguistics Professor Daniel Davis also earned awards. Their research projects and goals will be highlighted in future UM-Dearborn news articles.

“These are incredibly competitive and prestigious awards and to have three faculty named as Fulbright recipients in a single cycle is extraordinary,” says CASL Dean Marty Hershock. “Our students are taught by faculty members who are not just part of the conversation. On the contrary, their work is a topic of conversation around the globe.”

Stewart knows how important global connections are. 

She met university educators in South Africa through a conference presentation focused on social-justice based digital storytelling and curriculum design. That was nearly a decade ago — and she’s only grown those relationships. Those conference colleagues led to Stewart’s dissertation research project — she earned her Ed.D. from UM-Dearborn in 2015 — focusing on digital storytelling and developing curricula that engages students across lines of difference, research she conducted at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in South Africa. These relationships also led to multiple classes of her Dearborn Wolverines interacting with South African students and a few scholarly publications about each course design and collaboration.

Stewart is hopeful that the connections she makes while in Greece will lead to similar mutually beneficial learning initiatives for students in Dearborn and in Corinth, Greece.

Stewart will work with Greek students in the University of the Peloponnese’s Department of Social and Educational Policy. She’ll teach a course where she’ll incorporate teaching English, writing, and digital storytelling to people who will be working in the public sectors of Greek life.

“They are studying to be education administrators and humanitarians who will be the public policy movers and shakers in society,” she said. “Greece has traditionally been very homogeneous in population makeup — and there is a lot of pressure to integrate due to globalization and migration; hence, their society is becoming more diverse. In the class, I want to help them think about the diversity of human experience.”

Stewart said those are her current goals — but following her Fulbright experience in Greece, she looks forward to sharing what she’s learning with her UM-Dearborn students.

“We have diversity on our campus. There are times when I have students with five different first languages in my classroom. But we can still get isolated in our own groups, in our own enclaves. So it’s important to connect our students with people in different areas of the world that they may be unfamiliar with. And it’s important for them to learn how to tell — and listen — to the stories of others.”

Subjects of student projects in past courses include migration stories, being Black in America experiences, challenges that people with conservative views face, loneliness during the COVID quarantine and more.

“No matter their beliefs, their perspectives and stories are respected. Everyone else needs to listen — so for those three-to-five minutes, they have the floor and the opportunity to be heard. Then they give someone else the chance. It’s not a debate. It’s a chance to see someone else’s perspective.”

A student shares his experience of trying to figure out where he fits in through digital storytelling in Dr. Stewart's class.

Stewart said watching her students create and push themselves is also a learning experience for her. She’s even adjusted her teaching style to allow students to create their own grading rubric for their final project. At the end of the course, they use the rubric to evaluate their work.

“I let them decide their own destiny in the class. I want them to take control of their own learning, set goals for themselves and measure their final project to their goals. In return, I ask them to give me their best work.”

The approach is working. She said students produced outstanding results — and were often harder on themselves than her grading would have been. Most importantly? They felt ownership and pride in their work.

She said the skills gained in her digital storytelling courses include story organization, the importance of voice, and how to add visual elements to written texts and more. She wants her students to be strong narrators and compelling writers. But it goes beyond that for Stewart.

It’s giving students the opportunity to go the distance and learn about people thousands of miles away — while also gaining insight about themselves — even when they are physically located in a Dearborn, Michigan, classroom.

“No matter the field they go into as a career, respectful speech, listening when someone else is speaking, and gaining a perspective other than your own will take you a long way,” she said. ”“My goal goes beyond writing and English. I want my students to come out of this class with better human skills.” 

Article by Sarah Tuxbury.