Blog Post

Introduction - creating uncomfortable safe spaces in South Africa's classrooms

I am PHD student at the School of Education at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. My study looks at a project, that we started in 2010 in a teacher education programme at a University of Technology in Cape Town. It's a digital storytelling project and we started it for 2 reasons: first and foremost we were looking for new ways of using technology in the classroom and develop digital literacy skills in students. And second, to find new ways to facilitate students reflection on their teacher identity - for their own personal growth.

Digital stories are short movies, 2-3 minutes, first person narratives, combining images, narration and sound. The digital storytelling model we are using is heavily influenced by the Center for Digital storytelling in Berkeley California. They developed a workshop model in which participants with hardly any digital literacy skills are supported in developing stories that are usually not heard in mainstream media... stories of refugees, asylum seekers, survivors of gender based violence, LGBT stories, patient stories… At the moment they are collecting stories about America’s human rights movement. They have a strong social change agenda, their motto is ‘changing the world one story a time’. The core of these workshops are what they call ‘story circles’, where participants collaboratively share and develop their stories.

Their set up lends itself to a very intimate, emotional telling of often highly personal stories. Our challenge was to transfer this safe space for storytelling into a class of 70 odd students. We set up smaller groups supported by peer facilitators which we train in a workshop before the actual project starts. What we got in these storytelling sessions are stories of poverty, trauma, oppression and personal hardship. But also stories of privilege, often unreflected their multitude a representation of South Africa's society and social issues of today through the eyes of these student educators. These stories are being screened at the end of the project, and students invite their parents, friends, loved ones to this event. This screening is important as it shows that each and every one of these stories is equally important, each student’s voice receives equal time and attention.  These students are right at the end of their studies, so they know they have made it, often  against all odds, so these are often stories showing their resilience and survival. The most prominent feeling is one of intense pride and gratitude to be where they are. For themselves but also for their colleagues. Over and over students tell us in their feedback at the end of the project that they through the sharing and listening to each other's stories they learnt not just about themselves but about each other...and particularly about the "other" that they usually don't engage with.

It became what Benmayor calls a truly social pedagogy, a pedagogy that approaches learning as a collaborative process (2008, p. 198), allowing for collaborative and social learning through sharing and disclosure and initiating a ‘process of bonding and cross cultural alliance’ (p. 198), a process in which ‘vulnerability is transformed into pride’ (p.199).

Over the years we added more activities to support this facet of the project, such and the participatory learning and action technique "River of Life", in which students draw and share critical incidents in their lives in randomly selected groups. We encountered resistance to this process and students often complain how uncomfortable the sharing of often very painful personal moments with strangers felt. Reading on Boler and Zembylas (2003)  "pedagogy of discomfort" convinced me that being out of your comfort zone is the only way to engage with the "other" in a way that can lead to a change of assumption and the way this deeply divided students view each other. 

So instead of teacher identity and digital literacy what the project turned out to be was a project about difference, about the “other”, about our own assumptions and beliefs about people we don't usually engage with…and about our emotions that come with this process...learning how to stay in our own pain and in and with each other’s pain. 

This year I decided to expand the digital storytelling workshop even more to add an element of race dialogue to the process. We asked students to read a number of articles including the article "Our unfinished business: race and reconciliation" by Sisonke Msimang followed by a debriefing session in form of a race dialogue among student groups. One of the peer facilitators changed her story completely after this session and based her story on the conversations that happened in this space. 




The specific focus of my PHD and what I am currently struggling with, it the role of emotions in this process. While there is no doubt that the personal engagement and authenticity of stories make them very engaging, there is also something about the often 'exaggerated tug on emotions' as Joe Lambert puts it (2013), that makes me very uncomfortable. This YouTube video exemplifies my feelings about the inherent  'risk of sentimentality' in the digital storytelling genre.

What I have seen, is that with emotions also comes the risk of sentimentality, of ranking oppressions (a colleague of mine called it the olympics of the oppressed, who can tell the sadder story?) and of sentimental reactions to these stories of hardship, bringing up emotions of guilt, pity in the privileged storylistener and anger, resentment on the part of the storyteller. Zembylas warns us that the unreflected listening to trauma stories can lead to:

 ‘first, a sentimental reaction by students who identify with privilege and respond defensively yet feel uncomfortable and guilty, fearing that they will be exposed as immoral by refusing to bear any longer a population’s collective suffering; second, an intense resentment by those who feel subordinated and may eventually get stuck in victim politics; and third, the desensitization of the student-spectators who get irritated by the scenes of suffering in some way, refuse engagement with it or minimize its effects, misread it conveniently, and reduce it to a few pedantic phrases.

He calls for "critical emotional reflexivity" (2008, 2011), a critical engagement with the emotions that we experience in these processes of encountering difference to try and understand that we experience these emotions because of the way we were socialized, brought up, taught to feel about the other. This is the challenge I am posing myself in this year's digital storytelling project: how to facilitate this 'critical emotional reflexivity'. In my study I am trying to understand the politics of emotions that govern these classrooms and are reflected in students digital stories through a feminist lense, and in particular through the work of writers engaging with the sociality/cultural politics of emotions, such as Sara Ahmed, Megan Boler and Lauren Berlant. I am a newbie to this kind of literature coming from an Adult Education background and would be very grateful for any pointers, conversations, debates around these topics.


Benmayor, Rina. 2008. “Digital Storytelling as a Signature Pedagoy for the New Humanities.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7: 188–204. doi:10.1177/1474022208.

Boler, Megan, and Michalinos Zembylas. 2003. “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference.” In Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, edited by P. Trifonas, 110–136. New York: RoutledgeFalmer

Zembylas, Michalinos. 2008. “Trauma, Justice and the Politics of Emotion: The Violence of Sentimentality in Education.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 29 (1) (March): 1–17. doi:10.1080/01596300701801278.

Zembylas, Michalino. 2011. The Politics of Trauma in Education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Today I would like to talk about a project we started in 2010. It's a digital storytelling project and we started it for 2 reasons: first and foremost we were looking for new ways of using technology in the classroom and develop digital literacy skills in students. And second, to find new ways to facilitate students reflection on their teacher identity - for their own personal growth.




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