Scaffolding Stories/Building Communities: Ethnic Studies and Podcast/Augmented Reality in the 21st Century University

A quick augmented reality pic using Adobe Aero on the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: Pablo Gonzalez

Welcome to our first of many essays covering the “Scaffolding Stories/Building Communities: Ethnic Studies and Podcast/Augmented Reality in the 21st Century University” UC Berkeley Changemaker project. We hope to provoke discussion and interest in the meeting between Ethnic Studies and new innovative ways of telling and collecting stories. In our first essay, we introduce how the project came about and what we would like to accomplish in the short and long term. Future essays will reflect on our collective process of building from the sub-terrenean up, a multi-faceted project from “below.”

Pablo Gonzalez, PhD and the Ethnic Studies Changemaker Collective

Over eighteen months ago, I contemplated reorganizing my syllabus for one of my more popular courses, the “Chicanos, the Law, and the Criminal Justice” course at UC Berkeley. The reason for this sudden urge to shift gears, when my Cutless Supreme low-rider of a class was already running smooth, was the feeling that the course was starting to lose focus. A course centered on the theme and topic of the criminal justice system and its impact on the Chicanx community could not stay in cruise control. It needed to reflect the experiences, analysis, and actions taken by my students in their daily lives. Already I was accustomed to handing over the keys to the Cutless to my students by the second half of the semester. They organized in topics and scheduled guest speakers and readings. It worked. It did not need a tune-up, to keep with the automobile metaphor.

As an Ethnic Studies educator, we are never content with staying still. Our ability to ask the next set of questions comes from our constant engagement with communities “from below.”

As an Ethnic Studies educator, we are never content with staying still. Our ability to ask the next set of questions comes from our constant engagement with communities “from below.” We walk while asking, as the Zapatistas have coined. And it is in this belief of walking (or driving) while asking that the idea for students to create podcasts emerged.

I wasn’t an avid podcast listener but I did have significant experience with radio production. My experience with radio stems from my participation in a radio collective during my graduate training at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 2000s. The radio Aguascalientes/radio Caracol de Austin collective met every week at our college radio station offices and broadcasted live a bilingual program on social movements in the US and in Latin America. We had discussions around custodial worker rights and broader Austin issues like gentrification and displacement. We also encountered indigenous rights activists from Mexico, Afro-descendant rights activists in Central America, and former political prisoners from the US and Latin America. The experience was invigorating. I wanted to bring this experience and encounter to my students through well-researched and produced podcasts that they could share with their peers and more importantly their communities.

I needed resources to initially accomplish implementing podcasts in the curriculum. At that moment, with the guidance of Dr. Victoria Robinson and Jean Cheng who led at the time the first cohort of Adobe Fellows, I was presented with the Adobe Creative Cloud tools offered to students and faculty across the campus. Meeting with other faculty members on pedagogy and the use of digital tools in the classroom was eye-opening. I consider myself literate in most of the innovative technologies used today but I was not prepared for the type of projects Adobe fellows were implementing in their classrooms. From class projects on Japanese internment camp life in the 1940s to creative writing projects, my notebook was filled with ideas and brainstorms for future campus-community projects and lesson plans. I punched the gas full throttle when it came to the Adobe tools. But accessibility was an issue. I did not have consistent resources and my students didn’t all have access to compatible computers and recording equipment.

Meeting with other faculty members on pedagogy and the use of digital tools in the classroom was eye-opening. I consider myself literate in most of the innovative technologies used today but I was not prepared for the type of projects Adobe fellows were implementing in their classrooms.

Although there are few funds and grants available for lecturers, I applied and received gracious funding to shape my courses with a larger community-engaged component. I used those funds to purchase podcast recording equipment and furniture. I was determined to make my office a podcast studio where students could come and record their podcasts. They needed to see that we as educators were even more determined to make their education our number one priority. Ethnic Studies students in particular are accustomed to being left out from the other fields across campus. The newer classrooms usually are scheduled for other departments and our students often feel like they have to make due with what they are given and not what they should have. In order for Ethnic Studies to continue in the 21st century producing the type of work that can shape lives and create transformative change, we need to have and sustain the resources to do so.

This means taking up space. And my students did just that. Students would set up hours to come into my office and record and edit their podcasts. My courses would center community building internally through group work and the use of UC Berkeley’s fantastic active learning classrooms.

Students from my Mexican and Central American Migrations course, Fall 2019. Photo: Pablo Gonzalez

The results were impressive. The conversations were intense and thoughtful. The time and effort placed on each podcast showed their commitment at telling stories and learning from each other. I uploaded the finished products on soundcloud and shared them with colleagues and peers. The Cutless again was running smoothly but I was not content with only my courses producing such amazing projects. I knew that there were other colleagues who sought to make their scrappers, ranflas, and hoopty class projects into “low and slow” tech-riders.

By Spring 2020, our courses at UC Berkeley went completely online due to COVID-19. Instead of down-shifting my course assignments to meet the changing conditions of “shelter-in-place” instruction, I stayed the course and put the car in overdrive. My Spring courses completed the impossible, podcasts produced through Zoom. They also experimented with a growing technology and medium that was more experimental on our end than planned. The use of augmented reality in several projects felt like a new paint job and motor on a car that everyone already was impressed with its performance. But what was the next step?

By the end of the Spring semester, Jean Cheng encouraged me to apply to the UC Berkeley CTO Changemaker Grant. I remember her saying to me, “Propose the work you are doing Pablo. Think big. What is the next step?” I was intimidated. The type of intimidation my students felt the first time they spoke in front of a recording microphone. But like my students, once you hear your voice playback you feel a rush of confidence.

I proposed simply to tell our stories. Or as I titled the project, “Scaffolding Stories/Building Communities.” I asked:

What will Ethnic Studies in the 21st century look like? Who will it serve? How will the people of California benefit? These are the questions we asked in alignment with UC Berkeley’s mission and goals. Our answer? The power to amplify voices and diverse experiences through the innovative use of podcasting and augmented reality(AR).

Amplifying voices was key. Ethnic Studies as a field of knowledge is inherently a project of undoing the construction of a “people without a history.” Through mediums like podcasting and technologies like augmented reality the intention is to lay the foundations for future encounters across difference.

Our initial goals for the year are to build a working website that houses podcast and AR projects that Ethnic Studies courses create throughout the Fall/Spring semester. It is also to offer skilled assistance for community-based organizations that want to create podcasts and use augmented reality as a tool. We hope to also offer assistance to faculty, student groups, and staff on possible podcast ideas as a way of communicating to broader off-campus audiences.

One of our main projects is the development of an Ethnic Studies ARchive. The ARchive, focuses on the use and implementation of Augmented Reality and mixed-reality technologies to see below and also to see above the clouds. It is our inverted periscope project, a project dedicated to remembering and preserving our stories. Augmented reality is the future. It lays at our fingertips information like the vast archives housed at the Ethnic Studies Library. Our mission is to preserve and “amplify” the archive in ways that make these primary sources literally jump off the page. We are excited to learn and use up-and-coming AR software and applications that faculty, students, and communities can use to usher in a new era of remembering the past and building the future.

Our mission is to preserve and “amplify” the archive in ways that make these primary sources literally jump off the page. We are excited to learn up-and-coming AR software and applications that faculty, students, and communities can use to usher in a new era of remembering the past and building the future.

Our final project is planned as our pièce de résistance. It will be the construction of a state-of-the-art podcast/AR studio on the Berkeley campus. We envision the studio as tentatively housed and a part of the Ethnic Studies Library, who we contend is the heart of Ethnic Studies on the UC Berkeley campus. A podcast/AR studio would bridge Ethnic Studies and the UC Berkeley campus with other communities across the Bay Area, Northern California, and California.

This high-tech lowrider Cutlass Supreme has plenty of miles on it. We are learning-on-the-fly Ethnic Studies mechanics that seek partnerships and build stronger communities. We are excited about the future and we are determined and inspired by the present. Our collective knows we are in troubling times but also in the midst of a growing set of movements to reshape our world. Our vision is to amplify the voices emerging from below. It is to center the field of Ethnic Studies as a key location for knowledge production in the 21st-century university.

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