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MCS major Alexandra Hulett interviews Dr. Bill Shewbridge

By Alexandra Hulett

Photo credit: Joe Lambert

Dr. Bill Shewbridge, a Media & Communication Studies Professor, teaches courses in digital intercultural media, television production, and documentary filmmaking. He is the driving force behind the Digital Storytelling initiative at UMBC. He frequently collaborates with Maryland Traditions, the state’s traditional arts program, documenting Maryland folklife for the past decade. Dr. Shewbridge holds a B.A. in History from UMBC, an M.S. in Instructional Design from Towson University, a Certificate in Environmental Studies from Johns Hopkins University, and a Doctorate in Communication Design (D.C.D.) from the University of Baltimore.

Professor, thank you for your time. I was introduced to you through MCS 495, Video Ethnography. Can you tell me more about the class for students in our department who may not have taken it or know about it? And what do you personally hope your students take away from the course?

Video Ethnography is really telling the story of others in a very collaborative way, which is how I approach it. I see the folks we work with as collaborators and authors as much as we are in that situation. In the class, you get a chance to produce your own work; you do a semester-long project and focus on getting the piece right. You also have opportunities for going out and working on these broader pieces that are more community-based integration that get us off campus and working with folks in the community.

I understand you were working on a documentary about songwriter Ola Belle Reed last semester. Can you let me know how that project is coming along?

Yes, the Ola Bell Reed project, which you can look at on www.olabellefilm.org/. We're still working on it. This was my pandemic project, initially when I got into it. I'll give you a little background on that. Ola Belle was a folk-country musician based in rising sun, Maryland, from the 60s into the early 90s. She passed away in 2002. Ola Belle has been an influential female songwriter in the folk revival. She transitioned from being a traditional country musician to being a folk icon. We've wanted to do a short film on her for a long time, and it's just been a rich experience. I'm working with her family. We've found archival material and folks to interview. We're wrapping up by next spring and curating an exhibit at the library gallery on Ola Belle and the migration of Folk from North Carolina to Maryland in the 1930s. They will include a film screening as well as a concert. We're still arranging that now. So, lots of things are happening with the Ola Belle project.

Have there been any teachable moments in this documentary that you can transfer to your students at UMBC?

The most teachable moment throughout this project has been just allowing students to listen and respond and dialogue through the medium. It's a great practical exercise for the students. We talk about it in the classroom and how to conduct an interview. You go out in the field, write 20 questions, and ask 10 you didn't think you were going to ask because what you're really doing in an interview situation is listening.

Curious to learn more about your background, I’ve learned how you you’ve spearheaded the digital storytelling initiative here at UMBC? Can you elaborate more on your position?

I've been working at UMBC for a long time. One of the reasons I've stayed is that I get these great opportunities to reinvent myself along the way. It's just been a great place for personal growth, and I've never felt stifled. In the early 2000s, I was director of the New Media Studio, a Television studio. We were doing a lot of web development. This was when digital video was just starting to come into its own, and it was becoming practical to do projects entirely on a computer. We became aware of the work of the Center for Digital Storytelling at UC Berkeley and Joe Lambert and his group. They had a workshop model where they would bring folks in to do a three-day process in which they would come in. They would write a personal story, tell them about themselves, and develop it into a short video. Back in the 90s, this was a big deal. Technology has evolved, and the focus has moved more toward writing. It's an excellent opportunity for folks to amplify their voices through media they might not have otherwise. We brought them to UMBC to do a series of faculty workshops. We did that for a couple of years. And that really started a community of practice at UMBC. And beyond that, it was an excellent opportunity to form these interdisciplinary collaborations across the various departments. A lot of them are still going on today. And it's the story work that I've embedded in my teaching, and many other folks have, and it's continuing.

We're active in the broader community of practice, centered around the story center. There's a series of international conferences that have been going on. We just had one in the United Kingdom this summer. But we're going to have it here at UMBC next summer. That's a big deal. We're really focusing on making the most of that. We're doing it in collaboration with the Smithsonian Museum and Montgomery college next year.

You and your students worked on the documentary called A Place Called Poppleton about Sonia Eaddy, leader of the Save Our Block initiative to preserve her home and community from demolition. Are there plans for more additional work on the project now that Sonia was successful in saving her home?

We are still planning doing some more additional work. We have funding for a project on the Arabbers, the horse cart vendors. They are probably the only ones still operating on the East Coast. Two of the stables are in the Poppleton area. We will go down there through our partnership with Maryland Traditions and shoot some additional interviews, probably working with Curtis Eaddy, Sonia's son. His grandfather was also an Arabber that ran a stable down there. Curtis is on a fellowship with the Baltimore field school, which I'm also involved with. That's the great thing about what I love about what we do is that you don't know what the story will be. And then, when you go there, you get embedded, and it becomes part of the story.

 I think we often lose hope a lot of the time. This shows that the story isn't over yet. It is possible for things to work out if we try. It's not perfect, but it's a step in the right direction.

You use the word hope, which I think will be one of the themes we have for our story conference next year. This work really resonates with that theme.

Are there any other projects you're working on now that you're looking forward to?

I got to work on an enjoyable project this semester. We're working with Susan Sterrett in the School of Public Policy and doing something on composting. It's a series of videos for the sustainability website at UMBC. It's also got a community component that we're working with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust to advocate for building an industrial-scale composting facility for the city of Baltimore and the surrounding areas, including UMBC. We ship what little composting we have to a facility in Prince George's County. That's what we're working on in that one particular class this semester. It’s been a fun experience so far.

What are your plans as far as your career at UMBC?

I've been at UMBC long enough that I could retire anytime I want, but I've always said I'll stay as long as I'm having fun. I enjoy contributing to this organization. There are other hobbies I could take up as well, but I feel like working at a university like UMBC is the greatest job in the world because you get paid to be curious.

Yes, definitely. As someone who is transitioning careers, I get to work with people like you, which is rewarding. I appreciate the opportunity to work on my craft with guidance from my professors.

A great thing is that the means of production have become more ubiquitous. I would never have said five years ago that you could create quality work with your cell phone, but you absolutely can today. It's more about the message than the means of production. It's just about being able to tell a good story, and that's how you stay relevant as technology changes year to year. The job I'm doing now didn't exist when I was in college. It's impossible to completely future-proof yourself. Still, I think what you really get out of college is learning to be a self-guided learner,

Posted: February 13, 2023, 2:55 PM