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The Score

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

KafumbeFor an ethnomusicologist, music without context just doesn’t sing.

The adungu is a bow-shaped harp that accompanies epic and lyrical songs. The woods, skins, and fibers that make its body are now far from Uganda where they were cut and cured. The strings are nylon, though, readily available in Vermont. It is often tuned to the diatonic scale, which is rare in Ugandan music but was standard for music of the British and other Western colonizers. A traditional instrument like the adungu is created in tandem with its purpose; this adungu’s purpose is to last, and to teach, and to sing the students who play it into another culture.

Damascus Kafumbe is the oldest child of schoolteachers. Except for a period when armed conflict forced his family to flee to the bush, he grew up in the village of Kagoma, outside Kampala, Uganda’s capital. Through the day, music streamed from two neighboring royal enclosures of the Kingdom of Buganda, accompanying royals and the king in their duties. As a young child, Kafumbe stole time from his chores to linger by the reed walls of those royal enclosures, to watch and listen. He started to make instruments from papaya leaves and stems, tin cans, and plastic bags. He took so naturally to “real” instruments that while still in elementary school, he represented his country in the 1994 World Festival of Children’s Theatre and was invited to play in a leading Ugandan troupe.

Kafumbe recalls, “One of my teachers told me, ‘an instrument is not just something you strike to make a sound. It is kin, like a brother or sister, a wife or husband, and you must care for it.’” From Baganda master musicians, Kafumbe learned to craft lyres and fiddles and drums and harps, which calls on spirit and intention as much as skill. He journeyed to learn other Africans’ songs and dances. He recorded his own playing and and that of others. He began a scholar’s path at Makerere University in Uganda and did his graduate studies at Florida State University, where for seven years he directed an African music ensemble. “I wanted to be an ambassador for my culture,” he says.

“Ethnomusicology is about understanding the role of making and being music in a society,” explains Greg Vitercik, head of Middlebury’s music department. “Damascus embodies both.”

The “why” is more important than the “how,” Kafumbe tells his students. Why do humans make music? Why do these people make this music now? In his courses, Kafumbe and his students ask these questions of cultures as diverse as the Irish and the Balinese and as deceptively distant as Congolese and Cuban. The students learn the facets an ethnomusicologist cuts into these questions to help illuminate a culture.

Kafumbe has also stirred student interest in performing by creating the semester-long African Music and Dance Ensemble, already known for rousing concerts before packed audiences. No audition is required, the class schedule is rigorous, and 90 percent of the performers have no prior instrumental experience.

The ensemble rolls out unfamiliar terrain: students sing in Ugandan languages, learn to play instruments they’ve never known, and learn to work in scales, timbres, and rhythms that dovetail and depend on each other. There are no scores—Kafumbe is the score. He is a quietly rigorous yet brotherly presence with a bottomless repertoire of illustrative stories and cultural details. He teaches the students to play as his elders taught him, through aural and oral instruction and a sense of joining in. The music he composes and arranges for the ensemble speaks in voices both modern and ancient, of celebrations, migrations, lessons from nature, struggles against power. By the end of the semester, his students hold and play their instruments and complete each other’s musical sentences like kin.

Kafumbe continues to plumb the meaning of his own people’s music. An upcoming book examines how the Kawuugulu royal drums of Buganda (and their singers and dancers) embody and influence the kingdom’s socio-political structures and processes. This time he’s inside the reeds of the royal enclosure, and his mother’s membership in the clan with hereditary rights over the royal drums grants him access to secrets any scholar would envy.

His students have begun traveling to Africa to experience for themselves how the people live with music. One young composer is expanding his musical vocabulary by living in Uganda with Kafumbe’s musician friends and with the madinda, ndara, and mbaire, which are wooden xylophones; a fledgling ethnomusicologist is headed for Middlebury’s School Abroad in Cameroon; a psychology major will travel to Uganda with Kafumbe to explore how music salves the wartime traumas of children.

For all of Kafumbe’s students who have heard the life in music and the music in life, could anything be mute again?

Food for Thought

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

berriesIn The Omnivore’s Dilemma Michael Pollan refers to Lévi-Strauss’s concept of “food that’s good to think.” This idea, which helps Pollan frame his wide-ranging exploration of what people choose to eat, also speaks to the increasing emphasis on food and agriculture at Middlebury College. One factor here is, of course, that we are located in one of the most diverse and beautiful farming regions in New England. In addition, though, specific aspects of our curriculum and history bring the nationwide intIerest in topics such as local food and food justice into a particularly sharp focus.

One of these is the vigor of our interdisciplinary environmental studies major, the first in the world when it was established in 1965. Faculty and students seek to apply diverse disciplines when investigating both ecological challenges and principles of sustainability within dynamic systems. The topics of food and agriculture have become so central to environmental discourse, here and elsewhere, in part because they are equally pertinent to fields including chemistry, biology, public policy, economics, and literature.

The Middlebury College Organic Farm has been one delightful outgrowth of such a way of thinking. Cofounded 11 years ago by Jean Hamilton ’04 and Bennett Konesni ’04 when they were just starting out at the College, and with Jay Leshinsky serving as a wise mentor there during most of the intervening period, the farm has offered Middlebury students a site just far enough from the main campus to allow for reflection, as they weed and water, on the wholeness of their education. Classes in botany and dance have used the garden as their lab and studio, while seminars have often gathered there for discussions of nature writing and pastoral poetry.

Sophie Esser Calvi ’03, Middlebury’s new food and farm educator, was herself inspired by working on the Organic Farm as a Middlebury undergraduate. From such a vantage point, she sees a couple of even more recent initiatives—the FoodWorks summer internships and the commitment to hiring a faculty member in the area of food studies—as “the perfect marriage of agriculture and the liberal arts.”

FoodWorks is an ambitious program of paid internships for students interested in local food and sustainable development. It is worth noting that it was launched as a pilot program last year not in rural Vermont, but in a mid-sized city: Louisville, Kentucky. There, a cohort of students became immersed in an evolving urban food ecosystem, working with small farms,  food distributors, policymakers, and city restaurants; they became educated, while also educating others.

This summer, FoodWorks is again in full swing in Louisville, while also expanding to include a second site in Vermont. It was my privilege to speak to the 16 students here in New England and, via videolink, to the 10 interns in Kentucky when they convened at the beginning of June; I will do so again when they wrap up in early August.  I found these students to be an effervescent and highly motivated group. The program gains further energy from the fact that their individual projects in farming, local and statewide policy initiatives, distribution, and marketing are complemented by a carefully designed sequence of shared readings, field-trips, and speakers that incorporate their activities on the ground (and in the soil) into an ongoing discussion reminiscent of their Middlebury classes. And by existing in both rural and urban areas, the program exposes interns to diverse systems, problems, and solutions.

Elsewhere, enterprising students are devising solutions of their own to other local problems, such as food insecurity. A cohort of seven juniors (Jack Cookson, Eduardo Danino-Beck, Elias Gilman, Chris Kennedy, Oliver Mayers, Nathan Weil, and Harry Zieve-Cohen) are launching a nonprofit that will seek to bring healthy, nutritious food at an affordable cost to Vermont families in need. Modeled after a Chicago program, Middlebury Foods has met its fund-raising goals through gifts and a grant from Middlebury’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship and plans to begin operations this summer.

Food studies, similarly, is a work in progress. Whatever the disciplinary background of the first faculty member in this area may turn out to be, he or she will be called upon to help create a curriculum that is at once rigorous, sophisticated, and flexible. But an equally important role for this new program will be remembering to celebrate the opportunity for working and studying under the sky and to hold a place within our educational community for what Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini calls “the pleasures of the table.”

John Elder taught at the College and at the Bread Loaf School of English for nearly 40 years. He now holds the title of College Professor Emeritus. A thoughtful and sensitive writer, his books include Reading the Mountains of Home, The Frog Run, and Pilgrimage to Vallombrosa. With his wife, Rita, and two adult sons, John taps a sugarbush each spring and sells the resulting maple syrup. 

The Art of Perfection

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

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What does it take to succeed—on your own terms—in the bakery business?

If, on a chilly winter morning, you pass by the boutique bakery on Main Street in Vergennes, Vermont, peeking inside may prove difficult. The moisture from freshly baked bread and pastries causes thick shades of condensation to form on the door and the adjoining bay windows. On warm days during other seasons, the door may be left wide open, and customers sit outside in elegant chairs, framed by the attractive storefront. A small sign completes the view. “Vergennes Laundry” is written in thin, black lettering above a brief account of what is to be enjoyed inside: Wood-fired Bakery. Espresso Bar. Cheese Shop.

Vergennes Laundry was indeed once a Laundromat, and owners Julianne Jones ’07 and Didier Murat report that people still occasionally come through the door with laundry bags over their shoulders. This is perhaps emblematic of a transformation within Vergennes: the small city with a strong blue-collar legacy has seen a high rate of growth over the past decade. Neighbored by the popular Black Sheep Bistro, Vergennes Laundry has helped make Main Street a burgeoning hotspot for those in pursuit of gourmet food.

Inside the bakery, a series of large tables lines one side of the space before a backdrop of white, wooden paneling. A large painting of the seashore hangs above the farthest table, but the wall seems to camouflage its soft pastels, and it often goes unnoticed. It is one of the bakery’s two decorations. The other—the stuffed head of a caribou, mounted on the opposite wall—would seem ironic, gaudy even, if it didn’t provide such an alluring contrast to the rest of the all-white interior. Didier smiles proudly when I ask about it, but is quick to reassure me that neither he nor Julianne killed it.

As he moves between the counter and the rows of neatly organized shelves on the back wall, Didier appears composed, almost solemn. He and Julianne began remodeling the old Laundromat in 2010 and nearly all of the woodwork is his. Julianne studied architecture at Middlebury and was responsible for the bakery’s design.

“I like designing an experience for the customer,” she tells me one evening after closing. “I think a lot of people don’t design that experience, they just fill a mold and that’s not at all interesting to me.” And it’s true; every detail seems to make the experience of Vergennes Laundry impressionably unique. The daily specials are written on a long roll of butcher paper that hangs behind the register.
The tarts, croissants, and other delicacies on display are labeled and priced on notecards in typewriter font.

Wyatt Orme talks to Julianne Jones about opening Vergennes Laundry

The bakery has gotten its fair share of good press, having been covered, among others, by the New York Times Style Magazine’s food blog, Edible Selby, which gave the bakery a glowing review. The food, like its aesthetic, is exhaustively perfected. All the tarts are made to order, using ingredients from nearby farms: cheeses from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, fresh vegetables and herbs from Bella Farm in Monkton. Croissants, canelés, pain aux raisins, and a host of other handmade pastries are available throughout the day, along with the bakery’s bread, a pure wild-yeast levain (French sourdough) made from grains freshly milled onsite. Coffee from Intelligentsia, the award-winning Chicago roaster, is brewed and Sixpoint beer (from Brooklyn) and kombucha are available on tap.

When she works, Julianne ties her wavy blonde hair in a loose bun that bounces lightly as she moves from the oven to her worktables and back. Her gaze is steady, and her arms are toned from what amount to inordinately long days of physical work. She proofs and bakes, pulling bread out of the oven with the oar-like wooden peels from 3:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, six days a week. These hours seem ludicrous to most and even she admits them to be draining at first. The regimented schedule of quiet, physical work, however, is what she claims to feel most drawn to in baking.

“I love doing the same thing every day and doing it better and seeing results,” she says. “The bread starts right when I get here, and that’s the last thing before we leave.” Despite this control she has over her day-to-day routine, she won’t deny the drawbacks of regularly being at the bakery for over a hundred hours a week. “I’d like to go outside more,” she says and then offers, “I get the newspaper,” with a resigned smile.

Though she claims not to have been “too into food” while at Middlebury, Julianne showed glimpses of her potential throughout her undergraduate years. She cooked at Dolci, the student-run restaurant on campus, and served as the manager from her sophomore year on. It wasn’t until the summer after graduation, though, that she tried her hand at selling pastries and tarts at the Middlebury Farmer’s Market. It was something of a coincidence that she began baking bread in the first place. At one market, Julianne was asked to make desserts for a party in Westford, Vermont, hosted at the house of Gérard Rubaud, who is, as Julianne puts it, “sort of a legendary Vermont-French baker.” Rubaud built his illustrious Breads of Tradition Bakery right next to his picturesque mountain home, where he bakes a levain loaf that is sold, without advertisement, to frenzied buyers at select co-ops and grocery stores in the area.

When she saw Rubaud’s operation for the first time at the party, Julianne claims to have said to herself, “I want to move here.” So she did, and worked as an apprentice to Rubaud for several months. It was there that she baked her first loaf of bread, at the age of 22. Now, at 27, she thinks back on her training and remembers being most influenced by the simple artistry of Rubaud’s one kind of bread.

“I like making people happy with one thing,” Julianne says, returning to her chair after checking on the loaves in the oven. She left Westford with a new-found determination and returned to Didier in Vergennes to begin working on a business plan.

Wyatt Orme ’13 was a Middlebury fellow in narrative journalism in 2012.

Consider the Goat

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

goat

Let us introduce you to a movement that seeks to narrow the chasm between Americans and where their food comes from.

In Mexico, where it was created, they call it cajeta. It was the sweetest answer to a sour problem of spoiled milk. Long before refrigeration, on the hot, volcano-studded plains of central Mexico, families with goats needed a way to preserve the milk their animals gave. They collected la leche in cauldrons, added sugar and cinnamon, and then stirred the concoction for hours over a fire. A tangy, viscous sauce resulted: caramel, but with a kick—a personality, almost. Goat’s milk was more delicate than cow’s milk, more vulnerable to its surroundings. Each batch of cajeta was unique. The pine needles or berries the goat ate, the climate, even the goat’s temperament and, perhaps, the cook’s mood affected its taste.

“There’s no crying in the caramel room,” Hannah Reid ’04 told me one October afternoon. “If you’re upset while making caramel, the caramel goes bad.” She was bustling around a small production kitchen in Brookfield, Vermont. There were stainless steel counters and windows looking out on a greenhouse barn filled with some 50 goats. Six copper cauldrons, each filled with boiling cajeta, sat on burners. Reid, who is 31, was wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and rubber clogs. A tiny tattoo of a bear adorned her right ankle; her long brown hair was tucked under a net.

Using a refractometer to measure sugar concentration in the cajeta, she darted back and forth across the room. Reid’s stepmother, Judith Irving ’71, and her coworker, Katie Sullivan, were slowly stirring the cajeta with long wooden paddles. They had been stirring for six hours. The room was hot, and the air itself felt sugared. “I love reaching the top of the hill between the house and the caramel room when the breeze becomes sweet, and I can tell what flavor we’re making,” Reid said. “Cinnamon has the strongest smell.”

Fat Toad Farm began as a hobby in 2006 for Reid’s father, Steve, her stepmom, and her stepsister. Reid was living with her husband, Tim Sinnott ’02, in San Francisco, where she worked for a consulting firm . As an undergraduate, she had spent a semester in Johannesburg, which had “a profound effect on my view of the world and my own role in it,” she said. She had worked for several nonprofits and admired her colleagues’ ideals. Still, she wanted to do something more tangible. Having grown up in rural Vermont, she had always been interested in the natural world, and her family’s cajeta business was taking off. Going home was an easy call.

Fat Toad was the first farm to handcraft and sell cajeta in the U.S. They package it in small glass jars; the label features a toad drawn by their neighbor, the New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren. It’s sold nationwide by cheese mongers, specialty groceries, and stores like Whole Foods and Williams-Sonoma. Fat Toad is still one of only a very few purveyors that make farmstead goat’s milk caramel, meaning they use milk from their own goats instead of buying it elsewhere. As it happens, another Middlebury couple, Louisa Conrad, who was in Reid’s class, and Lucas Farrell ’03, are in this same tiny group. It must have been something in the water.

Humans painted goats on cave walls in northern Spain 15,000 years ago and started milking them 10,000 years ago in the mountains of present-day Iran. In 1637, on the island of Manhattan, an observer wrote that the New Netherlanders “keep more goats than sheep . . . and because they cost little, they are of importance to the new settlers and planters, who possess small means . . . [T]he young castrated tups afford fine, delightful meat, which is always in demand.” Goat meat is still the most widely consumed meat in the world, despite its scarcity on U.S. menus.

Until 30 years ago, American goat dairies were virtually nonexistent. Then chèvre became popular in the early 1980s, thanks to some enterprising French exporters. A California goat farmer named Laura Chenel went to France to learn to make chèvre and sold her first big order to Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, in 1981. More domestic goat cheese makers followed. In Vermont, since 1993, the number of commercial goat dairies has quadrupled to 32. “Small dairies that make artisanal cheese: that’s where the growth in Vermont dairy is,” Steve Reid told me.

Vermont’s traditional cow dairies are disappearing. At the end of the Second World War, there were 11,000 in the state. Today, about 1,000 remain. Production costs—for fuel, fertilizer, and especially for grain—have risen, while the price of milk, which is federally regulated, often remains low. Chuck Ross, Vermont’s secretary of agriculture, told me, “Where farmers get caught is when the public-policy framework does not provide a sufficient margin between input and output costs.” Smaller farms cannot compete with industrial farms’ efficiencies of scale.

Goats, however, suit small farms. They need much less land and grain than cows. They don’t require grassy fields. It’s a myth that goats will eat anything, but they do eat brush. In fact, goats “are happiest in brush,” one farmer told me. “At this point, we have to fence off trees we want to keep so they don’t eat them.” (Rent-a-goat agencies for clearing land or controlling weeds are not uncommon.) Goat-milk prices are, moreover, not regulated or tied to a commodity market. As Chuck Ross explained it, “Goat dairies have the ability to find their own market, build their own market, and add value to their milk through processing.” Processing means, in this case, making artisanal products like chèvre and cajeta.

Eating Well

Categories: Midd Blogosphere
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Click to enlarge

I’ve come to Vergennes Laundry in search of a tart, that exquisite strawberry verbena tart expertly captured on the cover of this magazine, but it is not to be. For the second time in two days, I’ve missed the Laundry’s celebrated creation, its availability on a given day dependent on the quality of strawberries from a limited number of local sources that morning.

Yet instead of the tart, here are the best croissants in Vermont, rich, flaky, crusty as anything from the Boul Mich or Saint-Cirq Lapopie, great rich loaves of pain au levain, cardamom buns, fresh radishes with chive butter, and fresh rhubarb popsicles. The effect is entirely deliberate and evocative of a country bakery in an old-time suburb in the Île de France. And here is the basis of all art—the mapping of one thing onto another and saying they are “like” each other. Vermont, in every way culinary and agricultural, has come to resemble Dordogne, Burgundy, Tuscany, and other celebrated regions like them in Italy, California, Mexico.

To even call Vermont’s local-food tradition a “movement” anymore is to deny its thriving presence for more than a generation, growing and deepening every minute. It’s so pervasive that it represents something almost Platonic about northern New England in its evocation of homegrown husbandry, thrift, work, and the poetry they give rise to. That’s probably because it overlaps with the previous hardscrabble era, when the only way to farm was organically and permaculturally.

As Wyatt Orme’s story (“The Art of Perfection”) and the rest of the food pieces in this issue demonstrate, Vergennes Laundry and its owner Julianne Jones ’07 epitomize everything about the College’s longtime commitment to fostering Vermont’s tradition of sustainable farming and food distribution. In the production, purchasing, and preparation of food, and in the study of local and sustainable agriculture, the College’s faculty, administration, and student body are united.

Every semester my nonfiction-writing students propose and write stories on local and regional food programs, including our own. Middlebury’s Organic Farm provides some of the seasonal produce served in the dining halls. The seven students of Middlebury Foods are making it easier for low-income Vermonters to pay the premiums that come with all this bounty, and Middlebury FoodWorks fosters internships for students in farming and food production in two locales: Louisville, Kentucky, and here in Vermont, including at Vergennes Laundry.

Other alums are digging in to the tradition at its earthiest level. A former student of mine, Geordie Lynd ’08, came from a family of organic dairy farmers in New Hampshire and as an undergraduate worked every semester at a farm on Munger Street. Now he operates his own organic dairy in Cabot, Vermont. Other alums are raising goats and cheese; grass-fed meats; or, like Suzanne Calhoun ’14, from Jericho, Vermont, value-added products like Suzanne’s Sweet Savories sauces.

It makes you imagine Middlebury and Vermont as existing in a cornucopian ideal of foison and plenty. Though obstacles still exist to growing regional markets, a way ahead seems clear. In Vermont and beyond, we can eat and live well and deliberately at the same time, as these students’ and alumni efforts attest.

Felix Against the Barbarians

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

felixI. K&R Man
This story is not about—not just about—the kidnapping and probable murder of our classmate, Felix Batista ’77. But to know his full story, we must start here.

On December 10, 2008, Felix was having an early dinner in Saltillo, capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, about three hours south of the Texas border. Americans know Saltillo best for the traditional clay tiles it exports to high-end kitchen designers and interior decorators; but the biggest employers, General Motors and Chrysler, operate a pair of automobile assembly plants. They have made the region relatively prosperous, fostering the growth of an upper-middle class, stirring patronage in the better eating establishments, and creating a boom in another industry: hostage taking.

One of the town’s best restaurants, El Mesón Principal del Norte, specializes in spit-roasted meat. Felix had ordered the goat. An American citizen born in Cuba and based in Miami, he was a consultant whose work took him to Mexico at least 20 times a year. He was dining with three associates, speaking fluent Spanish—the sort of scene our world-friendly college likes to imagine—when one of his two cell phones rang. The call came from a friend named Pilar Valdez, head of security for the Saltillo Industrial Group. He was being held by Los Zetas, the most vicious drug cartel in a nation dominated by cartels.

While the Zetas and other Mexican gangs have grown rich from smuggling narcotics and marijuana into the United States, in the past decade or so, kidnapping has provided a growing alternative revenue stream. Almost half of all Mexicans say they have been affected by kidnapping—having been taken themselves, having had a relative or friend abducted, or having received scam calls saying a loved one is being held. Relatives of victims often receive a finger or an ear to hurry negotiations along. The kidnappers go where the money is, focusing on the nation’s business class.

Which is why Felix was in Mexico. A security expert, he had given a pair of lectures to local businessmen, telling them how to respond in the event of a kidnapping. Keep calm, he told them. Don’t offer too much money. Felix knew what he was talking about; he had been instrumental in the release of some 100 hostages, according to the Houston-based firm he worked with, ASI Global. A “response consultant” with more than two decades’ experience, Felix was at the top of a growing profession called K&R, kidnapping and ransom.

Soon after Pilar Valdez called him, the man’s son came into the restaurant and sat at another table. Felix talked to the young man, then left the restaurant briefly and returned looking shaken. After a visit to the bathroom to splash cold water on his face, Felix rejoined his dinner companions. He handed over his laptop, shoulder bag, and a cell phone—the one he used to call his family. “If I’m not back soon,” he said, “call these numbers.” He left a card with the contact information for ASI and for his wife, Lourdes. Then he stood out on the curb for half an hour.

Shortly after seven o’clock, two vehicles drove up. Pilar Valdez sat in one of them, a white Jeep Cherokee. He had been badly beaten. One of the men inside the SUV came out and put his arm around Felix. They talked briefly, and Felix got into the car. An hour later, Valdez was dropped off with a few pesos for transportation. Felix has not been seen since.

There is more to Felix’s story, entailing the usual corrupt officials, American diplomats, the FBI, the toxic outward flow of drugs to the States and the reverse flow of guns; Felix’s wife; their five grown children; his music and friendship and the scholarship in his name that reflects the best of the College.

But as you shall see, Felix himself provided the moral of the story. He once wrote to friends that his work in kidnapping and ransom was to fight “barbarism.” At a time when the purpose of the liberal arts is under challenge, Felix gives us an answer: a liberal education should nurture civilized souls like Felix Batista who can cross boundaries and carry a light into a barbarous world.

The New Storytellers: The Digital Revolution

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

tablet_Final_01I can easily explain the current nature of digital storytelling in the first paragraph of this essay. And if I do that, it will already be outdated and replaced by a newer style of digital storytelling by the time I get to the second paragraph.

I’ve been working as a journalist for the last 15 years, originally in documentary film and then in radio. In between, I went to graduate school with the notion that I wanted to be able to tell stories across media: print, video, or radio, depending on the story. I figured that the more ways I had to tell stories, the better my chances of making a living. I never thought technology, journalism, storytelling, and the Internet would converge to create such breakneck change.

When I started at the New York Times five years ago, I was charged with innovating on the Web. One of my first assignments was to record the sounds of toilets flushing at a children’s museum. Now we’re deep in digital storytelling, weaving text, audio, video, graphics, and photos, as we try to push the boundaries of storytelling.

At its core, digital storytelling hinges on a narrative; yet it’s often nonlinear, interactive, and invites audience participation. The last element is the most interesting to me. I recently returned from four days at the South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival in Austin, where I was speaking on a panel, “Sustainable Stories from Disposable Content,” about two Web series I produced over the past couple of years at the Times: One in 8 Million and Coming Out. Both of those projects built a community as the stories accumulated, and those audiences, in turn, helped to shape the projects.

On the panel, we explored how storytellers know who their community is and how to bring the community into the work. It’s important to identify who you’re telling stories to and for, which seems obvious but is essential. With the ability to collaborate and share online, a part of the storytelling process is about feedback, dialogue, and creating conversation. A sense of joint authorship exists. For this to be successful, it’s the journalist’s role to create the narrative framework so people will want to participate and will understand what contributions are meaningful.

As we push further with digital storytelling, whether it’s interactive documentaries, data visualization, gaming, or otherwise, this is a key question to answer: How can we invite participatory storytelling and keep the narrative clear, especially as we have more ways to tell stories?

Some people I met at SXSW are developing new interactive storytelling platforms; others, programs that allow newsrooms to add maps, graphics, audio, and video to an online story with ease. Programs such as these are answering to demands of journalism and the news—a fast-food version of what newsrooms like the Times spend months to execute, such as “Snow Fall,” a beautiful innovative multimedia story.

It is a bold and exciting future: one where we can explore new ways to tell stories, experiment with how to involve communities in that process, and work to connect individuals around the world through digital narratives. Now I must get back to work and figure out how it has all changed since I started typing here…

Sarah Kramer ’96 is a journalist and multimedia storyteller  at the New York Times.  Before working at the Times, Sarah was a founding member of the public radio project StoryCorps. She can be found on Twitter @sarahk11 and online at www.skramer.me