Humanities in the Digital Age: Professor Deanna Lee

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Professor Deanna Lee has spent her career working across communications, journalism, new media, and public engagement. Currently senior advisor to the Carnegie Corporation of New York, she served as its Chief Communications and Digital Strategies Officer until 2016, when she became a visiting artist/writer at the American Academy in Rome. As Vice President for Communications and Marketing at The New York Public Library, she created and launched Biblion: The Boundless Library, Apple’s 2011 free Education iPad app of the year. Professor Lee had a 20-year career in broadcast journalism, eventually serving as a Senior Producer/editor at ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. She is the recipient of eight news and documentary Emmy Awards and a duPont-Columbia Award.

Deanna Lee

Professor Deanna Lee

What brought you to John Cabot University?
We’ve all had times when we hit a crossroads in life. For me, it was the loss of a cherished family member two and a half years ago, that led to my wanting to take stock of my life and values, and to do it through creative writing. After an inspiring and fruitful year at as a Visiting Artist at the American Academy of Rome, I knew that I wanted to stay in Italy—for its beauty, its healing power, and the wonderful openness and warmth of everyone here.

Before heading communications, marketing, and digital strategies at the Asia Society, The New York Public Library, then Carnegie Corporation of New York, I’d been a broadcast journalist for 20 years at ABC News and PBS. There, my first boss, the eminent Robert MacNeil, once said that “Every journalist is a frustrated educator.” And it’s true: I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities and jobs, yet in many ways the most rewarding before now may have been teaching high school English. Because even in media, business demands can get you down. In teaching, however, you never question the value of each day of work. Because each day, you are face-to-face with individual students, and you never doubt that you are making a difference.

Plus, having served on the Board of Overseers for Harvard University these past five years, I’ve become committed to the future of higher education, and especially the humanities.

And so, knowing I wanted to teach and share the experiences I’ve had that meld critical thinking and creative practice, study of our networked culture with new ways of engaging communities for social good—I contacted JCU.

What have you found to be unique about JCU’s academic fields and curricula?
What I love about JCU students is their interest across fields. For instance, in teaching multimedia storytelling, I have students representing a wide array of interdepartmental majors and minors, spanning business administration to psychology, marketing to communications and cinema studies.  There is no question that one of the biggest trends in higher education, not to mention our “flatter” global world, is interdisciplinary study and work. What better place to realize the intersections of scholarship and society, than a multicultural university with students from over 70 countries?

What was an exciting journalistic moment that you were part of during your broadcasting career?/ What was it like to receive your first Emmy award?
I was lucky enough to be ABC Nightline’s foreign producer in the 1990s, when there was tremendous support, including financially, for international news. And so, while I could say covering war in the former Yugoslavia, being behind-the-scenes with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke for the Dayton Accords, and President Clinton on his first trip to Europe; or the Hong Kong handover in 1997; Princess Diana’s death (I was based in London) that same year; Israeli Prime Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, and so much more… The most exciting journalistic moment for me was, hands down, covering the end of apartheid in South Africa as Nelson Mandela was elected president in the country’s first democratic election. The euphoric dancing in the streets, the “happy tears” of South Africans who’d waited their whole lives to vote, just the color, everywhere … I’ll never forget it, and how it made us all feel so hopeful, and alive, and together.

As for my first Emmy award, it’s hard to remember! I do remember the most meaningful: it was for Outstanding Historical Programming in 1996. The story, for Nightline, was of “The Avengers,” a hitherto secret group of Holocaust survivors who had taken it upon themselves 50 years earlier to avenge German atrocities by poisoning, for example, Nazi prisoners held in POW camps by infiltrating the local bakery providing their bread. Through painstaking reporting, we found and interviewed some ten former vigilantes, using their first-hand accounts to piece together the detail and derring-do of their various designs, not to mention their varying degrees of pride and remorse. For the bravery of these now-70, 80 and 90 year-olds to finally speak out about sometimes brutal deeds; for the challenge of gaining secret records, locked-away film archives, and more, to bring history to life for television news, and just for the sheer amazingness of their stor(ies) …receiving the Emmy for that was tremendously rewarding and moving, not the least because of what I said earlier here.  I always believed in the power of journalism to educate, and so to win what would be my first of two Emmys for historical documentary, in a time when reality TV seemed to be on the cusp of taking over, underscored the potential of journalism and great storytelling to bring us powerful lessons from the past.

How did you come up with the concept for Biblion? Where do you see the app in the next 10 years?
One of my charges when I was hired as Vice President for Communications and Marketing at The New York Public Library, was to move the Library’s research collections journal, Biblion, online. But, just posting a text-heavy pdf, I knew, was hardly going to engage more readers. At the same time, on the press relations side, we were being asked almost daily, “Aren’t e-books going to mean the end of libraries?”— which drove me crazy.

Then, on a fateful day in January 2010, I sat in my office watching Steve Jobs introduce the first iPad, and I immediately texted my assistant, “I’m having a brainstorm!” She wrote back, “In meeting. It’s Biblion, isn’t it?” (We still have screenshots of the exchange.) As Jobs demonstrated a New York Times app, and how one could zoom in and out of stories, flipping the iPad, I realized the potential for what we now call world-building on the device, and what it could mean for library or museum collections: you’d be able to hold original sources in your hand, turning them over, going close-up, in serendipitous pathways. That night, when I ran out and bought the last iPad at my local Best Buy, and downloaded Lang Lang’s piano app that turned lights and movement into the shape of music, I knew that, with quality sources, we could present information in an entirely new way, in entirely new dimensions.

And so, after we showed that a library could be at the forefront of where information was going, no press asked anymore if e-books would kill libraries. Instead, as Alexis Madrigal asked in his article “What Big Media Can Learn from the New York Public Library” in The Atlantic, “this thing came out of a library?”

The app itself has evolved not so much in the library or museum arenas—where budget cuts to the humanities mean digital initiatives are being pared way down (as they should, if collections and high-speed internet at neighborhood libraries are at stake)—but in new experiential touch technologies for publishers and, actually, immersive and participatory marketing in retail. This actually gives me a lot to talk about in my multimedia marketing class! But, my hope is that, through the digital humanities—of which Biblion is now held up as a prime example—universities, libraries, and museums can be at what Steve Jobs later cited, in describing the iPad,  the intersection of “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing.”

What is a fundamental concept that you discuss in your class “Multimedia Strategic Communications”?
It’s funny, because of length in the course fields, the title was shortened, and, as I tell students, arguably the most important word isn’t there: storytelling. So we call it “Multimedia Storytelling in Strategic Communications.”

The fundamental concept is that, while we now have at our disposal so many different forms of media—everything from virtual and augmented reality, to 360-degree video, to artificial intelligence bots—and we can now not only make it ourselves but disseminate it ourselves through social media…it’s still the most important, age-old principles of effective storytelling that will make the difference for whether your content is discoverable and impactful in the sea of material out there today.

So, we learn how to work with and adapt the basic components of storytelling to multimedia marketing today. That includes having and highlighting quality sources and content, strong characterization and use of characters, story arc (which is there, even in nonlinear storytelling!), and most importantly, narrative empathy or, simply, relatability to people’s lives. And, in working with real-world clients—this semester the American Academy of Rome Library and Fattorini Design and Furniture, we learn how to tease out their unique stories, and how to infuse their core narratives into the media we create for them.  That includes, of course, how to reach the audiences they now have, and the ones they want for the future.

Tell us about the course “Literature and Digital Humanities: Creating the Frankenstein Project” that you will be teaching in the Spring.
I’m so excited about this! As I inferred earlier, I really believe Digital Humanities is the hot field for the near future. People forget what the humanities are really about: simply, the most important questions facing all of us, including the ethics of rapid scientific advancement, from A.I. to climate change; how to debate, discuss and listen to each other in a time of political and societal strife; and how to find meaning in our lives, the things that, as Jobs said, “make our hearts sing.”

I believe digital storytelling advances can help remind us, and further our experience, of what the humanities are all about. (One day, after all, we won’t even use the word “digital”—because digital will be seamlessly infused in everything we do.) I like to say the humanities highlight the stories of humankind. Well, what better story to start this course off with, as we will this spring, than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein! We will see, through hands-on multimedia creation of our own, why the classics live on. Because Frankenstein, the original remix creature, deals with themes that continue to touch our lives 200 years on: remix culture, the place of outsiders in society, the inherent risks of technology, and what it means to be a creator. Digital humanities projects don’t just mean digitizing something; they mean expressing the principles of the humanities—the art and ongoing life of the story and its themes—in new ways, through new technologies, that allow new audiences to experience and love the stories as we do.

You studied music and English and American literature as an undergraduate. What do you think of the fact that the number of liberal arts majors has been dropping as students favor more “practical” degrees?
This topic consumes me. In a way, it’s not necessarily so. As I said above about JCU students, younger people often understand the interdisciplinary world much better than the rest of us do. At Harvard, there are increasing numbers of students concentrating (majoring) in music, philosophy and related fields, and they are combining concentrations with topics as wide-ranging as engineering, physics, sociology, gender studies, and more.

I think the onus is on educators to reframe the liberal arts and humanities (Steve Jobs certainly got it!). They are a practical degree; we just have to remind people how critical theory can lead to creative practice. There’s a reason, after all, that China is launching numerous liberal arts programs and schools: they realized the value of creativity for knowledge, innovation, and, yes—success.

What advice would you give to students looking to enter the journalism field?
Yes! You are desperately needed, and the job possibilities are rich and varied. But—only if you practice quality journalism, centered on the everlasting principles of truth and becoming a trusted source. In a time when news consumers are swamped with so-called news and fake news, when it’s so easy to stay in a bubble of biased news that reflects one’s own beliefs, there is nothing less than the future of democracy at stake.

People think quality journalism is lacking today, or that its impact has lessened. But it was quality investigative journalism by The New York Times and The New Yorker that launched the #MeToo movement. These stories had been out there forever, but it was the persistent work of intrepid reporters working with and assessing and telling the stories of their sources, and the strength of their editors to push the stories through that made those stories gain real traction. And, with upcoming journalists’ abilities and interest in multi- and social media, they can, as with the #MeToo movement, make sure their reporting reaches further, and with greater impact, than ever. I envy them!