Authenticity vs Sentimentality in Digital Storytelling

I am PHD student at the School of Education at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. My study investigates a digital storytelling project that we started in 2010 in a teacher education programme in the Western Cape. In this project final-year pre-service teacher education students explore critical incidents that impacted on their journey to becoming teachers.

As we reflected on this project we realised that it had become - although designed as facilitating individual students’ own reflection and growth - what Benmayor calls a ‘social pedagogy’, a pedagogy that approaches learning as a collaborative process (2008, p. 198), allowing for collaborative and social learning in diverse classrooms through sharing and disclosure and initiating a ‘process of bonding and cross cultural alliance’ (p. 198). Students complain how uncomfortable they felt to share their past with students they didn’t know well and would usually not engage with. But reading on Boler and Zembylas' (2003)  "pedagogy of discomfort" convinced us 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 deep seated assumptions and beliefs and the way students view each other.

The specific focus of my PHD is the role of emotions in this process. While there is no doubt that the personal content and authenticity of digital 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 what I would call 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', or ‘who can tell the sadder story?’) and of sentimental reactions to stories of hardship, bringing up emotions of guilt, pity in the privileged story listener and anger, resentment on the part of the storyteller. However, researchers in this field of digital storytelling, such as Burgess defend this sentimentality in digital stories (2006: 210):

Somewhat paradoxically from a critical perspective, it is the very qualities that mark digital stories as uncool, conservative, and ideologically suspect – ‘stock’ tropes, nostalgia, even sentimentality – that give them the power of social connectivity, while the sense of authentic self-expression that they convey lowers the barriers to empathy.

This is an example of one of this year’s students’ stories:

Are this story’s raw emotions engaging the audience or putting it off? Does this raw display of emotions make us uncomfortable? Is this what Lambert would call an exaggerated tug on emotions? Or just the plain truth? Is there a role in teaching and learning for this kind of emotional display? Where does authenticity end and sentimentality start? Should we avoid this sentimentality or do we need it? What happens if these very personal stories leave the safe space of a digital storytelling workshop and are shared and published on YouTube? Any thoughts, ideas, suggestions on this?



Benmayor, Rina. 2008. “Digital Storytelling as a Signature Pedagogy 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

Burgess, J., 2006. Hearing ordinary voices: cultural studies, vernacular creativity and digital storytelling. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(2), pp.201–214.

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.

Image on front page by Lucas and avaliable on Flickr. 


I am interested in the debate here between sentimentality in the construction of digital narratives of oppression, like the example from your class, and the appropriation of that sentimentality in consumer culture, which the IKEA commercial mocks. The IKEA commercial and a narrative of sentimentality and material culture reminds me of a similar story on NPR on The Afterlife of American Clothes, which I listened to last night, but it plays with sentimentality in a different way.

The project you shared, to me, seems to adopt what I perceive to be tropes of sentimentality, particularly the images shared, but I do not think that they are thus ineffective. In genre studies particularly, we talk about the expectations that our reader has for a work to match a certain number of expectations. I think here, also of rhetoric and the notion of pathos or an appeal to pity/emotion. Rhetorical studies have looked at pathos in great deal, both in its effectiveness and in how overplaying pathos hurts an argument. I wonder if rhetorical studies might help to frame this narrative question? 

Interesting, does this mean, as long as the expectations about a specific genre are met, it is effective? How would we for example define what we mean by the 'effectiveness' of the genre of a digital story ? Is it effective if it engages the audience through emotions? Do you need / expect this sentimentality from a digital story and hence this makes it effective? Maybe we would then have to question the whole idea of digital storytelling for a critical engagement across difference? Hmm...But what about so-called 'critical digital storytelling' projects, which for example combine ideas of critical race theory and critical counterstorytelling with digital storytelling? Would you say that even though a critical theory framework was used, to e.g. focus on stories of marginalised students, stories that are usually not heard, just by the mere fact, that a digital storytelling as a genre will by default be sentimental and for example tend to use images that evoke pity, this would be counterproductive? I will have to engage with rhetorical studies in more detail to try and understand how their notions of pathos could help me here...

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