a dark circle with the words 'Welcome to Isla Vista' inside it in light blue lettering

Sounding the Stories of Isla Vista Archives, Microhistory, and Multimedia Storytelling


Three young men rise before dawn to catch the best swell we've seen on the Pacific Ocean in weeks. A woman wearing a thick sweater and short shorts is just getting home after studying in the library all night. On the streets, littered in every curb, you'll find beer cans and broken glass bottles that once held the cheapest liquor money can buy. As the sun comes up over the ocean, students wait in an outrageously long line at the popular local café, Bagel Café, for a crucial shot of caffeine before their 8 o'clock classes. Everyone is on a bike or skateboard, even the police officers—the sounds of wheels on concrete is everywhere. On the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) campus, the student-run bike repair shop comes to life with the sounds of worn-out bike tires being replaced and bike chains getting adjusted and oiled.

These are a few glimpses into the stories of life in Isla Vista, California—better known as "IV"—the town neighbouring UCSB. This is a place with two identities: For some, it is a beach-side paradise for college students; for others, it is an overcrowded neighborhood often associated with destructive partying, violence, and substance abuse. In sum, Isla Vista is a place upon which labels are regularly applied. For example, this town isn't even really a town—it is officially designated by Santa Barbara County as an "unincorporated place." It is also designated as a "census-designated" place by the U.S. Census Bureau because of its concentrated population: 23,000 people live in this area that is just under 2 square miles.

A full color map of Isla Vista, published by The University of California, Santa Barbara
A map of Isla Vista (University of California, Santa Barbara, 2012).

Yet, despite the sizable population and the potential tax revenue, neither of the adjacent towns (Santa Barbara and Goleta) has wanted to incorporate this haven for college students. And so Isla Vista remains largely outside of the regulations and long-term city planning that you would expect for such a crowded area. UCSB students make Isla Vista their homes for a few short but formative years. And in that time, they develop a strong sense of community. However, most students come and go with relatively limited opportunities to address some of Isla Vista's long-term problems. No one quite knows how to solve a problem like Isla Vista.

In a Multimedia Writing course at UCSB, a course dedicated to composing with new media, we use soundwriting to empower students to discover, create, and share original, complex histories about this community. Towards this goal, we have created the digital Oral History of Isla Vista Archive (OHIVA) as a digital platform for Multimedia Writing students to archive and curate interviews and stories of Isla Vista community members. Students utilize a variety of skills to complete their work with the Oral History Archive: They learn about and employ oral history and archival research methods, they record and edit audio about Isla Vista, and they strategize multimedia writing in a lot of forms. As a result of these projects, we have found that students are able to use soundwriting to engage with the complex, often contradictory, work of telling the hidden stories of Isla Vista in ways that writing alone cannot capture. And in the end, they not only learn more about Isla Vista, they also learn how composition can be an opportunity for deeper engagement with the spaces and people in their communities.

In our chapter, we will begin by outlining our initial pedagogical goals for creating the archive; specifically, we will relate how soundwriting enables both microhistories (see Levi, 2001; Ginzburg, 1993; McComiskey, 2016) and storytelling (see Cavarero, 2000; Lambert, 2013; Farman, 2015) as a basis for teaching multimedia literacies to undergraduates. Next, we'll describe and evaluate the choices made in designing the assignments, pointing to the affordances and limitations of these choices. Turning next to the student work itself, we will feature samples of student work and our students themselves will narrate their engagement with soundwriting and their processes for creating content. We'll conclude by discussing and reflecting on how this soundwriting represents an intersection of our thinking about microhistory and digital storytelling, and, acknowledging the future-orientation of the assignments, how we see these assignments continuing to be used in future multimedia writing classes. Throughout our webtext, students' voices will serve as counterpoints that narrate and apply many of the ideas that we introduce in our text.

Project Materials