Dr Wyatt Moss-Wellington recently joined UNE as Senior Lecturer in Digital Storytelling and Writing. UNE Communications sat down with Wyatt and asked him about his new role.
How did the arc of your career bring you to UNE?
Before I started doing scholarly work, I worked in the music industry as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist doing progressive folk music. Think prog-rock, but working with long-form narrative and folk instrumentation from different parts of the world.
I began producing for other kinds of folk musicians in Sydney, and at the same time I was working in public relations in the entertainment industry – mostly working for cinematographers and production designers in Hollywood. We represented below-the-line talent, and we had some fun working on Academy Awards campaigns for people like Claudio Miranda, whose cinematography for Life of Pi won him an Oscar.
I did that for six or seven years. It was never really for me; I didn’t enjoy PR and had lots of ethical problems with it. It was just a way of supporting the other things that I wanted to do.
In what is probably an unusual career move, I escaped into a PhD at the University of Sydney. I’d studied theatre and film in the past, and my PhD was broadly in narratology, and narrative theory, applied mostly to literature and cinema. After my PhD, I did the usual kind of casual teaching contracts for a year and then I got a job as Assistant Professor in Media and Culture at the University of Nottingham’s campus in Ningbo, China. I worked there for three and a half years, eventually as Associate Professor and then Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning, but we came back to Australia during the pandemic.
I went back to USyd and did some rolling contracts as Lecturer in Film Studies there. And then I got this job, and with my partner, Sophia, and 10-month-old son, Cosmo, we quite excitedly moved out of the city. Sophia works in perinatal mental health research.
What do you hope to impart through your teaching?
I’m excited to be designing a unit in Digital Storytelling. Due to the glacial nature of university processes, it won’t be offered until 2025, but I’m at work on it now.
The unit will be housed in Writing, but also involve people from Media and Communications and the Department of Creative Arts and Communication. I’ll provide a grounding on narrative theory, storytelling and its proliferation in online spaces and digital tools, and we aim to harness the expertise of different people across the faculty to teach in areas like podcasts, fanfictions, videogames, memes, and AI-assisted writing for performance.
A lot of my research takes a functionalist view of storytelling – what are the social uses of storytelling throughout human history? My approach is to regard storytelling not as adaptive, in the Darwinian sense, but as exaptive – meaning that we find new uses for existing adaptations. For example, we didn’t evolve these fingers to type on a keyboard, but we’ve developed new tools that make exaptive use of our fingers. And that’s true of storytelling. We’re always finding new uses for this very old social function.
When we introduce technologies, the number of things that people can do with narrative proliferate. That’s certainly true of the digital world. I’ve just published a paper, part of an experimental study I did with colleagues in China and in Dublin, about watching films in VR. I’ve done work in video games, and in social media and its relationship to news media. So I’m working in lots of different digital spaces that are very different in terms of their storytelling capacities.
I’m also interested in the relationship between narratology and ludology – the study of games and play. Fiction provides a communicative play space and games can likewise provide a platform to experiment with ideas while closing off consequences for a time, so that you can see the result of the experiment played out in that fictive space.
Are we just using new technologies to re-tell old stories?
I know that there’s this dismissive perspective that all our stories are archetypal narratives. But the nuances matter. Each passing year brings new challenges to our lives that can be spoken about through those stories using nuances that I think are interesting and important.
A lot of my own work in music was long-form narratives, often political narratives, narratives about people living in extreme situations. Quite a few of my early songs are about Middle Eastern politics, for instance, and follow different characters in different situations. As the politics change, so the stories that we need to tell about them change. No matter what kind of archetypes you might be drawing on, it matters more that you speak to the world as it changes.
Is competency in digital technologies a necessary skill for negotiating modern life?
That’s a more political question than it appears. It’s something I’ve written about.
The impulse is to give the obvious answer: yes, we need media literacy, as our lives involve more screens and more screen time, so we need more media literacy and digital literacy.
And it’s true that an understanding of the digital environment is necessary just to keep one’s life in order. There are many ways to get scammed, there are many ways to fall for this or that misinformation. Navigating these things requires media literacy. So we do need to teach critical frameworks to apply to these things that are so embedded in our lives. But it can’t be the only thing that we do.
We also need means to trust one another through media, or the whole edifice falls apart. So it’s not enough to teach critical media literacy; we also need to teach the hope that we can make a world that facilitates trust in one another through media. Our need to be able to trust one another is being eroded by so many different interests converging in the spaces where you and I might want to have a conversation.
Restoring trust involves not just individuals raising criticism against an impoverished media landscape. It involves lobbying for reasonable regulations; it involves a broader non-individualistic picture about the changes that we want to see so that we can have a healthy media through which we can trust one another.