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Video Production and Distribution for the Composition and Literature Classroom

1. Much of the emphasis regarding technology in composition studies has focused on web-based tools, such as blogs, MOOs, MUDs, and sandbox games such as Second Life, or use of office tools like Power Point and dynamic PDFs. However, I began to wonder about the possible efficacy of video production as part of a composition pedagogy, particularly since the advent of massive distribution technologies such as YouTube and many other video-hosting sites. I began to experiment with how students might combine textual analysis, argumentation, and composition in the production of videos that could be freely distributed for education, or comment, and even be reused. 2. Most computers, whether PCs or Macs, have operating systems bundled with video editing software, and these resources can usually be found on campus computers, particularly campuses with computer labs. At the same time, some computer labs, as well as college and university libraries, are stocking video cameras, tripods, and various other low-level video production equipment that are fairly easy to use. I would often see that these resources were available for checkout whenever I looked at the “resources” menu for the computer lab at the library where I was working, and I decided to use this equipment for a class in Honors Composition that I was teaching in the fall of 2006. 3. Most of the time, this equipment, the video cameras, editing software and powerful computers were being used by either Art; Radio, Television and Film; Journalism; or Architecture students for projects related to their discipline. It occurred to me that, with the shift in the humanities toward pedagogies involving “new technologies,” bringing video production into the literature or composition classroom might be an interesting area to explore.

Initial Experiments in Video Production and Composition Pedagogy

4. My first foray into this experiment in video production as part of a rhetoric and composition strategy was to make video one of several possible “group presentation” options. Students were given the options of constructing a traditional poster presentation, a Power Point project, a website, or a 5-10 minute video to present as their final group project for the course. 5. The theme for the course all semester was writing about contemporary, post-colonial Africa. Students had weekly writing assignments that required them to read online, English-translated African newspaper articles for analysis and group discussion. Each student, at the beginning of the semester chose one African nation and a broad topic (such as the environment, agribusiness, or art), then spent the semester reading African daily newspaper articles related to that topic that they would then discuss in class and write about. The majority of the assigned readings came from Africa: Volume Five, Contemporary Africa (2003), an anthology of recent historical and sociological essays, the website AllAfrica.com and Stanford University’s Africa Pages website. 6. Most of the students for the course became very invested in their topics, and produced a lot of innovative work challenging assumptions, proposing solutions, and collecting large amounts of data related to their countries and topics. The final group project was designed to get groups of four to collaborate on a media presentation to accomplish three goals:
  1. To make them think about how they might present their written arguments visually.
  2. To see if the process of producing a video based on what they already know helps them rethink and reconfigure their ideas to produce new knowledge (or a new kind of knowledge) in the process of forming a coherent narrative.
  3. To present their work in a format that could be distributed to inform others of the results of their studies.
7. Out of five groups, three did Power Point presentations, one designed a website, and the fifth group chose to do a documentary-style video. All of the presentations were excellent, but the only one that has actually been seen and distributed outside of the classroom was the video project. While the website that one group designed was very well done, the group never posted it to the web where it could be viewed. In the meantime, the video documentary, Only in Madagascar, has been downloaded 145 times off of the Internet Archives database as of this writing. I chose the Internet Archive to host student videos because it is a non-profit organization that offers its services for free, would make no money directly off my students’ labor, and provided visitors the opportunity to download high-quality copies of student-created content for others to use. 8. Again, while all of the presentations were excellent, the video was a surprising success in the way it fulfilled the goals I had outlined. 9. During the Question and Answer session after the video was presented, group members explained that while they had a lot of fun doing the assignment, they did find that putting their footage into a coherent, linear narrative was a challenge because what they ended up filming didn’t always match up to their original plan. After hours of editing and “drafting” they ended up with a film eleven minutes and thirty-two seconds in length, but left over two hours on the “cutting room floor.” In fact, the presentation was originally presented in DVD format and featured a “bloopers” option on the menu that showed some of the cut footage. Students also pointed out that without their prior knowledge of Madagascar and the Continent of Africa, which they learned from written texts, they would have had no guide by which to even start a project like this one.

Developing the Pedagogy of Video Production: Into the Literature Class

11. The next semester I decided to develop the experiment in video production further and make it a required assignment in my Literature of the Black Power/Black Arts Era course. Whereas students were on their own with the optional video project in the composition class, I dedicated a week’s worth of class time to showing my class around the media lab and giving instruction on basic video editing. The students from the honors composition course stated that they had spent about four weeks in production time, so I gave the literature class the same amount of time near the end of the semester to review course content, collaborate on ideas, and spend time in the lab working on their projects. The results were seven documentary-style videos, five of which I thought were of a caliber to post on the Internet for viewing and distribution. Below is one that stood out because of its use of a framing motif and dramatization that was unique among the presentations for that semester: 12. During the question and answer sessions that were held after each screening of a video, students remarked on how they had to completely rethink how they had imagined fitting their raw footage into a preconceived notion of narrative and visual style because in their original thinking, the footage would be filmed linearly, and then they could just splice in sound tracks and textual information. As it turned out, the effort to create a narrative that presented a coherent argument was quite a bit more challenging than they expected. One group said that they had to sit down and revisit their interpretations of one of the texts assigned for the class, Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, before they could begin editing their footage in earnest. The stated reason was that their original theoretical basis for the organization of the film did not work once they sat down and examined the interviews they had taped, so they had to review and rethink their understanding of Fanon as well as the footage in order to complete the project in a way that “made sense.”

Teaching with Technology: Lessons for the Teacher

13. On the technical side of things, one of the hurdles many instructors need to take into account before incorporating a video component to their classes is understanding the technology well enough to teach basic editing to students. If students are using Windows Movie Maker or iMovie 6, which are currently loaded by default on all Windows and Mac computers, it takes just a few short hours for them to fiddle with the interface before being able to complete some simple editing tasks. However, instructors should have some knowledge of the basics as well as some more advanced editing techniques, too. There are many online lessons (many of them video lessons) available freely to help teachers learn how to use these resources. Also, knowing what versions of editing software are loaded on university computers will save a lot of time and frustration. 14. For instance, iMovie 8 is a very different editing program than iMovie 6. I discovered this the hard way recently when I spent two weeks putting together a beautiful lesson on basic video editing using iMovie 6 to discover that the computer labs on campus had iMovie 8 loaded on all of the machines. Versions 6 and 8 of iMovie are not only incompatible, the newer iMovie 8 isn’t even designed to do high-quality video editing needed for such projects! It is simply designed to organize and splice home movies, with none of the professional quality tools for editing video and sound that the older version had. This discovery the day of the class brought my lesson to a screeching halt the moment I opened the program on a lab computer. Thankfully, I discovered a few days later, Apple offers iMovie 6 for free on machines running the new version, so I was later able to give my lesson and students were able to make videos on Mac machines. Windows Movie Maker still follows a simple editing paradigm, but it is far superior to the new iMovie 8 for projects such as the ones I outline in this article. There are many other free and open source video editing programs, as well, that may be easily found online.

Teaching with Technology: Lessons for the Students

15. There are several pedagogical advantages to using video production in the literature or rhetoric classroom that tap into our students’ already-established knowledge, understanding and participation in common culture. In fact, these video-production assignments assume that students are familiar with communities such as YouTube and other social networking sites, and in many cases provide students the tools and materials to better leverage their ability to communicate complex ideas and perspectives through the production of video. Greater facility with these technologies opens the collaborative potential of the web through web-based communities (allowing for remixing and mashups in order to create derivative works, such as what most of my students did to some degree within their documentaries, for instance). Tapping into students’ preexisting familiarity with the technology (however slight) and then asking them to apply the principles of literary criticism and/or rhetoric yielded, as I noted, interesting and pedagogically useful results. 16. Students in both classes found that their knowledge of rhetorical genres, appeals, and modes, particularly narrative and argument, helped them as they produced their video presentations. Questions of methodology and ethics related to their evidence were interrogated in many instances. Students grappled with whether evidence in the form of footage should determine their editing choices or whether their original hypotheses should determine the way they organized footage to make an argument. Other ethical matters came up during the course of these assignments that have pedagogical, as well as potential legal, implications, also. For instance, in any project of this sort there are going to be concerns about the proper and improper use of copyrighted film clips used within students’ own works. This led to us exploring copyright law as it relates to issues of “Fair Use.” This, in itself, was one of the more challenging aspects of the project and made the class very conscious of how much and to what end such copyrighted “excerpts” would be put to use and how to credit them within the videos. We established that Title 17 of the Copyright Act allowed for the limited use of some copyrighted material for education and commentary, given the type of productions we were making. 17. Since copyright law can be difficult and vague, I also encouraged students to use open-source music and video as part of their production strategy. I steered them to the Creative Commons and Internet Archives websites where they could find freely distributed original music, video, and even films that are either in the public domain or that hold a Creative Commons copyright license that explicitly indicates what rights are reserved and how a work may be used by others. Their own finished works would reside in the Internet Archive, so this place was a natural site for collaboration for my students where many, if not most, of the participants were using the same tools and methodologies for distributing their own cultural productions in a noncommercial venue. 18. Students in my classes understand that the work they produce may end up online for distribution, and part of the assignment requires them to place an explicit Creative Commons license in the credits. Most projects carried an “Attribution and Noncommercial” copyright indicating that others may redistribute and even make derivative works out of their projects, so long as these activities were done on a noncommercial basis. Some decided to put a “no derivative” restriction on their projects. In general, though, students did not seem to have a problem with the idea of their work being downloaded, redistributed, or even remixed. So, while the Internet is often portrayed as lawless territory of the Wild West variety, over the course of these assignments it became clear to students that there are, indeed, laws in place to regulate the use of copyrighted material—and participants in common culture have tools available to them to place limits on how colleagues within these networked environments may use and reuse their works, if they choose to put any restrictions at all on them. 19. So, a large portion of video-production entailed a good understanding of copyright law and “Fair Use” as well as the distinctions between “copyright infringement” and “plagiarism,” as people in the humanities think of them. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for a student to “plagiarize” a ten-second clip of The Lord of the Rings. However, they could infringe on the copyright if the clip were not used in a limited and very specific way, according to the law. Highlighting these distinctions in a creative context where students know their works will be viewed (and even used) can be used to raise students’ understanding of the ethical responsibilities in creative and intellectual work in any discipline or genre. 20. Video production assignments can also be used in conjunction with other lessons about visual rhetoric traditionally used in composition classrooms to make students more aware and critical of the arguments they encounter every day in the form of advertising and even motion pictures marketed as simple “entertainment.” The technological tools commonly available to students and teachers makes it possible for them not only to read and interpret visual rhetorics, but to produce them, as well. It is during this process of invention and production that they can learn lessons about the persuasive power of video that can lead to deeper questions about the responsibility and ethics of producers of these forms of visual rhetoric. They also become profoundly more conscious of themselves as an audience for any medium presented with the intent to persuade. 21. Students also found these projects rewarding in that they produced videos that were educational and reached an audience beyond the classroom. Given the popularity of social network websites and YouTube, students not only have a chance to learn but to communicate in a creative, effective way, transmitting ideas through the new media sites designed for social interaction and collaboration.
Cedrick May an Associate Professor of English and African American Literature at The University of Texas at Arlington. cedrickmay@uta.edu Skype ID: dr.may.101 Share this