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Teaching While Learning: What I Learned When I Asked My Students to Make Video Essays

[This is a guest post by Janine Utell, who is a Professor of English at Widener University in Pennsylvania. She teaches composition and 19th and 20th century British literature; she has also facilitated a number of on- and off-campus workshops on writing, critical thinking, and general education. Previously at ProfHacker, she's written on "Practical Wisdom and Professional Life", "How to Study Your Own Teaching (And Why You Might Want To)," "Visualizing Your Promotion Portfolio with Cmap," and "Slowing Down: 6 Strategies for Deep Listening." You can follow Janine on Twitter: @janineutell.]

This is not exactly a post about how to teach the video essay (or the audiovisual essay, or the essay video, or the scholarly video).  At the end I share some resources for those interested in teaching the form: the different ways we might define the form, some of the theoretical/conceptual ideas undergirding the form, how it allows us to make different kinds of arguments, and some elements of design, assignment and otherwise.

What I’m interested in here is reflecting on what this particular teaching moment has taught me.  It’s a moment still in progress/process.  These reflections might pertain to any teaching moment where you’re trying something new, where you’re learning as the students are learning, where everyone in the room is slightly uncomfortable (in a good, stretching kind of way), where failure is possible but totally okay, and where you’re able to bring in a new interest of your own and share it with the students.

The Context

I first tried asking students to make video essays with the purpose of film analysis.  This was an introductory narrative film course, and I designed an assignment inspired by the work on cinematic form, technique, and vocabulary done by Tony Zhou in his series Every Frame a Painting.  (By “designed an assignment” what I mean is:  showing them “What is Bayhem?” after a screening of Armageddon and saying, “Go do that.”)  I wanted the students to practice that kind of close analysis of form and technique, and video seemed the best medium for that.  My instructions were the equivalent of leaving them out in the wilderness to fend for themselves:  part of their job was to figure out how to problem-solve the technical aspects as well as the claim-making and analysis.  Meanwhile, I was drawing on my incredibly limited knowledge of video production and learning alongside them.

What I Learned

The students in this intro course embraced the challenge of the video essay.  We studied the text of film reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis to figure out the rhetorical strategies at work, and how these might differ from the moves made in a video essay.  They got that there is a certain power in being able to make choices related to medium and argument: that they do in fact have the power to make choices, period, when it comes to what they want to say and how they want to say it.  They shared troubleshooting and tips in class, and taught themselves how to use iMovie.

One of the things I was very transparent about at the start was that this was an experiment:  I’d never done it before, I didn’t really know what I was doing, we would be learning together, and I desperately needed their feedback so I could try again.  In this way, we shared the teaching and learning, and I took on the role of project manager as we problem-solved together.  At the end, they had a number of useful suggestions that I implemented the next time around.  These included providing clear and detailed technical guidelines; requiring more detailed proposals, including storyboards and outlines; and more time to do the work.

Teaching Ourselves

Take two:  I tried this again in an upper-level narrative film course, and the suggestions made by students in the previous semester paid off.  With the additional guidance, students felt comfortable enough being challenged with the task of making the video; a number of them shared that they liked having the opportunity to learn a new skill, and that it was stimulating to have to think about new ways of making choices around what they wanted to say.  Every step of realizing their storyboard and outline required some problem-solving, and they were able to articulate the work of critical thinking in surprising ways (I think they themselves were a little surprised, too).

In the meantime, I was thinking more about the form, and thinking more about the role of the visual in making arguments and performing analysis.  The work of Nick Sousanis has been instrumental in facilitating some of my mind-changing on how we can use visualization to further claims and analysis; a short talk he gave at MLA 2015 as part of a roundtable on comics pedagogy, in which he suggested that the visual is a habit of mind and a way of thinking, encouraged me to expand my understanding of what the video essay can do.  Deeper investigations of the form, such as the scholarship published in the Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, a MediaCommons project, is teaching me the potential of the scholarly video not only for my students but for my own work.

Next Steps

So I’m trying the video essay—the scholarly video—for a third time:  in my 100-level survey of British literature.  This time, I’m thinking less about teaching ourselves the skills needed to produce a video, or grappling with and guiding students through the multiple possible activations of rhetorical agency and how these might differ from a written artifact.  I’m back to thinking about form, and the form of the video essay as a means of scholarly communication.  I’d like for this version of the assignment to prompt students towards critical and creative thinking about William Wordsworth and W. H. Auden, Katherine Mansfield and Zadie Smith.  I’d like them to use the visual to see the texts in new ways, and be challenged in how to make new kinds of arguments.

In a recent edition of the newsletter Faculty Focus, Linda Shadiow and Maryellen Weimer talk about crafting a “teaching persona” that makes visible one’s enthusiasm for continued learning in the discipline, one’s persistence in trying new things, and one’s willingness to not know.  This means embarking on a journey from not knowing to knowledge and application with students, making our not-knowing the center of a course, rather than training all energy and attention on our knowing.  It means not displaying our learning—our learnedness—but our learning—our process towards new thinking, new content, new skills.

The experience of working with my students on these video assignments helped me put this persona-making into practice, and make that version of myself more visible, more available.  It helped me think about teaching skills and content, theory and application, in some new ways.  And it opened me up to learning about developments in a field which is not really my home but which I find exciting and which is giving me new tools as a critic, teacher, and scholar.

Some resources on the video essay/scholarly video:

What kinds of teaching experiences have you had that have prompted similar reflections on your own learning and who you’d like to be as a teacher?

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by Jakob Montrasio]

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