“Use the Force, Luke!”: Teaching Videographic Criticism to Students and Colleagues
Drew Morton / Texas A&M
My first year as an Assistant Professor was defined by an obsession of needing to have every syllabus and every lesson pre-planned, down to the most minute detail. When I talk to other junior colleagues, this seems to be a reoccurring trend. In an effort to preemptively address every question, we fall into “Stanley Kubrick mode” and trade being in the moment for the safe, mechanized, distance inherent in an overly calculated script. Yet, while this approach to preproduction might work well for 2001: A Space Odyssey, an academic article, or a video essay, it tends to rob pedagogy of energy and momentum. After all, how can one easily adapt when he or she is clinging to lesson plans like a life preserver? I quickly noticed this in my own teaching and asked a senior colleague for advice. She suggested that I leave my intricate lesson notes in my office for once and, like Luke Skywalker, use the Force and take the shot without the assistance of the targeting computer. I found that my lesson, while being slightly less polished, was more energetic. Moreover, I was more receptive to the needs of my students because I was present and adaptable. Yet, I found I still clung to it in another sense: my syllabus design.
The first time I taught my upper division course on videographic criticism, my syllabus was centered on New Media theory.  Students were assigned to write short response papers to the readings and, in the final weeks of the course, use one response paper as a spring board for a five minute video. The first time around, I found that the students were grasping about half the reading.  Because of this, I staggered the timeline the second time to provide some assistance. However, fifteen weeks are fifteen weeks and staggering the reading took a couple days out of their video production schedule. After a heart to heart with my students and some colleagues, I realized I was simply trying to do too much. As Jason Mittell writes in a fantastic column on teaching theory to undergraduates, I had given into the temptation “to emulate the graduate seminars that may have provided years of intellectual rush.” In short, I was teaching a class that was designed more for me and less for them.
I say this not to be an apologist for students complaining about the workload in an upper division course, but to introduce a number of factors that are important to consider when designing a class that is a hybrid of theory and practice. Mainly, think about your department’s curriculum, course sequencing, and the trajectory of the average student. Given that I teach in a Mass Communication department than encompasses a breadth of sub disciplines (Public Relations, Advertising, Journalism, Media Studies, and Production), one of my main pedagogical obstacles was that I needed to teach a class that addressed an extremely diverse population: the students who take critical studies classes, the students who take production courses, and the smaller demographic that take both. That is one hell of a pedagogical Gordian knot. If I been teaching it in the smaller sandbox of a Cinema and Media Studies department (that also might require production classes), I think it is safe to hypothesize that the outcome would have been more fruitful.
When I sat down to prep it the third time around,  I asked my [in]Transition co-editor Christian Keathley about his course on videographic criticism and I was shocked to find that his answer was philosophically in-line with “using the Force” and “turning off the targeting computer.” He explained that he spent much of the first day of class getting the pulse of the students. What was their background in Cinema Studies? More importantly, what was their background with film production and software? After this informal gathering of information, Chris wrote a draft of the syllabus but always emphasized that it was a draft. If the class found they needed more time to unpack at article or to put the finishing touches on a piece of videographic criticism, it could be discussed and perhaps altered. It was more of a collaborative workshop and less predetermined.
Based on Chris’s feedback, my “third time is the charm” redesign is a bit more modest in scope. I have decided to use Timothy Corrigan’s Short Guide to Writing About Film as the primary course text, supplemented by readings and screenings focusing on videographic criticism (there are more now than there were in 2012!). Instead of supplemental readings and response papers based around New Media, students are expected to research a film of their choosing and to produce a series of videos about it.
The first video assignment prompt asks students to take one film term and illustrate it with a clip from the chosen film (a video dictionary entry, if you will). For example, how would a student illustrate a “long-take”? We’re still in the introductory stages when it comes to the theoretical side of the course, but we’re pairing it with application on the practice side. Depending on the make up of your students, you can also “push” the assignment a bit further by adding some aesthetic obstructions. For instance, you can prohibit the use of voice-over and on-screen text. How does one illustrate the concept of “long-take” purely from a visual standpoint? All of a sudden, it is not as easy as putting up a shot from Touch of Evil or Children of Men. After all, someone might confuse “moving camera” and “long-take.” This variation demands more of an aesthetically informed compare and contrast.
The second assignment is a videographic summary of a scholarly article about the chosen film (they must submit the reading to me in advance for approval). How would a student summarize Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in a two minute video (I tend to allow voice over or on screen text with this assignment!). This assignment challenges the students to analyze the article indirectly. After all, two minutes does not allow the student to engage in bulk quotation (as many are apt to do with sophisticated readings!). The scripts for their videos have to be extremely concise – without becoming an overly dense lecture – due to the constant balance between visual and aural elements. The third assignment is a videographic rebuttal to a scholarly article, about three to five minutes in length, that demands that the student both summarize an article and find visual evidence to refute and/or elaborate upon the original author’s work.
The final project is a five to eight minute analysis that can either be argumentative or poetic in its form. Both require an artist statement, similar to those published at [in]Transition. The former assignment looks a lot like the video version of a research paper – I expect a thesis, supported by evidence gathered in the research process and textual analysis. In this case, the artist statement, like a mathematical proof, simply shows the work, explains the rationale for the construction of the piece, and/or perhaps explores avenues that may have been omitted for time. In the case of the latter, the statement becomes much more significant because the two pieces must work in tandem. I structure the assignment this way to discourage those students pursuing the poetic option from producing philosophically superficial supercuts or mashups. How did your research guide and inform this interpretation? What can be gathered from combining Supernatural and Nosferatu beyond a few chuckles?
The sequencing of the assignments progressively raises the bar from a technological standpoint.  This initiates those unfamiliar with Adobe Premiere at a fairly moderate pace. Moreover, starting with the foundational nuts and bolts of film terminology, progressing through the same skill sets of complex reading comprehension and analysis, and ending with an artifact with a unique and original thesis is essentially the same design of any upper division humanities course. I am simply changing the analogue assignments (short response papers, a final research paper) to a digital project. Obviously, such a design demands a small class size and deadline workshops for the students to screen drafts and get feedback from the class and I. Moreover, one final tip I would add: I tend to find that the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” of teaching software skills to students tends to backfire after a prolonged period of time. After about thirty minutes, eyes glaze over and they start exploring the software (or worse – Facebook) on their own. So I try to limit such class meetings to a handful of introductory demonstrations and, instead, allow them to explore the tools themselves while being available to answer their troubleshooting questions.
While perhaps a bit frustrating in its fluidity at first glance, this dialogical manifestation of theory and practice has been extremely productive thus far at [in]Transition. The foregrounding of analysis – in the form of open peer review – facilitates a digital discussion (we have a comment section that often involves the artist, reviewers, and readers). We have found this not only demystifies the production process and makes videographic production more palatable to the uninitiated, but also challenges preconceptions of how this criticism can manifest itself. Christian, Catherine Grant (our other co-editor), and I described this as being open to how knowledge is produced on the Aca-Media podcast. I have often drawn the analogy that asking us to concretely define academic videographic criticism is like trying to define film in the 1890s when faced with both George Méliès’s fantastic narratives and the actualities of Edison and the Lumières. While this degree of ambiguity can be terrifying to the obsessive compulsive instructor, I believe the young and multifaceted subject and methodology of videographic criticism requires it for the time being.
“Let go, Luke! Trust me.”
1. Use the videographic force, Luke.
Please feel free to comment.
- i.e. Bolter and Grusin, Lev Manovich, Henry Jenkins, a unit on video games, etc. [↩]
- You can find the old syllabus here [↩]
- I’m slated to teach it in Spring 2016, so you won’t find a draft of my syllabus and a reflection upon the results here, unfortunately. [↩]
- The first assignment only requires one or two clips and rudimentary editing while the final requires a much more intricate and thoughtful arrangement of materials – both clips and, perhaps, scholarly sources. [↩]