Dr. Bump Halbritter

Assistant Professor

Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures

Michigan State University


I feel bad each time I read these stories of struggle. Both Noah Blon and Caron Creighton talk openly about frustration and failure. They both took on projects that they cared a great deal about and rode those projects directly into moments of despair; ones that made them wonder why they had even bothered. Ones that challenged them to dig deep--to ask not only how to keep going, but why. I don't want my students to have to feel the sting of struggle, yet I know they must. Adversity is the food of accomplishment.

Making movies, such as the ones Noah (and his team) and Caron made, is hard. There are layers and layers of technical and rhetorical concerns to address. Students who take on these kinds of projects--especially for the first time--find themselves mired in not only the problems of inquiry-based writing, but in figurative and literal tangles of audio-visual equipment and software. There is just so much to learn. Noah and Caron do a fine job of articulating both the challenges and the rewards of encountering and overcoming these problems. You may have noticed that some of those problems were shared: handling cameras, managing interviews, and engineering useful audio. However, others were specific to the project, the processes, and even the individual authors themselves: how to overcome specific technical problems, what to ask, who to ask, how to make sense of it all. Writing an assignment prompt that both addresses and accounts for these similarities and differences can be quite a challenge. The more such a prompt says, the less it will likely allow. My approach embraces a less-is-more perspective guided by the goal of getting my students to direct their own courses of inquiry. I trust that students will come to appreciate the results of my approach--if not the approach itself.

Noah and Caron talk about "loose theme restrictions" and even instructions that were "extremely vague." Ouch. I find that most of my students like to be told what to do--even if they say they don't. And that is completely understandable. They want to do well. They want and should expect to be given clear instructions. However, I know that the ultimate success of their projects in my WRA 417 class will rely less on the detail of my instructions and more on the passion they have for their projects. I could never assign the amount of work--of learning--that my students assign themselves. And so I trust them to do so. I ask them to propose their projects--to write their own assignments. And then I require that they seek and gain the approval of their classmates to pursue their projects they propose. And then I attempt to help them to manage what they have taken on. They experiment and try and fail and question and solve and take and make and write. And learn. Just as Noah and Caron did. And they share their troubles with each other--as Noah and Caron discuss. And they watch each other struggle--and succeed. They write and they listen. They learn to write for and to listen to each other by sharing their work--not just the products of their work, but the processes of their work. As Caron writes, sometimes they get reactions and responses that they do not want to see or hear. And yet, the demands of their passions will help the authors listen to their peers and to use that information to address the problems that they themselves find to be nagging. Adversity is the food of accomplishment.

Caron Creighton closes her movie by asking, "What do you believe?": a question that she didn't know to ask at the beginning of the project. A question she apparently had been wanting to ask for a long time, but that took her even longer to find her way to asking. However, it is the question she needed to transform her often taboo topic into a legitimate topic of inquiry. It is the question that enables a student to pursue a project that is germane to her concerns. It does so by leading the author to avoid the trap of writing a "what I believe" essay. The documentary genre can be a good partner for taboo topics that students have trouble sweeping under the academic rug. Documentary puts cameras and microphones into the hands of students and says, "Go ask questions. Go find people who have things to say about your topic and ask them to do so." People who are interviewed expect to be asked questions. They expect to provide responses. People who make documentaries expect to use those responses to address their questions--to write a story by using the words and actions of others.

Noah and Caron both tell stories of collaborative writing. Noah's team-authored work is obviously collaborative in a way that Caron's single-authored piece is not. However, both Noah and and Caron openly collaborated with the subjects of their inquiry. They not only consulted and quoted their sources, they sat down with them; they emailed them; they chatted with them; they looked them in the eyes; they pinned lavaliere microphones to the lapels of their shirts; they sat and watched and listened to them for hours and hours during the editing process. And both Noah and Caron openly discuss collaborating with their classmates, collecting and giving guidance throughout the life of the project--not just on the penultimate draft.

Documentary movie making is not academic writing. Nor is it traditional academic research. However, I have found it to be a remarkable vehicle for teaching both of these things.

Each semester I am amazed and humbled by the creativity and sincerity that my students bring to their work. I am a professor at a large, state university, and I am continually surprised by just how hard my students are willing to work to complete projects that will remain largely incomplete by the end of the semester: projects such as the ones Noah and Caron have shared here. And yet, each semester I find that I am surprised in the same way.

Just as I expected.

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