My first experience with teaching digital-video writing was in the fall semester of 2003. I was then a TA at UNC-Chapel Hill, in the final year of my graduate studies. I was teaching one of only three sections that semester of Carolina's version of "basic" writing. I had decided that a digital-video-based documentary project may give my students important opportunities to interview other members of the academic community at Carolina, to assess the credibility of those they interviewed, to make editorial decisions about what to "quote" from those they interviewed (and why), to gain experience organizing and editing that material, to work collaboratively, to gain experience recognizing needs to revise a draft of their work and to make those revisions, and to exchange their work with a variety of real audience members. In short, making movies is about far more than the texts that my students produce.
Making movies--a form of multimedia writing--has always been, for me, a vehicle for teaching the processes of writing, the art of rhetoric, and the practice of research. Now, more than eight years later, digital-video writing plays a role in nearly all of my teaching and research efforts. In the past few years, first-year writing has moved from being my primary teaching responsibility to something, unfortunately, I rarely get to teach. Instead, I primarily teach upper division undergraduate and graduate classes in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. WRA 417, Multimedia Writing, is just such a class. WRA 417 serves undergraduates in our Professional Writing major as well as students in our graduate programs. Two of my former undergraduate students, Noah Blon and Caron Creighton, have been kind enough to share their work from WRA 417 with us.
Taken together, these projects are good examples of inquiry-based, undergraduate writing projects that have grown from collaborative learning environments. Noah's documentary about Robert Busby, a slain community leader from Lansing, MI, was a group-authored project that Noah proposed to his class in the fall of 2008. As Noah will describe below, several of his classmates were eager to get on board with his idea and to participate in the steep learning curve of moving Noah's vision from conceptual to concrete. Their movie, "Remembering Robert," documents more than what they learned about Busby; it documents their lightning quick development as multimedia authors and community researchers. Caron Creighton's work grew from her interest in investigative journalism. She chose to work alone for her project on the religious lives of her MSU peers. Caron chose Casey Miles' "The Gender Project" as a model for her work. Casey had begun "The Gender Project" during the first semester of her M.A. studies at MSU in the fall of 2008. Caron's work profited from Casey's model; however, late in her process, Caron became dissatisfied with the three individual works she had created. At the urging of her classmates and her instructor, Caron decided to move beyond her model and get her three interviewees to talk to each other in one, edited piece. With this move, Caron's work took on its own voice: i.e., her authorial voice, which emerged through the audible voices of the three subjects of her video.
Unlike many instances of graduate-student research that find their way to published results, undergraduate research writing often finds its genesis in coursework. It emerges in response to an assignment prompt, as have Noah's and Caron's projects. In this way, our work is the result of the collaborative efforts of instructor and students. In stating this, I mean in no way to try to claim authorial credit for the work that clearly belongs to my students. Rather, I mean to call attention to the responsibility that instructors have to create prompts that allow their students the imaginative and intellectual freedom to realize their authorial autonomy. I mean to suggest that my students' work is all the more remarkable, not because I am their collaborator, but because of their imaginative approaches to the prompts. My goal with the assignment out of which both of these projects grew was to ask students to pursue something they really wanted to learn by way of a digital-video-based writing project. I trusted, going in, that the epistemic nature of writing would help them learn about the subjects of their interests. And, I trusted that their commitments to those subjects would drive them to learn about the limits and affordances of digital-based authoring as a means of conducting inquiry.
Consequently, my goal for their work was a bit different from their goals. My operational goal was to get my students to use multimedia authoring as a means for addressing/solving problems that matter to them. More than teaching these students how to use specific media--hardware and software applications that are seemingly moribund the day they are released--my approach attempts to target the need for technological applications rather than the applications themselves. That said, much of the time students spend in this class--as you will read from Noah and Caron--is in the quest to gain knowledge of and experience with specific multimedia authoring tools. Moreover, in this introductory course, I prefer to allow students to use computers and software that provide the highest level of initial comfort, access, and familiarity. Pursuing the projects by way of these technologies nearly always results in students' expressing their desires to use more and more powerful--and challenging--hardware and software options "next time." Music to this teacher's ears.
And yet, these projects look and sound different from most inquiry-based, undergraduate writing--not only in terms of their mediation, but also in terms of the sources they consult and quote. Consequently, you may be asking how these works from Caron and from Noah's team are representative of undergraduate research. Before we address that question, let's first consult with our lawyer. In his book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lawrence Lessig defines the multimediated work of contemporary media remixers as writing. Lessig stated,
Writing, in the traditional sense of words placed on paper, is the ultimate form of democratic creativity, where, again, ‘democratic’ doesn’t mean people vote, but instead means that everyone within a society has access to the means to write. We teach everyone to write–in theory, if not in practice. We understand quoting is an essential part of that writing. It would be impossible to construct and support that practice if permission were required every time a quote was made. The freedom to quote, and to build upon, the words of others is taken for granted by everyone who writes. (p. 52-53, emphasis added)
Lessig appeals to more than our sensibilities about what writing is; he digs into the ethical foundation of what writing is (builds upon the words/works of others) and how writers do what it does. Quoting is essential to Lessig's democratic creativity. But quoting is not only essential to writing; it is fundamental to research. In an era known as the information age, being able to make determinations about the the quality and relevance of quotable information becomes all the more important for building knowledge. And by quality here, I mean more than simply the authoritative value of the words being quoted. Quality here also refers to the nature of the information: not only words, but the audio-visual presentation of the contexts, motions, and actions involved in the delivery of those words. Making authorial determinations about this extra-linguistic information is not usually a focus for research-writing instruction. As Lessig claims,
While writing with text is the stuff that everyone is taught to do, filmmaking and record making were, for most of the twentieth century, the stuff that professionals did. . . . But what happens when writing with film (or music, or images, or every other form of ‘professional speech’ from the twentieth century) becomes as democratic as writing with text? (p. 54)
In the pages and multimedia works that follow, Noah and Caron discuss such quotable sounds and images in terms of A-roll (primary footage) and B-roll (support footage). They will discuss not only finding authoritative people to interview, but how they prepared themselves to be authoritative interviewers. They will discuss the layers of information and decision making that went into moving their questions and interests into unfinished, ongoing projects. That is not to say that the works presented here are unfinished drafts. They most certainly are not. These works are final drafts of projects that remain open--finished works of unfinished work.
And that is precisely what the assignment called for the students in my WRA 417 classes to produce. I generally find that the questions my students have about the topics that interest them most are not small. They're big. Consequently, projects designed to help them address their questions are big as well. That usually spells disaster for courses that focus their primary attention on the 7-10 page, finished drafts of traditional research writing. For those papers to be good, the projects need to be correspondingly small. Likewise, it doesn't take very many interviews to fill up 5 minutes of documentary. However, if the inquiry-based project guiding the work is aimed at producing a 30-minute documentary, then a 5-minute video about the making of that documentary may help students learn how to use multimedia writing as a means for research and give students experience finishing a multimedia text. The research and the text are partners in realizing learning goals. They are like the different sized gears of a clock that each do unique work within a common operation. Noah's team produced a "making-of" video that is a meta look at their project. Caron's video is more representative of her inquiry itself--one that began as three videos that were merged into one. As you will learn from Noah and Caron, their projects began with ideas that became realized as proposals that led to work that led to revised goals that led to final products that were significantly different from those proposed.
Just as I expected.
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