The Audiovisual Research Essay as an Alternative to Text-Based Scholarship
If there is something more desperate than the recent flood of articles about the so-called ‘crisis’ and ‘decline’ of the humanities, then it is the humanities subjects’ defensive response to such a challenge, (further) theorising this situation rather than offering substantial alternatives to their own changing context and conditions. The crisis, if there is one, is not directly related to contemporary art and culture, but it may be one confronting the possibilities for expressive form within our academic disciplines. The humanities, today, are struggling to communicate their otherwise intact values in a changing environment in which there is a much greater worth placed on knowledge distribution. Excessive theoretical treatments and their text-bound accompaniments lose merit in an era of greater cultural productivity and more efficient communications, one in which students and scholars are increasingly becoming creative entrepreneurs, building their reputations through new and more publicly visible forms and platforms. The emergence of affordable information technologies, with their capacity for online self-expression and dissemination, allow for, indeed, actively encourage this new creativity, potentially resulting in more progressive and enduring forms of knowledge production and articulation.
Among many of the emerging possibilities, the creative exploration of videographic practice not only supports the self-expression and visibility of humanities students, but, through the inevitable reliance of this practice on the ‘multimedia principle’ (according to Richard Mayer’s insight, “people learn better from words and pictures than from words alone” ) and a ‘learning by doing’ approach (Schank et al 1999), such an exploration might also be capable of deepening theoretical reflections on representation, medium-specificity and contemporary art and culture more generally. In smoothing out the divide between vertical and horizontal knowledge-dissemination, that is, by removing the hierarchy between educators and learners, videographic practice transforms the customary learning curve from knowledge-reproduction to active production. Through its multimedia affordances, audiovisual work could evolve to become a novel scholarly technique that might complement the longstanding tradition of the written paper.
However, videographic work has the opportunity to become a highly effective and powerful form of scholarly output only if it maintains and safeguards the established principles and criteria of value of text-based academic work. These are clearly defined in many standard guides to academic writing (for example, Kirszner and Mandell 2008), as well as in ones specifically about writing about cinema (see, among others, Bordwell 2004, Corrigan 2004, Gocsik, Barsam and Monahan 2013). A challenging (and inspiring) task, both for the producer and for the teacher of videographic works, is to transfer these well-defined but text-focused criteria to the new, audiovisual scholarly medium. This perplexing challenge of discrepancies between media has a long history, at least in Film Studies. Raymond Bellour’s 1975 article, ‘The Unattainable Text’, marks a pivotal moment within the theory of film analysis by reflecting on the then irresolvable medium divide. “[T]he text of the film is unattainable because it is an unquotable text” – Bellour (20) famously concludes, struggling with the gap between the audiovisual medium studied and his textual means of analysis. What once was unattainable, today becomes a feasible practice: in his 2012 contemplation of the video essay’s potential to contribute to ‘the future of academic film and television criticism’ ErlendLavik states that “[f]or the first time, there is material equivalence between film and film criticism, as both exist – or can be made to exist – simply as media files.” What once was a theoretical speculation has now become a much simpler, practical and technical question.
I see the audiovisual essay by Thomas van den Berg, that I have curated as part of my contribution to [in]Transition, as a worthy attempt not only at transferring text-based academic qualities to an audiovisual container, but also at addressing Bellour's frustration, and supporting Lavik’s ideal. During Spring term 2013 Thomas, a research masters student at the University of Groningen, produced this work as a final assignment for my course ‘Arts and Cultural Change’. The fairly extensive, more than half an hour long, essay consists of two main parts: after a brief introduction, the video offers a rapid walkthrough of the differences between ‘essay(istic) films’, ‘video essays’, and ‘essay videos’ [01’10” – 3’54”]; this is then followed by a thorough audiovisual research essay about the various techniques of unreliability present in Michael Walker’s puzzling film Chasing Sleep (2000) [3’55” – 35’53”].
While reflecting on the format, Thomas has a rather categorical, if not strict, take on the academic function of an essay video approach, which, according to him, “seeks to combine the referential character of the academic tradition, and exploit the traits of the audiovisual mode of presentation; employing text and image beyond the case study at hand” [3’38” – 3’49”]. In short, he seems to agree with Drew Morton in the view that “most published [visual essays] suffer from a perceived lack of academic integrity.” At this point, instead of trying to define the new format’s relationship to ‘academic integrity’, it is better to note that the present video, as an autonomous argumentative research essay, is only one among the possible demonstrations of the videographic form that can be of value to Film Studies. Let me remind you of the words of Catherine Grant who points out that “digital video is usefully seen not only as a promising communicative tool with different affordances than those of written text, but also as an important emergent cultural and phenomenological field for the creative practice of our work as film scholars.” What this also implies is that it is not evident whether producers of videos should be “aiming to ‘translate’ the (often unspoken) norms and traditions of written film studies into audiovisual versions, or (…) embrace from the outset the idea [of] creating ontologically new scholarly forms.” If one agrees with this reasonably inclusive approach, then setting any general evaluation and review criteria to videographic work becomes rather difficult. At least without prior effort on distinguishing sub-genres, communication purposes and addressed audiences within both poetic and argumentative works, it is impossible, and altogether useless, to peer-review videos (whose vast range includes annotated excerpts, mashups and supercuts, fan tributes, video lectures, thesis videos, research essays, etc.).
From this abundant diversity of audiovisual works, an autonomous argumentative research essay, the type that Thomas made as a course assignment, lends itself more easily to some pre-existing academic standards – recognised in traditional textual scholarship – and hence eases the task of evaluation. It is autonomous as it provides, just like a traditional academic paper, a self-contained standalone experience, and argumentative as it offers thesis-driven explicit reasoning (further examples of argumentative research essays, created for Janet Bergstrom’s UCLA seminar, are listed in the appendix of Matthias Stork’s interview with Bergstrom). David Bordwell’s concise but helpful writing manual recommends a simple rule, which could be applicable both to the production and to the assessment of this type of visual essay: “You can sum up the structure of an argumentative essay in the acronym TREE: Thesis supported by Reasons that rest upon Evidence and Examples” (19). While Bordwell follows his own scholarly method (and high standards) in terms of delivering immense knowledge through sound argumentation, his video essays – produced by Erik Gunneson – work more as video lectures presenting voice-overed film stills (Constructive Editing in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket ) or PowerPoint slides on auto-play (How Motion Pictures Became the Movies ; CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See without Glasses! ). In terms of organisation, research videos, as much as written texts, need to present an apt and original thesis, employ propositions, premises, verification, and conclusion. The Wadsworth Handbook, Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell’s go-to guide to academic writing, might also be helpful in planning, shaping, drafting, writing up, and referencing a sound research argument – see especially their ‘storyboarding’ method for the visually oriented (49-50). Reverse engineering these criteria to the argumentative kind of video essay at hand might offer useful guidance, and what is more validation, to the reviewing process. On the other hand, this one-to-one correspondence between textual and audiovisual works does not readily apply to questions regarding assessing aesthetic and technical choices. While the aesthetic qualities of a video essay are subordinated to and controlled by the success – clarity and soundness – of communicating a lucid argument, technical merits, determined by the videographic worker’s audiovisual literacy, remain subjective and therefore difficult to evaluate rationally.
Before inviting you to press play on Thomas' video, I would like to make a final remark. I do not think that videographic works will take the place of traditional textual forms of representing results in Film Studies, but I do see reasons why, and evidence for how, their implementation could provide a valuable contribution to research and educational practices, and, ultimately, offer a viable alternative to addressing the humanities’ crisis of expression and visibility.
Bellour, Raymond. “The Unattainable Text,” Screen, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1975): 19-27.
Berg, Thomas van den. (Un)reliable (Un)reliability: or, Perceptual Subversions of the Continuity Editing System. (2013). Online at: https://vimeo.com/73310641.
Bordwell, David.The McGraw-Hill Film Viewer’s Guide. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004).
Corrigan, Timothy J. A Short Guide to Writing About Film. Fifth edition (New York: Pearson Longman, 2005).
Gocsik, Karen, Richard Barsam and Dave Monahan 2013. Writing About Movies. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company.
Grant, Catherine. “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking,” Aniki Vol. 1, No. 1 (2014): 49-62. Online at: http://aim.org.pt/ojs/index.php/revista/article/view/59/html.
Kirszner, Laurie G. and Stephen R. Mandell. The Wadsworth Handbook. Eighth edition (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008).
Lavik, Erlend. “The Video Essay: The Future of Academic Film and Television Criticism?” Frames Cinema Journal #1.(2012). Online at: http://framescinemajournal.com/article/the-video-essay-the-future/.
Mayer, Richard E. “Introduction to Multimedia Learning.” In The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, ed. Richard E. Mayer, 1-18. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
Morton, Drew. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing” MediaCommons (2013). Online at: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-are-new-insights-digital-publishing/response/visual-essay-digital-publishing.
Schank, Roger C., Tamara R. Berman, and Kimberli A. Macperson. “Learning by Doing” In Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory (Vol. II), ed. Charles M. Reigeluth, 161-181. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1999).
Stork, Matthias, and Janet Bergstrom. “Film Studies with High Production Values: An Interview with Janet Bergstrom on Making and Teaching Audiovisual Essays.” Frames Cinema Journal #1.(2012). Online at: http://framescinemajournal.com/article/film-studies-with-high-production-values/2/.
Audiovisual Development and Education
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what about a video? In his book Writing Space, Bolter explains that “remediation” happens when our writing space changes with the development of technology. He suggests that when we study the history of writing, we should always ask:
How does (the new) writing space refashion its predecessor?
How does it claim to improve on print’s ability to make our thoughts visible and to constitute the lines of communication for our society? (Bolter, p13)
Even though the Bolter’s argument focuses on electronic writing, I believe the same applies for audiovisual (AV) media. The development of AV started around 1930s. At the time, it provided a revolutionary way for people to communicate – our expression is no longer limited to verbal, but can also be visual (or both at the same time). With its specific affordances, how do AV media make our thoughts visible? How did they impact the way we communicate and teach? In this essay, the development of audiovisual (AV) media is revisited to explore the impact of AV on the importance of printed text and for education.
Development of Audiovisual Media
1. What is AV?
AV materials are both visual and verbal, and are available in various forms and sizes. They include film and video, which were produced by machines like film projectors, lantern slide projectors, tape recorders, television, and camcorders. This list continues to expand as people seek to communicate through multimedia.
2. Origin of AV:
The development of audiovisual media was based upon visual media. At the early stages of AV development, 52% of American schools were using visual films and 3% were using sound films according to a National Education Association (NEA) survey performed in 1933. AV development started to gain momentum after WWII. One of the reasons is that people came back from the war with first-hand experience of rapid, massive training through the use of motion pictures and other AV media. Since then, more people were receptive to the idea of learning from AV. In addition, the baby boomer generation started going to school. New schools were built with new AV equipment, and hence there was a need for technological and pedagogical support. Positions were created for building and district audiovisual coordinators. In 1947, the Department of Visual Instruction (DVI) of NEA in the United States changed its name to the Department of Audiovisual Instruction (DAVI), which developed into today’s Association for Educational Communications and Technology(AECT).
3. Mission of DAVI
In 1950, the first DVI president, Harry Wilson, stated the missions of the DAVI as follows:
|The necessity for teaching more and more without increasing the class period, school day, or graduation age; the futility of trying to provide meaningful learning experiences without showing that which cannot be adequately expressed or understood thru words alone / the tragic neglect of the paramount responsibility for building better citizens of the nation and of the world by instilling desirable attitudes and appreciations thru the use of dramatic, emotionally derived learning—these are some of the vital problems which can be solved best, if not only, thru the use of audio-visual materials. (“AECT History.” 2010)|
It is interesting that AV was viewed as the best, or the only solution to “teaching more” and providing “meaningful learning experience” in limited time because our goals for using educational technology today is still the same. It is also interesting that Wilson pointed out the possibility to express more contents with AV, which is impossible with text alone. AV was seen as a media to complement, but not replace text.
The impact of AV on Education
The integration of AV in the field of education was made possible by the contribution of many people. They include Thomas Edison, James Finn, and Edgar Dale.
1. Thomas Edison
The great inventor of phonograph and motion picture believe that “motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” (Thomas Edison, 1922)
Until now, motion pictures are often used to supplement teaching, but have not replaced textbooks. It seems like textbook is going to stay, though it might be presented in different forms to include different media. Looking into Edgar Dale’s insight provides some hints as to why this is so.
2. Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience
In 1946, Dale’s cone of experience was published his textbook, “AudioVisual Methods in Teaching”. The cone of experience (Fig. 1) was a tool for media selection, with in a continuum from concrete teaching techniques and instructional materials at the bottom of the cone, to the most abstract techniques at the top.
Figure 1: The original labels for Dale's ten categories are: Direct, Purposeful Experiences; Contrived Experiences; Dramatic Participation; Demonstrations; Field Trips; Exhibits; Motion Pictures; Radio; Recordings; Still Pictures; Visual Symbols; and Verbal Symbols.
Many misconceptions arose, that the amount of content retained increases with the level of concreteness of the learning experience. This misconception was cross referenced in many papers in the discourse, as demonstrated in Figure 2 and 3.
Figure 2. Percentages were added to Dale’s Cone of Experience.
Figure 3. Instructional Strategies and Retention Rates.
Numbers were attached to the different media presented in the cone without the backup of research data. Dale clarified that there is no rank or order to the level of efficiency in communicating through media that are concrete or abstract. In fact, different media would be appropriate for specific learner and task. He acknowledged that “words can be a powerful and efficient means of conveying ideas even for the youngest children.” (Januszewski, p13)
Dale believes that “we ought to use all the ways of experiencing that we can” to have rich, full, deep and broad (learning) experience and understanding.” (Januszewski, p13)
Figure 4. Edgar Dale.
Dale’s cone of experience was very influential in the field, as it was the first attempt in the discourse of the field to integrate media with learning theories.
3. James Finn
In 1963, James Finn, the president of DAVI at the time, defined “AudioVisual communication” in his article “The Changing Role of the AudioVisual Process in Education: A Definition and a Glossary of Related Terms”:
Audiovisual communication is that branch of educational theory and practice concerned primarily with the design and use of messages which control the learning process. (Robert and Ronald, p 65)
The term “messages” within this definition indicate the shift in focus away from the AV equipment (tape and films) to design of the content that is being communicated.
The discourse of both Finn and Dale, two influential scholars in the AV movement, agree that it is not the medium that controls the efficiency of communication, but appropriate media, or a combination of medium needs to suit particular user and content. Text has different affordances than AV media; effective communication is achieved by different media complementing, but not replacing each other.
“AECT History.” AECT. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://www.aect.org/about/history/>.
“AVCR.” AECT. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://www.aect.org/about/history/avcr1.htm>.
Bolter, Jay David. Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Mahwah (N.J.): Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001. Print.
“The Human Touch: in the Rush to Place a Computer on Every Desk, Schools Are Neglecting Intellectual Creativity and Personal.” Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0MJG/is_4_4/ai_n6335687/>.
Januszewski, Alan. Educational Technology: the Development of a Concept. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 2001. Print.
“Print Media Vs. Broadcast Media | EHow.com.” EHow | How To Do Just About Everything! | How To Videos & Articles. Web. 17 Nov. 2010. <http://www.ehow.com/facts_6389859_print-media-vs_-broadcast-media.html>.
Reiser, Robert A., and Donald P. Ely. “The Field of Educational Technology as Reflected through Its Definitions.” Educational Technology Research and Development V45.N3 (1997): 63-72.
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