Saturday, January 6, 2018

Teaching the Video Essay

This past semester (fall 2017) was the first time I've required students in my upper-division Postcolonial Literature and Film class to submit video essays instead of traditional essays (2-3 and 6-7 page assignments), and while students were not unanimous in their endorsement of the form, over all the experience was very positive. 14 of the 17 students recommended that I require the same assignments in future iterations of the course.

I was inspired to teach the video essay because I think it's important to provide the opportunity for students to express their ideas in a format that is accessible both inside and outside the classroom (in an end-of-the-semester questionnaire, I was happy to learn that 15 out of 17 students stated that they would be more likely to share their essays with others via YouTube than sharing their written essays), and I discovered that students in my department weren't learning how to do so in their other classes.

A few student comments include the following, when asked if they preferred the video essay or the written essay:

"Surprisingly, a video essay. I like that I can put an image/sound with the argument I am making. The time forces me to say more with less 'wordiness'."

"Video essay. It takes longer, but it is a more enjoyable form of communication. It is fun to make (and probably more fun to read/grade)."

"As a visual person, I appreciated the visual element of this media. I was stressed about it at first though."

"I prefer creating video essays because (even though it takes more time) I enjoy that creative 'filmmaking' process. I love being able to see the finished product be the realization of the initial vision."

11 out of 17 students stated that they preferred submitting video essays rather than written essays, even though the learning curve initially was quite steep. Indeed, many students struggled with creating their first video essay. Representative comments of the 6 students who preferred written essays include:

"While I like the creative component of video essays, I found I didn't have as much time to spend on them as I'd have liked."

"I feel like I can communicate better through the written word."

Below, I briefly outline the steps I used in my instruction and preparation process as well as the results. (Do note that students still completed numerous writing assignments in the class, including an author presentation, class discussion paper, and midterm and final exam essays.)

My most important bit of advice, at least this worked for me, is that I assured students that I would not grade the quality of their video essay (regarding use of graphics, sounds, vocal delivery, etc.) so long as they met the assignment's minimum expectations: video length and quantity of visuals. I do not teach film production or computer graphics so I did not feel that it was my place to assess student work in these dimensions--rather, I wanted to tap into student creativity with minimum pressure when it came to the artistry of the video essay craft.

Assignments were graded on the strength of argument in terms of the inclusion of a quality and original main claim, evidence, counter-arguments as necessary, subclaims, qualifiers, a warrant, and backing (via Toulmin)--as expected of a typical academic argumentation paper. Granted, the form was new for nearly all of the students, so the task of submitting a substantial assignment in this format remained a challenge.

Background Research

The biggest time-saver in my planning process was realizing that I needed to primarily focus on letting my students know the basic tools they could use, and then do whatever I could to lower the pressure in terms of the aesthetic quality of their video essays--and then look forward to the results.

This strategy has worked marvelously in my World Cinema class in which eight groups of five students each make short films modeled on the films I screen in class. Students in the class as a whole typically love seeing the 5-7 minute re-creations of Bicycle Thieves and other famous films made by their classmates during class presentations; inevitably, the quality of each group's short film is often surprisingly stunning, considering that most students are taking the class for GE credit without backgrounds in formal filmmaking.

Here's what I did to prep for teaching the video essay:

1) First, I located a few apps and basic programs (such as iMovie) that I could use to model simple videos with voice-overs. Then I researched websites and teaching forums focusing on the production of video essays, but ended up not finding a satisfactory one-stop source--I remain open for suggestions! Instead, I stayed inspired by getting sidetracked by superior work by video essays on YouTube and the work of colleagues I admire such as @filmstudiesff and @acafanmom (be sure to check out their work).

2) I invited an expert from campus to talk with students for about 20 minutes at the beginning of one of my classes early in the semester, namely, Bernard Johnson. He provided a list of easy-to-use tools that I listed for students on our course's online platform.

3) Allowed for time and space in class to discuss the project and I distributed handouts with guidelines for each of the assignments.

Video Essay 1

Video essay 1 was due during week 7 of the 15 week semester. The traditional paper required a theme analysis of 2-3 pages without outside resources. For the video essay assignment, I used the same assignment instructions, but modified the presentation format to be a video essay of 3-5 minutes in duration.

The handout was two pages long, and included these categories: Assignment Description; Video Essay Requirements; Argument Requirements; Grading Rubric.

The minimum requirements to achieve a superior score, which all students met, included:
1. Submit a digital file including voiceover narration, sound, text, and at least 10 images (include sources in a Works Cited page).
2. The video must be 3-5 minutes in length

After students submitted their assignments, I used the beginning of class time to ask students to write about their experience creating their video essay.

Video Essay 2

Video essay 2 was due during week 13 of the 15 week semester. The traditional paper required a 6-7 page theme analysis with five outside sources. I used the same assignment expectations, but modified the presentation format to be a video essay of 5 to 10 minutes in duration.

The handout was two pages long, and included these categories: Assignment Description;
Video Essay Requirements; and Argument Requirements, which entailed a one-page list of questions students needed to fill out and submit separately, including a brief summary of their outside sources, a brief description of their counter-argument, and a Works Cited page.

The minimum requirements to achieve a superior score, which all students met, included:
1. Submit a digital file including voiceover narration, sound, text, and at least 10 images (include sources in a Works Cited page).
2. The video must be 5-10 minutes in length
3. Include music (does not have to be for the entire duration).
4. Include at least one moving image clip.

At the end of the semester, I used the beginning of one of the class sessions to ask students to write about their experience creating their video essays.


1) Yes, I'd do it again! There is a magic that occurs whenever image, sounds, and dialogue overlap, which is a pleasure to experience. More importantly, I believe students acquired a new skill and overcame significant challenges in the process. Now, when they watch video essays, my hope is that they might experience the form as active rather than passive participants.

An unexpected element of the assignment for me, while grading the work, was a deep appreciation of a certain feeling of informality students tended to transmit via this form; this is not easy to explain, but since students were not required to present flawless oral deliveries of their work, it was in the gaps and inconsistencies of each delivery that one could sense that students were truly taking a risk when presenting their explanations and points of view in a way that can arguably be masked behind signpost academic language and the visual formality of the formatted page. I did my best to express my gratitude to students for taking on this challenge when providing feedback to their work.

2) On the last day of the class I presented an exit questionnaire. Each student allowed me to share the results, included below:

1. Which takes more time: Video Essay: 11 students // Written Essay: 6 students
2. Which format do you prefer: Video Essay: 11 students // Written Essay: 6 students
3. Would you recommend future students in the class create video essays? Yes: 14 // No: 3
4. Which format would you most likely share with others outside of the class: Video Essay: 15 students // Written Essay: 2 students
5. May I anonymously publish these results on my blog or elsewhere: Yes: 17 // No: 0

If any instructor who reads this and would like to discuss further, let me know. I still have a lot to learn. Contacting me via Twitter is usually best. Thanks! -- jw

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Your Name (Shinkai, 2016): Mini-Film Review

Your Name (Shinkai, 2016), the highest grossing anime film to date, maintains its charm on the first viewing because it withholds key narrative information--the way it's high school characters are linked despite differences in time and space is mystifying. So, there's no wonder why the film intrigued audiences initially, for it's fun to see how all the pieces fit together. Of course, the film appeals on other levels too: the universal awkward experiences of adolescence, captivating artwork (especially a stunning dream sequence, the highlight of the film), and catchy pop music. I'm fascinated by the ways the film initially attracted young Japanese audiences. It reminds me of other film phenomenons such as Cape No. 7 (Wei, 2008) in Taiwan which retained it's staying power via word of mouth/social media and the formation of communities of viewers who return to the film multiple times.

35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2008): Mini-Film Review

35 Shots of Rum (2008), directed by Claire Denis, depicts a father-daughter bond in today's Paris. The father, a widower, is a subway driver who returns from work each night looking forward to the simple pleasure of having dinner with his daughter, a college anthropology student. The film reminds one of Biutiful (Iñárritu, 2010), as it traces the lives of residents in a European metropolis, yet it's pacing is in line with an Ozu film. On first glance, one might feel that little happens in the story; yet the diurnal rhythms on display here open up an entire psychological world worth reflection.

Embed from Getty Images
Actor Alex Descas and director Claire Denis at the 65th Venice Film Festival

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Beaches of Agnès (Varda, 2009): Mini-Film Review

This is my short love letter to The Beaches of Agnès (Varda, 2009), a documentary I'm grateful to have seen and would recommend. It is off the wall--at times loose (the camera captures household mirrors placed on a beach) and at times structured (interviews and historical footage)--as it questions what film is and how it is that a great filmmaker, Agnès Varda--both director and subject of the camera--finds herself, and finds herself in the story of film. 

In doing so she gets the last word in each of the conversations she depicts and participates in, from the French New Wave to the present. But she doesn't resolve as the story keeps on going.

#skatethru: Skateboarding Through Various Spots, Pt. 2

Here's a series of leisurely videos of riding through a handful of spots in Oregon and California. Part 1 of this #skatethru series, with videos from China and Korea can be viewed at this link. Thanks for viewing!

San Clemente State Beach Campground, CA (2017)

Myrtle Point Skatepark, OR (2017)

Ocean Beach, CA (2016)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Terrorizers (Yang, 1986): Mini-Film Review

Edward Yang's 楊德昌 masterpiece The Terrorizers (1986) 恐怖分子 is one of the few films that I find impossible to praise too highly. I recently re-watched it for the umpteenth time and remain astounded by its opening act which, as a definitive postmodern work, anticipates the multimedia, multi-soundscape, multi-layered editing techniques often attributed to more well-known world cinema films of the 1990s and early 2000s, such as the intro. to Stone's 1991 film JFK--although Yang's technique is methodical and less dramatized, it is more than equal in terms of technique and affect.

Moreover, Yang's narrative style, which interconnects the lives of multiple urban residents of mid-1980s Taipei, perfects this narrative form well before films such as Amores Perros (Iñárritu, 2000), 21 Grams (Iñárritu, 2003), Crash (Haggis, 2004), and Babel (Iñárritu, 2006).

In addition to it's landmark qualities within film history in general, it is equally significant as an unparalleled snapshot of Taiwan in the mid-1980s as the nation transitioned into a new era in terms of its postcolonial condition. I elaborate further on this film, its critical reception, and its representation of this important juncture in Taiwan history in the conclusion of my book on Taiwan film, Transnational Representations (HKUP, 2014).