Midterm assignments in my classes had become hapless rituals of recapitulation dutifully endured by students and myself alike. As familiar as bad coffee, they needed rejuvenation, especially in the context of an upper division undergraduate seminar on methodologies in new modes of research and authoring. Indeed, it seemed impossible to deliver a midterm in its traditional form, as a set of written questions requiring written responses, in a course dedicated to rethinking scholarly practice. Hence, the video midterm assignment was born.
The tool? Seesmic. Dubbed the “Twitter of video,” Seesmic was, for a brief while, a platform designed to host video microblogging so that people could quickly and easily post mini-video updates using webcams instead of 140-character text-based tweets. The Seesmic company was founded in 2007 in San Francisco by Loïc Le Meur, a French social media entrepreneur with a background in software development. The videoblogging tool was launched later that year. It was initially successful to the extent that a group of dedicated users posted videos, created conversations and shared ideas; however, the platform never really took off, and certainly never gained the prominence of Twitter. The company eventually shifted the orientation of Seesmic’s capacities, creating a tool that could aggregate one’s disparate social media applications into a single space. Seesmic was, like so many tools, transient and contributed to a broader discussion of obsolescence and mutability, fundamental to contemporary digital literacy.
Despite its evanescence, my students and I were able to make use of Seesmic for an experiment with the midterm format in spring, 2009. These were my three primary goals when adopting this platform:
I wanted students to take more responsibility for their learning, its outcomes and the assessment of those outcomes; this is a general objective, in line with the goals of the Institute for Multimedia Literacy’s Honors in Multimedia Scholarship program, which is dedicated to supporting students in the crafting of new modes of media-rich scholarly communication based on research in their major, as suited to the particular demands of their own disciplinary culture. Core to the program is the mandate to have students participate in their learning with greater agency.
I also wanted my students to experience the notion of assessment through a different lens, so I needed a way to create a sense of unfamiliarity, which I hoped would bring into relief the dynamics implicit within traditional midterms; again, this objective was part of a larger mandate related to scholarly multimedia, but it was also tied to the desire to have students think about scholarly traditions and practices generally. In order to create new modes of scholarly communication, which may also challenge scholarly conventions, students need to be able to articulate the relationship between specific incursions into tradition and broader rhetorical contexts.
Finally, I wanted students to discover and use a new tool as a group and to continue the course’s interest in the impact of media platforms on rhetorical potentials.
Below is the assignment that I distributed. Why is it written? It’s simple: I felt compelled to abide by a sense of responsibility to clarity, which seemed to require physicality. On paper. With words, a deadline and very clear expectations. Despite my desire to embody the assignment, to integrate it fully using Seesmic myself, there lingered a sense of disciplinary tradition, surveillance and the rules of academia, whether real or imagined. Too often, too, unexpected directions taken in experiments with new media tools create a slippery space in which students lack a sense of what’s expected. While the students in our program tend to be adventurous and willing to experiment, it is necessary to balance that enthusiasm with clear boundaries and articulated expectations.
That said, I did create a Seesmic account and, webcam on, delivered the assignment. Eight or nine takes later, I began to fret over wasted time, vanity and, perhaps more importantly, the tone that my video would set. Would students immediately adopt the same conventions I used? I did not want to constrain possibilities. Why not let the students start afresh, without preconceptions or the model my video would represent? In the end, I opted not to show my video assignment and instead delivered the assignment in class, with a written version distributed on paper and posted to the course Wiki.
The Midterm Assignment
One of the objectives of IML 346 includes calling attention to the relationship between form and content in various media platforms. We’ve talked about how interactive media projects and platforms “produce” users, and we’ve looked at what works and doesn’t work in terms of several web-based scholarly interactive projects. Another objective for the class is to consider new ways of deploying media; how can we use the array of tools that is available? How are these tools meant to be used and how might they be “mis-used” to do something more interesting?
With these two objectives in mind, your assignment for the midterm is to draft one compelling or provocative question for the midterm to be answered by the rest of us. You will post—or ask—your question in the form of a video on Seesmic, which has been described as a videoblogging application.
As people post replies, feel free to continue the conversation: what can you add? What might you clarify? As each person responds, do you feel the need to synthesize the responses?
In turn, you will have to answer five other questions posted by your classmates, responding in video to each. Here, too, feel free to post more than once as conversations develop.
Consider the math: if you each ask a one-minute question, and then you each post one-minute answers, that’s six questions, each with five answers . . . You get the picture: if you post a 10-minute question, with 10-minute answers, this could be a very, very long midterm!
More importantly, you should think about the form: what does Seesmic do well? What does it do poorly? How can/should you present yourself?
You all will be responsible for grading these midterms, and we will define a rubric in class.
The results of the midterm were fascinating. In a certain way, the experiment failed completely. Most of the questions posed by the students were facile or inexplicably broad. I had imagined wonderfully engaged musings over the course’s main text, Software Takes Command, by Lev Manovich, or attempts to weave together themes from our information visualization exercises and the array of videos and examples of motion graphics we had screened. For example, one student, referencing Jay David Bolter and David Grusin, asked, “Does remediation by computers add a new dimension?” Further, the answers offered in the threaded video conversations were for the most part equally flat and uninteresting, especially as they went on. One student, for example, mused on the ways in which the variety of viewpoints has expanded with the rise of the Internet, and another fretted over the power of technology. “Will our tools dominate us?” he asked, but without conviction and with no reference to our far more nuanced in-class discussions.
Students also disliked the platform. They complained about the time it took to shoot, post and respond to the questions, as well as the time needed to learn how to use the software quickly and effectively.
Despite less-than-exceptional questions and answers related to course content, the students nevertheless uncovered a series of issues and ideas foundational to digital media, scholarly communication and rhetoric. They also experienced the very tangible impact of software and its control, which is a subject tackled in Manovich’s text. We might have been able to discuss and illustrate all of these ideas from the reading and by extrapolating from other related experiences, but we never could have understood them as effectively without having had the week-long immersion in Seesmic.
Perhaps the most significant attribute the students discovered was performance. Each of the students responded to their role as camera subject in very different ways with regard to dress, stance and voice. These aspects are traditionally invisible or naturalized in the written midterm—students assume a writing “voice” that they’ve determined to be appropriate after many years of writing within scholarly situations, and little thought is dedicated to the topic. However, in video, students overtly pondered, often jokingly, how to speak appropriately given the specifics of the rhetorical situation. Should they speak as they did during our seminars? Should their voice be more official? Or should it mimic more casual modes used with other social media tools? The webcam prompts a particular kind of staging, and the students struggled to find a way to situate their more scholarly project within its vernacular.
The students considered what would constitute an appropriate visual form. Most framed themselves in medium close-up, using the webcam and its conventions. Only one student opted not to appear at all, presenting his questions and answers in text form only. In addition to framing, however, students explored gesture and activities: one student was extremely proper, sitting upright with poise as if for an important job interview, while another chose to slouch casually, as if unconcerned by the midterm’s implied rigor and official capacity. Another spoke very quickly, and at times moved his camera around frenetically to show other parts of his room in order to illustrate key points.
The students also struggled with performance and its relationship to revision. All of them rehearsed their questions and answers, and shot each video repeatedly until it was “right.” Indeed, they became very aware of their use of gesture, vocal tone and even of a kind of intimacy with the camera as they rehearsed, shot and reshot their answers. They also became acutely aware of time and of the time “lost” in rehearsing and re-shooting their responses. At one point, at the beginning of a response, a student declared that his answer would be shot in one take only. This gave him permission, in a sense, for any lack of polish, but it also clearly demarcated two distinct forms: the single-shot and unrehearsed response, which held value for being un-cut and spontaneous, versus the rehearsed video, resulting from several takes, which held value for its polish and skill. Interestingly, only two students opted to interrupt the single-take response to create videos with multiple shots, and no one, with the exception of the student who used text, chose to create a video that was not what might be called first-person direct address to the camera.
While the text-based question and response form of the one student eluded the pitfalls of performance, it posed another interesting contradiction. This assignment was produced by a student majoring in film, with full exposure to courses in directing, editing and cinematography for live-action filmmaking. Rather than use these skills, the student instead deployed text, maintaining a clear boundary between the visual expression of cinema and a form he found suitable for a video midterm.
After the questions and answers had all been posted, we viewed selected examples in class and discussed the entire exercise. We reflected on performance, the divide between social and scholarly media forms, and the broader goals of a midterm exam. Indeed, it was the discussion that followed the week-long experiment rather than the questions and answers themselves that demonstrated new knowledge, discovered through the process, making the Seesmic video midterm a success. As we reflected as a group on the pitfalls and occasional highlights in the videos, we were developing an embodied understanding of an emergent rhetoric of new media.
Seesmic no longer exists as a micro-videoblogging site, but that particular tool was never central to the midterm experiment anyway. What was necessary was a means for destabilizing traditional notions of a particularly entrenched educational form; I needed a tool that would facilitate the creation of distance through which to reflect on the midterm’s role and potentials. In this way, Seesmic was a cipher. However, fundamental to teaching with tools that rapidly come and go is the need to teach flux and instability as constituent components of digital authoring. Students need to learn how to teach themselves about new software applications and to discern a software’s intended use as well as the ways in which it might be mis-used. Here, flexibility, resilience and an ability to move from platform to platform will serve students well. Students also need to consider archiving and documentation. Where will Seesmic videos be in three years? If this is a concern, students need to know to take action now to preserve and document their work.
Finally, key to teaching and authoring in digital media is the attention paid to core skills—crafting a visual or sonic argument, for example, or understanding and making use of the relationship between form and content—rather than simply a mastery of a particular software application or tool. Tools come and go, and students need to be agile and able to deploy proficiencies related to research and argument across divergent platforms. This entails thinking through media, allowing for epistemological shifts that can occur in the dialogue among ideas, tools and audiences. Indeed, rather than crafting final and fixed documents, students in more advanced courses are now being asked to create systems that invite users to participate in the production of ideas and an argument. The most obvious instances of this are in the design of games; however, students can craft non-game systems through which to explore and communicate ideas as well. The rise of pervasive computing suggests the potential even for tangible computing as a platform for scholarly activities.
Our teaching might follow the evolution of these tools, and their impact on paradigm of teaching. Educators might understand the educational endeavor in a digital culture as one of crafting systems that unite data and processes, which underlie an interface, all of which are designed for communities of users.
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000.
Manovich, Lev. Software Takes Command. November 20, 2008. Web. 14 February 2011. <http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/11/softbook.html>.