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Problems and Prompts

Some Notes on Teaching Videographic Criticism


Deutsche Version

I have been teaching videographic criticism for a decade now. This includes several dedicated, labor-intensive videographic courses at Tel Aviv University, videographic practices incorporated in other courses, and hands-on workshops for undergraduates, colleagues, teachers, and high-school students. In all these pedagogical settings I have used (and adapted) many of the now-legendary prompts developed by Catherine Grant, Christian Keathley, and Jason Mittell as part of the Middlebury College «Scholarship in Sound & Image» workshop.1 I have also devised several of my own prompts. In what follows, I will address a few of the problems and challenges I have come across in teaching videographic criticism, present some of the prompts I have been using, and share successful examples of student work.

The prompts are presented in what roughly corresponds to the order in which I assign them in class. The issues addressed go from more focused matters of practice and technique (how to make students meaningfully engage with concrete textual fragments; how to get them to stop dreading the use of voiceover) to broader methodological concerns (how to emphasize process over product; how to encourage the videographic study of television; how to approach longer, more ‹substantial› projects). I anticipate that these challenges will resonate with others invested in teaching this practice, and hope the prompts presented here can help address some of them. I invite my fellow practitioners and teachers to use and adapt these prompts to their own needs.

#1: The Whole-Over-Fragment Problem

In my experience, students often tend to go for the ‹big picture› when thinking analytically about films, focusing on the forest at the expense of the trees. They tend to emphasize overarching narrative structure and search for thematic through lines, and are insufficiently practiced in performing close textual analysis. This is reflective of wider issues in the way film analysis is taught and practiced, but proves somewhat disorienting when confronted with the particular affordances of videographic criticism. Students may need to unlearn some of their habitual tendencies and relearn to engage with what is right in front of them.

The following two prompts I developed for class have proven useful in this regard. Like most of the prompts that follow, they are applied to a specific media object that each student has chosen to work on throughout the semester.

Image Deformation:

Choose a segment from your media object, 5-10 seconds in length, and deform it in various ways (altering speed, color, framing, soundtrack, etc.). The final sequence should consist of the original, unaltered segment, followed by several deformed iterations (30-40 seconds long in total).

I assign this exercise on the very first week of the semester. I instruct students to select a segment they have an aesthetic reaction to, and they tend to manipulate it in ways that seek to either play up or counteract that effect. It is a very basic exercise, an effective warm-up for students who have little-to-no editing experience, a good way to open a discussion on the affective use of deformation, and a means of focusing attention on the materiality of concrete textual fragments. Here are successful examples by Ido Harambam and Maya Hollander.

The next prompt was inspired by (and named after) Three Minutes: A Lengthening (Bianca Stigter, 2022).2

Videographic Lengthening:

Choose a fragment from your media object, no more than 15 seconds long, and analyze it in detail, in a video that should be 3-4 minutes long. The video will be comprised mostly (or exclusively) of the chosen fragment, which will be ‹lengthened› to the duration of the video in various ways (repetition, deceleration, freeze-framing, etc.). Explanatory tools (voiceover, epigraphic text, etc.) can be included as well. Base your analysis on at least one academic source.

This exercise comes at a much later point in the semester, and is the first instance in which students are required to develop an analytical, argumentative through line, applying the various videographic tools at their disposal. The results are often inventive and insightful, and I find this exercise to be an effective entryway into more complex videographic argumentation, as well as a helpful reminder to sometimes forget about the forest and focus first on individual trees. Here are successful examples by Naama Iontef and Gay Klein (content warning for the latter: nudity and graphic violence).

#2: The Dreaded Voiceover Problem

This is likely one of the most common issues, well known to many academics dabbling with voiceover: most of us either dread it or just don’t like doing it, at least not at first. As Ian Garwood has put it, «Voiceover acting is a craft – and not part of the academic skillset», which causes a great many performance issues.3 In my experience, film-studies students typically prefer to avoid using their own voice if they can. One way of dealing with this is by simply forcing them to use voiceover in their work, at least once. While my students are not required to submit every single weekly assignment, the voiceover exercise is the only one they are not allowed to skip. Most admit that they would have avoided using voiceover if they could, many are very glad that they couldn’t avoid it, and some voluntarily return to voiceover in subsequent work.

The assignment I use is a modified version of the Middlebury voiceover exercise, and I believe my alteration also contributes to alleviating performance anxieties.

Multiple Narrations:

Choose a segment from your media object, 45-60 seconds in length, and add voiceover narration that tells a ‹story› (in the broadest sense of the term). The use of effects (slow motion, freeze-framing, scaling, etc.) is allowed. At least some of the original audio track is to be used. My modification: The final sequence should be comprised of two parts, in one of the following variations: a. Play the same segment twice, accompanied by a different narration each time (different stories, narrated in different styles/modes of delivery); b. Play the same narration twice, paired each time with a different segment from your media object.

This approach allows students to experiment with different narrational modes and their relationships with audiovisual materials. It also relieves some of the pressure of performance, since the option to record two different voiceover narrations makes it clear that there is no one ‹right› way of narrating, accentuating the spirit of experimentation and playfulness. Here are successful examples by Merel Marjieh (same clip, different narrations) and Jonathan Weitz (same narration, different clips).

#3: The Product-Over-Methodology Problem

I’ve found that, while students can easily realize the potential of the video essay as a mode of expression, it is much harder to make them fully appreciate the potential of videographic practices as tools for (textual) analysis. Whether in class or on YouTube, what students encounter daily are not videographic research methodologies, but, if anything, the end product of such methodologies after they have already been applied: video essays. While they do practice various modes of engagement with media throughout the semester, what students are ultimately required to submit for assessment are not methodologies, but videos. Understandably, they tend to want those videos to be as coherent, polished, and ‹perfect› as possible. As a result, what is sometimes lost is a fuller understanding of the form’s capacity for (and as) analysis, and of its potential to highlight the affordances of scholarly processes, not only their products.

The following two prompts I developed, both featuring screen recording, have proven valuable in counteracting this trajectory towards ends rather than means. The first of these shifts the focus to the operations carried out on the timeline panel of the editing software.

Videographic Dissection:

Devise a method of videographic analysis that makes use of the various capabilities of your editing software, with an emphasis on the timeline panel, and apply the method to your chosen media object. There is no need to export the edited materials: deconstruct them in the timeline panel in a way that might produce insights, document this operation using screen-capture software, and explain (using voiceover or epigraphic text) the thinking behind the method used, and what it might reveal about the media object. If the analysis leads to concrete insights or conclusions – present these; if it does not (which is perfectly fine!), you may address the method’s potential (what it could hypothetically be used for) or the reasons for its ‹failure› to produce meaningful insights in this instance. The end result should be no longer than 3 minutes.

To make the concept clearer, I screen Kevin B. Lee’s «Viewing Between the Lines: Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives». I find this prompt’s focus on methodology over conclusions to be a welcome change of pace, and a good way of experimenting with diverse modes of videographic analysis. Here are successful examples by Merel Marjieh and Naama Iontef.

The next prompt was developed for my videographic criticism class, and later adapted for «Filming Research: The Desktop Documentary», a seminar I co-organized with Kevin B. Lee and Evelyn Kreutzer for the 2021 Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference.

Desktop Investigation:

Formulate a question regarding your chosen media object; look for an answer online, and document your search for the answer using screen capture. The final video should be no longer than 3 minutes; the question should thus be kept concrete and specific.

This exercise excels at getting students to focus more on the process of analysis than on its results, on the journey over the destination. It has produced diverse and inventive approaches to desktop filmmaking, whether these attempts lead to any definitive answers or not (and note that the prompt asks students to ‹search› for answers, not necessarily to ‹find› any). It also provides practice in the formulation of a research question and the construction of a coherent through line – valuable skills for the more advanced exercises in class, and for academia in general. Here are successful examples by Romy Gavriel and Meir Bakshi.

#4: The Film-over-Television Problem

As has been discussed elsewhere, films have consistently been far more prominent objects of study for academic videographic practitioners than serialized works of television.4 Several possible reasons for this disparity have been pointed out: e.g. the relative unavailability of many television texts for digital manipulation; the daunting prospect of handling many hours of footage; and cultural and institutional taste hierarchies. Whatever the cause(s), the trend is clear and consistent in academic videographic output. This is evident in my class as well, where only few students in any given year, if any, choose to focus on television.

As a TV studies scholar myself, I take it as a mission to advance the field of ‹videographic telephilia›, and the following prompts are some of the ways in which I’ve attempted this.

TV Dictionary:

Choose a particular TV series, and try to capture its essence in a single word, as a short video that combines the dictionary definitions of that word with a clip or several clips from the series.

This is a prompt I developed for my collaborative videographic project of the same name.5 It has since been employed as a pedagogical exercise by myself and others, and, thanks in part to its tightly-focused nature, has proved one of the best ways of encouraging students and scholars to engage videographically with television (over 100 entries have been made so far). Here is one such example by my student Sharon Abramovich.6

This next prompt was developed by Jason Mittell and myself for «Making Videographic Criticism: Videographic Telephilia», a seminar we co-organized for the 2022 SCMS conference.

Spatial Seriality:

Make a video that explores an aspect of serialization in a particular TV series. The video must use footage from across the chosen series, ideally from different seasons/years, with the choice of clips following some governing logic tied to the series structure. It must incorporate multiscreen composition, connecting elements of spatial montage to serial form. All sounds and images must come from the chosen series, with no external voiceover. The final video should be no longer than 3 minutes.

While this prompt has not yet been employed in other contexts beyond the seminar for which it was developed, its use of spatial montage is a useful way of engaging with serialized television, connecting concrete textual elements from a given series with its overarching narrative through lines, themes, and stylistic conventions. Here are successful examples by seminar participants Andrea Comiskey and Desirée de Jesus.

This next prompt makes use of the book How to Watch Television.7

How to Watch Television:

Choose a chapter from the book, and adapt one of that chapter’s central arguments into a video. The video does not need to be explanatory, and may use various forms of videographic argumentation in order to establish and convey the chosen argument. Footage from the series discussed in the chapter must be incorporated; other materials can be used as well. The final video should be no longer than 3 minutes.

Adapting a written argument into audiovisual form is a useful and illuminating challenge. The focus on How to Watch Television is particularly helpful for encouraging students to engage with television texts, due to its concise and highly-accessible argumentation. Here are examples by Itai Shukrun and Kallil Hayon.

#5: The Final Project Problem

While students tend to make inventive, original, and diverse works following the various prompts and constraints they are given throughout the semester, I often find that much of that creative energy is somehow mitigated or abandoned when it comes to their final projects. I deliberately assign very broad, non-constrained instructions for the final projects, in the hopes of encouraging students to explore whichever approach and form are right for their chosen subjects. However, many students seem to opt for relatively traditional, explanatory works, leaving behind the more experimental (and more interesting) aspects evident in their previous work. Perhaps it is mainly because they feel intimidated by the prospect of a ‹Final Project›, which, they sense, should be «Substantial» and must surely ‹Have a Point›, despite my best efforts to dissuade them of such notions and distinctions throughout the semester. I find myself at times frustrated – not because the final projects are lacking, as they are often quite excellent; but because I sometimes find them to be less impressive, and less generative, then some of the smaller exercises the students had previously made (and which required far less time, effort, and thought). While this does seem to improve somewhat each year, as I adapt and refine my syllabus, I believe I’ve yet to find the way to achieve sufficient balance, in the final projects, between the experimental and the analytical. That said, the incorporation of desktop filmmaking into the syllabus, in particular the ‹desktop investigation› prompt noted above, has proved extremely helpful; while few students adopt the desktop format for their final projects (it is a highly time-consuming form, as anyone who’s tried it knows), those who do so tend to manage this balance very well.

This next prompt I introduced has also been useful.

Conspiracy Video:

Develop your own conspiracy theory regarding a specific element of your chosen media object, and create a video intended to convince viewers of the validity of your interpretation (whether you actually believe this interpretation or not). The video should be under 4 minutes long.

This is one of the final (and most enjoyable) exercises of the semester. Students are free to use whichever media object they wish, not necessarily the one they have previously been working on. I encourage them to choose the most outlandish reading they can think of, so long as it can be convincingly argued using videographic rhetoric. I find this to be a good way to prepare them for the longer, more complex argumentation they may need to establish in their final projects, while also inviting a more open, playful, and at times subversive approach, which I hope they may take with them when envisioning their final projects. Here are successful examples by Nethanel Zribi and Nadav Leshem.

Bonus Prompt

This final exercise, the videographic response, is one of my favorites. Among other things, it is effective in developing new forms of videographic dialogue, a particular interest of mine in my own work.8

Videographic Response:

Choose any of the videos mentioned on any of Sight & Sound’s annual video essays polls, and respond to it with your own video. Your response video can take any form and be comprised of any materials you wish: existing video essays, original videographic analysis inspired by or modelled after existing videos, screen capture, original footage, voiceover, text, and more.

While these responses are meant as smaller exercises, sprinkled throughout the semester, I find that students tend to put much more effort into them than they are required to. The prompt is intentionally open-ended, and the freedom of choice of which video to respond to and in what way is, I believe, part of what makes students engage with it as enthusiastically as they do. I often find these response videos to be among the most inventive and enjoyable pieces my students create. Here are successful examples by Alma Rechter (responding to Catherine Grant’s «Fated to Be Mated») and by (then 10th-grader) Nimrod Dahan (responding to Kogonada’s «Wes Anderson // Centered»).9

  • 1See Catherine Grant, Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell (eds.): The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image, Caboose Books 2019.
  • 2Listen to a conversation with Stigter on «The Video Essay Podcast»: thevideoessay.com/bianca-stigter-on-three-minutes-a-lengthening.
  • 3Ian Garwood: The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism, in: NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, vol. 5, no. 2, 2016, necsus-ejms.org/the-place-of-voiceover-in-audiovisual-film-and-television-criticism/.
  • 4See Jason Mittell: Videographic Telephilia, in: [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, 2017, mediacommons.org/intransition/2017/videographic-telephilia; and Catherine Grant and Jaap Kooijman: New Ways of Seeing (and Hearing): The Audiovisual Essay and Television, in: NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, 293-297, necsus-ejms.org/new-ways-of-seeing-and-hearing-the-audiovisual-essay-and-television/.
  • 5Ariel Avissar: The TV Dictionary – An Introduction, in: CST Online, May 13, 2022, cstonline.net/the-tv-dictionary-an-introduction-by-ariel-avissar/.
  • 6See also Ariel Avissar (ed.): Special Pedagogy Issue: The TV Dictionary, in: [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, vol. 10, no. 4b, 2024, mediacommons.org/intransition/journal-videographic-film-moving-image-studies-104b-2024.
  • 7Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell (eds.): How to Watch Television, 2nd ed., New York 2020.
  • 8See Ariel Avissar: What is Neo-Snyderism?, in: [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 2022, mediacommons.org/intransition/what-neo-snyderism; Ariel Avissar: Some Thoughts Occasioned by Four Desktops, in: NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, vol. 12, no. 1, 2023, 617-620,‏ necsus-ejms.org/some-thoughts-occasioned-by-four-desktops/.
  • 9See also Ariel Avissar (ed.): Special Pedagogy Issue: Videographic Responses, in: [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, vol. 10, no. 4a, 2023, mediacommons.org/intransition/journal-videographic-film-moving-image-studies-104a-2023.

Bevorzugte Zitationsweise

Avissar, Ariel: Problems and Prompts. Some Notes on Teaching Videographic Criticism. In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, , https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/en/online/videography-blog/problems-and-prompts-0.

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