Thinking (in) Videos: Merging the Critical with the Creative

Graduates not only need to be able to make things; they need to be able to think critically as well.

A few days ago I was sitting on a Course Review panel chatting to an industry practitioner who co-founded an innovative creative agency based in Melbourne. The company does a lot of digital production and marketing work, among other things, and exemplifies the kind of organisation that many students I teach would love to one day work for. The above ‘quotation’ isn’t word-for-word what this tech-savvy practitioner told me, but it does capture the essense of a key point he made. When studying contemporary media, navigating – or better yet, exploiting – the intersection between critical thinking and creative practive is key.

Toronto - book stacks at Toronto Reference Library by The City of Toronto.jpg
Toronto: book stacks at Toronto Reference Library by The City of Toronto (CC BY 2.0)

Engaging with peer-reviewed scholarship is one important way in which students can demonstrate critical and analytical ability. All through my undergraduate (and, for that matter, postgraduate) studies, it was never once suggested to me that the product of reading, interpreting, and applying theoretical ideas from monographs, edited collections, and journal articles could take any other form than a direct quotation or paraphrased statement in an essay. This is certainly one strategy by which a critical understanding of scholarly sources can be demonstrated, but not the only one.

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IMG_0883 by mosaic36 (CC BY 2.0)

When I think back to the early 2000s, I’m probably fortunate my brick-like mobile phone had essentially none of the distractions that might have hindered the writing of all those essays – let alone the reading of the books and articles that informed them. Now, with the emergence of media forms like the video essay and the increasing use of blogs and other online media for student assessment, the ways in which scholarship might be used (by academics and students alike) will only multiply as a matter of course. In fact, I can see a time, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, where the nature and form(s) of peer-reviewed scholarship gets a seriously expansive makeover – but that’s not the key issue I’m concerned with here. The main point of this blog is to question the ‘mainstream’ practice of engaging with scholarly source material by replicating the mode that this source material invariably exists in.

I recently put together some brief reflections in a podcast about the possibile inclusion of scholarship in audio form (which, setting aside the sometimes more intimidating process of recording and editing a podcast, isn’t necessarily all that different from the conventional in-class oral presentation). What I thought I’d focus on here is the potentialities of the audio-visual form, given that particularly complex and nuanced meanings can be conveyed in short videos – even those of between thirty seconds and a minute in length.

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Photograph by Adam Brown, 20 August 2016.

The accessibility of user-friendly video editing programs that can be downloaded (often for free) on computers, tablets, and phones attests to the many avenues of creative media-making that were simply unavailable to students not so long ago. The smooth functionality of iMovie is just one example of a program that can take just a few short hours to get your head around the fundamentals and start producing some outstanding video clips with. The different ways in which a short video can be used to define/explore a concept or theory, and articulate/enhance an argument are endless, so I’ll be anything but comprehensive here. Nonetheless, I thought a few examples might help illustrate what I’m getting at…

Let’s just start with a ‘simple’ Vine, which despite its short length actually requires a good deal of discipline and focus in order to get any kind of ‘message’ across within a limited timeframe of six seconds. If I was to introduce, contextualise, and use a short quotation in the following way, there would be nothing wrong with it…

In their discussion of contemporary dataveillance, Lemi Baruh and Leven Soysal (2010, p. 399) write that the ‘public intimacy’ promoted by, and practised within, social media sites has led to a deeply troubling ‘new regime of surveillance.’

But could I enhance the point I’m making here by complementing (not replacing) the line with a brief audio-visual text that reiterates the statement as a question?

Taking things to the next level, incorporating an engagement with scholarship into a slightly longer video opens up many more opportunities for both expanding on content in a substantial way while simultaneously demonstrating creative skills. Speaking to the camera is one option, of course, as in the example below:

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Screenshot of Adam Brown’s overworked smartphone.

Talking directly to one’s audience and not distracting them with a reliance on notes – or even something as small as the glare of a monitor on reading glasses – is not always an easy task. The image on the right reveals that even when a performance is scripted and rehearsed, there can be multiple takes involved (and not only because a maltese-shitzu is tapping on the floorboards or scratching at the door). Talking head footage is a highly valuable means of conveying information in a more ‘personal’ and perhaps even ‘authoritative’ manner, but extended reflections sometimes mean that overlaying visual material at strategic moments can make life a lot easier.

I was lucky in this case that one of my other Twitter personalities stepped in to strategically manipulate the footage I’d originally put together by using (part of) the same audio in an arguably more engaging way than the initial video did. This underlines a fundamental point about getting practical with media that I’ve made many times in blog posts and videos: when you are creative with media, things happen – often unexpected things, but always valuable things that you learn something new from (even if it’s because something went wrong). As with filmmaking generally, you don’t always know what you’ve got until you get it!

My canine companion Tiffany also wanted to chip in an example of a video that focuses on the concept of ‘social sorting’ (Tiff made me create the video, of course, but it was her idea). Including a brief intro sequence, Creative Commons music, custom-shot footage, snappy editing, transitions, a video thumbnail, and so on, might seem extravagant for a short video, but when you get used to the process it doesn’t take endless hours to put together. Making the one-minute video below probably took between one-and-a-half and two hours in total (including everything from scripting to finding source material to filming to editing to uploading). What do you think? Should I have just written the voiceover down as a paragraph and saved myself some time? Or is it more engaging this way?

You might not believe the teacher, but I’m sure you’ll agree with Tiff…

In making the above points and examples, I am by no means implying that writing style and skill are no longer important – they are!! The likelihood of turning off – and therefore turning away – a reader due to typographical errors is perhaps even stronger in the context of a blog than it is via the printed page. Nonetheless, it’s clear that incorporating dynamic audio and audio-visual media content within and alongside written material can vastly enhance the overall product. After all, would you have been as interested in working through this blog post if it comprised writing alone? So to sum it all up: don’t forget the power of making media, even when you are engaging with scholarly sources that might on the surface seem to lend themselves to anything but a creative endeavour.

Being able to think critically is critical, but you can also demonstrate this by being creative!!

 

Music used in Social Sorting video

Zythian – Prismatic by Argofox (CC BY 3.0)

 

Images used in videos

Phone by Alexander Lyubavin (CC BY 2.0)

People by James Lumb (CC BY 2.0)

dutch people by zoetnet (CC BY 2.0)

People… by Evgeniy Isaev (CC BY 2.0)

Portrait by Tyrone Daryl (CC BY 2.0)

 

References

Baruh, L and Soysal, L 2010, ‘Public intimacy and the new face (book) of surveillance: the role of social media in shaping contemporary dataveillance’, in Dumova, T and Fiordo, R (eds.), Handbook of Research on Social Interaction Technologies and Collaboration Software: Concepts and Trends, Information Science Reference, Hershey, pp. 392-403.

Kimber, M 2012, ‘Blogging the 2009 Queensland state election’, Media International Australia, no. 145, pp. 75-83.

Lyon, D 2003, Surveillance as Social Sorting: Privacy, Risk, and Digital Discrimination, Routledge, London and New York.

Moyo, L 2009, ‘Digital democracy: enhancing the public sphere’, in Creeber, G and Martin, R (eds.), Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 139-50.

 

Featured image: Toronto: book stacks at Toronto Reference Library by The City of Toronto (CC BY 2.0)

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