Video Killed the … Traditional Paper?

By Todd M. Sodano

Some of today’s better-equipped college graduates exhibit the triple threat of being able to effectively write, speak, and present visually. If you’re struggling to find an assignment for your students to hone such skills, consider the video essay. If you’re studying film, television, or digital media, consider the video essay. (Here is a popular site that offers sophisticated analyses of films, TV shows, music, etc. –

Each semester in my intro to video production course, in which they learn how to tell original stories through shooting, directing, and editing digital video that they produce, my students also critically analyze films. This type of analysis advances the traditional critical essay students have written. After writing a brief essay that answers questions I have posed for them in advance of them viewing the film, students record podcasts in which they orally deliver their analyses.

They don’t stop there. The students then edit their audio to remove vocal fillers (“uhhs” and “umms”) and mistakes as well as to include any music or sound effects. Upon completion of the audio recording, they add video clips from the actual film or television program, which enhance the claims they have made. Students with a fundamental understanding of nonlinear editing (e.g., Final Cut Pro, Avid, Adobe Premiere, iMovie) can easily incorporate elements from the original text to produce their video essay, which enhances the basic, voice-only criticisms that Prof. Sarachan’s students have used.

Because the “amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” is minimal and the students are not affecting the “potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work,” the Fair Use doctrine would apply to this assignment. Moreover, there would be no need to secure permission for using the original text. The challenge is to make sure the film or TV program is in an “editable” format (e.g., a .MOV file) that allows the student to manipulate it. For instance, since DVDs are encrypted, copy-protected works, consider (if you have a Mac) using such free programs as HandBrake or Mac the Ripper to descramble the work and MPEG Streamclip to export the ripped file to that editable format. According to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, this also is permissible. See § 201.40 – Exemption to prohibition against circumvention (page 19).

The video essay allow students to grow more versatile with digital media while upholding the traditional principles and techniques of good writing. And, at the very least, it allows us to save on printing costs.


6 responses to “Video Killed the … Traditional Paper?

  1. Lavery Library shoutout: video editing software is now available in the library Learning Commons on five Macs, so students don’t need to have access to the C/J lab to engage in these sorts of video creation and editing projects!

  2. Melissa Bissonette

    You say this “advances traditional critical writing” by which you mean it promotes it? or it goes a step beyond?

    If the former, I can see where you’ve got them doing editing, which is central to traditional critical writing, and including evidence, also central. In what way does working with video enhance students’ sense of a need to tie points together? or to spell out how a close analysis of a scene (for example) becomes part of a larger sense of meaning?

    If you mean the latter — that it moves beyond — where do you see the limits of traditional critical writing that video allows or encourages students to go beyond? Is it simply by having them work with tools they find more appealing, or is there something about the composition that you see opening different avenues of critical thought and communication?

  3. Why kill anything? Live theater, especially in the form of dance, is the most ancient and most trusted form of expression and communication. The rest is secondary.

  4. Melissa, for our many students who qualify themselves as visual learners, this type of assignment just might appeal to their strengths. It allows them to offer visible evidence to support the claims they are making. While they still are writing and making points that need support (i.e., they can’t just offer baseless opinions), the video essay promotes their engagement with the text in a way, as you suggest, that might be more appealing to them. Of course, the traditional modes of critical analysis still apply — reading the text, locating evidence, developing claims, writing well, etc. — before the video essay can enhance it.

  5. Todd–thanks for this suggestion, which looks like a valuable tool for composition–I like the way you start with the written analytical essay and then “revise” that into a new medium. I’m curious about Melissa’s question about organization and coherence and what different sorts of moves the technology compels (or not) students to make in that regard.

    Also…I wonder what your experience might be if you were teaching, say, a 199 course and wanted to do this. What is the learning curve like for faculty and students if the course goals did not include developing competency in digital editing? I want to try this out as an assignment but would need to know more about teaching the software–or the feasibility of having them attend an extra tutorial session of some sort where they can be taught how to use it.

    Again, thanks for sharing this idea.

  6. Great question, Jim. A tutorial session (akin to the PETAL sessions) could go over the basics of video editing and digital media storage for an assignment like this. We have numerous editing programs at the College (see Ben’s comment above about what Lavery has), such as Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere, iMovie, and so there are ample opportunities for faculty to experiment on their own too. Anybody else out there who requires video projects but doesn’t train students in video editing? Please weigh in!

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