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Before yesterdayJust TV

Poor Jesse: A BREAKING BAD Fanvid

By Jason Mittell

This weekend, a teaser dropped for what had been only rumored-about for the past year: the Breaking Bad movie!

Named El Camino, presumably for the car that Jesse drives off to escape his Nazi prison in the series finale, the film presumably focuses on Jesse’s life after Breaking Bad.

While  we’ll have to wait until October to know more details, the news inspired me to share my latest video for my Breaking Bad audiovisual book. “Poor Jesse” is a fanvid, following the vernacular of that form by remixing images and some sounds from the series to a single music track. A few notes follow below after watching it (with the sound turned up loud!):

From the early origins of my videographic Breaking Bad project, I knew that one of the chapter should be a fanvid. I’ve written previously about vidding as a fan and critical practice, and I felt that making one would be a good way to understand it more fully. Additionally, I’ve had long conversations with Louisa Stein, Melanie Kohnen, and others about the boundaries and similarities between vidding and videographic criticism, so I felt it was important to include this vernacular form in the book as an example of its critical possibilities. There was no question that I wanted it to be about Jesse, as he’s the character I have the most affective bond toward, and the one whose arc is most about the feels. And the choice of song – a live version of Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs” – was a no-brainer, as they’re one of my favorites and the live performance of this song captures their sonic range from catchy jangle to wall-of-sound that mirror’s Jesse’s arc.

When rewatching the series in Adobe Premiere, I struck gold when I saw “Thirty-Eight Snub,” the second episode in the fourth season (and at #35, slightly past the halfway point). As Jesse sonically tortures himself after his multiday rave peters out, I knew that this scene would be the spine of the video. I then designed the chronological structure to move from his memories of past torments and infrequent smiles to foreshadowing crises to come. The choice to focus all the images on Jesse (and mostly his face) flowed from my admiration for Aaron Paul’s expressive looks and my desire to connect everything to the character’s emotional life. And the final shot feels particularly apt with El Camino on the horizon.

I’m extremely thankful for the feedback I got from Louisa Stein, Casey McCormick, and especially vidder extraordinaire Luminosity. I was definitely out of my comfort zone in producing this one, and their comments gave me confidence that it was worth the effort. As to whether such vidding does function as videographic criticism… I encourage people to weigh in via the comments!

Poor Jesse

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Two More BREAKING BAD Video Essays

By Jason Mittell

After a week of vacation, I’ve returned to my project creating video chapters for my audiovisual book, “The Character of Chemistry in Breaking Bad.” After letting these videos sit for a couple of weeks, I’ve made some final tweaks and am ready to share drafts of two more chapters:

“Walter’s Whiteness” explores the role of race within Walt’s character arc:

“Focusing on Hank (and Marie)” considers how we access Hank’s emotional state and relationship with Marie in one crucial scene:

Together, I see them as complementary in both topic and approach. The former uses wide-ranging cultural analysis across the entire series, and the latter offers a very close formal reading of a single-scene in the context of the episode “One Minute.” In terms of videographic style, they are fairly similar: voice-over driven with sparing use of other visual techniques. While I hope that the final book will offer a broad range of vidoegraphic styles, I do find that the voiceover approach is best-suited for many of the ideas I wish to explore.

As always, feedback is welcomed!

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More videographic news!

By Jason Mittell

For the last two weeks of June, we welcomed another cohort of budding videographic scholars to Middlebury for our Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop, now under the auspices of the Digital Liberal Arts Summer Institute. Fourteen strangers came in together, and a robust community of practice emerged at the end, with amazing drafts of video essays, compelling exercises, and a wonderful collaborative spirit. It’s truly one of my favorite parts of my career, and it was a joy to share it with another group of now-friends!

As the workshop was happening, Chris Keathley and I received copies of the revised & expanded edition of our book, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound & Image. We published the first edition after our first workshop, recounting our approach and featuring writing about videographic work by Catherine Grant, Kevin B. Lee, and Eric Faden. For this edition, we expanded Grant to a co-author, adding more of her writing, while adding a roundtable conversation between eight participants in previous workshops, as well as updating the exercises and approach to teaching videographic work. If you’re interested in how the workshops work, read the book and check out the companion website with video examples!Revised_Videographic_Cover.jpg

Finally, I’ve been working hard on my audiovisual book about Breaking Bad, with drafts of seven chapters completed and a few more in process. During the workshop, I was inspired by the PechaKucha assignment, which focuses on juxtaposing diverse clips from a single work, and played with a Breaking Bad PechaKucha. I realized there was more there than just a one-minute exercise, so I adapted it into this short piece, which will form one of the “interstitial” chapters in my book. Enjoy!

And a bonus GIF:

Knock-About

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Revised_Videographic_Cover.jpg

Knock-About

Videographic Breaking Bad continues

By Jason Mittell

I’m writing this from Pamplona, Spain, where I’m attending the 2019 Conference for the International Study of Narrative. Just now I had the pleasure of chairing a panel on Videographic Criticism & Serial Narrative, where Kathleen Loock, Sean O’Sullivan, and I all presented video essays – a first for this conference, which is more predominantly literary in focus and traditional-minded in terms of modes of scholarship. (To help set the experimental tone of the panel, I quickly produced a short video introduction yesterday.)

My contribution to the panel was to screen my next two chapters of “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad,” the audiovisual book I’ve been working on this year. These two videos are polar opposites, representing the spectrum of different types of topics and tones that I’ll be taking in this project – you might notice that neither are included in the proposed chapter outline I previously published, as I’ve found that my ideas for what videos to make have evolved as I rewatched the series in the editing platform of Adobe Premiere. This fits with my sense that working in Premiere mirrors placing objects of research into a laboratory setting to make new discoveries, pursue fresh questions, and carry out experiments.

The first video I presented is the most formally and academically conventional that I’ll be making: “Anatomy of a Relationship: Jesse & Jane.” Fitting the academic world of narrative theory, I wanted to explore an idea via more traditional scholarly discourse that would resonate with the audience in a more explanatory mode. As I rewatched the series, I found the question of how a series constructs and conveys a relationship to be interesting, and this case study was ideal because of its intensity and relatively short length.

The second video, “Object Oriented Breaking Bad,” is the polar opposite: experimental, algorithmic, poetic, vernacular, obscure — and arguably not about characters at all! I’ll offer some context and commentary, but I recommend watching it first:

As referenced at the end of the video, it was assembled algorithmically: isolating every shot of at least one second that focuses on an object (besides vehicles or the written word) without a human or animal presence. It is arranged chronologically, which implicitly serves to answer a question nobody ever asked: what would the story of Breaking Bad look like without any characters? With the closing quotation from Latour, we can imagine how the series might position various objects as its actors, exerting important power within the narrative even without direct human interaction.

The resulting form plays with a range of remix video paradigms. It might be viewed as a supercut of objects, although the temporal remapping and split-screen format is less common in the supercut form. My friend and colleague Louisa Stein suggests it might also be a kind-of fanvid, using the backbone of a song to offer commentary and contrast with the images—this was not in my mind at all, as I’m planning to do another chapter more directly in a vidding style. My ultimate intention was to imagine this as a deformation, a manipulation of the series that makes us see the original in a new light while also creating an aesthetic object that might be compelling in its own right.

The panel went over well, with lots of positive and insightful comments about all of our presentations. I welcome feedback on the videos here, as I plan to further tweak them for inclusion in the final audiovisual book.

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Apply to Attend Videocamp 4!

By Jason Mittell

As I’ve written about before, I’ve had the great pleasure of co-directing a summer workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image, with my colleague & friend Christian Keathley at Middlebury over the past few years. The three previous iterations of the workshop have been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, allowing us to bring scholars from around the world to Vermont to learn videographic criticism in an intensive two-week format.

Alas our grants have run dry, but we have finally gotten approval to relaunch the workshop under a different structure: Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Summer Institute (DLASI). We will be offering our workshop on videographic criticism as the first topic for the DLASI, running the workshop June 16-29, 2019. For two weeks, you can spend all of your hours in beautiful Vermont, learning how to make video essays and participating in a robust community of practice, fondly known as “videocamp,” led by me, Christian Keathley, and Catherine Grant.

Since the workshop will not be funded by a grant, we have switched to a tuition-driven model – hopefully participants can get support from their home institutions to attend. See the website for all of the details on timing, cost, and participation – applications are due February 1. Contact me with any questions, and spread the word!

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My Plans for an Audiovisual Book

By Jason Mittell

As of today, I am officially on leave for the next academic year. I recognize what a privilege it is to get such a leave, as the tradition of the tenured academic position with regular leaves for focused research is becoming more rare and confined to elite institutions (and only some appointments within such institutions as well). Thankfully, Middlebury has mostly retained their commitment to traditional faculty positions, so I get to take a year to focus on the work I most want to pursue, without the demands of teaching and (more importantly to me) service to the institution. This means stepping away from being department chair, from being Director of our Digital Liberal Arts Initiative, and from being on countless ad hoc committees and working groups. While all of those facets of the job are rewarding, they are also exhausting and consuming in ways that make sustained progress on an ambitious research project near impossible.

[Note that I will maintain focus on one very important non-academic project: supporting my wife Ruth’s campaign for Vermont State Senate! And hopefully in the spring semester, I will be doing lots of solo parenting as she spends time representing our county at the state capitol…]

So what is that ambitious research project that I hope to spend most of the next year working on? As I’ve discussed previously, I have been investing much of my time into teaching and creating videographic criticism over the past few years. Yesterday, we concluded the third NEH-supported Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop at Middlebury, leading another 16 participants through the approach to learning videographic criticism that my colleagues Christian Keathley, Ethan Murphy, Catherine Grant and I have developed. (While this is the final version of the NEH-supported workshop, we do hope to convert it into a tuition-supported workshop following the same model – stay tuned for news later this year!) As with the previous years, I spent time during the workshop drafting my own videoessay, which served the entry point for my larger leave project: creating an audiovisual book called “The Chemistry of Character on Breaking Bad.”

What do I mean by an audiovisual book? If a typical video essay functions similarly to a written essay or scholarly article, then this project will be analogous to a single-authored book focused on a single topic. Instead of a single seamless video, resembling a feature documentary, my project will be structured more as a compilation of shorter videos that can either be each watched independently, or consumed together to present a more overarching set of ideas and arguments. I’m not certain how it will eventually be published yet—I could imagine using Scalar to self-publish, or pursue publication through a digital open-access academic press like Lever Press. Regardless, I will likely be sharing some of the drafts of videos as I develop them throughout the next year.

Why am I focusing on character and Breaking Bad? In writing Complex TV, I found that the chapter on Characters, which was already the longest chapter, was the topic about which I felt I still had more to say. Additionally, characterization is an area particularly well-suited for videographic criticism, where the details of performance, relationships, and representations can be conveyed directly video sound and image rather than lengthy description. As to why Breaking Bad, I wanted to focus on a single series/franchise and do a deep dive into the footage in a way that is typically very difficult without an extended period of immersive viewing and editing. Breaking Bad, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, are not only among my very favorite television programs (and thus spending a year wading in their sounds and images is appealing), but they raise a number of interesting and unique issues around character. I’ve already written about some of these facets in Complex TV, so I will be building upon that foundation in this project.

As is my tendency, I hope to make much of my process public. In that spirit, I am sharing a draft of the first “chapter” from the audiovisual book here, produced last week during our workshop. This video, “What’s Walt Thinking? Mind Reading & Serialized Memory in Breaking Bad,” is an adaption and extension of a section in Complex TV, where I discuss these issues using a scene from the series. I wanted to see how I might explore these same ideas around the same scene using video and audio rather than lengthy description (as I did in my book). The process of developing the video took me in unexpected directions, but I’m happy with how it turned out. All feedback welcome as I will certainly revisit this video as I develop the whole project.

I am also sharing the proposal and tentative chapter outline below. This was drafted to apply for grants (alas, no luck yet!), so it reads as a combination of self-promotion, ambitious claims, and introductory contextualization. Hopefully it also conveys the ideas sufficiently. Again, I welcome feedback as I undertake this project, and plan to keep posting updates to the blog.

The Chemistry of Character on Breaking Bad: An Audiovisual Book by Jason Mittell

Overview:

This multimedia project will explore the landmark American television series Breaking Bad (2008–13) via the emerging format of videographic criticism, producing a collection of open access video essays interpreting the particular modes of characterization within the series and arguing for the significance of character as an aspect of media storytelling. The resulting “audiovisual book” will be intellectually significant in three primary ways: adding to our theoretical and analytical understanding of characterization in moving image media; serving as one of the first extended single-authored studies of one of the most popular, acclaimed and influential contemporary television series; and breaking new ground on how videographic criticism engages with television, establishing a new format of the audiovisual book focused on a television series. Given the popularity of the series and the accessibility of and high interest in the video essay format, this audiovisual book should make a strong impact on both the academic field of media studies and general audience understanding of Breaking Bad and videographic criticism.

Narrative:

Over the past decade, the field of film and media studies has embraced the emerging form of digital scholarship called videographic criticism. Comparable to popular video essays, academic videographic criticism analyzes films using the same media that it seeks to analyze: sound and moving images. At its best, videographic criticism is not just the presentation of traditional film analysis in video form, but functions as a distinctive research method, pursuing distinct modes of discovery, analysis, experimentation, and expression (Mittell 2018). Videographic practices can reveal otherwise hidden facets of media, with videographic works exploring experimental, poetic, affective, and aesthetic dimensions more effectively than in typical written scholarship. Such videos convey ideas and experiences in unique and unprecedented ways, reaching broad audiences both within and outside academia. A number of landmarks over the last four years suggest that this new form has arrived as a legitimate and important mode of film scholarship: the 2014 launch of [in]Transition, the first peer-reviewed journal of videographic scholarship; [in]Transition’s 2015 receipt of a prominent award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies; and three Institutes for the Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to fund workshops to train videographic critics.

I have been central to all of these developments: as the co-founder and ongoing project manager of [in]Transition; as the co-director of the NEH workshops; as the co-author of the 2016 book The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound & Image; and as a teacher and producer of videographic work. Thus far, videographic work has rarely intersected with my long-established primary area of conventional scholarship, television history and criticism, as almost all video essays focus on film as their object of criticism. However, this century has seen the simultaneous growth of television studies as a prominent and growing subfield (within which I am an active figure), and the rise of high-profile, prestigious television programs that have supplanted mainstream cinema for many as today’s most talked about and celebrated narrative medium. My own videographic work has primarily focused on film, largely because the process of “writing” with video requires becoming intimately familiar with source materials, both to master the archive of sounds and images used in a videographic work and to make unexpected discoveries through an immersive exploration of a source object. Such a task is far easier to accomplish for a two-hour film than a 60-hour television series, with the latter requiring a long swath of uninterrupted, focused time.

My academic leave will provide this time, intertwining my dual areas of expertise to produce the first long-form videographic project focused on television. The resulting “audiovisual book” will examine the groundbreaking television series Breaking Bad, one of the most acclaimed and beloved programs of this century, which possesses a notably vivid visual and aural style suitable for videographic criticism. Additionally, Breaking Bad is particularly notable for its construction of character through performance, writing, and visual style, making it ideal to advance our understanding of characterization in television and its connections to important facets like identity politics, morality, and viewer engagement. I will spend the year immersing myself in the source material of Breaking Bad, its ongoing spinoff Better Call Saul, and its various paratexts including podcasts, web videos, and deleted scenes, striving to master an archive of sounds and images to create a long-form videographic project. The result will be a collection of video essays, presented together in a website that contextualizes the videos within broader scholarly dialogues concerning the series, aspects of contemporary television, and modes of videographic criticism and digital scholarship. The format of this project will not be a single videographic piece, comparable to a monograph or documentary film with a singular sequential argument, but instead a collection of discrete video essays that can be viewed and distributed separately—yet when watched together, they will present overarching ideas about both Breaking Bad and its treatment of character as a core facet of television storytelling. This project will break new ground, both in conveying original analyses of the series and demonstrating the vital importance of analyzing a medium using its own form.

The specific scope, arguments, and titles for specific essays will certainly evolve as I work through the series within the research platform of Adobe Premiere; however, it will build upon this planned table of contents:

  • Breaking Genre: while Breaking Bad plays with various genre tropes, including crime drama, Westerns, comedy, and horror, ultimately it functions most clearly as a “character study,” a genre virtually unheard of on television—this video sets the stage for overall treatment of character.
  • Walter’s Whiteness: this video tackles the protagonist’s slow transition from mundanity to monstrosity by examining the role of color—both in costuming and racial identity—in developing Breaking Bad’s portrait of toxic masculinity.
  • Skyler’s Story: Walt’s wife is central to the unfolding narrative, serving as his goal (to provide for his family), his foil (obstructing his criminal plans), and his collaborator; this video retells Skyler’s story via her experiences of his actions, and considers her often-hated persona in a new light.
  • Jesse the Fan Favorite: playing with dual videographic styles of fan video and analytic essay, this video traces how Jesse Pinkman emerged as a fan favorite and the program’s emergent conscience.
  • The Intersectional Gus Fring: Walt’s employer and adversary Gus is notable for being somewhat of a cypher, but his presence is situated within key identity categories of race, sexuality, and nationhood, working as a structuring opposition to other central characters.
  • Hank Loves Marie: although Breaking Bad is far from a romantic series, this video explores the relationship between Hank and Marie in offering fleeting moments of emotional connection that humanize two figures who are easy to view as broader comic relief.
  • What’s Walt Thinking?: most television lacks direct access to characters’ minds, but this video considers how the combination of serialized memories and performance places viewers in the often uncomfortable position of sharing a character’s thoughts.
  • The Monstrous Todd: although only appearing in the final two seasons, Todd stands out as a striking embodiment of amorality against which other morally dubious characters might be compared, allowing a detailed exploration of the role of morality within characterization.
  • S/J: Saul Goodman functions as comic relief on Breaking Bad, while shifting to the central character in the prequel under his real name Jimmy McGill; this video explores how we can understand a character as the same person via different personas, identities, and programs.
  • The Inimitable Kim Wexler: despite both series having a central focus on men and, Better Call Saul’s Kim Wexler has emerged as one of their most captivating and compelling characters; this video explores how the intersection of performance and context has constituted her character.
  • The Sounds of Silent Mike: Jonathan Banks’s performance of the compelling Mike Ehrmantraut is often marked by silence and non-verbal sound; this video considers how silence functions as a character building block and performance technique.

Taken together, these videographic essays offer an overall argument contending that television’s formal systems and storytelling strategies work to prioritize characterization over plot in long-form serialized programs like Breaking Bad; this approach will advance theoretical work around character, narrative, identity, and television form. This conceptual approach builds on my book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (2015), especially the chapter on Character, as well as other theoretical work on characterization in film and television (Smith 1995; Pearson 2008; Vaage 2015; Dunleavy 2017). However, in returning to the material first explored in my book, I will overcome a limit of writing in-depth analyses of television storytelling and characterization. Since detailed descriptions of visual and sonic elements become laborious to both write and read, one key advantage of videographic criticism is the ability to “quote” and write with the program’s images and sounds themselves, avoiding the need for verbal description that merely points toward the original’s form at a distance. For instance, in my book I spent 275 words describing a scene where Walter White silently thinks while drinking coffee, and yet I still could not capture the tonal elements that give the scene power; videographic criticism allows me to quote the scene in a way that conveys the elements I aim to analyze. These videos will explore affective and aesthetic dimensions central to Breaking Bad that critical writing struggles to effectively capture, allowing me to engage with a broader set of ideas and facets from Breaking Bad than I could via writing. Additionally, video essays reach a far larger audience than academic writing; given the massive popularity of Breaking Bad, this project will be poised to reach far beyond those who might be interested in reading an academic book or article, suggesting the important possibilities for media scholars to use videographic criticism to speak to a broader public.

My background, experience and expertise put me in the unique position to undertake this project, with the necessary skills and technological access—I have a strong reputation as a leader within both subfields of television studies and videographic criticism, and thus this project will build on my strengths as well as break new ground. I will spend the twelve months of this fellowship at my home institution connected to Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Initiative (which I have directed for its first four years), where I will analyze the entirety of both series within Adobe Premiere, assembling clips and editing them together into the various videographic chapters (a process enabled by fair use provisions of copyright). I will publish the individual videos onto Vimeo, the preferred platform for the videographic community, while embedding each video as part of the larger collection, presented with textual commentary and contextual material in an open access platform to be determined. At the end of my leave, I will publish, with full open access under a Creative Commons license, what I believe will be the first audiovisual book focused on a single television series, serving as a landmark in both media studies and the realm of videographic criticism.

Bibliography

Better Call Saul, AMC, 2015–present.

Breaking Bad, AMC, 2008–13.

Bateman, Conor. “The Video Essay as Art: Why Process Matters.” Fandor, May 29, 2016. https://www.fandor.com/keyframe/the-video-essay-as-art-why-process-matters.

Berg, Thomas van den, and Miklós Kiss. Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video. Scalar, 2016. http://scalar.usc.edu/works/film-studies-in-motion/index.

Dunleavy, Trisha. Complex Serial Drama and Multiplatform Television (Routledge, 2017).

Garwood, Ian. “The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism.” NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn 2016.

Grant, Catherine. “Beyond Tautology?  Audio-Visual Film Criticism.” Film Criticism 40, no. 1 (January 2016).

______. “Film and Moving Image Studies: Re-Born Digital? Some Participant Observations.” Frames Cinema Journal, no. 1 (July 2012).

______. “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea?: Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking.” Aniki : Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image 1, no. 1 (January 2014): 49–62.

Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” In The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, 176–91. London: Routledge, 2011.

Keathley, Christian, and Jason Mittell. The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image. Montreal: caboose books, 2016.

Lavik, Erlend. “Style in The Wire,” 2012. http://vimeo.com/39768998.

Logan, Elliott. Breaking Bad and Dignity: Unity and Fragmentation in the Serial Television Drama. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

López, Christina Álvarez, and Adrian Martin. “Analyse and Invent: A Reflection on Making Audiovisual Essays.” Frames Cinema Journal, no. 8 (December 2015).

Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

______. “Videographic Criticism as Digital Humanities Method.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities 2018, ed. Matthew Gold and Lauren Klein. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming 2018.

Monaghan, Peter. “Has the Video Essay Arrived?” Moving Image Archive News, March 15, 2017. http://www.movingimagearchivenews.org/has-the-video-essay-arrived/.

Pearson, Roberta. “Chain of Events: Regimes of Evaluation and Lost’s Construction of the Televisual Character,” in Reading Lost, ed. Roberta Pearson (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008), 139–58.

Smith, Anthony N. “Putting the Premium into Basic: Slow-Burn Narratives and the Loss-Leader Function of AMC’s Original Drama Series.” Television & New Media 14, no. 2 (March 2013): 150–66.

Smith, Murray. Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995.

______. “Just What Is It That Makes Tony Soprano Such an Appealing, Attractive Murderer?,” In Ethics at the Cinema, ed. Ward E. Jones & Samantha Vice, 66-90. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Vaage, Margrethe Bruun. The Antihero in American Television. New York: Routledge, 2015.

Vermeule, Blakey. Why Do We Care about Literary Characters? Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

Wanat, Matt and Leonard Engel, eds., Breaking down Breaking Bad: Critical Perspectives (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2016).

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New video essays from my students (and me)

By Jason Mittell

In April, five of my students formed a panel at Middlebury’s Spring Student Symposium out of my Fall course Videographic Film & Media Studies, where they presented video essays that were created in the course. Alas, I was away at a conference during the symposium, so I could not see the panel, but reports were that the videos were all well-received (and I’ve heard from other students asking when I’ll be teaching the course again!). One great thing about videos is that they can be shared beyond live presentation, so I’ve curated them below, along with my most recent video essay (which I’ve neglected to post to this long-dormant blog).

The videos were presented in alphabetical order by student name. First up was Will DiGravio and his video “How to Shoot a Film in One Room.” This video has an unusual history for a class assignment – Will posted it to Vimeo at the same time he submitted it as his final project in class. By the time I got to grading it, Film School Rejects had already blogged about it, meaning it had already gotten hundreds of views. This led Will to get offered an internship with FSR, where he has been writing for the past few months. Regardless of its impact on Will’s career, the video does one of the best things a video essay can do: convey ideas efficiently and convincingly with visuals where words alone would fall far short.

Alyne Figueiredo Goncalves also published her video, “Gendered resistance and composition in the film Timbuktu,” albeit via the much slower process of academic publishing. Alyne submitted her video to Film Matters, the journal of undergraduate film criticism, back in the fall, and it just came out in May after a round of peer review and revisions. Her project emerged out of the Videographic Response Assignment, where students had to create a video that responded to an already published video essay; Alyne was responding to Channel Criswell’s “Composition in Storytelling,” building on his ideas but applying his Western focus to African cinema examples. The resulting video essay offers a compelling account of the politics of composition in Timbuktu, leveraging the film’s visual beauty for a rich videographic experience.

Continuing with the theme of student videos breaking out of their classroom origin, Emma Hampsten’s “Women, Intimacy, and Sexual Violence in Hitchcock Films” has also been widely seen after she posted the final version in March. Emma combined her two majors of Film & Media Culture and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies via the course on Hitchcock she was taking alongside my videographic class. The resulting combination is a masterful instance of the power of juxtaposition and patterns to convey critical analysis, even though the video contains none of Emma’s own words. The video has been widely shared over the past two months, and even featured in a class at Smith College, highlighting the power and possibilities of students posting their work publicly.

The final two students have not published their videos beyond YouTube, and they have only gone live recently so they haven’t reached a broad audience (yet). Jack Ralph conveyed his expertise as a History major into a consideration of the modern Western in “How Modernity Affects the Western’s Morality in No Country for Old Men,” with a videographic comparison to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Jack had done his videographic exercises for the class on No Country, so he knew the film well as a videographic source, which shows up well here as he mines the two films for visual and thematic resonances.

The final video shown at the symposium was Ian Scura’s “The Ultimate Antagonist – A Video Essay about Pixar Movies.” Like Alyne, Ian’s video came out of the response assignment, but Ian chose to both extend the content and emulate the style of the video he responds to, a piece by Lessons from the Screenplay about antagonists focused on The Dark Knight. Ian does a great job laying out his ideas about how Pixar films treat antagonists differently than classic villains, packing a tremendous amount of material into six short minutes.

These five videos were by no means the only strong projects emerging out of my fall course – they were just the five who were able to present at the symposium! I’ve collected much of the work that students did in the course, especially their videographic exercises, on a Vimeo channel, and will add other finalized projects to this post if my students send them my way.

Speaking of sharing video essays, I published a piece called “How Black Lives Matter in The Wire” in January, exploring how the landmark HBO series represents and omits images of police violence against black citizens. Since this is my first blog post in a long while, I will finally share it here:

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Two Opportunities to Learn Videographic Criticism!

By Jason Mittell

I’m excited to announce two upcoming opportunities in 2018 to explore videographic criticism as a method in film & media studies!

The first will be a new type of session at the 2018 Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference in Toronto: a seminar on March 18 called “Making Videographic Criticism: The Videographic Epigraph.” Kevin Ferguson & I will be convening the session, with participants signing up at the end of October via the SCMS website (members only, so join if you’d like to participate). Participants will be making “videographic epigraphs” beforehand, and we will dedicate the March meeting to watching and discussing their works, as well as considering how such videos function as scholarship and pedagogy. Participants should have basic video editing skills and access to software, but should not have much experience making videographic criticism.

For an example of videographic epigraphs, here’s one I made about Adaptation.:

The second opportunity is the third iteration of “Scholarship in Sound and Image,” the NEH-funded two-week residential workshop that Chris Keathley and I have run at Middlebury in 2015 and 2017. This third version, running June 17-30, will be for participants who have a Ph.D. in Film & Media Studies or related disciplines – they can be faculty, post-docs, or otherwise engaged in academia, but they should no longer be in graduate school. Applications are due December 1, and instructions can be found on the workshop website.

I’m happy to answer questions about either opportunity!

jmittell

The Return of Videocamp

By Jason Mittell

The month of June was spent preparing for, and then leading, the second installment of our NEH-funded workshop, Scholarship in Sound and Image, a.k.a. “videocamp.” (See this excellent article that my student Will DiGravio wrote for our local paper for a good account of the workshop and ideas behind it.) Much like the first iteration in June 2015, it was one of the best experiences of my professional career. This year, we restricted participation to graduate students, creating a more homogeneous cohort (at least in terms of career path, if little else). And we have funding for one more iteration in June 2018, with participation open to scholars with Ph.D. in-hand (faculty, post-docs, independent scholars) within the field of film & media studies, broadly construed. (Applications will open in late September, so keep an eye out here!)

While it’s tough to compare the two experiences, as both were uniquely fabulous, I think the net result of the 2017 workshop might be stronger overall, at least in terms of the work produced. Partly this was due to the broader circulation and understanding of videographic criticism over the last two years—even though few participants this year had made their own videographic work, all were more familiar with such work than people were in 2015. Partly it may have been due to the graduate students being more attuned to participating in a course and producing work on deadlines than the 2015 faculty were. But I think one key shift was the revised sequence and assignments that my colleague Chris Keathley & I presented over the first week, and the greater structure throughout the second week leading to excellent final projects.

In the spirit of openness and experimentation that the workshops embody, I want to share the revised exercises that we assigned, and my own attempts at undertaking them—I’ve called these exercises “etudes,” as they force you to practice particular editing skills while also producing enjoyable and interesting results. We’ve found that some people are using these blog posts and the short book, The Videographic Essay, that Chris & I wrote as guides to do their own simulation of the workshop—Lori Morimoto shared her experiments back in 2015, and my Middlebury colleague Louisa Stein is doing her own version this summer as well. So here are the revised exercises and my examples, offered with the challenge to try it out on your own! (If you do, post links to your work in the comments…)

As with the book and first workshop, these exercises are designed to be done on a single source text: a film, television series, web series, or the like. Most people choose feature films, but we had more TV and documentary examples this year; when working on a longer format like television, it’s best to restrict yourself to a few episodes, as managing more than 2-3 hours of footage is really tough. [Note that examples from the 2015 workshop are still available at the book’s supporting Scalar site – we plan on updating that site with 2017 examples in due time.]

ASSIGNMENT ONE: Videographic PechaKucha. Create a video of exactly 60 seconds consisting of precisely 10 video clips from a single film, each lasting precisely 6 seconds, assembled with straight cuts. Audio should be one continuous sequence from the same film with no edits. Include a 3 second black slug at the beginning and end of the assignment.

This assignment endured virtually unchanged, and I am still convinced that it is the best first step in learning videographic criticism—it forces you to conform to quite rigid and arbitrary parameters, which then enables you to see the source material in very different terms, as an archive of sounds and images to play with. The one caveat we gave at the workshop, which Chris realized is essential after a less-than-successful experience with PechaKucha’s in the classroom, is that the goal is not to tell the story of the original in compressed form, but rather to see what you might express or explore using these strict parameters.

For the workshop, most of my exercises were on the pilot episode of Better Call Saul—I’ll be writing an essay on the series soon, and I’ve also devised a longform videographic project on Breaking Bad and BCS that I hope to start producing next year.

ASSIGNMENT TWO: Voiceover. Produce a short (3 minute max) video on your selected film using your voiceover. The voiceover should tell a joke or relay an anecdote, not overtly related to your film. The project must also incorporate some sound from the film itself. Video should be one continuous sequence from the film; duration and/or scale can be manipulated, but it should include no new video edits.

This assignment was revised somewhat from 2015, and probably needs some more tweaking. The key goal is that the voiceover should neither directly comment on the film, nor operate in the scholarly register that most academics are used to; it could be quoted from elsewhere, or original writing by the video’s creator. Thus the voiceover should be operating in a non-scholarly register, but it’s hard to give parameters that focus on “don’t do this” – if you try this one yourself, the key thing is to speak/read something that feels distinct from the source film/TV, but hopefully implies interesting connections. I opted for the “tell a joke” approach, although the footage gives the joke a melancholy tinge:

ASSIGNMENT THREE: Videographic Epigraphs. Select a film sequence, and a quotation from a critical text (not specifically related to your film) of no longer than 10 sentences. Alter the video sequence in some noticeable way using at least two different types of transitions. Either replace or significantly alter the soundtrack. The quotation should appear onscreen in some dynamic interaction with the video.

We shifted this assignment earlier in the workshop, rather than giving participants the weekend, as we did in 2015; while we thought they might struggle with the compressed time, the results were excellent, suggesting that this needs no more time than the other etudes. The epigraph is one of the most successful exercises, and one that produces videos that actually transcend their “exercise” origins—Catherine Grant (who was again a featured guest for a week of videocamp) has created and collected many such epigraphs that function as engaging videographic works on their own terms. My own example feels like a bit of a failure, as it requires a lot of words to make its point; nevertheless, I quite like the interplay between the text and dialogue, which is uncommon in such epigraphic work.

ASSIGNMENT FOUR: Multiscreen Video. Participants will use a multiscreen process to create a short piece (2 minute max) responding to at least one other video created by your classmates. The video must contain moments of both fullscreen and multiscreen. All audio and visuals must come from your film or the videos posted on our server made by other participants that you are responding to. Each editor must impose an additional parameter upon themselves.

The videocampers did excellent work on this one as well, although it was interesting that many avoided what I had assumed was a given parameter: that you should use footage from other people’s videos within your own project. Instead, a number of participants used either audio from their peers’ work, or referenced their projects via text on screen (as with quoting their epigraph or voiceover). I’m not sure if it would be useful to explicitly require using other people’s footage within the edit—it restricts possibilities, but does force you to learn to grapple with various video formats, aspect ratios, etc.

If you’re trying this on your own, it’s harder to know what footage to respond to and use—feel free to use our earlier examples as the fodder for your own work. I had a lot of fun doing this exercise within the framework of Better Call Saul:

ASSIGNMENT FIVE: Videographic Abstract Trailer. Produce a short (no more than 2 minute) abstract trailer of your final videographic project. This videographic abstract trailer should convey the topic, approach, and tone of your final project (per an article abstract), and relate to the form of the film trailer in some way. One key goal of this video is to make us want to see your final project. It might also function as a kind of “proposal” that will help you develop your final project. Think about parameters.

This was definitely the most significant revision we made to the exercises, shifting the trailer assignment to the weekend, and reframing it as a specific pivot to focus on the final project people would work on over the second week. It was hugely successful, with participants creating compelling abstract trailers for their projects and setting them down the path toward creating excellent final projects for the rest of the workshop! They ranged widely in terms of how “abstract” they were, and how much they aped the trailer format. (Expect to see many great videographic works from this group of graduate students soon…)

I shifted gears for my abstract trailer, as the Better Call Saul project is too far down the road to work on in depth this summer. Instead, I focused on another videographic project I’ve been thinking about for months, focused on how we think about The Wire post-Ferguson and in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Here’s the abstract trailer for a video that I did produce over the second week of the workshop, and that I hope to publish somewhere soon:

All and all, Videocamp 2017 was another amazing experience! If you’re intrigued with what you see, I welcome people with Ph.D.s to apply for the 2018 version—and everyone is encouraged to try your hand at these etudes on your own. Share your results below…

jmittell

A Preamble for Teaching Media during the Trump Administration

By Jason Mittell

Over the course of these harrowing couple of months since the election, one of the many questions that has plagued me is how media educators can effectively teach about media under the Trump administration. This spring semester, I’ll be teaching my cornerstone course Television & American Culture, where media & democracy are a core topic. I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out how to frame my approach to this topic, encouraging students to develop their own positions based on the course materials while not understating or ignoring how much of a threat to democracy I believe his approach to the media poses. Events in the first days of his administration have helped me develop an approach—here is what I’m thinking of saying on the first day of the class in mid-February (knowing that much may change in the coming weeks, making these examples seem quaint and inconsequential). I would love any feedback from fellow educators and citizens:

I want to say a few words about how I will approach politics in this course. As you all know, we have a new president occupying the White House, and his rise is directly connected to television – both in the typical ways that television news and advertising play key roles in elections, and the atypical way that his fame and reputation were largely built by his role as star and producer of The Apprentice, a reality TV show. Normally, this course engages with politics by providing the tools and contexts for you to analyze how the media impacts politics, and encouraging you to draw your own conclusions and political positions in light of that education. While I never attempt to hide my own political beliefs – a syllabus that foregrounds feminism, critical analysis of racial representations, and critiques of consumer capitalism is not apolitical! – students are never expected to agree with my beliefs to succeed in the course, as exams and essay will judge how you think and analyze, not what you think or believe.

However, the current administration and its engagement with the media is not normal. For a telling instance, on the very first day of Trump’s presidency, his press secretary Sean Spicer conducted a so-called “press conference” (with no questions permitted, it was really more of a statement or decree) in which he scolded reporters for (allegedly) misrepresenting the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration, while making false claims with no evidence that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” The next morning, Trump’s political advisor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer was offering “alternative facts” to counter the media’s claims. The “fact” that Spicer’s claims were patently untrue, unsubstantiated, and easily disproved by visual evidence was dismissed by Conway as just a difference of opinion. This skirmish about the trivial matter of crowd size is typical of how the Trump administration treats and uses the press.

In my role as an educator and your role as students, treating facts as opinions or beliefs to be debated is unacceptable, whether they are trivial issues of crowd size or substantive matters of policy and practice. The fact that this administration actively works to undermine facts, to dispute science, to undercut history, and to normalize the distrust of knowledge, runs directly counter to the educational mission of our course and our institution. In this class, we will try to understand how television factors into Trump’s election and presidency, as I have done for the two previous administrations, and that assessment will not be sympathetic to the current president—you are free to disagree with my opinions on these topics. But no matter one’s political positions, we cannot dismiss or ignore factual evidence as a matter of political disagreement. Thus on day one, I would like to make my position quite clear: attempts to undermine knowledge, evidence, and facts is antithetical to being both a student enrolled in a college class, and an educated citizen in a democracy. That is not a partisan political opinion, but a position that is simply not up for debate in a classroom. If that assertion makes you uncomfortable, you might want to sign up for a different course, and perhaps rethink your relationship to education itself.

[Again, I would appreciate any feedback on this, and tales from what others have done to frame these discussions as educationally and politically effective.]

Update: I realize I forgot to include one important contextualizing factor, especially for other educators looking at this statement as an example or model: I am a straight, white male tenured full professor at a private institution that has very few students who openly supported Trump. Thus I am as insulated from repercussions as possible – most fellow educators are far less privileged in their situations and contexts, and thus part of the reason why I wanted to make such a statement public is that I am least at risk from doing so.

jmittell

Learn Videographic Criticism – at Middlebury and on the road!

By Jason Mittell

As mentioned last month, we’ve been fortunate enough to get another NEH grant to conduct two more videographic criticism workshops at Middlebury, in June 2017 and June 2018. We are now accepting applications for the 2017 workshop, which is open to graduate students in Film & Media Studies or related disciplines. Please spread the word to qualified and interested graduate students!

I also just returned from Miami University of Ohio, where I did a two-day workshop on videographic criticism. Chris Keathley and I developed a highly-compressed excerpt from our summer workshop aimed at faculty new to videographic criticism, and at Miami, I offered it to a dozen faculty. I wasn’t exactly sure how such an approach would work over a two-day span, but I think it was highly successful (and the participants seemed to agree!). So we’ve decided to publicly “offer” ourselves as available to visit campuses (or a consortium of nearby institutions) to do the compressed two-day version for faculty and/or grad students interested in a crash course in videographic criticism. Anybody who is interested, let me know!

jmittell

Specifications Grading for a New Course

By Jason Mittell

In my last post, I closed the book on my spring Television & American Culture course, reflecting on the general success of using specifications grading for the course. As I launch into a new semester, I’m using the same approach on a different course, Theories of Popular Culture (the whole syllabus is available at the link), trying to make some adjustments to address both the very different set of educational goals and contexts, and some of the lessons learned from my first go round.

Theories of Popular Culture is an upper-level seminar (around 15 students once the dust clears), fulfilling both the theory requirement for the Film & Media Culture department and Middlebury’s College Writing (CW) requirement (all students must take an introductory writing course as part of their first year seminar, and an advanced CW course like this, ideally within their major). Thus the bar is set much higher than last semester’s intro course, and the expectations are that students do both more advanced quality work and higher quantity of writing & revision. This is the eighth time I’ve taught this course, and I think both the content and assignments work very well, so I was not looking to do a major overhaul of either. Rather, I was trying to implement this grading system to increase student flexibility and transparency, focus on learning over grades, and avoid the stresses and negative patterns tied to traditional grading.

In adapting the course learning goals to the tiered system that forms the foundation of specifications grading, I immediately ran into a problem with the CW requirement: students fulfill this requirement by passing a course tagged as CW. This means that I needed to ensure that the goals of the CW requirement are included at the base level of my course, meaning that every student who passed the course would have to fulfill them. While the CW program doesn’t provide explicit learning goals, I tried to adapt some of the advice for CW faculty concerning writing and revision, baking them into the course learning goals:

All students who pass the course (with a minimum grade of C) will have demonstrated the ability to:

  • Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of popular culture
  • Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to analyze popular culture
  • Read dense theoretical writings and summarize their core ideas
  • Communicate their ideas orally and via writing with fluency and clarity, per college CW standards
  • Revise their writing to improve both ideas and communication, per college CW standards

Students who achieve a higher level of mastery (with a minimum grade of B) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Analyze popular culture with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections between theoretical models, different examples and cultural contexts
  • Engage in serious conversation about often fraught topics with an ethos of “rhetorical resilience”

Students who achieve the highest level of mastery (with a grade of A) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Create, substantiate, and communicate an original analytic argument that synthesizes multiple facets of popular culture, appropriate types of evidence, and theoretical approaches with sophistication
  • Meet class expectations per the assigned schedule with consistency

I admit I’m not entirely happy with this breakdown, because I believe my expectations for successful writing and revision per the CW program are higher than the expectations for the C level should be. Additionally, the need to produce a significant amount of writing and revision for CW credit (typically 25+ pages) takes away one of the most successful aspects of my spring course: making the final essay optional. The best solution I came up with would be to disentangle the CW credit from the course grade: students would earn what they earn in terms of a grade, and those who met the CW expectations would receive that credential separately (and those who didn’t, wouldn’t). However, that’s not how things work here: the CW marker is tagged to a course, not an outcome, so anyone who passes a CW course fulfills the requirement on their transcript. Needless to say, reworking this system is not something that an individual faculty can implement on an ad-hoc basis, so I’m stuck with keeping the CW goals as part of the course’s ground floor requirements, and working with students to make sure they fulfill them.

Two of the other shifts in how I scaffold assignments and assign grades are embedded in the assignment bundles:

C Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of C:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to five absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 8 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one successful revision

B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to three absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 10 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one Sophisticated mark and at least one successful revision
  • Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least four course meetings

A Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of A:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to two absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 12 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least three Sophisticated marks and at least one successful revision
  • Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least eight course meetings

One key difference is that instead of different versions of an assignment (Basic vs. Advanced prompts for my TV exams), I’m implementing differential evaluation for the same prompt, allowing for Satisfactory and Sophisticated as dual passing marks. Each assignment will have some additional specifications to achieve Sophisticated, so it does function somewhat as an Advanced version, but it is really more about execution than taking on different questions. In my mind, a Sophisticated essay will demonstrate upper level learning around originality and synthesis of ideas, as well as using more effective rhetoric and prose style to convey ideas. The pitfall is avoiding treating this as a backhand way of giving A vs. B grades under different names, but I will strive to emphasize the specifications rather than more subjective evaluation, especially in giving feedback for potential revisions.

The other major change involves class participation. In my TV class, I was a bit dismayed that a few students who got A or A– never contributed much in class discussions; although I technically said that attendance would measure participation, there was no real way to implement that. So given the smaller size and more theoretical/analytical bent of this course, I’ve created a tracking system for participation: at the end of each class, I will mark each student that I thought demonstrated active engagement and made productive contributions that day. With a 15 person class, that seems manageable, although we will see if I can be consistent in my tracking.

The final difference involves the use of tokens and flexibility. Last semester, I found that too many students were trying to game the system by handing in weak first drafts and revising them as de facto extensions, or relying too much on tokens to fall behind in their weekly responses. So this semester I’m being more strict with the use of tokens; students get three to use for any of these purposes:

  • Eliminate an absence from their attendance record
  • Count an Unsatisfactory or not completed reading response as Satisfactory
  • Revise and resubmit an Unsatisfactory essay to fulfill Satisfactory expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
  • Revise and resubmit a Satisfactory essay to fulfill Sophisticated expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
  • Submit an essay assignment up to 48 hours late

Unlike last semester, the first revision is not “free,” and each revision will cost a token. If a student uses all three initial tokens and needs to use more for revisions, they can be “purchased” at the cost of one gradation of the final letter grade—thus if a student achieves the expectations for the B bundle, but must revise an essay multiple times and uses four total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course. While this may be a bit harsh for some, it will hopefully discourage procrastination or manipulation of the expectations, but still provide some agency and control for students and reinforce the pedagogical values of transparency and flexibility that students really valued last spring.

Like before, this is an experiment. My primary goal is to encourage students to focus on learning rather than grades, and take more ownership of their education. But I also recognize that this is a very challenging course, both with the highly theoretical content and the quantity of writing, so I expect there will be some bumps along the way. I will hopefully offer updates as we go.

jmittell

Return to Specifications Grading

By Jason Mittell

I’ve had a lingering “to be continued” here for a few months, as I promised to report on my experiment with specifications grading from the spring, beyond my first mid-semester update. The delay was first due to the need to wait to process a post-semester survey that we did from my class and another colleague who used a similar approach to grading. Once we got those results, my head was already deep into summer mode of writing deadlines and family fun. But now on the eve of my fall semester starting, I’m ready to return to the classroom and the topic of grading.

In short, all evidence suggests that my experiment last semester was a success, and I’ll be using a similar approach to grading this fall in my course, Theories of Popular Culture. I’ll detail some of my revisions to the approach as customized for that course – a writing-intensive upper-level seminar of 15, rather than an intro-level survey of 30+ students – in another post. But here I’d like to explore how my Television and American Culture course turned out, and offer some reflections on the benefits and limitations of specifications grading.

One of the data points I mentioned in my mid-semester update was that around 60% of my students had to revise at least one of the two exam questions on the first midterm, a fact that I attributed to students learning to calibrate to my expectations. Looking over the course of the semester, this seems only somewhat true. Here is a graph of the three exams, each of which contained two mandatory questions (each with Basic and Advanced level options); the graph tracks the percentage of answers that met Satisfactory on the first try, percentage of answers that strived for Advanced on the first try, and the percentage of answers that were eventually Advanced Satisfactory on each exam (the final average was that each student did 4.45 Advanced Satisfactory answers within the course; 2/3 of the students fulfilled the 5 or more Advanced answers needed to earn an A):

tvac-exam-grades

What this suggests is that the success rate for Exam #2 mirrored the first exam, a result that is best explained via two factors: a higher number of students aimed for Advanced answers on Exam #2, making it more challenging, and one of the Advanced questions on Exam #2 proved to quite challenging (everyone aimed for Advanced on this question, but only 39% succeeded on the first try). Many of these students downgraded to the Basic question, which did not necessarily undermine their final grade possibilities, providing the flexibility and self-guidance that the system strives for. The stats on the third exam do suggest that students learned how to succeed on the first try quite well, although they also aimed lower, in large part because they had already fulfilled sufficient numbers of Advanced answers to receive the grade they were aiming at. One aspect I did notice that was an issue is that due to the flexibility of revisions built into the system, some students purposely handed in incomplete or underdeveloped work as a “rough draft” rather than a completed essay, a tendency that encouraged procrastination and deferring of work until later in the semester. I’ve tried to adjust my revision system to curtail such tendencies in the new course.

One of the most interesting results concerned the final essay. As the assignment aimed at the course’s highest level of learning goals, it was completely optional to complete, required only if the student wanted to be considered for a grade of A or A–. With that choice available, virtually half of the class opted not to do the essay. Their reasons ranged: some had not completed the required exams and/or screening responses needed to qualify to get an A, and therefore they chose not to put in the extra work at the end of the semester. Others were well-poised to get an A, but found themselves overwhelmed with work and decided to take advantage of the flexibility to opt into getting an assured B+ in the course—a couple of students reached out to say that such flexibility was crucial in helping them succeed in the full balance of their course loads.

tv-final-essay-chart

Of the 16 students who did submit final essays, 10 reached the threshold of Satisfactory, with many very strong essays that would have received an A in my traditional schema. Notably, a few students sent me early drafts for feedback and revision to reach that mark — one student embraced this revision process so fully that she wrote five drafts to continuously improve her work! Four students wrote essays that fell just short of the specifications, but had they gotten Unsatisfactory, their grades would have been B+ instead of an A for reaching Satisfactory. For those, I split the difference and gave them an A- in the course with partial credit for the essay, as that felt like a fairer assessment of their work. Thus one lesson for future iterations of the class is to highlight that such high-impact “all or nothing” grades can be given partial credit in some instances.

In launching this experiment, I had assumed that the course’s overall grades would decline, as it raised the bar for both passing and getting a B compared to previous years. But I was wrong: the course’s overall GPA of 3.44 was actually the highest it has ever been. This chart compares the course’s GPA in each recent semester it has been offered to that semester’s college-wide GPA and my department Film & Media Culture (FMMC), which usually has a slightly higher GPA than the college average (although lower than most other arts and humanities departments). While my course had a record high GPA, so did my department and the college, so it’s hard to disentangle these data.

tv-final-gpas-chart

The more interesting aspect of my course’s GPA is the actual breakdown of individual grades, as compared to other semesters:

tv-final-grades-chart

The most significant differences here certainly concern the number of A grades earned by students: 9 A’s was unheard of for my typical grading, as I tended to reserve A for students whose work “sparkles” and is remarkably consistent. But could I really explain to one of the 20 students who received an A- in my course in 2014 what they would need to do to earn an A? Probably not, as that designation was typically a “know-it-when-I-see-it” type of accolade.

But last spring, I laid out very clear specifications as to what it would take to earn an A, and 9 students worked hard and demonstrated that they had learned enough to earn that achievement. Looking back, I can say that it is likely that 5 or 6 of those students would have earned an A under my conventional grading system, as I had an unusually strong class (although as I said in the last post, much of that would have been rewarding what those students brought to the class in terms of background, talent, and experience knowing my preferred style of writing and analysis, rather than what they learned in the course). A couple of the students who earned A’s in the spring did not do so by producing conventional “A work”—they did not “sparkle.” But they met all of the expectations I laid out for the course, worked consistently hard to meet those goals, and clearly demonstrated that they learned a lot throughout the process—perhaps they learned even more than the students who came into the class highly prepared to succeed. So I feel quite comfortable having given an A to a student who did not do conventional “A work,” and might have earned a B+ or A– in a conventional system.

Looking at some of the B or lower grades (which are consistent as 30% of the course in each semester), I think those were often highly successful learning experiences as well. Some were more about meta-practices of education, in terms of prioritization, time management, and self-awareness of their own strengths and limitations as a student—those students who actively chose to aim for a B or B+ in order to put more time into another course surely were happy with that option. One student struggled quite a bit on the first two exams, needing to revise every question (some multiple times) and seemed not to always be aware of his own writing practices; however, it clicked for the third exam, where he completed both Advanced questions to a Satisfactory level successfully on the first try, learning how to put the necessary time and care into his own work. That was a B as a marker of successful learning.

From my perspective, I look at my roster spreadsheet, and feel more confident than any other semester that each student got the grade that they earned, and maximized their learning to correspond with their chosen effort. To me, that’s a huge success of a semester! But what did the students think?

I think traditional student evaluations are a nearly useless measure of student learning, but our office of institutional research helped design a more useful survey for students in my course and that of my Computer Science colleague, Pete Johnson, who also experimented with specifications grading. Overall, responses were positive for both courses—the majority of students agreed with various positive statements asserting that this system provided flexibility and clarity, emphasized engaged learning, and reduced stress, with flexibility getting the strongest support among these facets. Very few respondents suggested that specifications grading would discourage them from taking a course in the future, while a majority said it would make them more likely. Here are some choice comments from the survey’s qualitative responses:

  • “I approached the course more confidently because I knew exactly how everything added together and I had agency in that.”
  • “I was completing things as stepping stones to my grade rather than focusing on them as individual assignments.”
  • “I told many of my friends over the year about the grading system.  I told them that it basically allowed you to choose at the beginning of the year how much you care about the class, due to the bundle systems.”
  • “It helps you prioritize the assignments you want, and it clarifies exactly what you have to do in order to get a grade. It makes the grading system feel less arbitrary and like you have more control over your final grade.”
  • ” I found it incredibly helpful that Professor Mittell understood that students are taking many classes and TVAC may not be the priority at that point. I think he used it to better set us up to succeed, whatever that means to us. I really appreciated this system and wish it was standard.”
  • “I think Prof. Mittell wanted to increase the transparency of grading standards and level the playing field for students who hadn’t taken previous courses in film (or were less familiar with college level writing).”
  • “I think Professor Mittell was attempting to lower the pressure associated with performing well in a class at Middlebury, both for the students and him as the professor.”
  • “I choose not to do the final and I do not regret this. I did not get the A, but I got a B+ without the stress of a final. I think it was an even trade.”

There were two threads of comments that were more critical of the system. The first was that the standard for Satisfactory was too high, with students feeling like they had to keep revising their work to meet unreasonably high expectations. I’m comfortable with this critique, as I can easily show any student where their Satisfactory work may still be below an “A” paper, and that such revisions help them learn—and it’s a universal truth that no matter what the standard, somebody will complain that I’m too hard of a grader!

The second critique is the opposite and more tricky: concern that Satisfactory is too broad, discouraging high achieving students from reaching for excellence. Some good quotes:

  • “My only concern is that this system encourages quantity more than quality. It cannot distinguish a phenomenal work from a good one. ‘Remarkable’, ‘great’, ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’ are all on the same level and graded in the same way: ‘Satisfactory’.”
  • “I think one problem with the specifications system is that for the not overly advanced assignments it encourages A-students to lower their work standards because they know they just have to do satisfactory work and not exemplary work on that individual assignment.”

This is a fair critique, especially for courses beyond the 100-level. Personally, I think there were very few instances of students aiming low but still succeeding. Certainly some aimed higher without real rewards in the grades: four students opted to complete all 6 exam questions at the Advanced level, even though only 5 Advanced were required for an A. And none of the final papers that met the satisfactory specifications read as being lazy or underdeveloped in any way, suggesting that “lower work standards” was not much of an issue.

However, I do think this concern of not motivating the best work does matter more in upper level courses, where excellence and greater depth is more possible and vital to many students’ learning. Another concern that I’ve tried to address is that in-class participation did not count in student grades, so there was little motivation for students to engage (besides, you know, learning). In the next post, I’ll talk about how I addressed both of these concerns in my current course.

jmittell

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Announcing Two Additional Videographic Criticism Workshops!

By Jason Mittell

I am tremendously excited to announce that Christian Keathley and I received another Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, allowing us to host two additional years of our videographic criticism workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image, at Middlebury College in 2017 and 2018!!!

The first workshop in 2015, supported by the same NEH grant program, was hugely successful for both participants and conveners, leading to numerous published videographic works and our brief book about the approach. The opportunity to repeat the workshop two more times is wonderful, and we are already thinking about how we will evolve our approach for two new cohorts of participants.

We have already made one major change: in 2015, the workshop was open to any film & media scholar, regardless of degree or rank. However, we received more than 100 applicants for only 12 spots, so we ended up only taking participants who had their Ph.D.s in hand. For these new workshops, we’ve explicitly divided the potential participants:

  • For the June 18 – July 1, 2017, workshop, participants must be enrolled in a graduate program at the time of application (December 2016).
  • For the June 17 – 30, 2018 workshop, participants must have received a Ph.D. by the time of application (December 2017).

We hope dividing the applicant pool this way will allow us to reach a broader range of participants, and customize our content for different audiences.

If you are interested in applying for one of the workshops, information will be available in September 2016 on the workshop website. As of now, the information there is archived from the 2015 workshop, but it should give a good sense as to what we’ll be doing for the next two versions. I’ll post info on this blog as well, when we are ready to accept applications, so stay tuned!

jmittell

Mind the Gap: Brief Thoughts on Seriality from Berlin

By Jason Mittell

I’m in Berlin, one of my favorite cities, to participate in the Seriality Seriality Seriality conference, the culminating event in the Popular Seriality Research Unit that I have been affiliated with for the past six years. It’s wonderful to be here to celebrate the conclusion of the research unit, and also a moment for nostalgia toward my ongoing participation with this wonderful group of scholars, who hosted me in Göttingen while I wrote Complex TV.

For the conference, I participated in the first panel, along with an all-star crew of friends and colleagues Frank Kelleter, Sean O’Sullivan, Jeff Sconce, Robyn Warhol, and Daniela Wentz. Frank chaired the panel with this prompt, asking us to draft 5-minute responses: “What does it mean for the study of popular serialities that its most visible research paradigm is (American) television? How can television studies be re-imagined as part of seriality studies? Should it be? Is there serial life after television?” Below is my response, designed to provoke conversation (which it did!) – I share it here to (serially) extend that discussion:

I would like to address (or rather mention and then skirt around) the last question: “Is there serial life after television?” I think this is particularly interesting because I believe television is becoming notably less serialized. To explain why, I must acknowledge that much of the writing on serial television (including my own) has fallen prey to a misunderstanding of seriality that I’d like to address.

I have frequently defined seriality most simply as “Continuity with Gaps.” We can elaborate each of these two necessary ingredients – continuity suggests long-form storytelling, repetition and reiteration, historicity and memory, and transmedia expansion. Gaps suggest temporal ruptures, narrative anticipation, moments for viewer productivity, opportunities for feedback between producers and consumers, and a structured system for a shared cultural conversation.

Much recent scholarly work on serial television (including my own) has overemphasized the former. The past twenty years have seen a remarkable increase in long-form television storytelling, in the proliferation of continuity across media, and in cultural practices where fans expand continuities. Such broadening and deepening of continuity is important, and clearly vital to the mode of complex television that I have written about.

However, in overemphasizing continuity, we have underemphasized the gaps and not paid sufficient attention to the waning role of such gaps as the dominant structure of serial distribution and consumption. The very technologies that I and others have pointed to as enabling the rise of long-form television continuities—time-shifting DVRs, bound volumes of DVD box sets, downloadable and on-demand streaming video—these all short circuit the structured system for a shared cultural conversation that serialized gaps have long offered. The latter technology of streaming video has equally disrupted serialized production and distribution practices to favor the model of “full-drop seasons” via Netflix and Amazon, releasing a set of episodes in a distinctly non-serialized fashion. Counter to accounts in the popular press, this is not the only or most common way that people watch TV today, but it is becoming increasingly widespread and will soon be regarded as an established normal option for media distribution and consumption, rather than just the hot new thing.

To be clear: a full-drop of a new season of television, to be viewed when and how you like, is not a serial. There are no gaps (at least between episodes – under this model, seasons become the new episode). So-called “binge viewing,” or my preferred non-judgmental term of “compressed viewing,” is not a serialized experience. There is no shared cultural conversation until everyone finishes the season on their own schedule. There are no productive gaps for viewer engagement, paratextual production, or feedback between producers and consumers. There is no method for simultaneous, collaborative forensic fandom, where viewers come together to figure out what has happened and predict what will happen. There are no opportunities for the agonizing anticipation after an anxious cliffhanger, where you would give anything to get the next episode instead of waiting a week or more—now, you just get the next episode. This full-drop mode of production, distribution, and consumption is distinctly different than seriality, and thus we need to consider what is lost when we eliminate these productive serial gaps. Compressed viewing is individualistic and decontextualized, whereas serial viewing is potentially communal, social, and rooted in its historical moment.

So back to Frank’s question: Is there serial life after television? And let me posit the inverse: Is there television life after seriality? Obviously, the easy answer to both is yes; such forms will not just become extinct, but rather evolve, transform, and mutate. But we need to think carefully about what these transformations will look like, and what the decline or remediation of such serial experiences will mean for us theorists of seriality.

Let me conclude with a communal call that comes with a memorable slogan: mind the gap. In our scholarship and conversations about seriality, let us reemphasize these gaps, and highlight how much will be lost without these structures of shared experience that are so essential to the cultural practice of popular seriality.

jmittell

Institutionalizing Open Access

By Jason Mittell

As of today, my institution Middlebury College has officially embraced open access as the default way that faculty share our research.

What this means is that we have adopted a policy whereby faculty grant the institution a license to republish their scholarly essays in an online open access repository, making it standard that copies of faculty publications are freely available, even when they have been published in high-priced scholarly journals. It does not mean that faculty have to change where we publish, or even that we must deposit our work in the repository (as there is an automatic waiver for anyone who wishes to opt-out). But by changing the default, we hope to change behavior and awareness so that it becomes commonplace for faculty to share publications through our institutional repository, and thus people searching for scholarly work will find links to these free open versions of publications. (You can learn more about OA institutional policies through the Coalition of Open Access Policy Institutions or through Harvard’s excellent resource site.)

This has been a long haul for me and my colleagues. I remember first having this conversation in 2008 with Mike Roy, who had just arrived at Middlebury as the new Dean for Library and Information Services. I was on the Faculty Library Advisory Committee, and Mike and I met to discuss what initiatives we each hoped would move forward. He introduced me to the idea of an institutional open access policy, and wondered if other faculty would buy into it. I expressed major skepticism, thinking there was a lack of both awareness and enthusiasm to go down that path for any but a small sliver of faculty. He said he’d take a slow approach, raising awareness and building momentum until we were ready to take action.

Eight years later, we’re ready. Today the faculty nearly unanimously passed the resolution that our Open Access committee, which Mike co-chaired with my colleague Svea Closser in Anthropology, drafted and discussed for over a year. We brought Peter Suber, one of the foremost experts on open access, to campus to advise our work and give a public presentation to raise awareness. We did one-on-one interviews with 50 faculty to understand how this policy might apply across various fields. We fielded and answered many skeptical questions, collected on our lengthy FAQ. We presented the policy and its rationale in at least 5 formal faculty meetings or targeted sessions. As Suber told us, keep having such meetings until faculty stop coming. (And they did.)

In the end, most people understood the policy (which is rather complicated in its legal maneuvers) and certainly grasped its intent. One thing I found interesting is how various OA supporters latched onto different core reasons to embrace the policy. For Mike, given his position running our library, he was motivated both by the mission of the library to disseminate knowledge broadly and how the huge costs of the current subscription model for closed scholarly access eat up library budgets for little gain. For Svea, who studies public health in Africa and Asia, she wants valuable research like hers to be available to the communities she studies that typically lack the resources to subscribe to pay journals. Personally, I am most motivated by outrage over the ways that publishers take free faculty labor as writers, editors, and reviewers, and turn around and charge our institutions to access the fruits of our labor. Over the course of our campus discussions, we heard many other good reasons to support such a policy, while the primary reasons against the policy boiled down to a general suspicion of such changes and any unintended consequences.

Needless to say, I am thrilled that the vast majority of my colleagues sided with us, and tomorrow we get to start the hard work of both building the technical infrastructure to make our repository functional, and the cultural work of getting faculty to implement our policy by making the open sharing of our research a new default. Kudos to my colleagues for embracing the policy, and especially to Mike, Svea, and my fellow committee members for their leadership and work, enabling me to type the rarest of all phrases: I found my work on this college committee enjoyable, productive, and fully worth my time!

jmittell

The Videographic Essay: A New Book

By Jason Mittell

I’m excited to announce the publication of my latest book, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image.

It’s a gratifying publication in many ways. It is the first project that I have co-authored with my good friend and colleague Christian Keathley, and as such, it was quite fun to put together. It is based on the NEH-funded workshop on videographic criticism that we ran at Middlebury in June 2015, so it both brings back many memories from those fabulous two weeks, and shares much of what we did with a larger audience, including my overview of fair use for videographic practice. It also features the writing of three other friends who collaborated on the workshop with us, Catherine Grant, Eric Faden, and Kevin B. Lee.

I’m also quite happy with its mode of publication. The book is published by caboose books, a small independent press based in Montreal that strives to publish works in film studies that go against most trends in academic publishing by being affordable and accessible. Our book is part of a series, Kino-Agora, that features short books that straddle the boundary between long essay and short book—ours is only 64 pages. But it is priced accordingly: you can buy the book directly from caboose for $5 plus shipping, or from Amazon for $8 (free shipping) or as a $4 Kindle download.

I also created a companion site on Scalar, featuring many examples of videographic exercises created by the participants in our workshop. The open access Scalar site should provide a good sampling of the type of work produced at the workshop, and also features numerous videos produced by participants over the past year. We hope it will be a useful resource for both teaching this type of work and for inspiring people to take the videographic plunge!

We hope the low price will be tempting enough to encourage readers to explore this new mode of critical engagement. I can certainly say that my own adventures in video making has been incredibly rewarding and has expanded my critical horizons – I hope this book will help others join in!

jmittell

ADAPTATION.’s Anomalies: A New Video Essay

By Jason Mittell

I am quite excited to announce my newest publication, as it marks my first venture into a fully realized work of videographic criticism. “Adaptation.‘s Anomalies” was just published in [in]Transition, culminating a project I began at the Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop we hosted in Middlebury last summer. (I’m also presenting the video on a panel of videographic work at SCMS in Atlanta, Friday April 1 at 12:15pm.)

While the video stands on its own, I encourage readers to visit the journal’s version for contextualizing material, including my author’s statement and two open peer reviews that provide good insights into the project. I hope it prompts a conversation, either here or at [in]Transition!

jmittell

First Update on My Specifications Grading Experiment

By Jason Mittell

Last month I shared my plan to use specifications grading in my Television and American Culture course this spring semester. I just finished marking the first exam, which provides my first real opportunity to reflect on how the experiment is going. (Make sure to read that previous post for the specifics of the approach and course design.) Below I walk through the first exam, what my students did, and reflect what this system has revealed to me about my teaching and students’ learning.

The course has 31 students enrolled, and all seem to be on board with the grading approach. I asked students to sign a short form to affirm their understanding with the grading system, and asked them to indicate (with no binding commitment) which “bundle” of assignments, and thus which final grade, they planned on working toward in the course. 85% of the students said they planned on working toward an A, with the remaining 15% indicating the B bundle. This wasn’t much of a surprise, given that the norm at Middlebury is toward receiving A grades – if anything, the surprise was that as many as 5 students said they were striving toward “only” a B in the course. It will be interesting to track how this initial plan matches the work that students end up doing, as I expect there will be some who started aiming at an A who choose to do less work as the semester proceeds, and perhaps a few of who revise their aim higher.

The first exam consisted of two questions, each with two versions – the Basic versions provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their ability to restate the course content in their own words (which, as an open book take-home exam, should not be particularly challenging), while the Advanced versions ask students to apply this knowledge to specific examples or to craft their own arguments about the concepts – doing more Advanced questions allows students to qualify for B or A final grades, while every student must satisfactorily complete at least Basic versions of six exam questions throughout the semester. For the first exam, all students may revise their Unsatisfactory answers at no “cost,” while future exams require them to spend “flexibility tokens” to revise answers. Each question on the three exams focuses on one of the 6 units in the course, so it is all very structured and hopefully transparent as to what is being evaluated.

To give a sense of what was asked and how the specifications were given, here is the full text for the first question:

Question #1 – complete either the Basic or Advanced version.

Basic prompt:

Commercial television strives to create new programs that minimize risk of failure and maximize the chance of success. Describe the process by which a new program moves from an idea to actually airing on television, highlighting at least five distinct and specific ways that producers and distributors try to reduce risk and create commercial success.

Advanced prompt:

Commercial television strives to create new programs that minimize risk of failure and maximize the chance of success. Analyze the upcoming NBC series Heartbeat, based on the information and videos contained on its official website, highlighting at least five distinct and specific ways that you can see evidence of producers and distributors trying to reduce risk and create commercial success. You do not need to do any research beyond the NBC site, although you may look up additional basic information as needed, citing sources for anything beyond the website.

Specifications:

A satisfactory answer to either of these questions must meet all of the following specifications:

  • Submitted via Moodle by 11:00 am, Tuesday, March 15, as an uploaded document in either .docx, .doc, or .rtf format.
  • Consists of at least 750 words, not counting quotations.
  • Includes the honor code pledge.
  • Cites any sources referenced beyond the assigned course readings, screenings, class meetings, and the NBC Heartbeat website, following either MLA or Chicago style consistently. (Additional sources are not required.)
  • Cites any direct quotations from assigned course readings, screenings, and class meetings. References to ideas from those sources do not need to be cited unless directly quoted.
  • Makes no more than 5 errors to standard written English.
  • Contains no more than 2 minor factual inaccuracies and no major factual inaccuracies.
  • Clearly addresses the chosen essay prompt (indicating whether it is a basic or advanced essay), with the minimum number of five distinct examples and points that meet the prompt’s parameters, with at least three of the points being of high significance.
  • Makes relevant connections to course materials and appropriate use of terminology.
  • Expresses ideas clearly and fluently in your own words, with coherent and effective organization.

Additionally, a satisfactory answer to the Advanced prompt must meet the following specifications:

  • Applies course materials and concepts to the specific instance of Heartbeat, highlighting relevant and important aspects of the case study.
  • Demonstrates original analytical thinking about the case study.

Interestingly, every student chose the Advanced version of this question, opting to apply the concepts rather than just restating them—I had designed this question to be very straightforward and one of the easier Advanced versions to undertake. 60% of the students wrote Satisfactory essays on the first try, with many very strong analyses. From a conventional grading standpoint, a 40% Unsatisfactory rate would be shocking, as I cannot remember anytime where 40% of my students got an essay question “wrong” like this.

But the Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory marks do not correspond to Right / Wrong, nor Pass / Fail. This was one of the crucial insights I gained by marking these essays: Unsatisfactory really means “not done yet.” As I described to my class when announcing the high rate of Unsatisfactory (which seemed to shock them as well), think of it like when your parents ask you to clean your room: you tell them that you’re done, they assess your work and say “not done yet!,” giving you a chance to keep cleaning to meet their standards. This is also more comparable to how projects are assessed within many professional worlds, where work that doesn’t meet expectations will require another round (at least) of work to bring it up to snuff. With a list of clear specifications, there are a range of ways that an essay might not be Satisfactory: some of the Unsatisfactory essays cited sources inappropriately, while a few included some factual inaccuracies. The most common reason why these essays did not meet the specifications was that they did not clearly iterate five distinct points, either through ineffective structure that muddied the analysis, or including multiple points that were too similar (e.g. it’s a clone and it’s an imitation).

The numbers were even more stark for Essay #2. I’m not going to share the entire question, but the crux of it focused on exploring a key concept tied to broadcast regulation. The Basic prompt asked, “Identify at least three distinct ways that X shapes American television, referencing readings, screenings, and course topics directly as needed, and using specific examples to support your discussion.” The Advanced prompt asked for argumentation, not just description: “Stake a claim as to how X impacts American democracy. In arguing your position, include at least two distinct points supporting your position, and explain and rebut at least one counter-argument against your position, referencing readings, screenings and course topics directly as needed, and using specific examples to support your claims.” The specifications were similar to those on question #1.

Unlike the first question, some students opted for the Basic version, with 20% choosing the less challenging approach; interestingly, only one of the students who opted to answer the Basic question had declared their intention to strive for the B bundle in the course, meaning that either students are changing their intentions and/or a number of students striving for As opted to use their one opportunity to choose an easier question early in the semester. Satisfactory rates were much lower for this question – for those electing the Basic version, 2/3 were Satisfactory, while the Unsatisfactory essays all fell short of required word count, a classic case of an “unforced error.” The Advanced essays had only a 40% Satisfactory rate, with the Unsatisfactory answers falling short in a range of different ways, from major to minor concerns.

Around 60% of my students will have to revise at least one of the essays. My hope is that through the revision process, sustained learning may occur, as students grapple with what it means to write a successful analytical or argumentative essay. Whether it’s through the more surface level attention to requirements for citations, word count, or grammar, or the deeper challenges of understanding how to make ideas clearly distinct or structuring an argument to convey a clear position, there are many more opportunities here for students to engage with their own work and strengthen their rhetorical skills, far beyond what might happen with a conventionally graded assignment.

One of the things that I’ve learned is how different a conventional grading scheme feels from this Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory model, especially at the higher end. While any essay that would have typically received an A or A– did get Satisfactory, essays that I might have given a B or B+ fell into both camps. There were very smart essays with some surface issues like citation format that got Unsatisfactory, and there were Satisfactory Advanced essays that met the specifications, but were not particularly compelling or insightful.

This points to what seems to be the greatest disparity between conventional and specifications grading: there is no differentiation between work that meets expectations and that which exceeds them. This distinction is typically one that I adhere to in my conventional grading: work that is good enough but not great gets a B+, while I reserve A– and A for work that exceeds expectations. This leads to my courses typically having an average grade of B+, as with the last time I taught Television & American Culture, with a GPA of 3.35 and 38% of students receiving final grades of A or A–. (Note such grades put my courses well below average at Middlebury, where more than 50% of all grades given are A or A–, and overall average GPA is around 3.5.)

I’m trying to figure out what the effect of eliminating the distinction between meeting and exceeding expectations will be, and why it matters. Any student who satisfactorily completes all of the required work to receive an A in this course should have demonstrated that they accomplished all of the learning goals, probably more systematically than some students who earned As in the past. Should those who meet expectations with more “style” and exceptional level of accomplishment be rewarded with something beyond an A? (A+ is not an option at Middlebury.) I don’t think so, meaning that to differentiate between meeting vs. exceeding expectations requires lowering the outcome for meeting all expectations to a lower grade (A– or B+), reserving a straight A for those who significantly exceed expectations. There are systems for doing this, differentiating Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory marks into the wider range of E / M / R / F (Excellent / Meets expectations / Revision needed / Fragmentary), and then requiring a certain number of E marks to earn an A. However, I feel like this just renames the conventional A / B / C / D model, undermining the focus on specifications and promoting the stressful drive that students have to go beyond expectations and aim for the vague difference that earns the highest mark.

So what is the difference between meeting and exceeding expectations? On my assignments, typically it’s elegance and style in writing, subtlety of analysis, originality of insight, and depth of thinking. These are not learning goals for the course, and they are not things I directly teach—obviously I value all of these elements, and try to model them in leading discussion and assigning exemplary readings, but I do not focus on such advanced abilities in this introductory course. This is the crux for me: the students who are exceeding my expectations are doing so based on what they bring to the course, rather than what they are learning from the class. Of the handful of Advanced essays that exceeded my expectations on this exam, almost all were written by upperclass Film & Media majors who had taken a previous course from me. That suggests that they learned how to write effective and compelling media studies analyses in those (and other) courses, and they exhibited that practiced skill admirably on my exam. Should those abilities be overly rewarded within this course, at the cost of the grades for students who meet expectations but did not come to the course with the same experience and background? I think not.

Obviously there’s a ways to go before the semester ends, but I feel like this is a crucial insight: our grading systems need to measure, reward, and incentivize students’ work and learning within the course, not reward or punish what they bring to the course. I’ll be quite curious to see how that plays out in future assignments, now that students have a better sense of how grading will work and what my expectations are. Stay tuned…

jmittell

Academics Writing for the Public

By Jason Mittell

In January, I helped bring Anne Trubek to Middlebury to do a workshop for faculty called “Writing for the Public.” Anne is a friend and a great writer with a diverse resume, so when she announced that she was adding campus workshops to her Thinking Writer slate of online courses, I jumped at the chance to bring her to Vermont.

It was a great couple of days, as Anne worked with 15 faculty to discuss the mechanics of popular publishing, how to craft a pitch, what topics make sense for what venues and audiences, and what distinctive perspectives academics have to offer and how best to write to those strengths. Anne also called attention to how unusual the phrase “writing for the public” is, noting that everyone else except academics simply call it “writing.”

She encouraged us to develop a pitch and start working on an article to discuss with her and our peers, which I did. This was shortly after the public squabble between NBC and Netflix at the Television Critics Association about Netflix’s unreleased viewership numbers. So I developed a pitch that would address that timely controversy, trying to explain Netflix’s unique business model to industry outsiders and make the case for why we should care. I drafted the piece that night, Anne & I hashed out edits over breakfast, and then I sent the piece to five journalistic venues.

That was Thursday January 28th. The only one I heard back from quickly was a friendly acquaintance who edits a prominent culture site, who passed due to overlap with previous coverage. Silence for the next week. (Anne says this is not uncommon.) Then a week later, I got a positive reply from The Atlantic, who asked for potential revisions, which I turned around quickly. Then more waiting, then a positive email saying they’re waiting for the right time in their cycle to run it, with some final revisions (especially since the timely hook was now stale).

That right time was today, as the article was published: “Why Netflix Doesn’t Release Its Ratings.” For me, it’s a piece that straddles genres: too off-the-cuff & speculative for scholarship, too depersonalized for a blog post, too rudimentary for posting to a more academic audience on a site like Flow or the late-lamented Antenna. I see it as a form of public media literacy, hoping to raise awareness of how underlying business models impact how we engage with and talk about television. I hoped it would get people interested in the behind-the-scenes systems of our major communication media.

It did get one notable person interested – shortly after the article came out, I got an email from a producer at the public radio show Marketplace, who was hoping to have me record an interview about the topic. Thankfully the scheduling and technology worked, so my interview appeared on tonight’s show.

I share this here, both as a more permanent link as part of my revitalized blogging, and to share a sense of how such a popular press piece comes into being. And, admittedly, to support and promote Anne’s workshops as a valuable way to learn how to write (for the public)!

jmittell

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