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College leads in a new kind of scholarship: video essays

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Posted on June 29, 2017 |
By Will DiGravio



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MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE PROFESSORS of Film and Media Culture Chris Keathley, left, and Jason Mittell have received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to run a two-week workshop on videographic criticism. Independent photo/Trent Campbell

MIDDLEBURY — Is criticism ever art? Can academic analysis move a person with the kind of appeal to emotion that art does?

Videographic criticism, a relatively new kind of scholarship that relies as much on the aesthetic as it does on the analytical, is being produced at Middlebury College. A National Endowment for the Humanities grant funded a workshop this month where film and media scholars are learning how to produce cutting edge videographic criticism.

“Part of why I applied is to think about my materials in a new way,” said workshop participant Nike Nivar Ortiz, a grad student at the University of Southern California.

The workshop, created and facilitated by Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, both Middlebury professors of Film and Media Culture, teaches the art of the video essay. In other words, how scholars can use the objects of their study — motion pictures, television and other electronic audiovisual forms — to produce scholarship.

An innovator in the field, Keathley first began experimenting with the video essay in 1989. However, it was not until recent years, when digital technologies — DVDs, Blu-Ray, the internet, etc. — made electronic media more accessible to scholars, that he began to seriously produce and teach videographic criticism.

He likened the video essay to literary criticism, where scholars, given the nature of the written word, are able to directly quote their objects of study in their work.

“As film scholars, we couldn’t (do that), we always had to describe,” he said. “I couldn’t help but wonder what would it be like to not always have to resort to language to describe, but to use the audiovisual medium to show at the same time you’re doing analysis or argumentation.”

By using the moving images they study, scholars are able to craft video essays to explore and present ideas that may be difficult or impossible to truly express in a traditional academic essay. According to Mittell, the videographic elements allow criticism to mimic the aesthetic and affective properties of film. The ability to present essays in a video format allows academics to present and explore ideas in a completely new way. 

“Some of the best video essays that we have seen work to engage viewers emotionally and aesthetically,” Mittell said. “I’ve read very few scholarly essays that make me cry or laugh. (Videographic criticism) is a way that you can explore a range of emotional responses while still conveying ideas, exploring questions and moving people’s knowledge forward.”

VIDEO CAMP

This year’s workshop, which the 14 participants affectionately refer to as “video camp,” is being held at the college from June 18 to July 1. The participants, all of whom are scholars pursuing their Ph.D.s, have traveled to Middlebury from all around the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Participants, or “campers,” spent their first week learning how to use the software programs needed to produce their essays. They also participated in a number of videographic exercises, designed by Keathley and Mittell, that allows them to experiment with the form.

One of the differences between videographic criticism and traditional scholarship is its emphasis on experimentation. Participants are encouraged to pursue ideas that may not be fully developed and ask questions that may not have a definitive answer.

“On the first day, Jason (Mittell) sort of summed things up quite effectively in a kind of mantra for the workshop: Make first, think later. There’s a kind of experimental ethos to the whole enterprise,” said Derek Long, a participant and graduate student at the University of Wisconsin.

Keathley likened the workshop to a toolbox, where participants learn the skills and theory necessary to craft a piece of videographic criticism. They are spending the second week producing a video essay on a topic of their choice.

Last Friday, each participant pitched, in no more than 30 seconds, a final essay topic. One camper decided to explore themes and motifs commonly found across television series finales. Another planned to study the films of Otto Preminger, looking at his work in relation to production history. A third chose to examine the discourse and cinematic practices of steadicam operators, specifically exploring the aesthetics and feelings behind those shots.

For some, their video essay will serve to supplement their dissertation, while others may choose to experiment with a new idea altogether. Many scholars will walk away from the camp seeing a film, one they had previously studied for hours and hours, in a completely new way.

“I come from a comparative literature background, so it has been really interesting for me to think about my corpus in a new way and think about the audio-visual as a juxtaposition within itself,” said Nivar Ortiz, the USC student. “We’re all coming to this with projects that are pretty fleshed out already, most of us are in the writing stages of our dissertation. So this, for most of us, is complementary to something we’ve been working on for years in a very rigid form.”

Long, who graduated from Middlebury in 2008, said one of the goals of the workshop is to encourage academics to approach their area of study in ways that make them uncomfortable. This, he said, allows them to view their work in a completely different light. As Mittell put it, videographic criticism encourages scholars to look at their work not as just a self-contained, standalone narrative, but as a set of audio-video tracks to be manipulated.

“(Videographic criticism is about) not looking at your object as just a place where you’re trying to find evidence for something you already know, but as something that is speaking to you,” said Nicole Morse, a student at the University of Chicago.

New Kind of Scholarship

In the field of film and media studies, Middlebury has earned a reputation as a leading institution and innovator in the art of the video essay. This year’s workshop is the second that Keathley and Mittell have co-directed. Also funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the first workshop took place in 2015. They have received funding to host a third workshop in 2018.

“They may have been too modest to mention it, but it’s worth pointing out that Jason (Mittell) and Chris (Keathley) are major scholars in the development of this work,” said Jenny Oyallon-Koloski, a workshop participant and University of Wisconsin graduate student.

Though not unheard of, it is rare for innovative scholarship and the training of graduate students to take place at an undergraduate, liberal arts institution like Middlebury.

“I don’t think it’s an accident we’re doing this at a liberal arts college. The sort of play, exploration and openness of (videographic criticism) parallels the liberal arts experience,” Oyallon-Koloski said. “I can’t imagine this sort of experience happening at (larger institutions), not because people wouldn’t be interested in doing it, but I think the structure here lends itself so well to it.”

Mittell explained that at an undergraduate institution like Middlebury it is easier to produce high-profile research in the humanities because, unlike the natural sciences, it does not require expensive equipment and teams of graduate students.

“(Videographic criticism) is a type of research practice that is creative, that is interdisciplinary and that is scoped to the point that an individual can do it,” he said. “You don’t need a team to edit a video.”

In 2014, Keathley and Mittell helped launch (in)Transition, the first peer-reviewed academic journal of videographic film and moving image studies. Keathley serves as one of the journal’s co-editors, and Mittell as one of its co-project managers. The journal is co-sponsored by Cinema Journal, the publication of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, as well as MediaCommons, an initiative based at New York University that promotes teaching and learning through multimedia technology. Keathley said those organizations lend legitimacy to the practice of using video essays as a form of scholarship.

Last May, Keathley and Mittell co-authored a book on the form, appropriately titled, “The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image.” Their book details the philosophy that underlies the creation of a videographic essay. It also describes the pedagogical methods the two have used in the workshop and the undergraduate class they teach at the college on videographic criticism.

The duo have earned reputations as innovators, not necessarily for creating video essays, but in developing a method to teach the form in a way that produces quality scholarship. Their practices have been adopted by other academics in the field.

“I met several people who were quick to admit, ‘I don’t know how to teach (videographic criticism),’” Keathley said. “A lot of (our work) had to do with developing an effective way to teach basic conceptual principles about working with moving images and sounds.”

Mittell described their work as developing a school of thought for how to approach videographic criticism.

“People refer to it as the ‘Middlebury approach’ elsewhere,” he said.

One of their goals is to build a network of scholars that support and create videographic scholarship. The workshop is, in part, an attempt to create a community that will determine the future of the form because, as Mittell and Keathley said, the possibilities are endless.

“The field is still new enough that we’re asking questions,” Mittell said. “What does an argument look like in videographic form? Does it have to follow a set structure? Are there norms of citation? Are there norms of reference? We don’t have those norms for the form yet. It’s a much more diverse form than academic writing is.”

Keathley emphasized that, while they are looking to establish norms for the medium, they’re constantly pushing to make sure that it evolves.

“Nothing is more satisfying than seeing a work that makes you feel: This is a videographic essay, it hits all the markers for what I expect from audio-visual scholarship, and yet it looks like nothing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “That is the most gratifying part.”

Editor’s Note: Will DiGravio, who is an intern with the newspaper this summer, is currently a Film and Media Culture major at Middlebury College; Jason Mittell is his academic adviser.

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