Framing the Video Essay as Argument

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1 (2) Spring/Summer 2013
 Ashley Hinck
 University of Wisconsin-Madison



When first incorporating video essays into my classes, I struggled to conceptualize what role the video essay would play in my teaching. How do I justify assigning a video essay to students and colleagues? How do I teach or coach video essays for my students? How can I teach the video essay in a way that is just as rigorous as a written essay? And how do these questions fit together? Are my answers consistent? Do they contradict each other?

In pursuit of answers to these questions, I have borrowed concepts from Internet studies, communication, rhetoric, and composition, which have helped create a framework for teaching video essays. While the other essays in this collection offer specific recommendations about how to teach students production skills or how to grade video essays, here I aim to offer an overarching framework that brings each piece together—whether the assignment is a vlog in an introductory media class or a video game walk-through in a new media class. I begin by detailing the “video essay as argument” framework, then describe one of my video essay assignments utilizing this frame, and lastly identify the advantages this framework offers.

Video Essay as Argument 

Framing the video essay as an argument means two things: 1) the essay makes an argument about subject matter, and 2) the argument is an instance of communication. In written papers, we ask students to make arguments about subject matter questions, or key questions and debates within the discipline. In a video essay, we can ask students to do the same. Scholars like Virginia Kuhn and Catherine Palczewski have demonstrated that videos and images, just as much as written texts, make arguments, utilizing propositions, evidence, premises, and conclusions [1]. In answering subject matter questions, students are required to engage in critical thinking about course readings and course screenings. Indeed, this critical thinking happens whenever a student makes an argument, whether through video, images, or speech [2].

Framing the video essay as an argument invites instructors to conceptualize the video essay not only as an argument about subject matter, but also as a piece of communication intended for practical use. In this case, students must think rhetorically—that is, students must confront four fundamental rhetorical concerns regarding their audience, purpose, genre, and context and how each of these impacts their argument [3].

First, students must consider who their audience is—who will view the video—and consider how their audience’s characteristics, demographics, beliefs, and expectations might impact the reception of the argument [4].

Second, students must be able to envision and articulate a specific purpose in order to create a focused, clear video. In other words, students must consider their aim for the video—the intended change in the audience’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions.

Third, just as we ask students to pay attention to genres of television and film, we must also ask students to pay attention to the genre of their video. We might conceptualize online video as a rather large genre and look to sub-genres of online video for more specific generic requirements, like vlogs, remixes, fan-vids, parodies, songs, voice-over commentary, and many others. In asking students to pay attention to genre, instructors invite them to consider genre expectations and weigh what rhetorical choices can allow them to best meet those requirements.

Lastly, students must consider the context, or the social, political, and technological situations that surround the video essay. Students might consider the context of the website they will post the video on: what does it mean to post their video on Vimeo rather than YouTube? Students might also consider the ways that current social and political situations bear on the particular argument they want to make. Importantly, context, genre, purpose, and audience are not four separate concerns [5]. Rather, these questions all bear on one another, and the answers to one question will affect the answers for the others.

Students must then make rhetorical choices based on their consideration of these four areas. For example, if the genre for my video is a vlog, how can I signal that to my readers? Composition scholarship shows that students who practice writing with rhetorical concerns in mind are better able to transfer their knowledge and skills to other situations [6]. Students are less likely to see classroom assignments as artificial and more likely to apply their skills and experience to situations outside of the classroom. When we teach the video essay as argument, we prepare students to create videos for personal, professional, and civic purposes.

Students make rhetorical choices based not only on audience, purpose, genre, and context, but also on the available technological affordances. Communication scholar Nancy Baym argues that technologies offer varying affordances—social capabilities that are both expected and emergent [7]. One way in which affordances vary is by the mixed modalities that technologies offer. Writing scholar Gunther Kress defines modes as “culturally and socially produced resources for representation” (i.e. text, image, and speech) [8]. Importantly, communication almost always takes place in some kind of mixed modality. Online, textual communication feels like speech in some ways and writing in others [9]. In video, creators utilize title slides amongst video clips, mixing textual and visual modes. In public speaking, speakers often utilize PowerPoint presentations with text, images, and sound alongside a presented face-to-face speech. Each modality offers particular advantages, and each technology or medium mixes modalities in unique ways.

These technological affordances both open up and restrict the range of rhetorical choices a creator can make [10].For example, using video, students can take advantage of the affordance of conveying an entire video clip of a television show, while text would require the student to describe actions, vocal tones, etc. On the other hand, students can easily state a thesis in a written essay, while in a video that thesis might be presented with text, with voice-over, or conveyed in some other way.

An Example of the Video Essay as Argument Frame Used in Class

I use the video essay as argument framework when I teach a 200-level class called Introduction to Digital Communication. The class serves as a core class in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s interdisciplinary Digital Studies Certificate program. The course introduces students to basic concepts and case studies in digital communication while inviting them to make arguments about digital communication in a variety of modes, including written papers, in-class speeches, and digital videos. My video assignment requires students to create an online video that persuades their audience to change some problematic aspect of online communication. While this is not a production class, I devote one class period to teaching students to use iMovie to create their videos. You can find the assignment sheet and rubric here, along with other course materials at my course page.

For a selection of outstanding student work, see Kevin McDonald’s video “It’s Not My Fault,” Brittany Seffidashti’s “Creep Shots,” Colleen Hogan’s “Filter Bubbles,”, and Gino Ricchio’s “Make sure to do your online fact checking!” [11]. Kevin’s video utilizes two different vlog styles in order to simulate an internal conversation with himself about where the “fault” or responsibility lies for productive communication online. Brittany’s video also uses the vlog genre, the immediacy of which enhances the direct appeals she makes to her audience to not participate in creep shots. Colleen’s video borrows rhetorical strategies from public speaking (her images and PowerPoint slides) and writing (her linear organization of the video), while also using rhetorical strategies available only in video (using clips from a TED talk video). Gino Ricchio’s video utilizes humor to imagine a scenario in which failing to fact-check online information leads to a roommate debacle. While light-hearted and silly, Gino’s video makes a strong argument in a way that is difficult to refute by providing visual evidence. Each video uses different genres and rhetorical strategies, and they all achieve their purpose and offer powerful arguments to their viewers.

Advantages of the Video Essay As Argument Perspective

Conceptualizing the video essay as argument enables us to align the thesis-driven written paper with the video essay, without reducing one to the other. We can identify possible rhetorical strategies for achieving organization in written communication and in videos, but we need not require videos to have thesis statements just because papers do. Rather, instructors ought to evaluate the effectiveness of students’ rhetorical choices given the available affordances. If the goal of the video essay assignment is for students to engage in critical thinking about course content by making an argument and to practice conveying that argument to others, then instructors can assess the degree to which students have achieved that goal by assessing the rhetorical choices students make.

Teaching the video essay as argument also presents an opportunity to work more closely with colleagues who teach public speaking, writing, performance, video, and visual design. We might ask that public speaking instructors frame public speaking as utilizing a combination of two modes: speech and image. Thus public speaking offers different affordances than the video essay and requires different rhetorical choices, though it still requires students to construct an argument and consider rhetorical questions. By conceptualizing communication as requiring rhetorical choices, we can encourage our students to see their classes as related, as each class teaches students how to make arguments in particular modes with particular affordances. Ultimately, using this perspective allows us to better facilitate a movement between modes of communication that students’ lives outside of college classrooms will demand.



I’d like to thank Rob Howard for initially conceptualizing Introduction to Digital Communication and for his mentorship in teaching and researching digital communication.


[1] For a definition of argument, see O’Keefe. For research on images as arguments, see e.g. Birdsell and Groarke as well as Palczewski. For research on videos as arguments, see Hatfield, Hinck, and Birkholt as well as Kuhn. (Hatfield, Hinck, and Birkholt, “Seeing the Visual in Argumentation”; O’Keefe, “The Concepts of Argument and Arguing”; Birdsell and Groarke, “Outlines of a Theory of Visual Argument”; Kuhn, “The Rhetoric of Remix”; Palczewski, “The Male Madonna and the Feminine Uncle Sam.”)

[2] For research on how oral argumentation (debate, public speaking, and forensics) can increase critical thinking skills, see Allen et al. and Mezuk et al. For research on how written argument can increase critical thinking skills, see Bean, pages 1-38. (Allen et al., “A Meta-analysis of the Impact of Forensics and Communication Education on Critical Thinking”; Mezuk et al., “Impact of Participating in a Policy Debate Program on Academic Achievement”; Bean, Engaging Ideas.)

[3] For a chapter to assign in class to introduce these rhetorical concerns, see Campbell and Huxman, “Chapter 1: A Rhetorical Perspective.”

[4] Black, “The Second Persona”; Wander, “The Third Persona: An Ideological Turn in Rhetorical Theory.”

[5] Bitzer, “The Rhetorical Situation.”

[6] Bean, Engaging Ideas, 40.

[7] Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 44.

[8] Kress, “Gains and Losses,” 6.

[9] Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 63.

[10] Compositionist Anne Frances Wysocki points out that constraints offered by particular modes are not always natural, but rather socially constructed. That some modes are appropriate for some uses is often a function of social and cultural relations (Wysocki, “Awaywithwords.”).

[11] All student videos were used with permission from the students.

Allen, Mike, Sandra Berkowitz, Steve Hunt, and Allan Louden. “A Meta-analysis of the Impact of Forensics and Communication Education on Critical Thinking.” Communication Education 48 (1999): 18–30.
Baym, Nancy. Personal Connections in the Digital Age. Malden, MA: Polity, 2010.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd ed. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.

Birdsell, David, and Leo Groarke. “Outlines of a Theory of Visual Argument.” Argumentation & Advocacy 43 (2007): 103–113.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 1 (1968): 1–14.

Black, Ed. “The Second Persona.” The Quarterly Journal of Speech 57, no. 2 (1970): 109–119.

Campbell, Karlyn Kohrs, and Susan Schultz Huxman. “Chapter 1: A Rhetorical Perspective.” In The Rhetorical Act Thinking, Speaking and Writing Critically, 1–16. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 2009.

Hatfield, Katherine L., Ashley Hinck, and Marty J. Birkholt. “Seeing the Visual in Argumentation: A Rhetorical Analysis of UNICEF Belgium’s Smurf Public Service Announcement.” Argumentation and Advocacy 43, no. 3/4 (2007): 144.

Kress, Gunther. “Gains and Losses: New Forms of Texts, Knowledge, and Learning.” Computers and Composition 22, no. 1 (January 2005): 5–22. doi:10.1016/j.compcom.2004.12.004.

Kuhn, Virginia. “The Rhetoric of Remix.” Transformative Works and Cultures 9 (2012).

Mezuk, Briana, Irina Bondarenko, Suzanne Smith, and Eric Tucker. “Impact of Participating in a Policy Debate Program on Academic Achievement: Evidence from the Chicago Urban Debate League.” Educational Research and Reviews 6, no. 9 (2011): 622–635.

O’Keefe, D.J. “The Concepts of Argument and Arguing.” In Advances in Argumentation Theory and Research, 3–23. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.


Ashley Hinck is a PhD candidate in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research and teaching focus on digital communication. She has taught classes in digital studies as well as communication, including Digital Communication, Argumentation, Human Communication, and Public Speaking. Her research examines the rhetoric of fan activism, and as such sits at the intersection of rhetoric, fan studies, and internet studies. For more information, see her webpage at

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4 Responses to Framing the Video Essay as Argument

  1. bboessen says:

    Nice piece, Ashley. The connection between the video essay form and rhetoric is so fitting – you do a great job laying it out.

    I’m curious how your students use the medium of video, ie, do they tend to use images more complexly when they are explicitly framed in your course as evidence in an argument? Sometimes my students seem to inherently resist that idea, preferring to want to draw simple (maybe even simplistic) connections between the images they use and what they imagine an audience will understand them to mean. Have you found your students are engaged by the idea of building arguments with images?

    Also, it sounds like your assignment is another good example of using an in-class workshop to provide students with the resources they need to successfully complete it. Did you have any experience with iMovie yourself before, and if not, how much effort did you devote to learning it so you could demo it for your students?

    • aahinck says:

      Great questions. Some students definitely tend to use images in a very literal way, while others get more creative. I try to spend some time talking with them about design principles- though we do this primarily within the context of designing powerpoint slides for speeches. But I do try to encourage students to extend what they learned about the power of images and design principles to their videos. I’d love to hear any ideas you or other readers have for activities, readings, or screenings that help students use images complexly.

      Admittedly, I didn’t do my own iMovie demo. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, our tech support people (Department of Information Technology) offer free demos tailored to individual class needs. It’s worth looking into at your own institution to see if you have something similar. Even if you don’t have something like that available, I think iMovie is simple and intuitive enough where you could practice making your own video once and then be ready to teach your class how to do the same. My students all really enjoyed using iMovie even after having only one 50 minute demo. The general feedback (especially from students who hadn’t taken any production courses) was that it was intuitive and easy to use.

  2. vkuhn says:

    This is a really solid and well researched piece which frames things quite nicely! How do you handle citations? I am always a bit stuck since it doesn’t quite make sense to put works cited in the traditional “credits” section, but if sources are not in the video itself, then they risk being separated from it as they spread. Do your students simply make it clear who they are quoting (as in the Filter Bubbles piece) or film themselves with few if any cites (as in the “It’s Not My Fault” piece)?

  3. aahinck says:

    Great question. I require students to cite their source material, but I leave the method of citation up to them, depending on the genre they choose for their video. Some students use the traditional “credits” section and others make it clear with oral citations in their voice over (similar to how they might cite sources in a speech), but I’m increasingly encouraging my students to include citations in the video description on YouTube or Vimeo. This is a practice that seems to be increasingly common with vloggers. I really love how users can easily click on the link and they get directed right to source material.

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