The Paradox of Ubiquitous Production

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier

Vol 4 (1)
Lauren S. Berliner
University of Washington Bothell

Academic programs have historically fallen into the trap of reifying traditional divisions between theory and practice and analysis and craft. A 2016 “state of the field” study delivered by the Society for Cinema and Media Studies indicates that these tensions remain common amongst faculty in the field. Yet, as universities increasingly lean on assumed student interest and skill sets in production to help solidify their identities as technologically oriented, nimble, and innovative, production across media-related courses has become the zeitgeist of curricular change. This appears to be occurring even when technological and human resources prove to be sparse. In our particular moment of increased austerity, the ubiquity of inexpensive consumer digital media production technologies has become a convenient locus for pedagogical energy. 

Underlying a move towards the integration of production into the classroom is an assumption that students possess the necessary skills and access to media technologies to successfully complete and benefit from coursework and that teachers are equally equipped to structure and evaluate production-based assignments. Indeed, the myth that this generation of students is comprised of “digital natives” who most naturally experience the world through their everyday media production experiences has infused institutional approaches to media pedagogy and notions of media literacy.

The now-pervasive sentiment that “anyone with a smart phone” can make (or teach) media production in their courses seems to reflect a radical pedagogy, but in application has the potential to sink a syllabus. Elizabeth Losh  urges pedagogues to be skeptical about gadgets and mass distribution as a means of liberation. At risk is an over-emphasis on student and teacher capacity to execute successful assignments, with limited resources or attention to metacognition, in short periods of time.

So how do we proceed with integrating production in classes that aren’t necessarily designated as production courses? As a scholar/practitioner situated in a Media and Communication Studies major within an interdisciplinary program, I have found that the most effective way is by implementing through low-skills, low-tech, low-stakes assignments that adhere to three general principles. First, the teaching method and use of production technologies must be in line with the desired learning outcomes. Second, students must be given the instructional handles and technological access to fully participate, and third, assessment must require students to be simultaneously reflective about form and content in their work.

Why Produce?

Before you begin crafting your syllabus ask why you’re integrating media production into your coursework in the first place. What is the purpose? How does working with that particular media serve your learning objectives?

In a class I teach called Participatory Media Culture I assign students to respond to weekly prompts using a WordPress blog that they create in class at the beginning of the quarter. We study participatory media forms, so it makes sense to utilize this media as part of our intellectual work. Having a rationale for producing media outside of the standard academic essay helps students to understand how their learning is affected by the affordances of the different media they are working with. The rationale for the blog, I explain, is that this public form requires them to write for an audience outside of our class, and in doing so, they must think about how to illustrate concepts to readers who are not already invested in the material. What’s more, students are asked to consider how writing such a blog might be useful as part of their academic and professional portfolios, or simply towards the cultivation of their personal identities. Here are three examples of student blogs:

Participating in Media Culture All Day, Every Day
Le Vie en Media

Provide technologies: don’t assume access 

Early iterations of my low-skills production assignments required students to possess particular forms of social media literacy as well as access to computers and high speed Internet. I quickly learned these were expectations that hindered the ability of several dedicated students to participate. At the end of my first teaching quarter one student shared that she had been driving a long distance to campus every time she needed to work on an assignment for class so that she could use a school laptop during library hours, which was very difficult for her to accomplish while working a full time off-campus job. The next time I taught the course I chose to designate some of class time to working on school computers as a class. This change not only kept students on track with the assignments, it also made it possible for them to share and ask questions as they worked. In this sense, a formerly private production experience became shared, and no one student’s participation was hindered by lack of access to technology.

Integrate skills acquisition into the curriculum and reward students for their efforts

In my Participatory Media Culture course, students are also required to produce re-mix videos. This assignment (Re-mix video assignment) requires them to juxtapose two or more concepts from class using their original research to offer original insights into concerns of the course. While some students are very comfortable with video editing software, many have not had experience with it, let alone MAC operating systems, which are our only in-class computer option. To account for a variety of pre-existing skill sets, I structure the re-mix assignment so that students are grouped with others of their skill level. This seems to diffuse anxieties that could emerge due to varying experiences, and encourages shared labor among group members.

I reassure students that experience is not necessary and reward them credit for completing a basic online video-editing tutorial at home. I also devote a two-hour class period to teaching basic cutting, utilizing found footage that students have brought to class. The prompt accommodates inexperienced editors by making them responsible for only a very basic edit, or, if they have in mind something more complicated, a storyboard or slide presentation of what they would do next if time permitted. Here are two examples:

Focus on the concept

Many students find the possibility of working with audiovisual material to be an exciting opportunity, but others find it daunting. Their reaction depends, in large part, on their technical backgrounds, comfort with multimodal work, and experience using the particular media platforms they have chosen. One way to overcome this challenge is to focus on the content and purpose of the assignment, ahead of the technological platform, from the start. Virginia Kuhn notes, “when students are learning a new technology—video editing, for instance—their focus on the conceptual issues often wanes.” Reassuring students that you are most interested in what they do with ideas, and that media production is one of many approaches to surface and illuminate them, helps to encourage thoughtful, critical projects.

To emphasize the conceptual, begin by de-centering the technological. Ask students to detail their ideas before sitting down in front of the computer. Ask, which sounds and images will they be working with? What do they hope to do with that material, and for what purpose? How will they attend to and reflect upon the ethics of representation in their production? Beginning with these questions underscores the class commitment to concept while leaving room for talking about form as well.

Create assessments that introduce students to the language of production

Rather than holding students accountable for demonstrating particular production values, structure assignments and assessments to emphasize that they critically examine choices of representation, audience, and the relationship between form and content. My re-mix assignment assessment includes the following evaluative criteria:

CONCEPT: Your video address your group’s chosen theme in some way, ideally drawing together themes/ideas/images from the course

ARGUMENT: Your video must make an argument about your theme or another theme of the course 

FORMAL ELEMENTS: Each audio and visual choice should be thoughtfully discussed by the group—you will be asked to account for your decisions. A strong work will have complexity and nuance.

CREATIVITY: Do you take an original approach? What unexpected choices have you made? What images, sounds, or text have contributed to the overall originality of your piece?

COLLABORATION: Shared leadership is a key learning objective. Your group participation will be evaluated by your group members in a peer review. 

The Key is reflection

The most important component of media production in higher education courses, particularly those that emphasize theory or history, is reflection. Following the assignment with personal critical reflection (I typically assign a short essay) and peer evaluations that students submit, requires them to think retrospectively about the interplay between form and content and account for their choices.

In sum, emphasizing the conceptual and the metacognitive enables students and teachers alike to utilize media production to prompt critical thinking without the burden of teaching and evaluating production values. That said, it is important that those of us who teach low-skills, low-stakes production assignments emphasize that these types of assignments cannot replace the value and importance of courses that focus centrally on teaching media production skills.

Works Cited

Kuhn, Virgina. “Hacking my Head” in Hacking the Classroom: Eight Perspectives.

Losh, Elizabeth. “Ten Principles for a Hacktivist Pedagogy” in Hacking the Classroom: Eight Perspectives.

NOTE: For an excellent discussion of evaluation and assessment in Media Studies, see Buckingham, David, Pete Fraser, and Julian Sefton-Green. 2000. Making the Grade: Evaluating student production in Media Studies. Evaluating Creativity: Making and learning by young people. Routledge.

Lauren S. Berliner is an Assistant Professor of Media and Communication Studies and Cultural Studies in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at University of Washington Bothell, where she teaches courses on media praxis and participatory media culture. She is also a filmmaker and the co-curator of The Festival of (In)Appropriation annual showcase of experimental films. Her research engages ongoing transformations in everyday and amateur media production practice, intervening in academic, intrapersonal, community, commercial, and activist contexts. She is currently working on her first book manuscript which examines how LGBTQ youth media producers negotiate the structural conditions of funding and publicity and incorporate digital self-representations into practices of identity management. Her most recent work has recently appeared in the anthology Documenting Gendered Violence: Representations, Collaborations, and Movements.


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