The Video Essay as Curatorial Enterprise

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1(2) Spring/Summer 2013
 Leah Shafer
 Hobart and William Smith Colleges


The ready availability of cheap, free, and simple tools for video editing, as well as easy access to vast archives of copyright-free video material, makes assigning video essays to media studies students an obvious choice for integrating theory and practice in the classroom. In my courses, I use video essays as media rich alternatives to conventionally written essays and as multi-modal opportunities for students to engage course content. The video essay assignments that I create ask students to work together to carefully research, select, and manipulate material from online video archives. Because I study new media and I am invested in promoting the progressive politics of remix culture, I am, above all, committed to using video essay assignments as introductions to curating as a transformative practice.

When I speak of curating, I refer to recent scholarship that re-frames the practice from one about “organizing exhibitions of discrete artworks” [1] to one that emphasizes the “framing and mediation of art and the circulation of ideas around art” [2]. I argue here that the video essay is an ideal format for developing this vital media literacy skill. In my experience, the classroom that embraces the curated video essay assignment turns into a laboratory for active and engaged participation in the “transformative flux” [3] of mediated culture. In curation-focused video essay assignments, knowledge production becomes a collaborative achievement, archival research becomes a generative practice, and critical vocabularies for media studies are made material.

The terms “curating” and “curator” have recently become so ubiquitous that they are almost meaningless, but media studies faculty can harness this proliferation of definitions and modes to galvanize student interest and to promote the embrace of process-based collaboration that favors diverse, multiple voices and information flows. Students understand “curated” DJ set lists, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, and art exhibitions, so framing video essay assignments as curatorial enterprises can provide a flexible, appealing, and contemporary model for modeling video essay architectures and conceptual frames.

What I am advocating goes beyond “tossing links around the internet”[4] or “filter[ing] the massive amounts of information on the web in some usable way” [5]. I am talking about a mode of scholarship that embraces the “associatively infectious capabilities” [6] of critical interventions into data flows by inviting collaborations between student groups and online video collections. When the collaboratively produced student video essays enter into dialogue with material that they have critically selected from online archives, they model a transformative politics that possesses what Hal Foster calls a “production-of-knowledge momentum” [7]. Collaboratively authored, archivally sourced video essay assignments create “a community of meta-learning” [8] and allow students to model the kind of “open-ended cultural encounter” [9] made possible by curatorial logic. In order to talk specifically about the processes behind this meta-learning, I will focus here on two elements of my argument about curation: the generative practice of archival sourcing and the relationship among collaboration, authoring, and knowledge production. I pair these focal points with preliminary suggestions for implementing and supporting them in assignment sequences.

Archives can be intimidating to undergraduates because their complex architecture appears rigid and backward-looking. Further, students are often reluctant to engage with interfaces that require interventions more difficult than Google searches. Assigning video essay projects that use archival material as a generative source, however, models for students “the value of the open, the infinite, the expansive, the university/museum/archive/library without walls” [10]. When video essay construction is framed as a curatorial conversation between student groups and archival material, students experience a kind of creative agency that makes citation appealing rather than onerous. Assigning video essay projects that use archival material as their generative source draws student groups into conversation with archival research in a transformative manner. Something about editing, remixing, annotating, and combining video and sound demystifies the material and sparks investment in archival sources.

When designing assignments that include archival research, I use language that emphasizes “citation, repetition and appropriation” [11] as key modes of interaction with the material. After we discuss provocative models of the video essay in class, we meet with a librarian who walks the students through basic image and video search processes. The students have to complete a short assignment while meeting with the librarian; if there is no hands-on component to the session, the students’ attention tends to wander, and they miss key information. In most of my video essay assignments, I ask the student groups to create an annotated bibliography of their archival sources before they begin to integrate them into a video essay. This step emphasizes basic research and citation skills and forces the student curators to engage with the material in its archival context.

Curatorial logic productively and progressively re-frames authorial labor. In my courses, video essay assignments are designed as collaborative curatorial projects. Because of its emphases on the inclusion of multiple discursive streams, collaboration is a fundamental piece of both the theoretical and practical dimensions of curatorial praxis. As a feminist pedagogue, I am deeply invested in reframing authorial labor with an emphasis on “dialectical opposition to the dominant” [12]. Media studies faculty should work toward creating video essay assignments that engender conversations between students and between students and archival sources because this kind of collaborative work deemphasizes auteur driven knowledge production and promotes a mode in which students act “as a relay in an ongoing, dispersed multiplicity of conversations and practice(s)” [13]. At first glance, this logic may appear to be at odds with the formal structure of the conventionally written essay, which foregrounds writing that can “penetrate to essentials” by expressing thoughts and arguments that are “consubstantial with its author” [14]. But this is not a grave transgression: we should embrace the transformative possibilities of the curated video essay because of the way that it re-frames and mediates the idea of the author.  The forceful voice of the well-conceived collaboratively curated video essay accommodates (if not celebrates) an authorial voice that speaks multiply and in multiples—here I am thinking of, for example, narrative plus time, or moving image plus sound. When student groups approach research and editing as curators they practice resistance to auteurist production and embrace collaborative, process-based production.

Learning to work effectively and creatively while collaborating is an essential learning outcome of the curatorial process. In my experience, allowing students to choose their own groups yields the least impressive results, the most uneven distribution of skills, and the greatest number of hurt feelings. In response to this, I begin the semester by asking students to fill out a skills survey that uses a likert scale to rank students’ perceptions of their relevant technology skills, such as: their comfort level with editing software programs; their facility with searching, downloading, and uploading; and their familiarity with online research methods. Then, armed with this knowledge, I create groups of students with a range of skill levels and interests. Coordinated group dynamics promote skill sharing and emphasize collaborative co-production rather than social relationships outside of the classroom.

The practice of collaborative co-production builds an intellectual community around material that reflects and engages course content, both structurally and thematically. Asking students to work together on video essay construction models the kind of labor practiced by media professionals and provides a practical material lesson about the means of production of most media texts. We teach our students to read media texts as multi-layered collaborations, so why should we ask them to respond in a mode that does not reflect this industrial reality? Further, the students’ discussions about which clips to include or what tempo their editing should take or when they will introduce sound effects are critical conversations about the formal elements of video production and aesthetics and, as such, promote material engagement with formal course content.

When students begin to think of themselves as curators fostering a collaborative and critical dialogue between form and content, they participate in an engaged form of production that develops research and compositional skills and reinforces course content by integrating theory and practice. Curating video essays creates critical conversations, builds intellectual community, and generates space for a “radical political intervention against linear thinking” [15]. When designed as a curatorial exercise, the construction of the video essay becomes a discursive event that seeks “not the masterful production of expertise and the authoritative pronouncement of truth but rather the coproduction of question, ambiguity and inquiry” [16], which is the very place where investigations of the circulation of ideas around media art should begin.


[1] “Introduction” in Curating and the Educational Turn, ed. Paul O’Neill et al. (Open Editions/De Appel Arts Centre, 2010), 19.

[2] ibid

[3] Marcus Boon. In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013),162.

[4] Matt Langer, “Stop Calling it Curation,” accessed June 26, 2013.

[5] Matthew Ingram “Twitter acquisition confirms that curation is the future,” accessed June 26, 2013.

[6] Sergei Eisenstein on montage, quoted in Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 146.

[7] Quoted in Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating (Zurich: JRP | Ringier, 2008), 181.

[8] Cheryl Ball, “Networked Humanities Scholarship, or the Life of Kairos” (workshop on the video essay presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Chicago, Illinois, March 6-10, 2013).

[9] “Introduction” in Curating and the Educational Turn, ed. Paul O’Neill et al. (Open Editions/De Appel Arts Centre, 2010), 19.

[10] Todd Presner, “Digital Humanities 2.0: A Report on Knowledge” accessed February 2, 2013,

[11] Marcus Boon, 143.

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] Michel de Montaigne, “Of Giving the Lie,” in The Complete Essays of Montaigne, ed. Donald M. Frame (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976),  504.

[15] Virginia Kuhn, “Multimodal Project Design: four steps toward assessment”(workshop on the video essay presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, Chicago, Illinois, March 6-10\, 2013).

[16] Paul O’Neill et al., 14.


Leah Shafer is an Assistant Professor in the Media and Society Program at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where she teaches courses in television history, advertising culture, and new media. She has been published in Transnational Cinemas, Women and Performance: a journal of feminist theory, Reconstruction: studies in contemporary culture, and The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Her essay on parodic military dance videos is forthcoming in The Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film. She recently appeared as a media critic on Huffington Post Live. You can follow her on Twitter at: @leahshafer.


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One Response to The Video Essay as Curatorial Enterprise

  1. vkuhn says:

    This is a great essay and some really smart theorizing about the value of the video essay assignment. I find the way you have students rate their tech abilities particularly compelling. Do you do anything similar after the project’s completion? In this age of assessment it seems like that could provide a good datapoint and reflection always seems pedagogically beneficial. I also wonder whether you ever find that when you mix students with varying tech abilities in groups, they stick with what they are good at. It sometimes happens in my classes where I hope they learn video editing, for instance, from one another, but what actually happens is one student makes all the edits while the others look on (or are not even present). Have you had this happen and if so, have you found any remedies?

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