The Video Essay Assignment/ Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1(2)



The Video Essay Assignment

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 1(2) Spring/Summer 2013
Co-editors: Christine Becker and Erin Copple Smith

Table of Contents

Framing the Video Essay as Argument by Ashley Hinck
Teaching Tranformativity/Transformative Teaching: Fair Use and the Video Essay by Suzanne Scott
The Video Essay as Curatorial Enterprise by Leah Shafer
Production as Plug-in: Considerations for Teaching Production Skills in Non-Production Courses by Brett Boessen
Teaching the Annotated Video Essay with Mozilla’s Popcorn Maker by Jennifer Proctor
Grading Rubrics and Assessing the Video Essay in the Media Studies Classroom by Kelli Marshall

Christine Becker and Erin Copple Smith

With the ever-increasing availability of media production technology both on university campuses and online, the traditional paper writing assignment has new competition: the video essay.  While instructors across many disciplines are taking advantage of these new and accessible forms of media production and editing, they seem particularly well suited to courses in Cinema and Media Studies.  Teachers in these fields can now ask students to analyze films, television shows, video games, radio, music, and more using the same visual and sonic forms as the original texts, giving students the opportunity to perform analyses more or less “live” for those who encounter their work, whenever that encounter takes place.

For instructors accustomed to utilizing written assignments, however, myriad questions abound: What are the pedagogical benefits of video essays compared to paper writing assignments? What technological savvy should we expect our students to have, and how do we teach media production skills in addition to the standard course content? What equivalencies can be established between a research paper and a video essay, in terms of length, composition, and academic rigor?  How do we properly grade assignments like these? What copyright issues have to be dealt with when using source content?

This dossier attends to all of these questions and more in presenting both the pedagogical reasoning behind assigning video essays as well as practical advice on how to frame, conduct, and evaluate these assignments in the classroom. The pieces included here offer theoretical perspectives, personal experiences, and practical solutions, and combined together, they offer a veritable starter’s kit that will enable readers to adapt their ideas for a range of disciplinary and institutional contexts.

Most notably, the video essay assignment offers instructors of media an opportunity to intersect theory and practice, as it requires students to apply the concepts acquired in a media-oriented course in a very practical and hands-on way.  The specifics of these intersections may be particular to an individual instructor or course, depending upon the nature of the material and concepts taught, but they share a fundamental belief that asking students to apply their understanding of media vocabularies and theories to the production of media provides a vital and productive learning opportunity.

In this regard, Leah Shafer builds on her own work in new media and remix culture, contending that “framing video essay assignments as curatorial enterprises can provide a flexible, appealing, and contemporary model for modeling video essay architectures and conceptual frames.”  Ashley Hinck asks her students to consider the purpose, audience, genre, and context of their video essays, applying what they’ve learned about each of these (and how they are brought to bear on one another) to a practical demonstration.  In developing a set of best practices collaboratively with her students, Suzanne Scott believes that such a strategy offers the opportunity for a useful intersection of theory and practice, as students must become familiar with fair use laws and theories before determining their own parameters for practicing curation and transformation.  Though each of these contributors sees specific applications and benefits of the video essay in their own classrooms, Jennifer Proctor offers a useful and generalizable overview of the benefit of assigning the video essay.  Proctor sees video essays as an application of the objectives all media instructors seek in asking students to conduct close analyses of media texts: “to apply theoretical concepts directly to a work of image and sound, thereby encouraging cognitive flexibility; to deepen understanding and memory through active, experiential learning; and to enable students to perform their own knowledge construction based on what they’ve learned.”  Building on these theoretical perspectives on the video essay, Brett Boessen and Kelli Marshall both stress that video essay instruction and assessment design must grow from thoughtful and systematic principles geared to reflect desired outcomes.

Via such perspectives, the essays compiled in this dossier offer a useful overview of the processes of conceptualizing, developing, administering, and evaluating the video essay assignment in the college classroom.  In addition to offering theoretical perspectives on the pedagogy of the video essay, each piece provides specific and practical suggestions for assignments and strategies.

Before assigning a video essay, instructors must consider the advantages of such an assignment in comparison to other (arguably more traditional) approaches, and how to present such an assignment to students and colleagues who might be unfamiliar with the video essay as a teaching tool.  As Ashley Hinck notes, one approach to “selling” students and colleagues on the video essay assignment is to properly set up the assignment in such a way as to make the unusual familiar.  By framing the assignment as an argument fundamentally similar to an argument developed in a traditional written paper, Hinck suggests that instructors might think of “the video essay not only as an argument about subject matter, but also as a piece of communication intended for practical use.”  Doing so, she contends, “enables us to align the thesis-driven written paper with the video essay, without reducing one to the other.”

Though video essays are in many ways fundamentally similar to the traditional written essay, they offer specific advantages that written essays cannot.  These advantages are particularly acute for those of us in Cinema and Media Studies who should seize upon the opportunity to intersect theory and practice in our courses by giving students an opportunity to apply concepts related to the study of media in the work they produce. Leah Shafer sees the assignment as an opportunity to teach students the skills and values of curation.  Shafer frames her assignments as transformative practices.  The advantages of curation-focused video essay assignments, she contends, are that “knowledge production becomes a collaborative achievement, archival research becomes a generative practice, and critical vocabularies for media studies are made material.”  In short, the video essay transforms the written argument into something more meaningful and more productive in teaching students not only how to build an argument, but also how to engage with and demonstrate facility with media vocabularies and texts.

Similarly, in curating and transforming media artifacts, instructors inevitably confront the question of whether or not such work falls under fair use guidelines.  As Suzanne Scott asserts, “Because the video essay’s power as a critical intervention in popular discourse is wedded to its spreadable potential, and because these assignments rely on fair use doctrine, it’s as vital to teach our students about their copyrights as it is to instruct them on how to visually marshal ‘evidence’ towards a broader argument.”  Scott calls for instructors to develop a set of best practices geared toward emphasizing the transformative nature of the video essay, as transformation functions centrally in the determination of fair use.

Once the assignment has been properly and thoughtfully considered, framed, and presented to students, instructors must attend to the logistics of how to create, administer, and evaluate student work in video essays.  A common concern for faculty is how to teach production skills in courses that are not explicitly production oriented.  Brett Boessen suggests that these logistical questions include “how much production skill can I assume students have, and how much will I need to teach them? For that matter, how much will I have to learn myself? What is the best approach to providing the skill development needed to produce a competent video essay, i.e., one that facilitates the learning I envision for the assignment?”  Walking through each of these in turn, Boessen provides practical strategies and useful examples designed to help the instructor maximize the effectiveness of teaching production skills, advocating assessing the goals of the assignment and how those fit into the context of the goals of the course.

Intersections of theory and practice are made much easier when one can find a useful and interactive tool for students to use in conducting analyses of media texts, and such tools are now readily available.  Jennifer Proctor recommends Mozilla’s “Popcorn Maker” tool based on the following parameters: “1) students could comment at precise points of a clip to address a specific element; 2) the tool was accessible and easy for a novice to use; 3) the tool offered a degree of interactivity and customization; 4) the tool encouraged the creator to think about his/her own participation in visual language.”  Popcorn Maker allows students to create a “pop-up style video” by inserting notes into a video clip, and is both accessible and flexible.  Proctor’s essay offers instructions in the use of Popcorn Maker, as well as specific examples of student work created with the tool, along with frank discussion of its limitations and potential future applications.

Finally, once the assignment has been created and administered, the results must be evaluated.  Kelli Marshall advocates the use of rubrics, which she contends “itemize the process, promote fairness” and speed the grading process.  Though Marshall has assigned different forms of video essays in various courses, she uses a similar strategy in grading them all.  In her essay, Marshall outlines the structure of her evaluation process and shares her own rubric, noting the crucial components to be evaluated, and provides a detailed and itemized approach to grading—one that she recommends be shared openly with students, who can then not only see the grounds of evaluation, but also be instructed in the reasoning behind evaluation of the components.  For example, “students are reminded that their thesis statements should be easy to locate, arguable, and clearly stated, and furthermore, that their conclusions should not only sum up the project, but also ask the viewer to think further about the media text under consideration.”

Taking advantage of the online publication of this dossier, the authors have all included invaluable links to resources, syllabi, examples, and more in their essays.  These links provide readers with engaging examples of the tools and strategies described in each piece, and offer a “beginners’ guide” to assigning the video essay.  In addition to the practical examples and useful links and resources, we feel that the collection offers a compelling case for incorporating the video essay assignment into the Cinema and Media Studies classroom and for the belief that such assignments provide students with the opportunity to intersect theory and practice productively and thoughtfully in our courses and beyond.


Christine Becker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame specializing in film and television history and critical analysis. Her book It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) won the 2011 IAMHIST Michael Nelson Prize for a Work in Media and History. She is currently working on a research project comparing contemporary American and British television production and programming. She is also the Associate Online Editor for Cinema Journal.

Brett Boessen is Associate Professor of Media Studies at Austin College.  He is a media studies generalist, facilitating students’ learning in criticism and production across a range of visual and digital networked media.  His work is heavily motivated by scholarship of teaching and learning with new media tools and practices.

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

Kelli Marshall is a lecturer of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University. When she is not incorporating video essays into her classroom, Kelli researches two rather disparate fields: Shakespeare in film and popular culture, and the film musical, specifically the star image and work of Hollywood song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. Follow Kelli on Twitter at @kellimarshall and/or read more about her take on film, TV, and social media on her blog, MediAcademia

Jennifer Proctor is an assistant professor in journalism and screen studies whose courses integrating Popcorn Maker and other video essays include Film and Feminisms and Introduction to Screen Studies (an introduction to media analysis course). In Film and Feminisms, she has used Popcorn Maker as a short introductory assignment for understanding Mulvey, and as an option for a longer final project which compares gender representation in two different films. Likewise, she has used it in an intro to film analysis course where students are asked to compare the use of basic formal elements in two different films of the same genre. She has additionally integrated video annotations (using other tools) in courses in scriptwriting, internet studies, and, of course, her video production classes.

Suzanne Scott is currently Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University.  In addition to video essay assignments, her courses frequently culminate in praxis projects, from designing transmedia extensions of contemporary television shows to developing Alternate Reality Games to develop media fluencies.  Her commitment to transformative scholarship echoes her scholarly and personal investment in critically engaging fans’ transformative relationship to popular culture.  In addition to serving on the board of the open access online journal Transformative Works and Cultures, her current book project addresses the gendered tensions underpinning the demographic, representational, and authorial “revenge” of the fanboy within convergence culture.

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.

Erin Copple Smith is Assistant Professor in Media Studies at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, and a member of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Teaching Committee.  Her work on media industries has been published in Beyond Prime Time: TV Formats in the Post-Network Era and Popular Communication.  Her primary areas of interest are in media conglomerates and the relationship between ownership and content, as well as television and film’s advertising and promotional strategies.


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