What’s in a Composition?

PALS Note: We are delighted to have a guest post from Jacinta Yanders. Yanders is working her PhD in TV and Film Studies at The Ohio State University. Here Yanders explains how she incorporates student production of various digital media in her “Digital Media Composing” and “Documentary in the US Experience” writing courses.

Cliché as it may sound, I decided to become an educator when I was seven years old, courtesy of having a fantastic second grade teacher. I recognized the importance of what was happening in that classroom, and I wanted to be able to provide a similar learning experience to others. As such, my undergraduate degree is in English Education, and even now, though I am currently mired in the weeds of the dissertation, I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about improving my teaching.

Given that I’m in an English Department, I often think about how, why, and where students are expected to compose. Part of my interest here has been spurred by my involvement with the Digital Media and Composition Institute (first, as an attendee, and later, as an employee) here at The Ohio State University. Each May, DMAC welcomes scholars from everywhere to come together for instruction on how and why educators can, and should, incorporate digital media in the classroom. After attending in 2015, my mind began pinging with possibilities of how I could incorporate what I was learning into my teaching.

I had my first chance to really focus on this last fall when I taught a course called “Digital Media Composing.” As the title suggests, this class requires students to primarily create digital compositions. Because one of my primary research areas is Television Studies, my students used Twitter, Storify, WordPress, Audacity, and iMovie to produce compositions that reflected the intertwining of television and digital media. For their most significant productions, they each composed their own podcasts and digital transmedia extensions. I don’t mean to retread the “The Essay is Dead/Fine” argument (though here are Exhibit A and Exhibit B if you’re interested), but I will say that challenging students to compose in these various formats, to analyze the formats, and to think rhetorically about how the different formats necessarily required them to engage with audiences differently was an invaluable experience.

This spring, I taught a special section of composition. The catalog title for the class is “Documentary in the U.S. Experience.” The following are a selection of the desired learning outcomes assigned to the course:

  1. Rhetorical Knowledge
  2. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing
  3. Knowledge of Composing Processes
  4. Collaboration
  5. Knowledge of Conventions
  6. Composing in Electronic Environments

13thThroughout the semester, we watched several documentaries relating to my chosen course theme (“Documenting Crime, Justice, and Power”), such as The Thin Blue Line, 13th, Shenandoah, and The Hunting Ground. Students wrote analyses of readings, presented weekly on the viewings, took film quizzes, and completed what I called the Critical Analysis Project. This project required students to write a series of essays on a documentary of their choosing from the first half of the semester, with each essay approaching the film differently (scene analysis, thematic analysis, argument). Via these assignments, I feel confident that I could argue that students were provided with various opportunities to work toward the learning outcomes.

But I wanted to see if I could challenge students in addition in other ways. Since it was a documentary class, I decided the students would make short documentaries. I thought that there would be no better way to get sense of the extent to which students had grasped what we’d been working on throughout the semester. In a way, I was abiding by the evergreen directive to “Show. Don’t Tell.” I wanted them to show that they could apply what they’d learned in a concrete fashion. They would have to think like the documentary filmmakers we’d studied, bearing in mind the many facets of documentary rhetoric that would shape their compositions. Additionally, the documentary project would allow them to move toward all of the aforementioned learning outcomes in one assignment.

So how did we make this happen?

I will say upfront that if I could go back and change anything about this, I would start earlier. We started working on this project about a month and a half before the end of the semester, which break had seemed like plenty of time. I hadn’t wanted to start too early because I wanted the students have seen enough films and completed enough readings so that they had a solid foundation to build from. But upon reflection, I think that I would start the project a few weeks earlier to relieve some of the pressure going into the end of the semester.

Beyond that, I kept the specifics of the assignment fairly loose. In groups, students had to compose short documentaries (7-15 minutes) that related to our course theme. How they ultimately decided to make that connection was up to each group. The documentaries also had to have credits providing information about where their materials came from. In preparation for beginning, I spent one class session showing and discussing a selection of short documentaries so that they could get a sense of how they could structure their work, how much could be accomplished in a short span of time, etc. Then each group had to turn in a proposal, a rough draft, and have a group conference with me before finally turning in their final draft. We ended the semester with a showcase of their documentaries where people outside of the class were invited to view the documentaries because I wanted to find ways for students to think of their audience beyond just me.

What about the technical requirements?

In my department, we have what’s known as the Digital Media Project. Via the DMP, students are able to rent cameras, microphones, audio recorders, etc. Employees of the DMP also come to classes to put on workshops, which I had them do in this class for both Audacity and iMovie. Audacity is a free audio program, and it’s available to students regardless of what kind of computer they might be working on. iMovie is Mac-specific, but I chose to have it shown to students because it’s the video software that I’m most familiar with and because we have Mac labs in our department that the students can access for class work.

Importantly, I emphasized to the students that I was less concerned with their technical finesse than I was with their ability to display their understanding of documentary filmmaking. For example, we spent a significant portion of the class focusing on the subjectivity inherThe THin Blue Lineent in documentaries, even though they’re often broadly perceived to be objective. I wanted to see how they would grapple “truth” (or lack thereof) in their compositions. We also spent multiple weeks studying different styles of documentaries and the details of how they’re constructed, which allowed us to consider how specific choices influence reception. For example, how does Nick Broomfield’s constant on-screen presence shape our interpretation in his Aileen Wuornos documentaries? And what difference does it make that Errol Morris’ final interview with David Harris in The Thin Blue Line occurs via audio rather than video? Students would have to make similar choices in their compositions keeping in mind that their choices would necessarily influence the reception.

How did the students respond?

To me, this is probably the most important question. And my answer is that their responses were…mixed. There’s a lot of debate about what we Millennials (and the generation after us) know/don’t know about and can/can’t do with technology inherently. I will say that the typical structure of our education system is set in such way that prompting a student to compose something that’s not an essay, especially in an English class, can be jarring. Unlike the Digital Media Composing class, in which there was an explicit buy-in about the type of work we’d be doing from the start, the students in the documentary class were not necessarily as primed to complete that type of work.

They weren’t necessarily resistant, but there was some hesitancy at times. I tried to assuage those concerns and provided several resources. But I could tell that the nervousness remained for some students. Aside from starting to work on the project earlier, one additional thing I would do in the future is have an extended conversation about the project at the beginning of the semester, so that we can have the opportunity to think through some of those concerns earlier before they’re faced with starting the work.

The other difficulty about this assignment is that it’s a group project. Most groups seemed to get along fine, but there were a couple occasions in which issues arose. I’d tried to preempt this a bit by surveying students about the qualities they look for in group members before assigning them to groups, and they knew that in the end, they’d be required to evaluate their own performances as well as the performances of their fellow group members. I found that students were often quite honest in those evaluations. They admitted when they believed they hadn’t been contributing as much, and if one person in the group had gone above and beyond, I often saw that reflected in the evaluations from their group members. The tensions that arose were not to extent that there was an issue with a group actually finishing the project, but some of them definitely had a more difficult time than others. In the Digital Media Composing class, I gave students the option to work solo or in groups for the final transmedia project (they all chose the solo option). I’d thought that the documentary project would be too much work for a person to effectively handle on their own, but I might consider instituting the option in the future.

Final Products

Ultimately, my students put together thoughtful, rhetorically-engaging documentaries on subjects such as the conflict between Wendy’s and the Center for Immokalee Workers, off-campus crime, distrust of the media, and a violent incident that occurred on campus last year. In pursuit of these topics, students compiled various news articles and videos, shot their own footages, attended protests, conducted interviews, contacted administrators, and surveyed fellow students. On a fundamental level, they’d begun to understand how and why documentaries are made. As one student said on an end of the semester reflection, “I learned about how hard it is to make a documentary. I’ve learned to respect the process.” While they had written multiple essays about documentaries, I think it was this project that clarified their understanding the most. One thing that I’m thinking about now is if/how I can create and structure writing assignments that lead to the same clarity about written compositions.

This was not a perfect learning experience (I’m not sure those really exist), and there are definitely elements I would change going forward, but I think that if the resources are available and if you’re thinking of other ways to have students compose, then a project such as this could very well be worth your time.

Contributor Bio

jJacinta Yanders is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at The Ohio State University. Her primary areas of research are Television Studies, Film Studies, and Popular Culture. Jacinta is currently working on her dissertation, which analyzes the impact on narrative construction and audience reception that occurs when television remakes change key elements of characters’ identities. Her previous work addresses topics such as the intertwining of television and social media, representations of the Black Lives Matter Movement and police brutality on television, and the reconfiguration of the Syfy network as a potential space for progressive representations.  
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