New media and the open enrollment classroom
To discuss the availability and usefulness of new media, digital humanities, and the Maker-mindset in open-enrollment classrooms from an instructor’s point of view, I would like to discuss two specific assignments that have been particularly successful in my own classroom. One is a using video to teach rhetorical analysis in Composition 2, which I have been formally studying in my students for two years, and the second is a form of longitudinal group blogging.
One of the required elements in our Composition 2 sequence is a rhetorical analysis essay of 6-8 pages with at least 5 sources. There is nothing particularly unusual about this assignment, but it is difficult to get students of all levels in the classroom to break free of summarizing the text they have chosen to analyze. From my experience in directing the Writing Center, I know that many instructors attempt to limit summary (two paragraphs, for example) or eliminate it entirely by requiring all students to analyze the same text, but neither method consistently creates essays that critically reflect upon how the author of the original piece constructed their argument mindfully (or not, as the case may be).
I begin the project very early in the term by having students watch Jack Black and Mos Def’s Be Kind Rewind (Gondry, 2008). In the movie, all of the tapes at a small video store in Passaic, New Jersey are erased. The store itself is suffering as well as the town. In the beginning of the film we see a town that is failing, divided, and broken by lack of income. The video store is about to be condemned and turned into a housing project. However, the people who live there want to save their town. So, when the tapes are erased, the main characters begin refilming the movies with a video camera and whatever they have around the store, local businesses, and their homes. They remake Ghostbusters, and when the renter likes it, begin to do more and more films. Along the way, they call their parodied versions “sweded” films, and the entire town gets involved in their making (Gondry, 2008). Eventually they get in trouble for using the tapes that the original movies were on, they are destroyed, but the town works together to make one last movie about their own past (and that Fats Waller, jazz musician, lived there in their town) before the store is closed and moved to the projects. In doing so, they learn that making this sort of project together as a town has the ability to recreate their community and bring them all closer (Gondry, 2008).
After watching the film, all students in the class place themselves into groups of 3-7. Each group is told to pick a movie that they would like to write their rhetorical analysis about. The groups are charged with also making a sweded version of their film. I tell them to only spend $25 per group and to rely upon things they can find on or bring to campus. I distribute cameras, the assignment sheet for the rhetorical analysis and movie project, and send them off to script and film for about a week and a half. Even though each student writes their own paper, they make their sweded films together.
Making a shortened version of the movie that they have chosen to rhetorically analyze before they write puts them into the mindset of a producer rather than a consumer of the media, and causes them to think differently about the writing as a result. Despite early warnings from other faculty that non-traditional students would be resistant to this activity, at the conclusion of the project non-traditional students reported that they not only enjoyed the project more often than traditional ones, but from my point of view were more likely to put considerable time into their videos and saw greater improvement in their writing as a result.
Sample Student Projects:
This project echoes a Maker mindset. Students have to be able to pull together their own resources, clothing, friends, and sets in order to make the project work. Despite this, every group in every class has successfully turned in a film. Because the original sweded movies were not of high quality (and were also quite funny), students do not feel like they have to turn in something that is aesthetically pleasing, and are likely to create a project with slapstick humor as well. In fact, if something looks “too good” it might not even be considered part of the genre of sweded films at all. Students have analyzed and refilmed everything from Poltergeist and E.T. to Happy Feet and Napoleon Dynamite.
The simple act of taking a camera and trying to figure out ways to represent characters forces students to think seriously about how those characters were first represented on the big screen. Why does Napoleon Dynamite dress the way he does? How iconic are the outfits from the Breakfast Club? Students also have to decide what scenes to cut, as they cannot film the entire movie. Generally I say that projects between 4-6 minutes are the right “length,” but projects are turned in fairly often that exceed 10 minutes, and sometimes a sheepishly offered blooper reel is also constructed and turned in because they want me to see everything they did. Students edit their movies using free software like Windows Movie Maker which also makes them analyze the way original shots were cut together to make the film. Some even choose to investigate what bits of the film were cut out of the original script (and why) and write about these as part of their analysis as well. In short, given some instruction about rhetorical analysis and identifying what a movie argues and what it is trying to “do,” most students that go through the project succeed in writing a fairly complex rhetorical analysis quickly once the project is mostly over.
Due to the nature of the student bodies at this school, students would also end up discussing race and gender as they cast their projects and even chose movies. I told them up front they would have to swede whatever movie they chose. At Baker, our student body is largely female and primarily made up of students of color. Groups argued every term because they wanted to play strong characters of color and female leads—and there just weren’t many to choose from. They would end up choosing films they liked anyway (rather than limited themselves to roles they “fit”) and so changed the genders and races of characters willingly. When they did this, I asked them to write about this process in their movie as more than “well, we didn’t have a quite guy so a black girl had to play the role.” Instead, they were asked to investigate why those populations are underserved by the film industry.
During the one term, one group told me that they wanted to analyze the film Friday. Ice Cube’s Friday (1995) depicts a single day in the life of Craig, a recently laid off young man in a suburb of L.A.. During the movie, he gets high with his friend (something he did not do often or at all before), is shot at, argues with his father about his lack of employment, defends a girl, gets into a fight, and learns from his dad what it means to be a man. A man, it turns out, uses his fists to solve his problems rather than guns (Ice Cube, 1995).
My students said that they enjoyed the movie because it was funny—characters swear, smoke weed, and there are a lot of funny quotes. However, during the filming of their movie something interesting happened.
After the first week of filming one student came to me, and was quite concerned. The group was very diverse—they had several different races represented, and their ages ranged from 18 to the mid-50s. This student was getting really offended when some of the white girls were laughing at him--laughing at him instead of with him. “These are our jokes,” this student told me. We had a long talk about it, and the experience ended up being the focus of the resultant paper.
This student ended up analyzing the film and writing about how it became popular with white audiences as well. The student felt that people were most likely laughing at these characters, and that films like this one (it was compared to the rest of the series, movies by Tyler Perry, and “all of those featuring Eddie Murphy in a fat suit”) were not liberating to people of color at all. While people of color might well feel that these films are theirs and provide much needed comic relief, they have been picked up by other audiences as well and do this community a disservice. Discussions with his group yielded that some of the others felt the same way—especially about the way the neighborhood was represented. They didn’t want everyone to think that the neighborhood in the movie, which looked and felt a lot like the ones that they lived in in Detroit, was the way things really were. The movie shows a lot of drug use, violence, and fear, and while these things might be funny, they weren’t “everyday.” In short, they wanted people to see the good parts of their communities highlighted in films—not sugarcoated, but not made fun of and shown in only a negative light either.
Some students also choose to share their projects online via YouTube and Vimeo. In this way, they can become a part of participatory culture in the classroom, and I do encourage them to post their work online. Even if they have previously seen themselves as part of participatory group like fandom, they begin to realize that the sorts of new media activities that they participate in outside of school may be useful both in school and in the workplace in the future. Students have reported using their new editing skills in other classes, to make home movies, and in one memorable instance, to edit homemade porn.
But more importantly, as this project is done at or near the beginning of my semester, the energy that it generates for making and doing carry through to the end of the term. I think that many of the arguments for using new media in the classroom revolve around how much students enjoy doing these projects. However, if we save them to the middle or end of the term, we fail to reap many of the benefits we could receive by starting them sooner.
Likewise, our sense of the proper classroom use of “time” often prohibits us from using the new media tools we are most familiar with in interesting ways. Blogs seem like a wonderful idea, but engender much student resistance. In short—they just don’t write them, or if they do, they are very short. They hate having to go read each others’ and leave comments, and even if I force them to, it’s pretty obvious that the writing is forced.
On the other hand, the most popular blogs online often have more than one author (Feministe.us, for example, has about 25, and Collegemisery.com has 100). They put all these varying peoples’ opinions in one place, which means that discussion is often furious and long. Furthermore, they don’t shut down every couple months and start over—they have a long history and an archive available for people to pick up and read if they want to catch up or understand the viewpoints of some posters better. The blog doesn’t disappear even when the entire cast of writers changes over—it is still there, still being published, and still has an audience.
When I was teaching OAD121 (Office Procedures and Technologies 1 for Administrative Assistants at Baker College of Allen Park), I created a group blog and had each student create a username on it. They could post and read on the same site. This worked relatively well. The next term, I then added the new students, and so on. They were allowed to go back and read what other people had said about past prompts. Old students often commented on new students’ posts. They were in conversation with people who had finished the program and were working about what things were really like versus what their book had to say about them. Then, because the blog had a lot of activity, people from the outside started looking in as well.
While that first group of students did not see the immediate effects of the new blog style, they did eventually communicate with future students in the course and were able to share their experiences as experts. Some of them chose to gently tease the new students about how wonderful life was after college. I no longer teach the class, but see that comments still are being posted from time to time, although many of the students have moved their posting over to Facebook and have added people that they met through the blog (and, from what I understand, this lead to at least one person getting a job where an older student already worked).
Rather than creating a blog that is just their own (though some students have done that since they enjoyed the medium), this assignment allows them to be authors of a bigger group project that has been far more successful than most student blogs. Although making things physically is more often part of the Maker mindset (and indeed, the students doing video projects often find themselves constructing things like a Las Vegas sign for The Hangover or an island for Enter the Dragon), the blog is, I believe, a good example of a community project that students have created out of nothing. I did give them the assignment, but have otherwise spent little time facilitating what goes on in that space. They have taken what was given to them and made it their own long after the blog was meant to be in use. That’s what makes this project so Maker-minded.