By Michael Neal, Associate Professor, Department of English, Florida State University
One of the things I like best about student-produced multimedia writing is the opportunity they provide students to engage in observing and commenting on the everyday world around them. In this multimedia project, Lauren Becker composes video to examine a commonplace phenomenon in her own daily life, feeding over 130 women 3 times a day at her sorority house. At least three things jump (pun intended) out at me with this project that I believe are significant in Lauren’s work.
- Topic focus: While the larger question for this class is “What is America?”, the assignment focused on issues of food, labor, and identity formation. So while Lauren’s project stopped short of “defining a nation’s cultures/values in the local/global arena” (from the assignment sheet), she identified a local site of food product and labor and made that the focus for her project. Open-ended questions tend to be challenging for students because it is often difficult to narrow a task and identify an angle on a topic for analysis, which I believe Lauren does well. I believe the best part of Lauren’s project was how she captured the people who make the food at her sorority house, giving voice and value to something often invisible in our culture. So the move Lauren makes to learn about who plans, prepares, and cleans up after all the meals is an important step in starting to define certain cultural values and expectations. While she may have pushed this analysis a bit further to learn more about food suppliers, the preparation, and wasted food, the focus she chose opens a number of productive avenues for further exploration.
- Selection of medium: Lauren choses video over other media options, as the assignment allowed for a number of alternatives: “Acceptable formats include mini-TED talks… blogs, websites, short student-made films, comics, Pinterest boards with comments, and other ideas as approved by the instructor.” I believe having students select the media and platform is an essential component of digital writing, so one of my first evaluations is the extent to which the selection is appropriate for the topic, purpose, and audience. In this case I think Lauren made an effective choice composing with video. The medium allows her voice to narrate her thoughts and overlay them with images and sounds of the local site. Perhaps most importantly, though, the medium allows her to capture the interviews, which are central to her project. In my experience with student-produced video, Lauren’s camera work, voice-over, music, transitions, sound mixing, and other technical aspects are far better than average. She does such a nice job capturing the interviews and splicing them together with her voice and scenes from the dining hall and kitchen. Her work is so subtle that the technical aspects fades into the background, unnoticed.
- Video genre: The genre for this piece was a little more elusive for me. Lauren calls this a documentary project, which I understand especially since she includes observation and interviews, which are both hallmarks of documentary film. This video is most like a documentary when Lauren comments about food waste since the kitchen prepares for twenty more people than they anticipate for any given meal. I feel like it’s on the cusp of a documentary when she starts to give us information about the food vendors, where she might have had the opportunity to investigate their practices in a more detail. But again, I think the highlight of this piece was Lauren making visible the invisible labor, preparation, and cleanup of the kitchen. If these interviews and observations were paired more with an analysis of cultural values and/or critique, I think it would have been more in the vein of a documentary. To me the video looked and sounded more like an informational news feature. While the agreement on the genre isn’t essential, I believe students’ awareness and negotiation of genre conventions is another mark of rhetorically-minded digital writers.
I commend Lauren for her thoughtful work and the polished video she produced. She is a talented videographer and editor. The moves that Lauren makes in this project, especially the questions she asks about the often overlooked aspects of our consumer culture, are important for us all to consider. Additionally, this video demonstrates that projects ripe for explanation are all around us each day in our everyday lives if we choose to look for them.