Marina Hassapopoulou, University of Florida
Students are asked to choose a video and a picture/image online that represents them and to write a reflection explaining their choice and how they might remix it.
In order to make a themed composition course appealing to students from diverse academic majors and with varying writing skills, assignments should allow students to draw on their own strengths as critical and creative thinkers. For composition courses focusing on digital media, assignments that encourage students to produce their own multimedia texts should be flexible enough to elicit a variety of approaches, and should ideally be customized according to the writing ability and technological competency of individual students. Assignments that prompt the critical appropriation of found media have the potential to inspire unique and unexpected responses. Such assignments teach valuable lessons on incorporating the first person into argumentative rhetoric, effectively communicating ideas to an audience, and acknowledging the parameters of plagiarism. Ultimately, these assignments help counter students’ frequently expressed lamentation that every good idea has already been thought of. In order to critically prepare students for multimodal composition projects, I include films and articles on topics such as intellectual property, avatars and online identity, and cyber-ethics. These topics prompt students to begin theorizing the issues they will later engage with through practical and creative applications.
The following assignment was designed for Writing Through Media, a specialized English Composition course open to all university students. The assignment topic is “Visual and textual representations of yourself: creating hybridized authenticity using found digital objects.” The guidelines are as follows:
Find and analyze one video and one picture/image on the Internet that each represents part of your identity and/or that you identify with. Explain why/if these objects fully represent what you wanted to find online, and how you—as a producer—would modify and customize them to adequately encapsulate your personality.
Objective: Reflect on the process of selection: the Internet is a vast (and sometimes chaotic) archive; how did you narrow your selection down to these 2 specific digital objects? In this assignment, you are challenged to apply persuasive reasoning to justify why and how your media represent facets of your identity. You are essentially trying to write (yourself) through media, and to find personal meaning in existing sources.
Students are asked to post their found media and analysis (of approximately 1,000 words) to their blog and cite all their sources. On the day the assignment is due, students give a brief presentation of their blog essay to the class.
Context, Preparation, and Objectives
A central learning objective is for the appropriation and recontextualization of found media to function as a mode of production. The assignment serves as a self-introduction, and also as a means of enabling students to familiarize themselves with online publishing platforms such as WordPress.com. The project is part of a themed unit on the ethics of remix and appropriation, and aims to introduce students to the process of hybrid digital writing. The background for this unit is established by reading some academic articles on the principles of remix culture, and—after the blog post is due—culminates in a study of various modes of appropriation of found footage, including Brett Gaylor’s open source documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto (2008), trailer re-cuts, and fan remixes.
The technical preparation for the assignment can be adjusted to the difficulty of the course. The minimum technical requirement is familiarization with basic blogging tools (e.g., WordPress.com). The blog format enables students to enhance the visceral appeal of their work by experimenting with various layout designs and themes for their blog. In more technically advanced versions of this course, students can have the option of editing their found media using software like Photoshop or iMovie as an additional step to illustrate the media modifications they propose in writing. For this particular Writing Through Media course, however, editing the media was not required because students were not expected to be familiar with digital editing tools at the early stages of the course when the assignment is introduced.
The guidelines are simple and theoretically straightforward, but the practical approach tends to trigger complex questions of self-definition, self-expression, and identity compartmentalization. Students are faced with the twofold challenge of fusing a personal mode of reflective writing [who am I and how do these objects represent me?] with argumentative reasoning [why did I specifically pick these two objects from a potentially infinite database, and how can I make a compelling case for my particular selection?]. The reflection on the process of media selection is useful in understanding how students use the Internet as a database. Moreover, the fact that students have nearly free rein in the use of online media helps them develop strategies for working within a manageable scope.
The in-class presentation of the project often produces an added element of spontaneous reflection regarding the process of compiling, conveying, and publically presenting (virtually and in the classroom) the fragments of one’s self. The presentations further stimulate insightful moments of self-awareness/self-perception, especially when students feel that they have a stake in the successful representation of their project because they see it not only as a public demonstration of their work, but also as a display of their personality.
The ostensibly simple premise of the assignment has so far inspired a diverse range of profoundly complex responses. Furthermore, many of the projects conveyed a personal investment in broader issues such as teen pregnancy, ethnic heritage, queerness, and personality disorders. Some students chose to share traumatic experiences (relating to topics like bullying and the loss of a loved one), and felt compelled to retrospectively revisit those influential memories and reassess their significance in the present moment.
The assignment asks students to reflect on the possibility of found objects acquiring personal meaning through reasoning and argumentation. Ultimately, the project is about writing through media rather than writing about media; it strives to assist students in finding a unique voice at a time when the quest for authenticity and originality appears futile to many of them.
In other specialized courses, this assignment can be extended to other modes of production and writing styles, such as self-introduction in the style of a newspaper report, self-representation through the layout of a graphic novel, and self-portraiture via hypertext. Software such as Storyspace, Flixmaster, and other programs will be used to facilitate hypertextual composition and generate new cyberaesthetics in the genres of news reporting, fiction, rhetoric, and autobiography.
Below are sample student responses to the assignment. I would like to thank the students for sharing their work:
- Tara Gonzalez. http://tara87.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/visual-representations/
- Alexandra Warrington. http://acw726.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/ferris-buellers-day-off/
- Christian Tejera. http://christej.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/blog-essay-1/
- Jeremy Ferman. http://jeremyferman.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/the-internet-and-my-identity/
- Blair Burke. http://blairdburke.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/blog-essay-1/
- Bianca Manos. http://bmanos.wordpress.com/2010/10/12/who-am-i/
About the Author
Marina Hassapopoulou is a PhD Candidate in English (Film and Media Studies track), and an instructor at the University of Florida’s English Department. Her teaching and research interests include interactive media, experimental films, history in fictional films, and archival practices for transient media. Her article, “Babel: Pushing and Reaffirming the Boundaries of Mainstream Cinema,” was published in Jump Cut (Spring 2008), and her research paper “‘It’s All Greek to Me’: Misappropriations of ‘Greekness’ in the U.S. Mass-Mediated Popular Culture’’ was published in the Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora (Dec. 2007). Her essay “Spoiling Heroes, Enhancing Our Viewing Pleasure: NBC’s Heroes and the Re-Shaping of the Televisual Landscape” was published as a book chapter in Writing and the Digital Generation: Essays on New Media Rhetoric, edited by Heather Urbansky (NC: McFarland, 2010). In conjunction with her dissertation project on interactive cinema, Marina is currently working on an online archive for interactive films and ephemeral media, as well as an article on software-generated cinema.