The Scared Is Spread

07Feb13

I have a video to share with you:

If you haven’t seen it, take the eight minutes to watch & enjoy. But there’s a good chance you’ve seen it, as it’s been viewed over 72,000 times (and counting) in the three days it’s been online. It’s been written about on BuzzfeedJezebelCBS NewsCBCYahoo!, Mashable, and many other blogs & Tumblrs, not to mention hundreds of Facebook shares. In short, it has become spreadable, the term that Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford & Joshua Green offer as an alternative, more active concept than “viral.”

My perspective on this video is unique, as it was made by my student Bianca Giaever as her final project at Middlebury before graduating last week, and I was the project’s adviser. Middlebury has a Winter Term every January where students enroll in a single intensive course or do an independent project, and Bianca approached me to make a video over the month. I’ve known Bianca for a few years, teaching her in class and helping to guide her independent-designed major in Narrative Studies, The bulk of her creative background was in audio production for radio, and oral storytelling in creating a Middlebury branch of The Moth live storytelling performances. In the fall semester, she made “Holy Cow Lisa,” an excellent project in her Video Production course that took an audio interview and “visualized” it through creative & playful video footage. She wanted to see if she could make another project in that vein as a kind-of “proof of concept” that illustrated audio stories could work as a format – the result was “The Scared Is Scared.” Consider the concept proven!

One of the very best parts of my job is helping facilitate my students’ creativity. Although I’m scholar by training and practice, Middlebury’s Film & Media Culture is a hybrid department mixing critical studies and hands-on creative work. I occasionally teach courses that are creative in focus, often mix creative projects into critical studies courses, and regularly advise students’ creative projects in video production, screenwriting, or other media. I love to listen to a student’s ideas, give them some feedback to push them forward or offer a critical perspective, and then get out of the way to let them create something.

In the case of “The Scared is Scared,” I feel particularly invested in the project because I saw it develop from nothing to a spreadable hit over the course of a single month. A project adviser’s role can be quite variable, but if things are working well, an adviser’s contributions are necessary but insufficient aspects of the final product – in this case, it was definitely true, as I introduced Bianca to Asa, the video’s storyteller and my son’s friend. Without that necessary introduction (as well as giving Bianca the water wings that Toby Mouse wears), the video would not be what it was – but obviously the journey from that introduction to the final work was all due to Bianca, Asa, and their many collaborators. Throughout the month, my role was primarily to assure Bianca that there was potential in her ideas and that the audio and video she was putting together was excellent – in fact, she quoted me saying “This might work” as the blurb for the video’s poster around campus!

So I’ve watched the video spread (up to 78,000 views in the time it took me to write this post!) and receive glowing acclaim with the pride of a coach & teacher (and a little bit of the ownership you feel at the wedding of two people you introduced!). I also watch it spread from the meta-perspective of a scholar of digital media, which raises numerous questions. What does it mean to traditional educational hierarchies to have a student’s work seen & enjoyed by thousands of people? Does spreadability matter when assessing and grading students’ work? Should we encourage students to seek spreadability as a goal, or just facilitate it as a potential byproduct of creative success? How do such accomplishments impact the reputation of the department and potentially benefit other students’ opportunities? And most immediately, how will this success help Bianca make a living after Middlebury? (Please contact her if you have any answers to the last one.) I have no answers to these questions yet, but they point to some of the new dimensions of teaching film and video that I would not have anticipated mattering when I arrived at Middlebury ten years ago.

But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy watching the video and its rippling wake, and relish in my own favorite moment: the way Asa says the word “merengues.”

 

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10 Responses to “The Scared Is Spread”

  1. 1 A SLAC(K?) professor

    In the wake of your student’s massively successful project (which it was even before it went viral), I wonder about the relationship between our teaching and our students’ desire to strive for greatness. Put another way: what else could I be doing to facilitate such creativity?

    I have had exceptional students do exceptional work, which I guess is why they call it exceptional. But I get frustrated by what often seems to be students’ absolute satisfaction with “good enough,” with their lack of interest in even striving for greatness or, perhaps, their simple inability to imagine themselves as doing great things. Work like Bianca’s really throws that into relief.

    My college is less selective than Middlebury, but I don’t believe it’s them individually (though I do suspect that it’s partially them collectively–they work and learn and live in a local student culture that still prioritizes social relations strongly over academic, creative, or social achievement, and that exerts a powerful dampening force on their ambition). Providing encouragement, examples, and exhortation doesn’t, in itself, break through the “good enough” mindset, so what might?

    Not expecting you to have answers, just struggling with the question …

    • These are great questions! I will say that Bianca’s video is exceptional for our program too – not only in its spreading reception, but also in its success in communicating with a distinctive voice & style that feels fully realized. But most of our students do strive for (and achieve) much more than “good enough,” and overall quality & effort has definitely improved over the past 10 years I’ve been at Middlebury.

      I think there are two major factors at play that are potentially replicable at other programs. First, we incorporate production projects across our curriculum, not just in “production courses.” I’d guess that around half of our critical studies courses either require or allow for an optional production-based project throughout the semester, whether a remix video, multimedia essay, or a documentary. Since production is a muscle that improves through exercise, this gets students to make more work, and be thinking about how concepts from critical studies readings apply to creative practices.

      Second, and probably more importantly, we’ve really developed a creative culture in our program, where student collaboration is normal, they rely on each other for peer feedback, and enjoy contributing to each others’ projects, both as required in courses and generating organically through volunteerism. (Note that Bianca had really important volunteer collaborators on her crew, with especially her DP, art director & music adding a ton to the final vision.) And I think they see what each other can do and engage in a little healthy competition & pride in the overall team. Creating a collaborative, supportive & fun space for creativity does a lot to inspire students to reach beyond “good enough” out of pride over what their peers will think.

      Good luck moving forward!

  2. Utterly delightful. Thanks for sharing that.

  3. Wow. Congrats to Bianca and everyone involved. But I don’t know, Jason, I don’t think the term “spreadable” is likely to spread. Agreed, “going viral” has a negative connotation, but it also has the virtue of being an ACTION with a rebellious feel to it — unlike the passive “spreadable,” which sounds more like marketing for a cheese-product. And what content isn’t spreadable, i.e., CAPABLE of being spread? No, if we want to replace going viral, I think we’ve got to keep looking. A job for the Middlebury think-tank?

    • 5 samford

      Thanks, Dana. In our book Jason referred to, one of the caveats is that we aren’t necessarily looking for the term to get picked up, but to get people to realize that the power lies with the audience, not the content, if they decide something is worth passing along. Everything has varying degrees of potential to be passed along (per your comment), but no content can make people “spread it.” In Bianca’s case, it’s a beautiful video that captures the angst many feel as they are leaving an era in their life and branching into that unknown winter…or that well illustrates the meandering paths the stories of children can take, as beautiful in its unexpected flourishes of creativity as in watching the process of storytelling take place verbally…or that shows how deep wisdom can come from unexpected stories and in unexpected moments…and, of course, it’s hilarious, in its visual storytelling…All this to say that Bianca embedded characteristics in this video that made it more likely for people to want to circulate it, but the circulation of it was out of her control…However, I’d argue she really knew her potential audiences and found a way to speak to human truths in a format that made sense for online sharing. Think I’m going to go tweet about this video now. :)

  4. 6 Faculty member at a northeast liberal arts college

    What a delightful video and nice context-setting, Jason. The one aspect I would love for you to comment on is the way in which this hybrid approach to your program is viewed in other parts of your college, and particularly by your faculty colleagues. I can guess what students at your college think, but what about the faculty when it comes to your facilitating your students’ creative talents after, I presume, you have provided a foundation for their work. If I understand your comments, Bianca is exceptional, but I wonder how much your department’s and college’s curriculum prepared her for this beautiful artistic expression. Do other departments offer what your do in terms of facilitating your students’ expression of their creativity? Are these “hand on creative work” opportunities, as you call them common across the humanities at Middlebury? Can classicists studying the Illiad and Odyssey conclude their studies with a creative video or other project? Or in philosophy, literature, or other areas? Or, is this more just part of the student culture in general, or a “one off” in the form of Bianca?

    Interested to know and perhaps to visit your campus. I teach at a selective liberal arts college, too, but we, as a faculty, are pretty straight-laced and traditional, and I doubt this project would be viewed by most of my faculty colleagues, as good as it is, as the kind of culminating senior work experience as the more traditional thesis, essay, or performance. How does one move the culture at institutions bound up in historical tradition, unable to innovate?

  5. 7 samford

    I appreciate this analysis, Jason. I’ve seen some class projects explicitly ask for people to make a video “to be spread” or “to go viral,” and to track how it is passed along. What concerns me about some of those projects is this idea that a certain level of reach has to be accomplished for it to be successful. But, of course, it depends on who a video is intended to resonate with. Bianca’s video had the potential to be widely shared because it speaks to some pretty universal–but deep and touching–truths. Many student videos may have an equal potential for spreadability, but among a much smaller potential audience. All that to say…I think it’s great, on the one hand, to encourage our students to create content that they want to see engaged with and interacted with publicly, but I also would never want there to be too much quantitative interest that deems something a success only when it reaches pandemic levels (to use the viral metaphor…)

  6. 8 teoatglipho

    Hi Jason,

    First of all congratulations to your student for creating a wonderful project! A very interesting follow up too. The nature of the ‘viral’ video is a really fascinating topic for me.
    I was wondering if you’d be interested in sharing your blog over at Glipho? We’re a new social blogging site, and are currently building a community of strong, creative writers. If you fancy, have a look over at http://glipho.com and see if you like it.

    Thanks for your time, and for sharing this video- it really brightened my day!

    All the best,

    Teo.


  1. 1 One student’s project becomes a viral hit | MiddBlog
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