I took advantage of one of the (many) perks of my job and took over our high-quality screening room this morning to watch El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie that dropped today – this was probably the closest that Vermont will get to a theatrical release! I have some non-spoilery thoughts, followed by a few well-marked spoilery ones, including one major critique of the movie:

My first reaction was that El Camino was a two hours well-spent. It is pretty much just fan service, but as a fan, I felt well-served. The story it told was compelling if not that essential, and like any other Breaking Bad episode, it was beautifully shot, performed, and written. While the many cameos were variously effective, the bottom line is that spending two more hours with Jesse Pinkman is sufficient for my entertainment needs.

A number of reviews I’ve read seem to feel similarly: it’s good, but ultimately “unnecessary.” As Matthew Gilbert starts his review:

Here’s the question that dogs every TV sequel, prequel, and revival: Is it necessary? Does the material — in this case, “El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” — justify revisiting the original narrative? Was it worth undoing the ending of the series — and risking the greatness of its legacy — to deliver yet another chapter?

This piece and others got me pondering about this word “necessary” – what might such a description mean for a television series? In a Twitter conversation with critic Daniel Fienberg, whose review also called it unnecessary, he suggested that for series that don’t end on their own terms, like Deadwood or Gilmore Girls, a revival feels a lot more necessary than a show whose finale is roundly hailed as both satisfying and conclusive—like Breaking Bad.

But what do we “need” from a television series? For a series that is cut short or takes a bad turn in the hands of replacement writers, it might be about answering narrative questions about what happens next, or paying off the arc of a character that seems incomplete in the original. But unless a character dies, there’s always more story potentially to be told – and how can we judge whether that story is “necessary”?

For Jesse Pinkman, the consensus seems to be that it is not—knowing how he escaped the next set of calamities that follow his liberation from a neo-Nazi torture camp seems far less important than the feeling of hope that we felt as he drove off in his El Camino back in 2013. But the fact that El Camino‘s story is inessential doesn’t make it any less pleasurable: while Breaking Bad‘s narrative drive toward “what happens next” might be its main motor, the joy of the ride was the combination of the program’s stylistic verve and the characters who inhabit its world.

Spending another two hours with Jesse Pinkman is not necessary in any real sense, but neither was spending the first 60 hours with Walt and Jesse, and Skyler and Hank and Marie, etc. Not necessary, but certainly sufficient.

OK – now there be spoilers, including my biggest critique of the movie:

 

Continue reading ‘EL CAMINO: Necessary or Sufficient?’


This weekend, a teaser dropped for what had been only rumored-about for the past year: the Breaking Bad movie!

Named El Camino, presumably for the car that Jesse drives off to escape his Nazi prison in the series finale, the film presumably focuses on Jesse’s life after Breaking Bad.

While  we’ll have to wait until October to know more details, the news inspired me to share my latest video for my Breaking Bad audiovisual book. “Poor Jesse” is a fanvid, following the vernacular of that form by remixing images and some sounds from the series to a single music track. A few notes follow below after watching it (with the sound turned up loud!):

From the early origins of my videographic Breaking Bad project, I knew that one of the chapter should be a fanvid. I’ve written previously about vidding as a fan and critical practice, and I felt that making one would be a good way to understand it more fully. Additionally, I’ve had long conversations with Louisa Stein, Melanie Kohnen, and others about the boundaries and similarities between vidding and videographic criticism, so I felt it was important to include this vernacular form in the book as an example of its critical possibilities. There was no question that I wanted it to be about Jesse, as he’s the character I have the most affective bond toward, and the one whose arc is most about the feels. And the choice of song – a live version of Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs” – was a no-brainer, as they’re one of my favorites and the live performance of this song captures their sonic range from catchy jangle to wall-of-sound that mirror’s Jesse’s arc.

When rewatching the series in Adobe Premiere, I struck gold when I saw “Thirty-Eight Snub,” the second episode in the fourth season (and at #35, slightly past the halfway point). As Jesse sonically tortures himself after his multiday rave peters out, I knew that this scene would be the spine of the video. I then designed the chronological structure to move from his memories of past torments and infrequent smiles to foreshadowing crises to come. The choice to focus all the images on Jesse (and mostly his face) flowed from my admiration for Aaron Paul’s expressive looks and my desire to connect everything to the character’s emotional life. And the final shot feels particularly apt with El Camino on the horizon.

I’m extremely thankful for the feedback I got from Louisa Stein, Casey McCormick, and especially vidder extraordinaire Luminosity. I was definitely out of my comfort zone in producing this one, and their comments gave me confidence that it was worth the effort. As to whether such vidding does function as videographic criticism… I encourage people to weigh in via the comments!


After a week of vacation, I’ve returned to my project creating video chapters for my audiovisual book, “The Character of Chemistry in Breaking Bad.” After letting these videos sit for a couple of weeks, I’ve made some final tweaks and am ready to share drafts of two more chapters:

“Walter’s Whiteness” explores the role of race within Walt’s character arc:

“Focusing on Hank (and Marie)” considers how we access Hank’s emotional state and relationship with Marie in one crucial scene:

Together, I see them as complementary in both topic and approach. The former uses wide-ranging cultural analysis across the entire series, and the latter offers a very close formal reading of a single-scene in the context of the episode “One Minute.” In terms of videographic style, they are fairly similar: voice-over driven with sparing use of other visual techniques. While I hope that the final book will offer a broad range of vidoegraphic styles, I do find that the voiceover approach is best-suited for many of the ideas I wish to explore.

As always, feedback is welcomed!


For the last two weeks of June, we welcomed another cohort of budding videographic scholars to Middlebury for our Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop, now under the auspices of the Digital Liberal Arts Summer Institute. Fourteen strangers came in together, and a robust community of practice emerged at the end, with amazing drafts of video essays, compelling exercises, and a wonderful collaborative spirit. It’s truly one of my favorite parts of my career, and it was a joy to share it with another group of now-friends!

As the workshop was happening, Chris Keathley and I received copies of the revised & expanded edition of our book, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound & Image. We published the first edition after our first workshop, recounting our approach and featuring writing about videographic work by Catherine Grant, Kevin B. Lee, and Eric Faden. For this edition, we expanded Grant to a co-author, adding more of her writing, while adding a roundtable conversation between eight participants in previous workshops, as well as updating the exercises and approach to teaching videographic work. If you’re interested in how the workshops work, read the book and check out the companion website with video examples!Revised_Videographic_Cover.jpg

Finally, I’ve been working hard on my audiovisual book about Breaking Bad, with drafts of seven chapters completed and a few more in process. During the workshop, I was inspired by the PechaKucha assignment, which focuses on juxtaposing diverse clips from a single work, and played with a Breaking Bad PechaKucha. I realized there was more there than just a one-minute exercise, so I adapted it into this short piece, which will form one of the “interstitial” chapters in my book. Enjoy!

And a bonus GIF:

Knock-About


I’m writing this from Pamplona, Spain, where I’m attending the 2019 Conference for the International Study of Narrative. Just now I had the pleasure of chairing a panel on Videographic Criticism & Serial Narrative, where Kathleen Loock, Sean O’Sullivan, and I all presented video essays – a first for this conference, which is more predominantly literary in focus and traditional-minded in terms of modes of scholarship. (To help set the experimental tone of the panel, I quickly produced a short video introduction yesterday.)

My contribution to the panel was to screen my next two chapters of “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad,” the audiovisual book I’ve been working on this year. These two videos are polar opposites, representing the spectrum of different types of topics and tones that I’ll be taking in this project – you might notice that neither are included in the proposed chapter outline I previously published, as I’ve found that my ideas for what videos to make have evolved as I rewatched the series in the editing platform of Adobe Premiere. This fits with my sense that working in Premiere mirrors placing objects of research into a laboratory setting to make new discoveries, pursue fresh questions, and carry out experiments.

The first video I presented is the most formally and academically conventional that I’ll be making: “Anatomy of a Relationship: Jesse & Jane.” Fitting the academic world of narrative theory, I wanted to explore an idea via more traditional scholarly discourse that would resonate with the audience in a more explanatory mode. As I rewatched the series, I found the question of how a series constructs and conveys a relationship to be interesting, and this case study was ideal because of its intensity and relatively short length.

The second video, “Object Oriented Breaking Bad,” is the polar opposite: experimental, algorithmic, poetic, vernacular, obscure — and arguably not about characters at all! I’ll offer some context and commentary, but I recommend watching it first:

As referenced at the end of the video, it was assembled algorithmically: isolating every shot of at least one second that focuses on an object (besides vehicles or the written word) without a human or animal presence. It is arranged chronologically, which implicitly serves to answer a question nobody ever asked: what would the story of Breaking Bad look like without any characters? With the closing quotation from Latour, we can imagine how the series might position various objects as its actors, exerting important power within the narrative even without direct human interaction.

The resulting form plays with a range of remix video paradigms. It might be viewed as a supercut of objects, although the temporal remapping and split-screen format is less common in the supercut form. My friend and colleague Louisa Stein suggests it might also be a kind-of fanvid, using the backbone of a song to offer commentary and contrast with the images—this was not in my mind at all, as I’m planning to do another chapter more directly in a vidding style. My ultimate intention was to imagine this as a deformation, a manipulation of the series that makes us see the original in a new light while also creating an aesthetic object that might be compelling in its own right.

The panel went over well, with lots of positive and insightful comments about all of our presentations. I welcome feedback on the videos here, as I plan to further tweak them for inclusion in the final audiovisual book.


As I’ve written about before, I’ve had the great pleasure of co-directing a summer workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image, with my colleague & friend Christian Keathley at Middlebury over the past few years. The three previous iterations of the workshop have been funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, allowing us to bring scholars from around the world to Vermont to learn videographic criticism in an intensive two-week format.

Alas our grants have run dry, but we have finally gotten approval to relaunch the workshop under a different structure: Middlebury’s Digital Liberal Arts Summer Institute (DLASI). We will be offering our workshop on videographic criticism as the first topic for the DLASI, running the workshop June 16-29, 2019. For two weeks, you can spend all of your hours in beautiful Vermont, learning how to make video essays and participating in a robust community of practice, fondly known as “videocamp,” led by me, Christian Keathley, and Catherine Grant.

Since the workshop will not be funded by a grant, we have switched to a tuition-driven model – hopefully participants can get support from their home institutions to attend. See the website for all of the details on timing, cost, and participation – applications are due February 1. Contact me with any questions, and spread the word!


As of today, I am officially on leave for the next academic year. I recognize what a privilege it is to get such a leave, as the tradition of the tenured academic position with regular leaves for focused research is becoming more rare and confined to elite institutions (and only some appointments within such institutions as well). Thankfully, Middlebury has mostly retained their commitment to traditional faculty positions, so I get to take a year to focus on the work I most want to pursue, without the demands of teaching and (more importantly to me) service to the institution. This means stepping away from being department chair, from being Director of our Digital Liberal Arts Initiative, and from being on countless ad hoc committees and working groups. While all of those facets of the job are rewarding, they are also exhausting and consuming in ways that make sustained progress on an ambitious research project near impossible.

[Note that I will maintain focus on one very important non-academic project: supporting my wife Ruth’s campaign for Vermont State Senate! And hopefully in the spring semester, I will be doing lots of solo parenting as she spends time representing our county at the state capitol…]

So what is that ambitious research project that I hope to spend most of the next year working on? As I’ve discussed previously, I have been investing much of my time into teaching and creating videographic criticism over the past few years. Yesterday, we concluded the third NEH-supported Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop at Middlebury, leading another 16 participants through the approach to learning videographic criticism that my colleagues Christian Keathley, Ethan Murphy, Catherine Grant and I have developed. (While this is the final version of the NEH-supported workshop, we do hope to convert it into a tuition-supported workshop following the same model – stay tuned for news later this year!) As with the previous years, I spent time during the workshop drafting my own videoessay, which served the entry point for my larger leave project: creating an audiovisual book called “The Chemistry of Character on Breaking Bad.”

What do I mean by an audiovisual book? If a typical video essay functions similarly to a written essay or scholarly article, then this project will be analogous to a single-authored book focused on a single topic. Instead of a single seamless video, resembling a feature documentary, my project will be structured more as a compilation of shorter videos that can either be each watched independently, or consumed together to present a more overarching set of ideas and arguments. I’m not certain how it will eventually be published yet—I could imagine using Scalar to self-publish, or pursue publication through a digital open-access academic press like Lever Press. Regardless, I will likely be sharing some of the drafts of videos as I develop them throughout the next year.

Why am I focusing on character and Breaking Bad? In writing Complex TV, I found that the chapter on Characters, which was already the longest chapter, was the topic about which I felt I still had more to say. Additionally, characterization is an area particularly well-suited for videographic criticism, where the details of performance, relationships, and representations can be conveyed directly video sound and image rather than lengthy description. As to why Breaking Bad, I wanted to focus on a single series/franchise and do a deep dive into the footage in a way that is typically very difficult without an extended period of immersive viewing and editing. Breaking Bad, and its spin-off Better Call Saul, are not only among my very favorite television programs (and thus spending a year wading in their sounds and images is appealing), but they raise a number of interesting and unique issues around character. I’ve already written about some of these facets in Complex TV, so I will be building upon that foundation in this project.

As is my tendency, I hope to make much of my process public. In that spirit, I am sharing a draft of the first “chapter” from the audiovisual book here, produced last week during our workshop. This video, “What’s Walt Thinking? Mind Reading & Serialized Memory in Breaking Bad,” is an adaption and extension of a section in Complex TV, where I discuss these issues using a scene from the series. I wanted to see how I might explore these same ideas around the same scene using video and audio rather than lengthy description (as I did in my book). The process of developing the video took me in unexpected directions, but I’m happy with how it turned out. All feedback welcome as I will certainly revisit this video as I develop the whole project.

I am also sharing the proposal and tentative chapter outline below. This was drafted to apply for grants (alas, no luck yet!), so it reads as a combination of self-promotion, ambitious claims, and introductory contextualization. Hopefully it also conveys the ideas sufficiently. Again, I welcome feedback as I undertake this project, and plan to keep posting updates to the blog.

Continue reading ‘My Plans for an Audiovisual Book’


In April, five of my students formed a panel at Middlebury’s Spring Student Symposium out of my Fall course Videographic Film & Media Studies, where they presented video essays that were created in the course. Alas, I was away at a conference during the symposium, so I could not see the panel, but reports were that the videos were all well-received (and I’ve heard from other students asking when I’ll be teaching the course again!). One great thing about videos is that they can be shared beyond live presentation, so I’ve curated them below, along with my most recent video essay (which I’ve neglected to post to this long-dormant blog).

The videos were presented in alphabetical order by student name. First up was Will DiGravio and his video “How to Shoot a Film in One Room.” This video has an unusual history for a class assignment – Will posted it to Vimeo at the same time he submitted it as his final project in class. By the time I got to grading it, Film School Rejects had already blogged about it, meaning it had already gotten hundreds of views. This led Will to get offered an internship with FSR, where he has been writing for the past few months. Regardless of its impact on Will’s career, the video does one of the best things a video essay can do: convey ideas efficiently and convincingly with visuals where words alone would fall far short.

Alyne Figueiredo Goncalves also published her video, “Gendered resistance and composition in the film Timbuktu,” albeit via the much slower process of academic publishing. Alyne submitted her video to Film Matters, the journal of undergraduate film criticism, back in the fall, and it just came out in May after a round of peer review and revisions. Her project emerged out of the Videographic Response Assignment, where students had to create a video that responded to an already published video essay; Alyne was responding to Channel Criswell’s “Composition in Storytelling,” building on his ideas but applying his Western focus to African cinema examples. The resulting video essay offers a compelling account of the politics of composition in Timbuktu, leveraging the film’s visual beauty for a rich videographic experience.

Continuing with the theme of student videos breaking out of their classroom origin, Emma Hampsten’s “Women, Intimacy, and Sexual Violence in Hitchcock Films” has also been widely seen after she posted the final version in March. Emma combined her two majors of Film & Media Culture and Gender, Sexuality & Feminist Studies via the course on Hitchcock she was taking alongside my videographic class. The resulting combination is a masterful instance of the power of juxtaposition and patterns to convey critical analysis, even though the video contains none of Emma’s own words. The video has been widely shared over the past two months, and even featured in a class at Smith College, highlighting the power and possibilities of students posting their work publicly.

The final two students have not published their videos beyond YouTube, and they have only gone live recently so they haven’t reached a broad audience (yet). Jack Ralph conveyed his expertise as a History major into a consideration of the modern Western in “How Modernity Affects the Western’s Morality in No Country for Old Men,” with a videographic comparison to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Jack had done his videographic exercises for the class on No Country, so he knew the film well as a videographic source, which shows up well here as he mines the two films for visual and thematic resonances.

The final video shown at the symposium was Ian Scura’s “The Ultimate Antagonist – A Video Essay about Pixar Movies.” Like Alyne, Ian’s video came out of the response assignment, but Ian chose to both extend the content and emulate the style of the video he responds to, a piece by Lessons from the Screenplay about antagonists focused on The Dark Knight. Ian does a great job laying out his ideas about how Pixar films treat antagonists differently than classic villains, packing a tremendous amount of material into six short minutes.

These five videos were by no means the only strong projects emerging out of my fall course – they were just the five who were able to present at the symposium! I’ve collected much of the work that students did in the course, especially their videographic exercises, on a Vimeo channel, and will add other finalized projects to this post if my students send them my way.

Speaking of sharing video essays, I published a piece called “How Black Lives Matter in The Wire” in January, exploring how the landmark HBO series represents and omits images of police violence against black citizens. Since this is my first blog post in a long while, I will finally share it here:


I’m excited to announce two upcoming opportunities in 2018 to explore videographic criticism as a method in film & media studies!

The first will be a new type of session at the 2018 Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference in Toronto: a seminar on March 18 called “Making Videographic Criticism: The Videographic Epigraph.” Kevin Ferguson & I will be convening the session, with participants signing up at the end of October via the SCMS website (members only, so join if you’d like to participate). Participants will be making “videographic epigraphs” beforehand, and we will dedicate the March meeting to watching and discussing their works, as well as considering how such videos function as scholarship and pedagogy. Participants should have basic video editing skills and access to software, but should not have much experience making videographic criticism.

For an example of videographic epigraphs, here’s one I made about Adaptation.:

The second opportunity is the third iteration of “Scholarship in Sound and Image,” the NEH-funded two-week residential workshop that Chris Keathley and I have run at Middlebury in 2015 and 2017. This third version, running June 17-30, will be for participants who have a Ph.D. in Film & Media Studies or related disciplines – they can be faculty, post-docs, or otherwise engaged in academia, but they should no longer be in graduate school. Applications are due December 1, and instructions can be found on the workshop website.

I’m happy to answer questions about either opportunity!


The month of June was spent preparing for, and then leading, the second installment of our NEH-funded workshop, Scholarship in Sound and Image, a.k.a. “videocamp.” (See this excellent article that my student Will DiGravio wrote for our local paper for a good account of the workshop and ideas behind it.) Much like the first iteration in June 2015, it was one of the best experiences of my professional career. This year, we restricted participation to graduate students, creating a more homogeneous cohort (at least in terms of career path, if little else). And we have funding for one more iteration in June 2018, with participation open to scholars with Ph.D. in-hand (faculty, post-docs, independent scholars) within the field of film & media studies, broadly construed. (Applications will open in late September, so keep an eye out here!)

While it’s tough to compare the two experiences, as both were uniquely fabulous, I think the net result of the 2017 workshop might be stronger overall, at least in terms of the work produced. Partly this was due to the broader circulation and understanding of videographic criticism over the last two years—even though few participants this year had made their own videographic work, all were more familiar with such work than people were in 2015. Partly it may have been due to the graduate students being more attuned to participating in a course and producing work on deadlines than the 2015 faculty were. But I think one key shift was the revised sequence and assignments that my colleague Chris Keathley & I presented over the first week, and the greater structure throughout the second week leading to excellent final projects.

In the spirit of openness and experimentation that the workshops embody, I want to share the revised exercises that we assigned, and my own attempts at undertaking them—I’ve called these exercises “etudes,” as they force you to practice particular editing skills while also producing enjoyable and interesting results. We’ve found that some people are using these blog posts and the short book, The Videographic Essay, that Chris & I wrote as guides to do their own simulation of the workshop—Lori Morimoto shared her experiments back in 2015, and my Middlebury colleague Louisa Stein is doing her own version this summer as well. So here are the revised exercises and my examples, offered with the challenge to try it out on your own! (If you do, post links to your work in the comments…)

Continue reading ‘The Return of Videocamp’


Over the course of these harrowing couple of months since the election, one of the many questions that has plagued me is how media educators can effectively teach about media under the Trump administration. This spring semester, I’ll be teaching my cornerstone course Television & American Culture, where media & democracy are a core topic. I’ve racked my brain trying to figure out how to frame my approach to this topic, encouraging students to develop their own positions based on the course materials while not understating or ignoring how much of a threat to democracy I believe his approach to the media poses. Events in the first days of his administration have helped me develop an approach—here is what I’m thinking of saying on the first day of the class in mid-February (knowing that much may change in the coming weeks, making these examples seem quaint and inconsequential). I would love any feedback from fellow educators and citizens:

I want to say a few words about how I will approach politics in this course. As you all know, we have a new president occupying the White House, and his rise is directly connected to television – both in the typical ways that television news and advertising play key roles in elections, and the atypical way that his fame and reputation were largely built by his role as star and producer of The Apprentice, a reality TV show. Normally, this course engages with politics by providing the tools and contexts for you to analyze how the media impacts politics, and encouraging you to draw your own conclusions and political positions in light of that education. While I never attempt to hide my own political beliefs – a syllabus that foregrounds feminism, critical analysis of racial representations, and critiques of consumer capitalism is not apolitical! – students are never expected to agree with my beliefs to succeed in the course, as exams and essay will judge how you think and analyze, not what you think or believe.

However, the current administration and its engagement with the media is not normal. For a telling instance, on the very first day of Trump’s presidency, his press secretary Sean Spicer conducted a so-called “press conference” (with no questions permitted, it was really more of a statement or decree) in which he scolded reporters for (allegedly) misrepresenting the crowd size for Trump’s inauguration, while making false claims with no evidence that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” The next morning, Trump’s political advisor and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer was offering “alternative facts” to counter the media’s claims. The “fact” that Spicer’s claims were patently untrue, unsubstantiated, and easily disproved by visual evidence was dismissed by Conway as just a difference of opinion. This skirmish about the trivial matter of crowd size is typical of how the Trump administration treats and uses the press.

In my role as an educator and your role as students, treating facts as opinions or beliefs to be debated is unacceptable, whether they are trivial issues of crowd size or substantive matters of policy and practice. The fact that this administration actively works to undermine facts, to dispute science, to undercut history, and to normalize the distrust of knowledge, runs directly counter to the educational mission of our course and our institution. In this class, we will try to understand how television factors into Trump’s election and presidency, as I have done for the two previous administrations, and that assessment will not be sympathetic to the current president—you are free to disagree with my opinions on these topics. But no matter one’s political positions, we cannot dismiss or ignore factual evidence as a matter of political disagreement. Thus on day one, I would like to make my position quite clear: attempts to undermine knowledge, evidence, and facts is antithetical to being both a student enrolled in a college class, and an educated citizen in a democracy. That is not a partisan political opinion, but a position that is simply not up for debate in a classroom. If that assertion makes you uncomfortable, you might want to sign up for a different course, and perhaps rethink your relationship to education itself.

[Again, I would appreciate any feedback on this, and tales from what others have done to frame these discussions as educationally and politically effective.]

Update: I realize I forgot to include one important contextualizing factor, especially for other educators looking at this statement as an example or model: I am a straight, white male tenured full professor at a private institution that has very few students who openly supported Trump. Thus I am as insulated from repercussions as possible – most fellow educators are far less privileged in their situations and contexts, and thus part of the reason why I wanted to make such a statement public is that I am least at risk from doing so.


As mentioned last month, we’ve been fortunate enough to get another NEH grant to conduct two more videographic criticism workshops at Middlebury, in June 2017 and June 2018. We are now accepting applications for the 2017 workshop, which is open to graduate students in Film & Media Studies or related disciplines. Please spread the word to qualified and interested graduate students!

I also just returned from Miami University of Ohio, where I did a two-day workshop on videographic criticism. Chris Keathley and I developed a highly-compressed excerpt from our summer workshop aimed at faculty new to videographic criticism, and at Miami, I offered it to a dozen faculty. I wasn’t exactly sure how such an approach would work over a two-day span, but I think it was highly successful (and the participants seemed to agree!). So we’ve decided to publicly “offer” ourselves as available to visit campuses (or a consortium of nearby institutions) to do the compressed two-day version for faculty and/or grad students interested in a crash course in videographic criticism. Anybody who is interested, let me know!


In my last post, I closed the book on my spring Television & American Culture course, reflecting on the general success of using specifications grading for the course. As I launch into a new semester, I’m using the same approach on a different course, Theories of Popular Culture (the whole syllabus is available at the link), trying to make some adjustments to address both the very different set of educational goals and contexts, and some of the lessons learned from my first go round.

Theories of Popular Culture is an upper-level seminar (around 15 students once the dust clears), fulfilling both the theory requirement for the Film & Media Culture department and Middlebury’s College Writing (CW) requirement (all students must take an introductory writing course as part of their first year seminar, and an advanced CW course like this, ideally within their major). Thus the bar is set much higher than last semester’s intro course, and the expectations are that students do both more advanced quality work and higher quantity of writing & revision. This is the eighth time I’ve taught this course, and I think both the content and assignments work very well, so I was not looking to do a major overhaul of either. Rather, I was trying to implement this grading system to increase student flexibility and transparency, focus on learning over grades, and avoid the stresses and negative patterns tied to traditional grading.

In adapting the course learning goals to the tiered system that forms the foundation of specifications grading, I immediately ran into a problem with the CW requirement: students fulfill this requirement by passing a course tagged as CW. This means that I needed to ensure that the goals of the CW requirement are included at the base level of my course, meaning that every student who passed the course would have to fulfill them. While the CW program doesn’t provide explicit learning goals, I tried to adapt some of the advice for CW faculty concerning writing and revision, baking them into the course learning goals:

All students who pass the course (with a minimum grade of C) will have demonstrated the ability to:

  • Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of popular culture
  • Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to analyze popular culture
  • Read dense theoretical writings and summarize their core ideas
  • Communicate their ideas orally and via writing with fluency and clarity, per college CW standards
  • Revise their writing to improve both ideas and communication, per college CW standards

Students who achieve a higher level of mastery (with a minimum grade of B) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Analyze popular culture with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections between theoretical models, different examples and cultural contexts
  • Engage in serious conversation about often fraught topics with an ethos of “rhetorical resilience”

Students who achieve the highest level of mastery (with a grade of A) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

  • Create, substantiate, and communicate an original analytic argument that synthesizes multiple facets of popular culture, appropriate types of evidence, and theoretical approaches with sophistication
  • Meet class expectations per the assigned schedule with consistency

I admit I’m not entirely happy with this breakdown, because I believe my expectations for successful writing and revision per the CW program are higher than the expectations for the C level should be. Additionally, the need to produce a significant amount of writing and revision for CW credit (typically 25+ pages) takes away one of the most successful aspects of my spring course: making the final essay optional. The best solution I came up with would be to disentangle the CW credit from the course grade: students would earn what they earn in terms of a grade, and those who met the CW expectations would receive that credential separately (and those who didn’t, wouldn’t). However, that’s not how things work here: the CW marker is tagged to a course, not an outcome, so anyone who passes a CW course fulfills the requirement on their transcript. Needless to say, reworking this system is not something that an individual faculty can implement on an ad-hoc basis, so I’m stuck with keeping the CW goals as part of the course’s ground floor requirements, and working with students to make sure they fulfill them.

Two of the other shifts in how I scaffold assignments and assign grades are embedded in the assignment bundles:

C Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of C:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to five absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 8 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one successful revision

B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to three absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 10 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one Sophisticated mark and at least one successful revision
  • Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least four course meetings

A Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of A:

  • Actively attend all course meetings, with up to two absences, per the attendance policy below
  • Complete at least 12 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
  • Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least three Sophisticated marks and at least one successful revision
  • Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least eight course meetings

One key difference is that instead of different versions of an assignment (Basic vs. Advanced prompts for my TV exams), I’m implementing differential evaluation for the same prompt, allowing for Satisfactory and Sophisticated as dual passing marks. Each assignment will have some additional specifications to achieve Sophisticated, so it does function somewhat as an Advanced version, but it is really more about execution than taking on different questions. In my mind, a Sophisticated essay will demonstrate upper level learning around originality and synthesis of ideas, as well as using more effective rhetoric and prose style to convey ideas. The pitfall is avoiding treating this as a backhand way of giving A vs. B grades under different names, but I will strive to emphasize the specifications rather than more subjective evaluation, especially in giving feedback for potential revisions.

The other major change involves class participation. In my TV class, I was a bit dismayed that a few students who got A or A– never contributed much in class discussions; although I technically said that attendance would measure participation, there was no real way to implement that. So given the smaller size and more theoretical/analytical bent of this course, I’ve created a tracking system for participation: at the end of each class, I will mark each student that I thought demonstrated active engagement and made productive contributions that day. With a 15 person class, that seems manageable, although we will see if I can be consistent in my tracking.

The final difference involves the use of tokens and flexibility. Last semester, I found that too many students were trying to game the system by handing in weak first drafts and revising them as de facto extensions, or relying too much on tokens to fall behind in their weekly responses. So this semester I’m being more strict with the use of tokens; students get three to use for any of these purposes:

  • Eliminate an absence from their attendance record
  • Count an Unsatisfactory or not completed reading response as Satisfactory
  • Revise and resubmit an Unsatisfactory essay to fulfill Satisfactory expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
  • Revise and resubmit a Satisfactory essay to fulfill Sophisticated expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
  • Submit an essay assignment up to 48 hours late

Unlike last semester, the first revision is not “free,” and each revision will cost a token. If a student uses all three initial tokens and needs to use more for revisions, they can be “purchased” at the cost of one gradation of the final letter grade—thus if a student achieves the expectations for the B bundle, but must revise an essay multiple times and uses four total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course. While this may be a bit harsh for some, it will hopefully discourage procrastination or manipulation of the expectations, but still provide some agency and control for students and reinforce the pedagogical values of transparency and flexibility that students really valued last spring.

Like before, this is an experiment. My primary goal is to encourage students to focus on learning rather than grades, and take more ownership of their education. But I also recognize that this is a very challenging course, both with the highly theoretical content and the quantity of writing, so I expect there will be some bumps along the way. I will hopefully offer updates as we go.


I’ve had a lingering “to be continued” here for a few months, as I promised to report on my experiment with specifications grading from the spring, beyond my first mid-semester update. The delay was first due to the need to wait to process a post-semester survey that we did from my class and another colleague who used a similar approach to grading. Once we got those results, my head was already deep into summer mode of writing deadlines and family fun. But now on the eve of my fall semester starting, I’m ready to return to the classroom and the topic of grading.

In short, all evidence suggests that my experiment last semester was a success, and I’ll be using a similar approach to grading this fall in my course, Theories of Popular Culture. I’ll detail some of my revisions to the approach as customized for that course – a writing-intensive upper-level seminar of 15, rather than an intro-level survey of 30+ students – in another post. But here I’d like to explore how my Television and American Culture course turned out, and offer some reflections on the benefits and limitations of specifications grading.

Continue reading ‘Return to Specifications Grading’


I am tremendously excited to announce that Christian Keathley and I received another Institute for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, allowing us to host two additional years of our videographic criticism workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image, at Middlebury College in 2017 and 2018!!!

The first workshop in 2015, supported by the same NEH grant program, was hugely successful for both participants and conveners, leading to numerous published videographic works and our brief book about the approach. The opportunity to repeat the workshop two more times is wonderful, and we are already thinking about how we will evolve our approach for two new cohorts of participants.

We have already made one major change: in 2015, the workshop was open to any film & media scholar, regardless of degree or rank. However, we received more than 100 applicants for only 12 spots, so we ended up only taking participants who had their Ph.D.s in hand. For these new workshops, we’ve explicitly divided the potential participants:

  • For the June 18 – July 1, 2017, workshop, participants must be enrolled in a graduate program at the time of application (December 2016).
  • For the June 17 – 30, 2018 workshop, participants must have received a Ph.D. by the time of application (December 2017).

We hope dividing the applicant pool this way will allow us to reach a broader range of participants, and customize our content for different audiences.

If you are interested in applying for one of the workshops, information will be available in September 2016 on the workshop website. As of now, the information there is archived from the 2015 workshop, but it should give a good sense as to what we’ll be doing for the next two versions. I’ll post info on this blog as well, when we are ready to accept applications, so stay tuned!




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