I continue to find it mind-boggling that people seem to think that a good use of AI tools like ChatGPT is to gather accurate information. Any cursory reading on the topic should explain that ChatGPT is designed to predict language in response to a prompt, not actually present information based on “knowledge” or “intelligence.” I don’t pretend to understand how it really works, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not a reliable alternative to a search engine.

And yet, people keep using it that way. I had an odd experience with it this week in marking student essays: the prompt was to analyze a specific episode of TV (that I provided access to) using two concepts we’d covered in class. One student’s essay was well-written and the analysis was strong, demonstrating a good understanding of the concepts – but the specific moments in the episode they referred to were flat-out wrong, describing moments that never happened (and the essay didn’t discuss what actually did happen). When I met with them to inquire about this, they admitted being pressed for time and instead of watching the (30 minute) episode, they had ChatGPT produce a summary of it for them to analyze – which was completely inaccurate! So the writing and analysis was all the student’s, but they used AI to avoid having to watch TV and hence analyzed an episode that doesn’t exist!

One lesson: never take a short-cut to avoid watching TV! Another more broadly applicable lesson: don’t use AI instead of a search engine! There are many online summaries of this episode that are actually accurate (and still would be much worse than watching the episode), but ChatGPT didn’t look at those. Instead it generated a bunch of words and sentences that sound like they could be feasible accounts of what happened in the episode.

This got me wondering whether ChatGPT could summarize some films and television episodes effectively, and when it would just generate bullshit. As in my last post, where I showed how it invented details about films to analyze racial representation, there might be some instances when it succeeds in generating a feasible summary. Is there a pattern to what would films or episodes work better or worse to summarize? Experiment to follow…

Continue reading ‘More Evidence that AI Excels at Generating Bullshit’


Like many academics, I’ve been seeing a lot of concerns around how AI tools like ChatGPT might impact the work academics do as teachers and scholars. I don’t want to dive too much into those muddy waters, but I saw one post on Mastodon that piqued my interest and led me to do some experimenting. Ryan Cordell, noted digital humanist and literary/print scholar, posted the following thread:

In our lab introducing AI writing to students I encourage them to probe the models—to try & find limit cases & places where the “wires” of the machine become visible. Some things they found…
4. ChatGPT is famously good at synthesis, but it’s often unable to combine critical ideas in new ways. If asked to produce a Marxist analysis of various texts, it often produces one paragraph of Marxist thought & one about the chosen text, but can’t combine the two concepts.

I responded (with a little touch of snark): “I wonder if #4 is a byproduct of the training data. So much “critical writing” is effectively a paragraph of theory and a paragraph of textual description, devoid of actual analysis.”

Ryan wrote back, “It was quite stubborn about keeping the two concepts separate unless we asked about texts about which (I assume) there’s more extant critical writing. It will write a Marxist analysis of Moby Dick, likely channeling/plagiarizing existing writing in the training set, but if you ask for a Marxist analysis of a relatively new TV show you get Marxism then TV show summary/analysis—which makes sense given that it’s just putting words together based on existing words that go together.”

Ryan’s last point is crucial: the AI is not doing any sort of analysis, but rather using a huge dataset of writing (presumably the open web) to predict what’s the best next word to write to fulfill the given prompt. And thus it would make sense that making a coherent simulation of an analysis where there are already good models to emulate in your dataset would be much more effective than trying to invent something without decent precedents to draw upon.

And this got me thinking about running my own experiment to generate examples of film criticism that may expose some of the limits and underlying possibilities of ChatGPT.

Continue reading ‘Some Interesting Limits to AI Film Criticism’

I’ve produced and posted the final video (save the introduction) for my videographic book, The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad. As discussed below, this chapter has one of the most extensive written commentaries, which I’ve reproduced to present and contextualize the video. (All the videos are now available in tentative sequence on my Vimeo showcase.) I hope to finish the introduction by the end of January, and then submit the full manuscript to Lever Press! So this will likely be the last public update on this project for awhile – I hope it is well-received.

Introducing Characters: Lydia and Todd

A particular challenge for an ongoing television series is how to add new characters to its ensemble late into its run. For programs with minimal serialization, such as family sitcoms or police procedural, such introductions are typically made to reinvigorate an ensemble or replace a departing actor, often with mixed results. Probably the most infamous example of such an introduction was Cousin Oliver on the final season of The Brady Bunch, a character shoehorned into the family to provide a burst of youth to counter the aging kids—the failure of this strategy prompted it to be later termed “Cousin Oliver Syndrome” to mock this tendency on family sitcoms (Riesman et. al.). Such a ploy was broadly enough known to audiences as to allow Buffy the Vampire Slayer to mockingly play with the device via the introduction of Buffy’s previously-unmentioned younger sister Dawn in its fifth season, a retcon later explained by supernatural magic (Mittell, Complex TV, 86-7).

For series with more elaborated serialization, adding new characters often involves expanding the scope of the storytelling. One extreme version of this is The Wire, which notably added another institutional realm and an associated large group of characters each season on top of its core portrayal of the Baltimore police and drug criminals featured in the first season (which already included at least 30 significant characters): dock workers in season 2, politicians in season 3, a middle school in season 4, and the Baltimore Sun newspaper in season 5. As I have discussed previously, The Wire embraces a centrifugal approach to storytelling, spreading its fictional scope across an expanding palette with a similarly expansive cast of characters (Mittell, Complex TV). Adding characters to this ongoing storyworld was an ongoing process that becomes regularized throughout its run.

Only a few series follow The Wire’s ever-expanding model, such as Game of Thrones broadening its geographic scope or The Leftovers relocating the main characters each season; instead, most serialized dramas focus on a smaller defined ensemble of characters defined by a single location. A more typical approach can be seen in The Sopranos, where the focus remains consistent on Tony Soprano’s interwoven dual family units of his personal domestic family and professional mafia crime family. Most of that core cast remained constant for all six seasons, with the notable exception of Tony’s mother Livia, who was written out after two seasons due to the death of actress Nancy Marchand; her familial role was largely replaced by the addition of Tony’s sister Janice to the ensemble during the second season. Yet most seasons introduced one or more new characters, primarily as antagonists, rivals, or love interests for Tony: Richie Aprile and Furio Giunta in season 2; Ralph Cifaretto and Gloria Trillo in season 3; Little Carmine Lupertazzi and Carlo Gervasi in season 4; Tony Blundetto and Phil Leotardo in season 5. Most of these characters only last one or two seasons before dying or otherwise leaving the story, allowing their narrative roles to be filled by others to refresh the dramatic stakes.

Introducing new antagonists each season, often referred to as the season’s “big bad” after Buffy’s development and explicit naming of this structure, allows for continued drama and renewed storytelling momentum. Many series, especially those foregrounding crime stories, embrace a similar approach to adding new characters as antagonists each season to raise the dramatic stakes, including Dexter, Justified, The Shield, Boardwalk Empire, and Homeland. In each of these series and more, the addition of new characters work to complicate established relationships and generate new story material to sustain the serialized drama.

Breaking Bad does not follow a seasonal big bad model for the most part. I have argued that the series is structured by a force opposite from The Wire, exhibiting “centripetal complexity” by pulling everything toward the “gravitational center” of Walter White’s psychology and characterization (Mittell, Complex TV, 223). While certainly Walt faces a series of adversaries in his progression from chemistry teacher to drug kingpin, the narrative structure is not designed to foreground these antagonists as in other comparable crime dramas. The closest the series comes to a big bad adversary is Gustavo Fring, who is introduced briefly in season 2 before becoming Walt’s employer and rival; season 4 is the only one that is structured around the defeat of an adversary, as Walt proclaims “I won” in the season’s final moments to signal the end of the Fring era.

This video considers the aftermath of that victory by looking at how season 5 resets its narrative stakes once Walt sits atop the Albuquerque drug world. As with most series, Breaking Bad introduces new characters to create fresh dramatic situations, bringing Lydia Rodarte-Quayle and Todd Alquist into Walt’s orbit and eventually onto his team as part of Heisenberg’s drug empire; neither character serves as the season’s “big bad,” although both get pulled deeper into Walt’s orbit and ultimately die as part of his climactic revenge plot. The video takes a close look at the strategies that the producers use to introduce these characters via writing, performance, and production techniques, offering contrasting dramatic styles in presenting their personalities.

In many ways, this was my most challenging video to finish, as I grappled with the overarching question that troubles so many academic analyses across all formats: “so what?” I knew that I wanted to make a video to address the introduction of new characters, as it is a crucial facet of serial television storytelling, and one that differs from the models developed to analyze films. Murray Smith emphasizes that one crucial facet of characterization is recognition, as viewers need to differentiate a character with narrative significance from an extra or a figure who appears only fleetingly, and films use a range of techniques to help guide audience comprehension (Smith, Engaging Characters). For ongoing television series, this recognition process is even more complex because many characters appear only briefly before disappearing by the next episode, or they might reappear after a longer hiatus unlike anything in a standalone film—for instance, Elliot Schwartz appears in one first season Breaking Bad episode, then reappears only in the two final installments. By charting the ways that Breaking Bad introduces Lydia and Todd as two late-stage characters, I hoped to provide an analytic framework for understanding this process across television storytelling.

However I could not find a way to both explore the specific techniques from this case study in sufficient detail, and argue for the significance of this process for television more broadly without making an overly long video that lost its analytic focus. After playing with many drafts and versions of the video, I decided that to lean into the written component here to provide the broader context and framework for the specific analysis. Each aspect of this chapter aims to embrace what each format does best: the video offers a detailed account of specific moments and choices from the series while conveying the impact and experience for viewers, while the writing situates this analysis in broader contexts of scholarship, history, and comparative strategies between Breaking Bad and other series (as well as reflecting on my own methodology and process). One of my overt goals for this book was to have every video be able to function on its on, distributed through Vimeo and YouTube, coherent and effective (and hopefully enjoyable) on its own terms. I hope that this video meets that bar, even as I know that this written commentary is needed to fully accomplish my critical goals. But that is one of the key benefits of this videographic book format, allowing writing and video to work together in an integrated presentation.

I just returned from a truly exceptional conference: The Theory and Practice of the Video Essay at University of Massachusetts – Amherst. Not only was there the simple joy of attending my first in-person conference in three years, but it was best type of conference: a single-stream of presentations that help to connect and build a community around a shared set of interests. The quality of the presentations were stellar, and the resulting conversations were similarly fantastic. I knew many people in attendance, mostly spanning years of participation in the Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop (hopefully returning in June 2023 – more info on that soon!), and there were many others whom I knew only through online interactions or enjoying their videos from afar. Kudos to organizers Barbara Zecchi & Daniel Pope for making it happen!

I was invited to give one of the keynote presentations at the conference, and I framed my talk around the question “What is a Videographic Book?” I spent much of it discussing my vision for the Lever Press series Videographic Books, which resulted in many people sharing their ideas with me for excellent book-length projects! Naturally I also discussed my own videographic book project, “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad” – I showed a draft of the book’s videographic introduction (which is not yet ready to publish on its own), and debuted the newest video from the book: “Recording Bad.”

One of the key contexts that I discussed regarding this video was its process of origination: unlike many of the chapters in the book, I did not anticipate doing a video on this topic. Instead it emerged as an interesting element while rewatching the series in Adobe Premiere in 2019 – I created a folder for clips involving recordings, and let the idea simmer in the background as I worked on other chapters. I knew I wanted to do a video that featured me directly addressing the camera, mimicking a style fairly common in YouTube video essays, so this seemed like the ideal subject matter to tackle. But I didn’t have much direction on the overall design and point of the piece—until I was struck by a different set of experiences speaking directly into cameras during the pandemic.

As always, feedback is welcomed, especially if there are issues or questions that seem important to address in the written commentary accompanying this somewhat oblique chapter.

Today I had the pleasure of presenting a keynote address at the Television Aesthetics conference at University of Kent in the UK, entitled “Television Aesthetics, Videographic Criticism, and the Case of Breaking Bad.” Well, not exactly “at” the conference – my Tuesday flight out of Vermont was so delayed that it prohibited me from getting to England in time to make my talk! So we pivoted to Plan B and I gave a Zoom talk, which went well enough, but it would have been far nicer to actually attend my first in-person academic event in over two years…

As part of my talk, I showed four videos** from my Breaking Bad videographic book, including the debut of my newest video, “Sympathizing with Storytelling in Breaking Bad,” which I made specifically for this conference. The video directly engages with questions around narrative sympathy and character engagement in ways that build on the excellent work of two of the conference hosts at Kent, Murray Smith and Margrethe Bruun Vaage. Given the more academic nature of the conference, the tone of the video skews a bit more scholarly in its approach and tone than many of the other chapters in the project. Let me know what you think!

** The other videos I screened were “Focusing on Hank (& Marie)” to exemplify close visual analysis, “Sounds of Silent Mike” to center on sound, and “Knock About,” which I presented as a predecessor to this new video that offers a distinctly different rhetorical take on similar material. Unfortunately, due to a Zoom glitch, “Sounds of Silent Mike” had the bottom captions cut-off at the conference screening – thus those viewers only saw/heard the clips compiled in the piece and could not read my analytical text. This problem was only revealed in the Q&A, as they thought it was just an experimental compilation of clips of Mike being quiet – I wish I could have had more of a conversation about how that worked for them!

I am excited to launch a new project called Media Mirrors: Critical Analysis of Film & TV and Film & TV! This website collects undergraduate student writing that has emerged from my course Key Concepts in Film & Media Criticism. The site emerged from a decision many years ago to encourage my students to write papers that would be aimed at regular readers, not just me, and the process leading to the publication of the site has been long and winding.

This project emerged from work I was doing around 2015 around the Digital Liberal Arts – one of the key insights emerging out of those conversations concerned the power of getting students to create scholarly work that was addressing a public audience. That has been one of my main goals in embracing videographic criticism (both as teacher and creator), and I began thinking how best to pivot my writing pedagogy to encourage students to write for the public. I was also collaborating with a group of Middlebury colleagues on a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to support curricular innovation to better prepare students to produce digital capstone projects, where I worked to help students write in a rich online multimedia environment.

A key light bulb moment for me was when Middlebury hosted UC Berkeley professor Scott Saul to discuss his digital history innovations in 2018. In addition to his great online research projects, Scott presented about his curated student project about The Godfather, where students contributed short essays to a larger prismatic website about the seminal film in a course about America in the 1970s. Hearing and reading about Scott’s process and successes in cultivating online writing practices for students crystalized what I wanted to do for my own project: curate a website for my students’ critical writing about film and television.

I embedded this project within a course that I taught for the first time in Spring 2020, taking over an upper-level writing-intensive course on film criticism from a retiring colleague. I reframed the course to include film and television criticism, and had students dedicate all of their semester to developing a single lengthy piece of critical writing over a number of stages, with the intent that I would publish accomplished works on a curated website. Of course “Spring 2020” meant that plans soon went awry, and I gave up the hopes of getting truly polished works out of the class, and hoped to revisit the planned website when I next taught the course.

In Fall 2021, I taught the class again with a new angle: all of the films and television we would watch were about films and TV themselves. I thought such reflexivity was well-suited the concepts we’d explore, and also allowed me to screen some of my all-time favorite films & TV to teach (including Singin’ in the Rain, The Player, Adaptation., Barton Fink, Mulholland Drive, and UnREAL). I also added the stipulation that students must choose their own case studies about a similarly reflexive film or television program. Here is the core writing assignment I gave my students:

The main assignment for the course is a long-form writing project: each student is to complete a piece of online critical writing for a public audience focused on a particular film or TV program of their choosing, totaling at least 4,000 words. The analysis must engage with at least three of the main units in the course (textuality, genre, narrative, authorship), and use the multi-modal possibilities of online writing by incorporating images, clips, and/or digital navigation strategies, as well as links & citations to external resources. While the object of criticism is left for students to decide, all films and television programs should be narrative works that are about films or television—Professor Mittell has compiled an extensive list of examples to choose from.

This project will develop throughout the semester, with specific components due at assigned dates. These components will be assigned throughout the semester, including a proposal, an annotated bibliography, and at least 3 modules of the critical analysis covering the concepts of textuality, genre, narrative, and authorship. Additionally, each student will work in an “editorial team” of 3-4 students who will read, offer feedback, and edit each other’s writing. This development process will be done in Google Docs, composing, editing, and revising in real time. The final version of the piece will be formatted for a new website, with the strongest essays being published in an open-access, publicized site for a general readership.

Despite the ongoing challenges of COVID, students rose to the occasion and produced some great pieces of critical writing! I’ve selected four (out of the class roster of 15) to publish here, covering All that Jazz, Boogie Nights, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and 30 Rock – there were other strong essays as well, but those students were not able to commit to making the necessary edits for publication (yet). I’m also including one exemplary piece from Spring 2020, Michael Frank’s essay on One Cut of the Dead, which coincidentally was about a highly-reflexive film – Michael’s project introduced me to this amazing movie, which I added to the syllabus and taught his essay (and encourage everyone to watch it with as little contextual information as possible and then read his essay!). I’ve also published an excerpt from my 2017 book Narrative Theory and ADAPTATION., which obviously pertains to the theme. I will continue to add to the site as my students produce similarly great writing, hopefully in the Spring 2023 iteration of the course.

I hope this site proves to be useful, whether for readers seeking out insightful criticism on these topics or other teachers looking for inspiration in engaging students in online writing. I welcome your feedback on the project or individual pieces, as well as suggestions for other films and TV to add to my master list!

I’m excited to share the next video in my Breaking Bad project, “The Sounds of Silent Mike,” focused on fan-favorite character Mike Ehrmantraut. This was a nice palate cleanser for me, after spending around a month laboring on my last video, “Breaking Genre“—this video only took two days of editing to produce, as its scope, speed, and parameters were much more manageable. I hope the efforts were worth it.

Below is the video, followed by a short contextualization that I intend to publish with it as part of the larger “Chemistry of Character” book (I recommend reading it after watching the video). One additional thought I had in putting this together (and in conversation with Chris Keathley after he watched a draft) is how this video might function (or not) as “standalone scholarship”—many of the videos in the project are designed to stand-alone, and could even be published as a journal article at a place like [in]Transition (“Focusing on Hank (and Marie)” was in fact published in Mise-en-scène.). Some of the other videos I’ve made are clearly less scholarly and more experimental, such as my TV Dictionary entry or “Knock About” piece, both of which function as more interstitial videos between more elaborated chapters. “The Sounds of Silent Mike” is more substantive and analytical than those, but arguably less elaborated than something like “Breaking Genre” or “Walter’s Whiteness.” So I’m curious how people might characterize this piece in terms of norms of scholarship, criticism, and publishing—is it a standalone academic video essay or more a part of a larger project? I welcome your thoughts and comments on those definitions, and anything else arising from this video!

And one last bit of news before the video: I’ve been working with Lever Press to develop a new book series called Videographic Books, designed to publish long-form audiovisual scholarship like this Breaking Bad project. If you have something in the works, check out the page and reach out to me with your idea!


One challenge of making videographic work about Breaking Bad is how to convey one of the program’s most important facets: patience. For a series known for high-tension action sequences, a good deal of time is spent portraying very little happening: characters waiting for their next move, engaging in a slow-moving tedious process, or otherwise being more dormant than typical for television drama. But videographic criticism is built upon editing things down, distilling them to key moments and juxtapositions that aims to move quickly and efficiently. Thus it is a challenge to portray the temporal patience represented on Breaking Bad, and the patience demanded of its audience, in a video essay.

“The Sounds of Silent Mike” tries to tackle this challenge by placing the focus on sound, especially Mike’s nonverbal sounds and silences. The goal is by calling attention to such silences, viewers of the video are attuned to the presence of patience in watching Mike—whether he is skipping stones in a river or methodically clearing a building of cartel enemies. For viewers of the series, our memories and impressions of characters are often tied to specific sounds, and for Mike, this signature ranges from silence to short words, sighs, and grunts, all presented with a sense of patience.

While it is never explicitly mentioned in the video, Mike’s characterization stands in contrast with other characters in the series largely through their different approaches to sound. This contrast is most stark compared to Walter White and Saul Goodman (and Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul), both of whom are noted by their propensity to speak their way out of problems, often impatiently. Both Walt and Saul/Jimmy are blessed with the ability to convincingly lie at will, and they both use that talent to escape tough situations. In contrast, Mike often accomplishes his goals in silence, whether quietly taking down enemies in a warehouse or escaping the cops in a playground.

Of course, Mike’s voice and non-verbal sounds are dependent on Jonathan Banks’s performance, building on both his natural gravely tone and his interpretation of Mike’s sonic presence. The video does not try to differentiate what elements come from Banks versus the writers’ narrative designs versus the production (and post-production) team’s efforts—clearly these techniques and choices reinforce each other, creating a distinctive sonic footprint. In total, this video aims to make us aware of the net effect of these elements, both in constituting Mike’s character and contributing to a larger appreciation of the program’s use of sound.

Earlier today, I debuted my newest video essay at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference – alas held online rather than in Chicago as planned. It was part of a great panel on “Genre in the Age of Transmedia,” where the presentations included both typical papers and videographic pieces. I screened this new video:

In thinking about genre, I said a few words after the screening about genres of video essays. Part of the design of my larger audiovisual book project, “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad,” is an attempt to explore a wide range of videographic styles, modes, techniques, and genres. Previously posted videos include works that follow norms of fan video, supercuts, deformations, and more explanatory scholarship. I hope that the final book’s wide range of styles and genres helps provide a kind of exemplary taxonomy of the possibilities of videographic criticism, as well as pointing toward modes that have been as yet unexplored.

“Breaking Genre” was produced with the goal of following a particular “YouTube-style” of video essay, embodying energetic and playful voiceover-driven argumentation (hence embedding my YouTube post rather than the typical Vimeo one). In particular, I was inspired to emulate the amazing work of Grace Lee, my favorite YouTuber, while acknowledging that I’ve certainly fallen short of her heights. (If you haven’t seen her spectacular “What Isn’t a Video Essay?“, get on that!) In many ways, this style is outside my scholarly comfort zone, but I found that it allowed me to embrace creative facets that typically are absent from most scholarship: a playful sense of humor, absurdist asides, running gags, and a manic energetic performance. I’m quite happy with the product that emerged in that vein – but it took a lot of work! So let me offer my utmost respect to Grace and other YouTubers who work in this style on a regular basis…

Last week I shared the epic five-part miniseries “Skyler’s Story,” retelling Breaking Bad from Skyler White’s perspective via a hybrid of women’s melodrama and experimental dual projection film. It took me weeks of work to assemble the 160-minutes from hours of footage, and thus I certainly felt a sense of accomplishment in completing the series, and thought that I would be relieved to be done with Skyler’s portion of my larger Breaking Bad project. But I had more to say.

As I was working on the Skyler videos, my colleague David Miranda Hardy asked if I might make a “synopsis” version of the miniseries, as certainly most viewers would not take the time to consume the set of videos in their entirety.** That idea kept bouncing around in my head as I completed and posted the series, and I tried to envision the role of a shorter Skyler video in the larger project. The approach that took hold was to capture the harrowing emotions that abound for Skyler, especially in the final season, and create a video that both reminds viewers of her story and creates a nightmarish non-narrative viewing experience. Thus I present “Skyler’s Nightmare”:

In editing this video, my first inspiration was to try create an experience resembling the final act of Mulholland Drive for Skyler, where the narrative fractures and her identity is upended. I soon realized that trying to renarrativize her story out of series footage was not going to work, but I did aim to capture a Lynchian affect as inspired by both Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks: The Return. Then Sharon Van Etten’s music came up on shuffle, and I realized that her voice captured exactly what I was going for: “Your Love is Killing Me” was Skyler’s perfect musical accompaniment, and the fact that Van Etten briefly appeared in TP:TR was an ideal intertextual link.

I tried not to embrace as much of a pure “fanvid” aesthetic as I had strived for in “Poor Jesse“; instead I interspersed more dialogue and scenes from the series alongside Van Etten’s music, decentering the lyrics a bit more than for Jesse’s Wilco song. The final 20 minutes of “Skyler’s Story” episode five struck me as the most powerful part of the miniseries, culminating her arc with the climax of Breaking Bad‘s masterpiece episode “Ozymandias,” and thus I built this edit around that episode and Skyler’s other harrowing classic “Fifty-One”—both of which were majestically directed by Rian Johnson.

Thanks to both David and Ariel Avissar for their feedback on this video—both suggested some (quite different) major rethinking that I mostly refused, so I take full responsibility for its lingering flaws!

** A quick note: more than a week after posting “Skyler’s Story,” I looked at the viewership stats—not surprisingly, they are quite low and dwindle as the series progresses. (As of this moment, the final episode has gotten only 9 views and only 1 completion!) I’m not surprised or disappointed (much) by this, as I always new that this part of the project would be of interest to a comparatively niche audience. But if you think it sounds interesting at all, please check them out!

From the earliest conception of my audiovisual book, “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad,” I imagined that I would do a video on Skyler White, with the goal of situating her story at the narrative center of the series. In the first project proposal back in 2018, I wrote this chapter summary: “Skyler’s Story: Walt’s wife is central to the unfolding narrative, serving as his goal (to provide for his family), his foil (obstructing his criminal plans), and his collaborator; this video retells Skyler’s story via her experiences of his actions, and considers her often-hated persona in a new light.”

Today I’m excited to share the results of many months of work with the debut of “Skyler’s Story: A Videographic Miniseries.” Beneath the fold, I share both the first video in the series, and a draft of the textual component that will accompany the videos in the audiovisual book. Today is Monday, and thus I’m posting the first episode; each morning (EST) for the rest of this week, I will add another episode to the post, with the entire five-episode series posted by Friday, February 11. It is up to you whether you space out your viewing via a serialized daily ritual (purposely evoking the norms of the American daytime soap opera), or wait to watch all the episodes back-to-back in a deep dive into Skyler’s story.

However you choose to watch (although I do recommend using headphones and watching on a large monitor), I thank you for your time, and welcome all feedback on the videos and/or written component. Enjoy a healthy dose of Skyler!

Continue reading ‘Skyler’s Story: A Videographic Miniseries’

As my blog has become more intermittent over the past few years, one topic seems to still get lots of traffic: rethinking grading. I first started experimenting with grading (and writing about it) around five years ago, and I’m proud to say that I have not “graded” an assignment since! But the ways that I’ve practiced ungrading has changed a fair amount and warrants revisiting.

Back in 2016, my approach to ungrading was focused on specifications grading, the system of evaluating every assignment as Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory in meeting the assignment’s outlined specifications. I have continued using that system for my introductory Television & American Culture course, where a comparatively high number of students (around 35 each semester, which is “large” for Middlebury) and a large amount of content to cover makes it (mostly) effective. During COVID times, I shifted the course to include more remote instruction, including recorded lecture videos (off-set by reducing the length of in-person scheduled meetings) and numerous asynchronous “engagement activities” that students can choose from to demonstrate their ongoing engagement with the material. Even as I taught the course fully in-person in Fall 2021, I retained a lot of the online components to allow more flexibility for when students may have to miss class due to illness (which happened regularly) or otherwise had trouble keeping up with the regular workload during times of high stress and uncertainty—my guiding values in course design is to prioritize student agency, flexibility, and transparency, and this system emerged from that foundation.

However, I’m planning on rethinking some of this course’s structure the next time I teach it in Spring 2023. Some students seemed to treat the flexible micro-assignments too much as “boxes to check” on their bingo cards rather than opportunities to engage in the material in thoughtful ways—even with low-stakes Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grading, many were still driven more by the extrinsic motivation to accumulate points rather than to dig into the topics, and I spent too much time replying to messages about points and deadlines, rather than ideas . So I’ll likely reduce the number of engagement activities and design them to be more meaningful and… “engaging.” I also need to shift the timing for the final essay so that it doesn’t fall amidst the crunch of finals, leading too many students to under-perform and sacrifice opportunities for feedback and revision. And I am going to read more about labor-based grading to see if I can adapt some of those approaches to suit this course design. But I’m certainly not going back to grading assignments!

While specifications grading has remained a mostly effective system for my introductory course, I found that it did not work in my other classes. In 2016, I wrote about redesigning one of my advanced seminars with specifications grading, and I realized that I never followed-up to reflect on how it worked. In short, it didn’t. The model of numerous small assignments grouped into tiered bundles for final grades doesn’t really work for an advanced writing-intensive seminar, and the effective pedagogy within the course around both theoretical content and writing seemed completely detached from the regimented counting of assignments and outcomes. So I knew that I needed another way to determine grades for my seminars, which is most of my teaching outside of the introductory course.

Thus the next time I taught the course in Fall 2019, I fully embraced the ungrading model that I had been reading about, largely from Jesse Stommel and later in Susan Blum’s book, as well as hearing from colleagues who had similarly abandon traditional grading. Spoiler: it was a huge success, and I’ve adopted it for every other seminar I’ve taught since. Here’s the explanation of ungrading from that first syllabus, which I’ve left mostly intact in future semesters:

This course uses an unconventional approach for assessing student learning roughly termed “ungrading.” You will not receive a “grade” for any single assignment, with only a final course grade registered into Banner [our student record system]. While Professor Mittell will register that grade, he will not assign it—you will. Such self-grading means that students are fully responsible for their own learning, and it is meant to fully sever the link between that learning and the “outcome” of grades. This grade will emerge through ongoing conversations between each student and Professor Mittell; while he reserves the right to alter the grade that a student assigns, it is a sign of mutual trust and shared responsibility for learning that he does not anticipate doing so.

Even though there will not be grades, there will be lots of feedback, evaluation, assessment, and revision—these will all hopefully be channeled toward maximizing learning. Students will create an individual learning plan, write self-reflections on their learning, meet with both peers and Professor Mittell to discuss their progress, and undertake revisions based on feedback. Since all students who pass the course will have achieved the goals for College Writing, the expectations for success are quite high. In exchange for students’ hard work, Professor Mittell agrees to take however much time is needed to ensure students understand expectations and practices, and are poised to succeed to their desired goals. His goal is to help each student achieve their learning goals, and to be transparent about expectations for learning throughout the semester.

Students were a bit skeptical of this approach, as having that much agency and flexibility was quite novel, and many thought there must be a catch—given that each of them arrived at an elite college via a system where maximizing grades is seen as the ends, not the means, this approach produced some serious culture shock. But after giving a brief overview in the first week, I stopped talking about grades and focused on the material and writing assignments (another drawback of the specifications grading approach is that since it is complicated and unconventional, you need to spend a good deal of time explaining and reviewing it, as students want to “get it right” – even as I try to decenter grades, I end up discussing them a lot). In this ungraded seminar, whenever students asked about grades, I simply said, “focus on the material and we’ll discuss your grade at the end of the semester.”

And that’s what we did. Students did a brief assignment for the first week, writing a “Statement of Learning Intentions”: they were asked to read through the syllabus and submit a short reflection “that outlines what they hope to learn through this course, and how they hope to accomplish those goals.” Then at the end of the semester, they submitted another reflection essay, looking back at their initial statement, reviewing the course learning goals, and reflecting on their own engagement throughout the course. These two documents became the basis for individual conferences that I had with each student to conclude the semester, where we discussed what they learned in depth and dived into their writing projects. Each conference concluded with me asking, “So, what grade do you think best reflects your learning?”, as guided by these learning goals from the syllabus:

The course design is based around a series of core learning goals, assembled in a hierarchy of sophistication. Students will highlight their own learning goals from this list, as well as devise their own. These are roughly grouped in tiers that correspond to expected grade levels, with each student expected to reflect their particular goals via written and conversational reflection.

All students who pass the course (C) will demonstrate the ability to:

– Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of popular culture

– Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to examine 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 accomplishment (B) will also demonstrate the ability to:

– Analyze popular culture with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections to theoretical models, different examples and cultural contexts

– Engage in serious conversation about often fraught topics with an ethos of mutual respect and generosity

Students who achieve the highest level of accomplishment (A) will also demonstrate 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, and provide strong support to peers to facilitate our learning community

These conferences proved to be one of my favorite pedagogical activities I’ve ever done, providing real closure on the semester and a chance for substantive conversation about a student’s learning. We typically get fully engaged in the course content and student writing that when I bring up the inevitable, it feels like a disruption: students don’t really want to talk about the grade either! They typically hem and haw about needing to sum everything up with a letter that feels so reductive (welcome to the worst part of grading!), and then tentatively present a grade, or often a range of two options. We go back and forth a little, but usually I enter the grade they suggested into my spreadsheet, and they depart with a real sense of closure.

This approach to ungrading appeared to be quite successful to me and seemingly to my students as well, and I have adopted it for all of my other courses since: Videographic Film & Media Studies, Key Concepts in Film & Media Criticism, and my department’s senior tutorial that mentors senior thesis projects. It proved to work well with both in-person and teleconferenced meetings, and has helped all of these classes focus on learning rather than assessment. These closing conferences are really the highlight of the semester, as I come away impressed with most students’ learning and their own articulation of their engagement with the material. I’ve found that students are typically honest about their struggles and successes, and I can usually help emphasize the latter in a way that leaves them feeling good about the course.

Whenever I discuss this ungrading approach with colleagues, they usually want to talk about what grades students give themselves. Honestly, this is the least interesting part of the approach to me—I want to focus on how it facilitates learning, builds community, and encourages reflection. But since academia has put so much stock in the outcome of grades being the marker of “rigor” and student success, that ends up being the focus for many. So far, the grade distribution in my ungraded seminars closely matches the breakdown from my traditionally graded days, with a bit of a shift upward but still a solid range of grades from A to B– (in these classes, Cs or lower have always been quite rare, due to students not completing significant work). My seminar this past fall had significantly higher grades, but that was an indication of a great group of students who did excellent work (more about that work in a forthcoming post)—this is a clear case of “learning inflation,” not “grade inflation”!

Before trying this approach, I’d read that self-assignment leads to students often suggesting lower grades than faculty feel are appropriate, and that has been my general experience. I go into each meeting with a ballpark sense of what grade feels most appropriate to me, and sometimes our reflective conversation shifts that sense (almost always upward, as students can demonstrate deep engagement via these conversations); students’ self-grades are almost always at or slightly below my assessed level. When students undershoot my assessment, I can articulate their strengths, hopefully helping students value their own work more, and acknowledging that I recognize their efforts—since such low assessments are often from students who lack confidence or struggle with extraneous factors, such conversations feel impactful.

The ungrading literature also commonly mentions that women and students of color can undersell their accomplishments, while white guys tend to self-inflate. In my very limited sample size, I have not seen that. My most memorable moment around this was in a conference with a white female student who had done solid but unexceptional work throughout the semester, and I’d come to our meeting with a B+ in mind. In our conversation, she asserted that she thought she’d earned an A; when I offered a little hesitation, she proceeded to go through the learning goals to highlight her hard work, her growth, and her progress—and I was convinced that her learning process earned an A, even if her essays were not As in my conventional rubric. Such self-advocacy and reflection seems like an important outcome for students whose perspectives are structurally marginalized in academia, and I do what I can to acknowledge such contexts and encourage those students.

Through my ungrading practices over the past two years, I have tried to let go of the conventional rubrics I bring to these conferences. I try not to think of the grade as the culmination of my work with the student that semester, but rather a reporting requirement that my institution imposes on that work. I don’t approach these conversations to police the grades students assign themselves—if I come to a conversation with a pre-assessed grade of B, and a student makes the case for a B+, I enter the B+ into the spreadsheet. One of the byproducts of my turn to ungrading is that I’ve come to an important realization: this does not matter to me. I have absolutely no investment in keeping the class GPA below some arbitrary number, nor making sure that student grades somehow are “true” to an abstract standard. I want the grade to indicate the student’s sense of their own learning, but once it’s entered into the college’s system, that letter means nothing to me. What matters is their learning and our relationship, and I’ve tried to make these letters get out of the way of what really counts.

Thus I plan to continue this ungrading approach for all subsequent smaller courses, including a first-year seminar in Fall 2022—it should be quite interesting to see how students take to ungrading in their very first college course. I’ve thought about adopting ungrading for my large intro course, but I’m not convinced that I can do it in a way that maintains what works best—the intensive feedback, ongoing conversations, and final conferences—while ensuring that students remain engaged through the amount of material that the course covers. I have a colleague who ungrades his intro course, and I know other faculty like Susan Blum do the same for even larger courses. So maybe that will be the next step on my journey…

If you’re an academic who’s made it this far and are intrigued, I highly recommend reading more from Jesse Stommel and see how this approach might fit with your own courses. I hope to see more fellow travelers on this journey away from grading!

It’s been more than two years since I posted to this blog, but I’m back with some good news.

Obviously, it’s been a not-great couple of years of silence, although comparatively I have little to complain about personally or professionally. Things have sucked, but far less for me than for many people. But for 2022, I hope to try to make things suck less in part by communicating more – hence, back on the blog! (And if you want to pretend that I’m not reviving this throwback format and started a trendy newsletter instead, feel free to get an email subscription to the blog in the right sidebar…)

I write today with one big bit of good news gesturing toward the future, and a few smaller updates from the last couple of years. Today’s big news is that I received a NEH/Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication to support my academic leave for Spring and Summer 2022, as I’ll be working on my audiovisual book, “The Chemistry of Character on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul“! Dedicated readers might remember that I’ve been working on this project for awhile, launched during my last leave in 2018. Back then, it was solely focused on Breaking Bad, and I had ambitions to finish the project in 2020. However, 2020 had other ideas. So now I’m back on leave and tackling the project, which has expanded to include the prequel.

Back in 2018, I also applied for the NEH/Mellon fellowship (twice, actually), and despite the fact that the reviewer comments were uniformly excellent, I did not get funding. This year, I applied again, knowing that the odds were slim, so the news of my award just before Christmas was a huge surprise. Beyond my own personal pride and excitement, I am particularly gratified for what it signals that the NEH would fund this project—this fellowship specifically supports scholarship that results in a digital publication, spanning a wide range of fields and approaches. But based on the descriptions of funded projects, most work would be considered fairly “traditional” in terms of humanities methodologies and topics: digital editions of notable literary texts, history monographs with embedded multimedia, and the like. I presumed that the main barrier for projects like mine getting funding (given the reviewer praise) was that the larger NEH board was skeptical of either television studies as a worthwhile subfield of the humanities, videographic criticism as a legitimate mode of scholarship,** or (most likely) both. Thus I regard this award less as a single success for me than a broader signal of these dual legitimacies, and hopefully a sign that there are more opportunities for such work to be supported going forward!

** I should note that the NEH has certainly supported videographic criticism previously, particularly in funding our Scholarship in Sound & Image workshops. But those grants were through the Office of Digital Humanities, which tends to be more open to experimentation that the main NEH Fellowship program.

To celebrate the launch of my leave and fellowship, I made the following short video as part of the larger project, as well as a contribution to Ariel Avissar’s videographic TV Dictionary collection. These videos follow the straightforward parameters of choosing a word and exploring the juxtaposition between the word’s definitions and clips from a television series. Given the focus of my book, “character” was an obvious choice:

This piece joins the other videos I’ve published as part of the audiovisual book in progress – keep an eye out for more videos posting there in the coming months!

As promised, I have a few other updates and news to share from the past two years:

Speaking of the Scholarship in Sound & Image workshop, we had to cancel our scheduled workshops for 2020 and 2021, but are optimistically planning to run one for June 2022 (with required vaccinations, of course). If you are interested in coming to Vermont for “videocamp” to learn to make video essays, the application deadline is February 1.

One of the first COVID cancellations to hit me personally was SCMS in April 2020. It was particularly disappointing because it meant that Christian Keathley and I were not able to attend the conference to receive the society’s first Innovative Pedagogy Award, which we won for our collaborative work running the workshop, teaching videographic criticism undergraduates, and publishing our pedagogical work. We did get these snazzy awards mailed to us though…

While my research productivity during the COVID years has been excusably weak, I have had a few publications released during the blog’s unplanned hiatus:

  • The revised edition of How to Watch Television was released just as COVID shut things down in Spring 2020 (again, another opportunity to celebrate at SCMS was lost). For this new edition, Ethan Thompson and I solicited 21 new chapters, each analyzing an episode or two of television to exemplify a critical approach—we gathered all new contributors (beyond me & Ethan), particularly trying to find work focused on a diverse array of programs and topics. We’re really proud of the results, and reports are that the new chapters work well in the classroom! We left around half of the original essays in the book, and as a bonus, moved all the “retired” first-edition essays to NYU Press’s website for open access. My own contribution to the new book is a chapter on Better Call Saul as a “prestige spinoff,” considering the tensions between televisual legitimacy and derivative work.
  • The peer-reviewed journal article is not a form I’m particularly invested in, as most of my shorter-form writing tends to be for book projects (or once upon a time, blog posts!). But one of the publications I am most proud of came out in 2021 in the journal Digital Humanities Quarterly as part of a theme issue on audiovisual digital humanities: “Deformin’ in the Rain: How (and Why) to Break a Classic Film.” A sequel of sorts to my chapter “Videographic Criticism as a Digital Humanities Method,” this new essay expands my thoughts on the possibilities of videographic deformations to unlock new ways of engaging with media. The essay contains more than a dozen examples of deformations of Singin’ in the Rain, and written commentary on the processes and outcomes of these experiments. If videos like this intrigue you, definitely check out the essay!

Beyond that book and essay (which required a level of labor rivaling a short book!), my other work is either still in-progress, or the less tangible realm of teaching, chairing a department, and parenting during a pandemic. It’s been quite a couple of years! But I hope to keep this blog updated with some more thoughts about ungrading, sharing some of my students’ excellent work as writers and videographic critics, and new videographic content of my own (plus some of the “just TV” thoughts in the site’s title – maybe with my reaction to the upcoming conclusion to Station Eleven?). Stay tuned!

In the spirit of the season, I am pleased to announce a gift to anyone who wants it: a new open access, multimedia site, The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy, available at videographicessay.org. This site collects both previously-published and new versions of writings by Christian Keathley, Catherine Grant, and me, as well as numerous examples of videographic work. We encourage anyone interested in videographic criticism to use this site in classes, scholarship, and personal development – and let us know if you have ideas to help the site grow and flourish!

The website emerged directly from the summer videographic workshop, Scholarship in Sound & Image, that Christian Keathley and I have been offering at Middlebury for the past few years. We are now accepting applications for June 2020, so we encourage faculty, graduate students, and academic professionals to apply if they want to learn more about this approach to scholarship – and spend two intense and rewarding weeks in Vermont this summer. I hope to see some of you there!

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!

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