Media Mirrors: A New Website

28Apr22

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!



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