Monday, January 7, 2013

Models for Multimedia Writing? They're Right There in the Discipline.

How can we model multimedia production based on genres native to the discipline we are supporting?

As one semester recently wound down, I was winding up for another semester, and I had the chance to sit down with a terrific theater professor. She was teaching playwriting in the coming semester, and she wanted her students do work with multimedia.

So based on some recent experiences, I had two sets of issues around genres I thought could be worked out to support student multimedia authoring in two steps.

First, what is multimedia authoring within the discipline? What genres exist within the discipline? And what kinds of work do they do?

Second, how can we give the students some pre-made forms or genres–specific configurations of formal elements such that students know “how to put together” an assignment?

Since this was a playwriting course, the instructor and I developed some justifications for embedding multimedia writing in a playwriting course–which is ostensibly about “live” theater.

Namely, theater and playwriting are disciplines with their own internal ways of writing and reading.

  1. Theater has always been a combination of written and live elements.
    • What’s written and what’s live are constantly changing–and it will likely to keep changing.
  2. The stage’s physical borders have always been porous, and writers have always played with these borders.
    • Every era’s theater has both used and played with spatial distinctions.
      • Shakespeare had trap doors and balconies.
      • Writers and composers have long used sounds and dialogue “offstage.”
        • Several operas feature ‘heavenly voices’: Aida and Don Carlo to name two.
  3. Theater at its heart involves adaptation.
    • A written play is made new when it's performed.
    • Old plays and stories are re-written. (Shakespeare did mostly adaptations.)
    • A staging is an adaptation.
    • Acting a role interprets and adapts the role to the actors and the production.
  4. Theater was always “multimedia.”
    • There have been special effects and stage illusions.
      • Wagner expected dragons alongside his singing heroes.
  5. While there is still a zero-tech, turn-the-lights-on-and-let-the-actors-work approach, there are also sophisticated multimedia productions.
    • It makes sense to prepare writers for the theater as it actually exists and will exist, as much as for most stripped-down 'poor theater' approach.

So the question of how to embed multimedia in the teaching of playwriting is already given in an understanding of the art and discipline at hand.

  • Theater will still be theater, but the fixed ‘written’ text may be an audiovisual recording.
  • Theatrical performance may also adapt a written text onto a multimedia platform as part of a live performance.

These precepts suggest five implications for bringing multimedia authoring into a theater playwriting course.

  1. Theater students should continue to explore and experiment with the relationship between a written document and a live performance.
  2. There is no reason video and music cannot be part of the ‘written’ elements which performers adapt and interact with live in real time.
  3. Live remote performers–who Skype in, call on cell phones, are brought in by live remote video feeds–are the new ‘offstage.’
  4. Theater students should be learning how to incorporate media in their work, both written and live, whether it’s turning on and off the room lights, directing flashlights at the performers or the walls, playing mp3’s from their phones, etc.
  5. Student who know how to work flashlights and phones and Skype and mp3 players will be better prepared to work with whatever multimedia technology comes next–which we cannot foresee but should expect.

A playwriting course that asks students to write and perform can thus be a space in which different forms of writing and recording–fixed, captured messages, whether written words, moving or still images, sounds or music–become fodder for live performances which may “adapt” or “remix” the fixed, written or recorded text–just the way a live theater performance adapts and remixes a written play.

Theater in its broadest and least-fussy sense already knows many genres which mix recorded and live media with the performance of a written play.

  • Drag queens lip sync to recorded music.
  • Rocky Horror fans act out a live accompaniment to a recorded film musical–: sometimes amateurs perform live right next to filmed professional performances.
  • Singers sometimes perform live to a pre-recorded back-up tape.
  • Samuel Beckett’s play Krapp’s Last Tape revolves a man starting, stopping, listening to and commenting on a tape recording.
  • Lear wanders through a storm that is not only poetic but often also an opportunity for the sound and lighting teams to have a rollicking good time.
  • Increasingly, theater productions incorporate live remote elements.
    • Anastomotic* theater connects two live performances with a digital remote hookup–aka the “new offstage.”

The theatrical modes of adaptation, orchestration, synchronization, pantomime, integration are easy enough to bundle into performing genres which students can base on their written work–the plays they write.

Such genres might be:

  • synchronizing live behavior with a recording–e.g.:
    • one character is pre-recorded and others respond live,
    • the play is recorded and then accompanied by a live performance–maybe just gestures;
  • collocated live performances from at least one external locations–e.g.:
    • some actors perform remotely via videoconferencing software;
  • a live performance embeds and interacts with a recording, possibly including turning it on and off–e.g.,
    • the play might actually involve live actors replaying a prior recorded performance;
  • a visual or audio track accompanies a live performance–e.g.:
    • actors perform a play live but with a music or visual track that is pre-recorded, perhap even giving cues to the live performance.

By using existing genres as models, we can support students in writing using multimedia–writing in its broadest sense. And we can also help an art or discipline (like theater or playwriting) to adapt–even simply to expand upon what it already does.

–Edward R. O’Neill

*An anastomosis names (among other things) a narrow passage between two larger bodies–whether lakes or organs. J. Hillis Miller has used “anastomosis” as a figure for intersubjectivity in fiction. The figure is noticeable in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Making Multimedia Choices: It's Not Whack-a-Mole!

If you think it’s easy to move what you know about, say, prose writing to a new medium–like video–you are wrong.

I recently supported an eager professor and a dozen willing students in a humanities course. The professor and I fashioned a number of ways the students could use video to capture and present their scholarly conversations. Another professor in the role of mentor also pitched in.

Yet for all our efforts–which were not inconsiderable–we could not budge the students from: recording their conversations on video.

The students never got around to using the medium, as we like to say. The professor I was supporting saw it. I saw it. We tried to help the students adapt on their second attempts. We had no luck.

So when we tell students in higher ed to “use the medium,” what do we mean? Do they understand us? Could we explain it better?

  • A painter might use thick paint here and thin paint there.
  • A screenwriter might write one scene without dialogue, another scene as a montage, and another scene as a monologue.
  • A web page might be laid out with a few images, some different sizes and colors of font.

In each case, we expect the intelligent artist, writer or coder to make these formal choices based on specific goals. The person doing the communicating might ask herself:

  • What do I want to communicate?
  • How do I want the recipient to feel?
  • What meanings am I trying to reflect?
  • What formal patterns can I use to reflect those meanings?
  • What kind of position do I want to put the reader in? What do I want to make her do?
  • Etc.

In short, communication in a medium means mapping the formal choices of that medium to one’s goals–specific meanings, strategies, or interactions with the recipient.

In the case of this humanities course, the results were not what we’d hoped for.

  • Some students never made a single edit nor moved the camera.
  • Others made edits and changed camera angles, but there was no particular way the position of the camera interacted with the content of the conversation the students recorded.

So students capable of using paragraphs, introductions, transitions, probably even longer vs. shorter sentences, could not lay their hands on anything similar in the video medium.

Although the students did not succeed in transferring what they already knew to a new platform, I did not blame the students. Rather, I asked myself what I could have done differently.

Some weeks later, I realized what was missing:

(a) any support for the students in making specific formal choices, or
(b) genres–typical combinations of formal choices and meanings in recognizable patterns.

If you don’t help people see where the choices are and make them, the decision points don’t just automatically pop into view. Learning is not Whack-a-Mole: choices just don't pop up into the learner's consciousness; you have to help the learner find the opportunities to practice a new skill.

How to do that–to model and support formal choices in multimedia authoring–is what I’ll write about next time.

–Edward R. O’Neill

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Genres of Multimedia Scholarship: Look to the Discipline

Multimedia Writing in a College Playwriting Course


We often talk about multimedia literacy in higher education. But the devil is in the details.

To be more specific, the “devil” is the discipline–which in higher ed is also the deity, to keep the metaphor going.

By this I mean two things.

  1. The discipline is the deity in higher ed, because the discipline is the reference point for everything inside the discipline.
    • A sentence spoke in a chemistry classroom has an entirely different meaning when spoken in a literature classroom–and vice-versa.
  2. What “writing” means varies by discipline.
    • And so “multimedia writing” will also vary by discipline.

Another way of pointing to the importance of the discipline is to use the word “genre.” We all know about movie genres and literary genres: westerns vs. musicals, gothic novels vs. adventure novels, etc. It may sounds like a trivial thing, but disciplines contain, produce and work upon different genres.

  • A literary analysis is not a lab report.
  • Nor is a literary analysis (usually) a poem.*
  • An accounting statement is not an executive summary.
  • And a scientific article is not a business case is not a poem.

This is obvious. And we take account of it when we have courses and programs like “writing in the major”: that is, opportunities to practice writing in discipline-specific ways, not just argumentation, evidence, introductions, transitions, etc.

But there are further implications. One implication is: when we support many disciplines with the same tools, we run into the problem of genres.

  • If a literary analysis is not a poem, and a poem is not a lab report,
  • then a student blog for an English class is quite different than a blog for a chemistry class.
  • And a student video for a geography class is not the same thing as a student video for a history or kinesiology class.
  • The different ‘statements’ make sense differently depending on the disciplinary context.

We are only beginning to learn what scholarly multimedia writing will look and sound and feel like.

Happily, those on the cutting edge are exploring exaclty the question of scholarly multimedia genres.

Steve Anderson of USC’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy (IML) has written up a few of the genres the IML has observed blossoming in their native soil. Alongside documentaries and argumentative genres, Anderson also observes others. These include:

  • comparative studies which juxtapose one or more quite different media artifacts in a space;
  • works that are structured like a network–web sites or interactive media pieces, for instance;
  • information visualization–now a popular way of presenting data on the web;
  • annotation.

But this list is specific to its context, to its community of multimedia scholar-practitioners, to its micro-discipline, you could say. (Likewise, no two chemistry departments are just alike.)

Moving across disciplines may discover further inflections–as I’ll discuss in future posts.

–Edward R. O’Neill


*One literary critic wrote a book about poetic forms, and in this book, he writes an example of each form which describes the form. So in that case, the literary analysis of, say, a sonnet is itself a sonnet. But as they say: the exception proves the rule.