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U. of I. course teaching students to 'harness powers of video and writing'

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


Maria Lovett and Joseph Squier
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Documentary filmmaker turned doctoral student Maria Lovett and art and English professor Joseph Squier have created a "narrative media" course called "Writing With Video" that appeals to a wide range of students.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — College students in a new composition course are mixing their metaphors, but that’s their assignment this semester.

The undergraduates in Art 199, a “narrative media” course, are learning to combine two communication formats – writing and video. Their challenge in what has been described as an “utterly unique” course is to portray, persuade and visually argue using traditional rhetoric as a foundation, and a host of new user-friendly “inscription technologies” like iMovie as vehicles.

Whether keeping electronic journals or creating scripts, developing storyboards or shooting and editing videos, the students from at least six different majors in Joseph Squier’s “Writing With Video” (WWV) course are being taught how to “harness the powers of video and of writing” and “to use video and other forms of electronic discourse as a powerful rhetorical medium,” Squier said.

Squier, a professor of art and English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Maria Lovett, a New York documentary filmmaker turned doctoral student, conceived of the course and are team-teaching it this semester, after having taught a prototype of it last semester. Four sections of the class will be offered in the fall semester as Art 250, Advanced Composition. Apple Computer has provided major funding in the form of laptop computers for the students.

WWV is “utterly unique,” Squier said. “I know of no other equivalent anywhere.”

A few writing studies programs around the country are teaching media rather “ineptly,” Squier said, and some art departments are “patching” writing into their studio courses, “but no one is combining the disciplines the way that WWV does.”

“Witness the players,” Squier said. They are a studio art professor, a documentary filmmaker working on a doctorate in educational policy studies, and two graduate students in writing studies. The School of Art and Design and the Center for Writing Studies sponsor the course.

The times are not only ripe for such a course, they demand it, the professor said.

“Electronic media is playing an increasingly important role in today’s communication landscape. Students who understand visual time-based communication and have robust writing skills will have a competitive advantage in the coming decades.”

Consider the role time-based visualization now plays in many areas of scientific research, Squier said, or how video is used in popular culture to inform and persuade.

“Chemists are using visualization techniques to engineer new drugs. Lawyers are using multimedia to argue cases. Entrepreneurs are researching new markets by collecting data on videotape. Social scientists increasingly archive video as qualitative data. MBAs are incorporating images and sound into business plans in order to bring their ideas to life and find investors.”

Squier’s students don’t need much convincing of the importance of video. Born into a visual age, they sense the importance of being familiar with its tools, Squier said.

“They see this course as highly relevant to communicating effectively in the world they are entering,” Squier said. “They seem quite cognizant that in the real world, communication is increasingly digital, network- and screen-based, and hybridized in form – that is, image-, text-, sound- and time-based.”

The course, according to its online syllabus, “engages students in a comprehensive exploration of video as a rhetorical narrative medium, with emphasis on the actual production of video work. Directed writing is integrated into all aspects of the production process, and is an integral part of the process of thinking, problem-solving and creating.”

“What is central to our philosophy,” Squier said, “is that students do extensive writing that is integrated into the process of building their video work. Our goal is to present video production and the writing process as equally creative and intellectually rigorous.

“We believe that when these two processes are fused into an integrated whole, something synergistic occurs – the writing feeds the video, which feeds back into the writing.”

The course is rigorous. The syllabus says: “You should expect to spend as much as six hours a week outside of class on projects. Each week you will read, write, shoot and edit. Your creative and intellectual skills will be challenged and stretched.”

Being technical and experimental, the course poses a unique set of challenges. But Squier, for one, admits to liking situations that are “close to the edge of the cliff.”

“There’s always the possibility that this thing could unravel. We’re making this up as we go along, and sometimes it happens – we do go over the cliff, especially with the technology.”

In all of his work – whether developing a new class, doing research on rhetoric or studio work in photography, or serving as art director for Ninth Letter, the young prize-winning arts and literary journal produced and published by the U. of I., Squier is guided by the belief that communication is changing all the time.

“Rhetoric is written, transmitted and received differently in the 21st century than it was in previous centuries, particularly the 19th and much of the 20th,” he said. “In some respects it is profoundly different: consider globalization and the compression of time and space.

“But in other respects, we are going back to the future,” he said. “Technology is moving us closer to our cultural roots: images and the spoken word.

“Print is not dead,” he said, “but in today’s world, it rarely exists in a pure form. Increasingly, rhetorical messages are being built utilizing multiple forms and modes.”

Simply put, “We live in the age of ‘The Visual,’ ” Squier said. “All of our
discourses – information and entertainment, propaganda and persuasion – are coming off the printed page and re-appearing on screens of various sizes.”

Squier is excited about being part of the new world of communication.

“I came to the U. of I. and I’ve stayed because I feel that I’ve been given an opportunity to train the leaders of the next generation – not just pass people through a degree mill,” he said.

“I derive satisfaction from helping students gain skills that are about the future they are moving into, not the past that their teacher is grounded in. I think this is a forward-looking view of education and these are the skills that empower citizens.”

But then, the modern university is obliged to respond to change, Squier said.

“I think we need to be very careful about balancing our cultural and institutional traditions with the reality of a changing world,” he said. “I think we also need to understand our traditions in a deeper sense, for example, that visual/oral/performative communication is an important aspect of our tribal history.

“We need to be constantly asking ourselves, ‘What business are we in?’ and be vigilant about our biases and assumptions.”

In the case of rhetoric, he said, professors need to ask themselves if their job is to teach students to write or to train citizens how to communicate effectively.

“These are two different ways to frame the challenge, and how we answer the question has tremendous implications.

“My answer – not a surprise – is that I think our job is to create the next generation of great communicators. This requires that we look around and see a communication landscape that continues to use words, but also leverages the power of images and sound. And then we need to view our curriculum as alive, meaning responsive, possibly even evolutionary.”