Rice students include audio-visual element in classroom assignments

Rice students include audio-visual element in classroom assignments

Rice News staff

The videos depict some of Houston’s grittiest neighborhoods, with images of urban decay interspersed with interviews of residents — some despondent, others hopeful. The filmmakers are students in sociologist Michael Emerson’s Urban Life and Systems class. Their work is an example of what Fondren Library’s Digital Media Center (DMC) hopes to encourage: students and faculty incorporating visual elements in class work.

"Assigning students to create group videos, in addition to their papers, brought three-dimensional life to their projects," said Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Institute for Urban Research. "Students had to think in terms of sights, sounds and space, not just the written word."

Such interest is growing, said Lisa Spiro, director of the DMC, which provides extensive support for creating multimedia, including training, equipment checkout and access to video editing software. "It’s an increasingly visual world," she said, "so it makes sense for higher education to teach students how to produce and analyze videos and other forms of media."

Part of that education is a class called Introduction to Academic Writing and Argumentation, or COMM 103. Rice students are required to take it — or place out of it through an exam — before graduating. The course is offered by the Program for Communication Excellence, under the auspices of the Dean of Undergraduates Office.

"The Program for Communication Excellence is designed to help students to strengthen their skills in writing and presenting their arguments in an effective manner," said Elizabeth Festa, lecturer in communications. "We embrace a multimedia approach to communication as well as interdisciplinary approaches to argument, research and writing."

In Emerson’s Urban Life and Systems class, students were assigned to groups of four, and then assigned a Houston neighborhood. They visited their neighborhoods once a week during the semester to make short videos about the neighborhood or a specific aspect of it, Emerson said.


The multimedia approach Festa described is evident in the work submitted by Emerson’s students. One of them, titled "Kashmere: A Sociological Perspective," begins with a rap sound track over images of blighted neighborhoods in Houston’s Kashmere Gardens. It includes subtitles with observations on the neighborhood, like "Despite months after Ike, Kashmere’s homes remain damaged, as evidenced by the blue FEMA tarps" and "Kashmere has a high number of rent houses." The filmmakers, then-undergraduates Rachel Marcus ’09, Aleks Perka ’09 and Sanket Shah ’09, intersperse interviews with residents, police and passersby, who describe their experiences and what keeps them in Kashmere.

Another video, called "Magnolia’s Teen Voice," focuses on a community center designed for youths in the Magnolia neighborhood. Richard Treadwell and Allonna James, both still undergrads, and then-undergrad Daniela Halliburton ’09 interviewed the center’s organizers, who recalled the difficulties of getting teens to attend meetings. They offered their thoughts on what worked in promoting community involvement and what didn’t.

Festa encourages students to think for themselves as they assemble their digital projects. "So often we think of the things we read and view simply as sources to be skimmed and gutted for information as quickly as possible; we do not think about how writers and other communicators construct their arguments," she said. "In paying attention to matters of selection, organization, framing/cropping, perspective, tone and style, students are able to discern the authorial hand at work in the creating and shaping of an argument. In other words, works that have a more experimental form throw the strategic elements of argumentation into relief by making authorial agency visible."

The students in Festa’s class received help for their digital storytelling assignment at the Digital Media Center, which provided three in-class workshops on shaping a digital story, editing images and audio, and creating a video, Spiro said.

The task of putting together an audio-visual project is in many ways related to a written project. Each must use intellectual strategies like argument, analysis, interpretation and evaluation to convey a message. But, Festa said, "Digital storytelling is a more concrete exercise than essay writing in some ways." The process involves the  "painstaking coordination of text, music and images," which "makes the manipulation and malleability of evidence more obvious" to the students.

"One student told me that she realized that she could have produced completely different arguments from the same evidence," Festa said. "This seemed a bit disconcerting to her, but I thought it was fabulous!"

The basic premise of digital storytelling in the classroom is to enhance communication by giving students different media with which to communicate. There are things a camera and microphone can convey that a pen and paper cannot. As Spiro put it, "Show the evidence; don’t just describe it."

"Photos, videos and other multimedia techniques expand learning," Emerson said, "and I will continue to seek how to best incorporate them into courses."

The Digital Media Center will offer a free workshop July 26-28 that will take participants through the process of creating short videos. Visit http://library.rice.edu/services/dmc/services/short-courses for more information.


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