What matters most to you in your teaching?
How are you using technology as a tool to achieve your teaching goals?
How have your students responded to your use of technology?
What new goals do you have for using technology in teaching?
How could the University better facilitate the use of technology in instruction?
Final Cut Pro (software)
Hands-On Political Communication
I think [students] have a thirst for a project that's a little more creative, a little more personal, in which they can actually show who they are and demonstrate something above and beyond the ordinary.
I teach Political Communication, the core class on media and politics offered by Communication Studies. It's about political persuasion through the mass media. At first it was frustrating to teach this class, because the 500-pound gorilla in politics is television. Although the Internet is becoming more and more important--and institutions like the New York Times are still critical to the political process--TV is still where it's at in American politics. Students need to learn how political programming comes into being--how much money and effort goes into it in the front end, and how difficult it is to create the end-product. I was really interested in incorporating a video project, because it allows students to put themselves in the role of persuaders operating through the media in a way a conventional media analysis project doesn't.
The students use digital video editing tools to make campaign commercials for a fictitious race between two candidates. They're instructed to do a positive ad for one candidate, and a negative ad against the other candidate. I give them raw footage to use--most recently, it was two hours from the 2000 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. They read the transcript and look for likely sound bites, which have to make up at least a quarter of each ad--that's one of the constraints that make it a little bit more realistic. They're also prohibited from lying. In preparing the ads, I allow them to ask a maximum of four audience-research questions of all the students in the class, so they can get a sense of the themes that might work. They use iMovie to assemble their ads and add effects, and when they're finished, show them in class, and the students peer-evaluate them. They can work in groups, or individually--the maximum group size is four people. Projects are registered by number, which allows them to be peer-reviewed without regard to who's produced them. Of course, the group dynamic can sometimes give rise to conflicts. There are always arguments as to the best strategy for the ads, but I think those kinds of disputes are actually very useful.
The ad can be either 30 seconds or 1 minute long. I have them turn in detailed storyboards prior to any production, and the difference between the material they plan to include and what they can actually achieve always surprises them. This conveys very important lessons about the way television and politics works: you might have enough information to build an iron-clad case for this candidate, or against the other candidate, but you generally can't fit it in the standard 30- or 60-second slots ads must use.
Only when they have to do it themselves do they really appreciate the finesse that goes into making these ads. For instance, they're often disappointed to find that portions of the debate that the transcript indicated would be really effective in attacking a candidate were filmed during a camera shot to his opponent. If they're making a positive ad, they might find that during a promising speech the candidate is making a strange face, or blinking, or looking sort of shifty. They also have to learn to deal with technical impediments--portions of the tape that I gave them had buzz from the microphones used, so they simply couldn't use what would otherwise have been ideal footage. Now they realize that the raw materials journalists and campaigns advertisers have to work with constrain them in ways that might not be obvious.
Only a quarter of the ad has to be actual news footage, and the students have been frighteningly creative getting material to make up the rest. They take the music more seriously than anything else. They have a fair amount of freedom to use graphics and other things they find on the web--since this is an educational, non-profit project, inclusion of such materials constitutes "fair use." If their ad addresses healthcare reform, they might grab a small segment from E.R. showing the waiting room, or if the issue is the environment they might sample the movie Cliffhanger, taking footage of beautiful mountain landscape and repurposing it. They also do huge amounts of research on the candidates' positions. In the last class, for example, one group included a segment from a Cheney video in which he talked about U.S. military policy and gay marriage, and then brought in statements reflecting his later views, to create a sort of classic flip-flop ad.
They pick up a lot of rhetorical tricks from watching television advertising. The students realize early on that when they cite an attack on a candidate from a third-party source, it appears to be objective, and much more credible. They've found the most effective way to do this is to use a voiceover to describe the attacks, then scroll across an image of the source, like the Washington Post. One clever method a group used, when they were talking about Cheney and Haliburton, was to capture video of a Google search. They showed the search results, and then highlighted the charge within an actual online news story.
The first time I did this project I made it optional, so we could iron out any bugs. The students work in the Instructional Multimedia Production Lab (IMPL)*. That first year the main problem was hard-drive space: the hard drives they had at the time would fill up very quickly and crash while students were editing the projects. The next year the students used removable Firewire drives, but they had to share them, and they'd accidentally delete each other's projects. Since then, IMPL has gotten better computers. Students are still sharing them, but we've set up separate accounts, so they can't hurt each other's files.
In addition to reviewing the ads in class, I give them each a DVD of the projects to take home. Being able to watch the ads on their own time allows them to be more thorough in their peer-reviews. What's wonderful now is that everyone seems to have access to a DVD player. They're a fairly wired group--they all have high-speed Internet connections. That's sort of a change in our culture that's been going on behind the scenes.
Because the whole class evaluates the ads for their persuasiveness, the project produces its own topics for discussion. It's interesting to note when certain sound bites are exploited by ads from several groups, even if they're used differently. When we had the Bill Bradley-Orrin Hatch race last year, for example, half the positive Bradley groups used the same exact segment--probably his single most effective sound bite. There usually is also some unintentional coordination in the music they choose--three groups used Crystal Waters's "Bittersweet melody" this year.
I've told students to target the ads not at the general population, but at their fellow students, and this definitely affects how far they'll go. Because they're aware that their generation will tolerate fairly graphic depictions of war, for instance, in this year's anti-Cheney ads there were close-in shots of Iraq war victims and dead Iraqi soldiers. They were very, very graphic. The increase in graphic content of the ads over the past two years will make an important topic of discussion for the next class.
Before I added this project to the course, I had the students keep a log of the campaign ads that they saw, noting their persuasiveness and what techniques seemed to work--sort of a standard commercial literacy project. Comparing the projects I would get from that assignment with those I get now, it's clear how much more engaged the students are in the topic. They pay close attention to the ads they see on TV--they say, "What can I use from that ad that will be effective, that will persuade?" They recognize techniques that they themselves have used. It's a whole different ballgame for them.
Generally speaking, the students are very enthusiastic, and I've been quite pleased with the results. Students take a lot of classes with the midterm-final-crank-out-an-essay-regurgitate-what-the-professor-has-told-you-and-get-a-good-grade format, and I think they have a thirst for something that's a little more creative, a little more personal, in which they can actually show who they are and demonstrate something above and beyond the ordinary. One thing that really makes an impression on people is hard work with an outcome they're proud of. I've had students apply for internships and submit the DVD as part of their packet, and they really like being able to send along this demonstration of their AV skills.
I get a lot out of this because it's new every single time. The students' creativity in these ads is really quite striking. Some of the ads are truly innovative. I'd much rather evaluate that kind of project than simply grade another midterm or read another essay. It really helps motivate me as a teacher when I know that these projects are coming down the pike. This year, for instance, a group went to the Communication Studies archives and dug up a tape of Joe Lieberman singing on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. He did this Frank Sinatra "My Way" rendition that was truly horrifying, and they spun that in a positive ad, where they did a parody of the MasterCard ad. They talked about his various positions and. . . "singing lessons, priceless." It was a very funny, creative piece of work.
Currently we do in-class training on iMovie--I put together a very brief video for them to show them all the basic techniques. The projects they can do with I-Movie are quite well developed, but they're starting to hit the limits of what the software is capable of. In future years, as the students become more technically savvy, I might teach them how to use Final Cut Pro. I'm also thinking about having them create a whole campaign, rather than simply a positive and negative ad. I'd really love to have this project be such that they respond to each other's ads and press releases over the course of the quarter. I think that would be quite interesting, and more like an ongoing, realistic campaign.
* Note: IMPL closed July 1, 2004. Access to desktop video-editing software is now available through the College Library Instructional Computing Commons (CLICC)
Oral Interview, March 2004