Audiovisual essays as inclusion and diversity practice in the classroom
Change starts with the realisation that we do not only contribute to the system in place but that we are the system. The system is a constellation of people and practices, and can therefore change more easily than we may think. For long, education has been about teaching through a patriarchal and neoliberal filter, and convince students that this dominant perspective was the right and only one. While alternatives are often hard to see, imagination can go a long way in installing practices in the classroom that include and give voice to all students regardless of gender, ethnicity, physical ability and socio-economic background. Our choices as educators are always political and it is our role to situate the subject within a variety of perspectives and contexts. But, this is only the beginning of inclusion in the classroom.
Another matter is to fight against stereotypes that characterise women, people with disability, or of certain ethnic, or socio-economic background as automatically performing worse than others and having to work more to obtain the same result.
This post will especially tackle this issue: how do I make sure that everybody in the classroom feels that they can share and put themselves on the line without risking to face (micro)aggressions in return? And how can I address prejudices and tendencies (including my own) of approaching certain students with low expectations? In addition to meeting certain students with low expectations and others with high ones, 'what is commonly seen as success, talent, leadership and excellence [in Western universities] is not neutral, but is primarily based on masculine, Western and middle-class socio-economic characteristics' (Wekker et al. 2016, 7). How do we thus change the patriarchal and Western filter through which we value success?
Meeting all students with high expectations has been recognised as key to how much and how well they learn (Chickering and Gamson 1987, Gonder 1991, Bamburg 1994, Gibbs and Simpson 2005). Conversely, low expectations highly and rapidly negatively impact on students' behaviour through the well-known phenomenon of 'learned helplessness' (Maier and Seligman 1976). Psychologists explain that stereotypes based on gender, ethnicity and social class lead students affected by these stereotypes to perform worse than others only and because they have been made to believe that they would perform worse. This video of a teacher inducing learned helplessness in her classroom demonstrates how prejudices and stereotypes have a very rapid negative impact on students.
Charisse Nixon, Ph.D Developmental Psychologist at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College and Director of Research and Evaluation for The Ophelia Project discusses the phenomenon of learned helplessness. (Shot by Mark Steensland).
As the teacher Charisse Nixon concludes by explaining the long-term effects of repeated victimisation of women, people of colour, and people of low socio-economic background, she also puts the responsibility of fighting against being brought down on the ones suffering prejudices rather than on the ones perpetuating the oppression, or on the teachers. Teachers at all levels however do have a responsibility in communicating ability and achievement as malleable, and in constant development, rather than as fixed and innate. Education researchers David J. Nicol and Debra Macfarlane-Dick write that students who believe that learning is incremental tend put more effort into learning and are less likely to give up than those who believe that abilities are a fixed set of skills (Grant and Dweck 2003, Yorke and Knight 2004, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006). In this view, valuing progress and efforts becomes as relevant (or more) than valuing final performances. In order to assess students on their progress in my courses, I have integrated a system of constant feedback, peer-review, and progressive tasks (implying formative assessments instead of summative). This ensures providing students with encouragement, and increasing their will to, and the knowledge that they can, do better.
Education researcher Christine M. Rubie-Davies identifies several practices common to high-expectations teachers leading to effective teaching, such as: providing regular feedback to students, presenting the students with choices in their learning experiences, taking into account prior learning and giving a clear instructional framework, as well as creating activities that motivate students for being engaging, exciting, and meaningful (2007). In integrating group tasks that include systematic feedback and peer-review, and audiovisual essays as a learning activity and assessment tasks, I aim to create an inclusive classroom in which all students are faced with high expectations.
If educative systems are meritocratic and not all students depart with the same advantages, meritocracy can be approached from a variety of angles. One strategy that I use in my curriculum is to create learning activities and assessment tasks that stimulate and value different skills, such as both oral and written expression, but also audio-visual creativity. In my course 'Gender and Race in Film and New Media: Questions of Production, Representation, and Distribution', I use film and media analysis along with video-essays as a mode of learning and assessment, which takes off the pressure to only be judged through producing a well formulated text (which will already be evaluated in a research essay for the course), and rather stimulates the students' audio and/or visual expression. First, I ask students to engage with gender, queer and race theory in order to critically analyse media and film examples, and produce a written, oral or audiovisual text, which gives students the responsibility to regulate their own learning, and allows them to rely on previous knowledge. Second, the students discuss their close analyses in small heterogeneous groups, ensuring that they receive varied feedback from their fellow students. Finally, students ask for and receive specific feedback from the lecturer, so as to improve their production and resubmit it. This creates an active learning environment, in which students become what Estrella Sendra calls 'co-producers of knowledge' (2020, 68).
I endeavour to create a motivating learning environment that brings students to the exciting task of creating audiovisual essays. Through hands-on tasks in the (physical or virtual) classroom, I introduce students to video editing. For their mid-term assignment, students are expected to collaborate in groups of two on a video-essay that critically engages with the theory seen in class, and uses the learned skills of close analysis and other professional practices such as filmmaking and curating. As film scholar Estrella Sendra asserts, 'the practice of video essays leads to an inclusive, collaborative and polyphonic research environment, which dismantles the idea of a film canon. It contests the privileged position of the written ‘text’, when this is just understood as the written word' (2020, 68). Through video-essays, students can present their own perspectives and curate extracts of specifically chosen films, as well as choose how to create the storytelling of their essay by privileging sound, montage, written text, or other elements of mise-en-scène and cinematography.
Introducing video-essays in the classroom manifests as an inclusive practice for a variety of reasons. In my class, I have observed how the making of a video-essay enhances the students' reflective and critical approach to film and media, as they practice rather than read about the choices made in the making and production of an audiovisual piece. This gives the opportunity to students to learn differently than through reading and attending lectures. Similarly, most students will be equally unfamiliar with editing and filmmaking techniques, and will thus be presented with a task that requires a similar amount of effort from all. Acquiring filmmaking tools empowers students by giving them the opportunity to learn and be assessed through skills generally less valued than the written word (which is also beneficial to students with dyslexia for example), and that are essential to a professional career in the film and media industry. As Rubie-Davis stresses, it is paramount that students are presented with a clear framework, especially when facing tasks with which they are unfamiliar, in order to entrust all students with the adequate knowledge to complete the task at hand. In order to ensure the accessibility of the task, students are free to make their video-essays on computers or smartphones (their own or provided), using texts or voice over, and giving priority to different aspects of filmmaking, depending on their own sensibility.
Creative learning activities and assessments invite students to reflect on film and media through establishing their own audiovisual language. As Sendra writes, quoting Lindiwe Dovey's work, visual language is more accessible than the written language of academia, and can forge 'intimate, affective and haptic understanding' of our bodies and environment (2020, 70). Introducing video-essays and a peer-review scheme in the classroom gives room to broader and diverse dialogue. These pedagogical choices produce an horizontal relationship between lecturers and students in which both become learners and narrators who practice curation and video-making. My course is designed to provide students with the responsibility of their learning experience. Facing high expectations with assessment criteria adapted to their productions, students come to the assessments on equal grounds, as they apprehend the tasks at hand through progressive learning activities, and through openly discussing their creative and analytical work in group and with the lecturer. Similarly, assessing the students through several varied assignments, which decentralise the predominance of the written form in academia, allows for a multiplicity of subjectivities in the classroom, as modes of both expression and comprehension.
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