Friday, September 3, 2010

Inspirational YouTube Videos

These are the words I most dread at the end of a student presentation:

And now, we’re going to show a video that sums up our topic.

Then it comes: four minutes long, the mournful tones of Sarah McGlaughlin or Suzanne Vega playing in the background, the heartrending images, the atrocious use of punctuation.

As soon as the students announce the video, I cringe. Never mind that these videos are a kind of visual and rhetorical assault on my consciousness, making me violated for having to watch them. If my students had created them, I would still beam with pride. The videos represent the very sorts of projects that we hope the students will create, in fact—their assignment is to create a Powerpoint presentation creatively presenting their research on a social justice issue. They are first-semester college students, many of whom have severe learning disabilities or come from continuation high schools where they were never assigned homework. If their discussions of the issues are a bit melodramatic, that’s fine; we are happy if they simply complete the assignment without having a nervous breakdown or punching one of their group members.

The problem with the videos is that they are someone else’s overly sentimental Powerpoint presentations, posted on YouTube so that anyone with an Internet connection can watch them, absorb their message, overlook their poor organization, research, and spelling, and use them as part of their own presentation on the same topic.

By presenting the videos as part of a researched presentation, the students imbue them with a sense of credibility or authority, as though they count as research. I can envision the students watching the videos and finding them more powerful than the actual data the students have collected; “Hey, guys, I finally found something interesting,” I imagine them saying.

The fact that these videos always appear at the end of the presentations is even more frustrating from the perspective of a writing teacher. Rather than end with their own ideas, findings, and voice, the students give away that platform to someone else, and worse, someone no more informed than themselves. The videos would bother me much less if the students would speak after them, explaining why they had chosen that video and what it meant to them. But instead, the video is given the final word, this anonymous authority rising out of the ether to lend imagined credibility and emotional power.

I have seen the same one about domestic violence several years in a row, a rambling stream-of-consciousness polemic. It juxtaposes a series of distressing images—a woman with a horribly bruised and swollen face, for example—with meaningless statistics, or cryptic bits of narrative, apropos of nothing that came before them—Forty percent of women say they have been abused by a partner; She is afraid to leave him.

Finally one year, I remembered to put a policy about YouTube videos on the assignment instructions: “Your presentation may include no more than one minute of any video that you did not create yourself.”

When presentation day came, one group ended by introducing a video: “We know you said that we shouldn’t have more than a minute of a video, but this one is really good,” they said to me.

Then the familiar music began, and the familiar series of domestic violence images and factoids began again.

I knew that every student in the group had experienced abuse, either in their parents’ homes or at the hands of high-school boyfriends, so I did not want to reprimand them for flagrantly dismissing the assignment instructions. But it saddened me to realize that they believed this cheesy video would be more powerful than their own words, ideas, and experiences. This is what years of schooling has drummed into their head: that if something is worth saying, it has already been said by someone more important than you, and you’re better off using that person’s words rather than your own.

I’ve noticed that many of the power figures at my college also rely on the voices of others to support, or make, their arguments. Our former college president was a great fan of inspirational quotations. They adorned her office, engraved into glass paperweights and printed on postcards. She opened and closed every address with them, relying heavily on the classics: Your playing small doesn’t serve the world, she would say, or The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. They were quotes attributed—verifiably or not—to great writers and thinkers. But I would bet my union-negotiated contract that these quotations were the only things that she, or most of the people who use them, had ever read by these esteemed authors.

The internet allows us to find a wealth of these kinds of dismembered quotations, inspirational words of advice from authors we have never heard of, without even having to leave our house and buy a book of them. My students have recently taken to opening their essays with barely-relevant passages by people ranging from George Bernard Shaw to Anthony Robbins, names that I am sure have no meaning at all to the students citing them.

With YouTube, we do not need to limit ourselves to using the words of published authors or well-known personalities or even people who know how to write. Anybody can put a video on YouTube, and it is possible to find a relevant, if poorly-constructed, opinion piece on any topic at all.

The college president took advantage of this expanded quotation marketplace in a speech welcoming all the school’s employees back to work after summer break.

“Last year, when I talked about leveraging abundance,” she said, “some people asked for specific examples to show what I meant. So this presentation has lots of examples.”

It turned out that these were not, as I presume “some people” (i.e. everybody) had wanted, examples of how colleges had leveraged their abundance, or suggestions as to how we might do so at our college.

No, the examples were YouTube videos. The first was a cartoon positing the premise that “everyone can be an entrepreneur.” Anyone who creates their own business is an entrepreneur, the video explained, whether that business is a lemonade stand, a yoga studio, or a software corporation. “I like the positive spirit of this video,” said the president. “It shows people taking initiative.”

She then showed a video of a nine-year-old boy who had given a motivational speech to thousands of teachers. “Do you believe in me?” he asked them, pointing into the crowd. “I believe in me.” The thousands of teachers applauded wildly.

“This video reminds us to always think of our students first,” said the president.

I imagine that the president used these videos in her speech for the same reasons my students use them: because they are fast, easy, and vaguely reminiscent of something like actual research. Finding original examples of local colleges using innovative strategies to stretch minimal resources (which is what I think leveraging abundance is supposed to mean) would take a lot of time, energy, and thought, not only to find the examples, but to thoroughly understand and explain them.

Don’t get me wrong: I actually love YouTube. I love the poorly-constructed opinion pieces, at least in theory, and often in practice. The democratizing of public expression is one of the best things about the internet. Everyone can express their views and have them read by strangers from around the world. Insecure students like mine can create a project that embodies their research, and then post it for their friends and families to see.

The problem comes when we allow things we find on the internet to stand in for well-thought-out arguments and evidence. With so much information instantly available, we begin to believe that doing research is as easy as shopping for shoes: point, click, it’s yours.

But just like with the shoes, it is easy to ignore the cost we will pay for our ideas, if we want them to be good. As an English teacher and a writer, I am painfully aware that good ideas are not free. We pay for them, not in money, but with our labor—the labor of thought, of real research, of reading real books cover-to-cover and formulating our own ideas about them rather than allowing them to speak for us. It’s a lot of work, but the rewards are worth it: really understanding what it is we are talking about.


pINGVA said...

I wonder if it has much to do with the media (in this case, YouTube), as opposed to the general tendency of people to take shortcuts.

Before youtube, it was "rather than reading the assigned book, students rent a video tape of an eponymous film", or it was cliff-notes, or canned essays.

There's also the problem of audience's perception:

with the diminishing attention spans, it's becoming increasingly hard to reach your audience with anything substantial. A well-researched argument will often make much less of an impact than a catchy sound-bite or a 30-second video. So, the preference of the video format is natural, but now there's the problem of tools and skills -- students don't produce their own videos because they are probably not taught that and neither expected to; while there are many classes that teach one to write and speak, few if any teach to produce videos as a form of self-expression, hence using other's videos.

Karin Spirn said...

You're absolutely right that lazy thinking is not a creation of modern technology--I presume it's been around forever (though not so much of it gets passed down for posterity).

I would love the students to be making their own versions of these cheesy videos. They actually have all the tools just with powerpoint; they just don't always realize that. We are starting to have more video editing classes at my school, and it seems that soon it will become a key area of composition training, along with writing and speech.

I'd like to think that short and attention-grabbing doesn't need to be mutually exclusive with well-reasoned. I myself have a rather short attention span, but I also have a very low tolerance for fluff.