Case Study

Video essays as creative assessment method at SOAS, University of London*.

In 2019, SOAS, University of London saw the launch of the ERC-funded research project ‘African Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies’, whose principal investigator is Professor Lindiwe Dovey, co-chair of the Centre for Creative Industries, Media and Screen Studies.

This is actively engaging in artistic research and free, open-access research outputs that are the fruit of collaboration and shared commitment to decolonise film and screen studies. In that same year, two brand new film courses were created for the BA Creative Arts and the MA Global Cinemas (now integrated in the MA Global Creative and Cultural Industries). These courses were ‘Introduction to Film Language, History and Theory’, and Film and Screen Studies: Past and Present (now re-defined as Global Film Industries, precisely to emphasise its focus on practice), respectively. They were both convened by Dr Estrella Sendra, an early career researcher keen on applying creative methods, drawing on her practical experience as a filmmaker, and film festival curator and organiser, particularly within African screen worlds. This is why I would like now to shift to the first-person narrator, in order to self-reflect about my own experimentation and eagerness to contribute to this cutting-edge pedagogical and research practice. In doing so, I hope to share my experience with fellow colleagues, researchers, and class members seeking to implement this creative method. This, like the whole process of co-making this guide with Bartolomeo Meletti, a generous and inspiring practitioner and researcher, seems to be a humble way of giving back to the many figures who have inspired my pedagogical and research practice. In this last section, I share some thoughts about the process of putting together this creative assessment method, and how class members responded to it. This is, in my view, an illustrative example of the transformative dimension of video essays, able to reverse the teaching direction, from students, to tutors. I am very grateful to all my students for their creations of multiple narratives of stories of film, but also, for allowing me to improve my engagement as an educator and creative researcher, with video essays.

Both the undergraduate and postgraduate film courses were assessed through three assessment methods, a film analysis, an essay and an “in-class individual 10-minute presentation”. This was because the course sought to engage with creative methodologies applied to film research. However, since class members may not have had any background in filmmaking, there was also an aim of being as inclusive as possible. The assessment brief was deliberated designed in a rather flexible way:

“You are welcome and encouraged to enjoy this opportunity to adopt a more creative response to the module through, for example, a short film, a series of images/stills, a small curated project, or an audiovisual essay. This will allow you to demonstrate awareness, understanding and an efficient application of innovative research methods for the creative industries. The presentation should include at least one critical analysis of a film scene of your choice, although this should not be from an essential viewing in the module syllabus. Presentations should last 10 minutes. There will be time for questions and feedback from the students and tutor at the end of each presentation.”

The brief included some examples, some of which were briefly discussed in the first class, along with the introduction to the course. I emphasised they would mainly be assessed on their ability to make an argument, audiovisually, and their willingness to take risks. Such marking criteria, complemented with generic grade boundaries, was included in the brief. We devoted a two-hour session workshopping video essays, when they were still in their preproduction phase, and a few class members booked some one-to-one tutorials to further share their ideas, plans and narrations with me. And that was it.

When the day of class presentations arrived, class members demonstrated their active learning and creative engagement with the course. Despite the range of formats suggested, they all submitted a video essay, except for one class member. The class became a mini-festival, where stories of film had been co-curated by class members, and shaped by their own positionalities. The work produced was fascinating. I was highly impressed by the range of creative approaches.

Their video essay production further helped me reflect about this pedagogical approach. Below, I summarise the main learning outcomes from this first experience. In doing so, I seek to initiate my practice-based research around how to improve them, aware that this is still an ongoing task that can only be accomplished collaboratively.

  • When producing video essays, class members become their own story-tellers of their stories of cinema, including further titles from across a wide range of regions, some of which were addressing their own film cultures, such as The Czech Republic, Egypt and South Korea. Topics included animation, queer cinema, haptic visuality, colour-coding, humour as a way of overcoming censorship, feminism, hierarchy, patriarchy, migration and exile, and realism in cinema. Some of the video essays were closer to doctoral research than to postgraduate studies, thus confirming the need to diffuse the boundaries between students and researchers. One such impressive example was a postgraduate video essay about Nihongami, the term for traditional Japanese hairstyles, which explored the way in which hair served as a means of communicating the wearer’s social status in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). The work produced confirmed the transformative potential of video essays, and illustrated the way in which artistic research can contribute to decolonising the curriculum. The quality was such that my colleagues in the Centre for Creative Industries, Media and Screen Studies (CCIMSS) in the School of Arts decided to establish an annual prize to the best video essay, and another to the best podcast, as my colleague Caspar Melville had had a very similar experience in the creative assessment methods in the MA he convened.

  • After careful deliberation, the award was given to a postgraduate class member who had taken a particularly innovative (and risky) creative approach. Donovan Mathews had created a multi-layered piece, where there was an aesthetically significant use of the voice over. Through this, the argument was not just exposed, orally, but performed, audiovisually, recursively. The nomination praised such creative approach:

    “Despite the difficulty of nominating an award-winner for the best video-essay, since there were very strong submissions by a range of undergraduate and postgraduate students, Donovan's work stood up for its remarkable originality, creativity and reflexivity. Building on Trinh T. Minh-ha's video-essay Reassemblage, Donovan's multi-layered narrative structure was particularly strong at explaining theory through showing it. The reflection on the myth of realism in cinema was complemented by a recreation of Trinh T. Minh-ha's work on Donovan's gentrified neighbourhood. It was then that Donovan acted like a benshi, VJ or spoken word artist, in order to question the extent to which film represents reality. Such an original recursive approach which demonstrated his ability to take risks and critical understanding of the creative potential of the video-essay as a method!”

    This contrasted with the rest of the essays, which relied significantly on narration, and thus an explanatory mode, as further scholars note more broadly (Keathley, 2012). This reliance on the voice over may result from the effort to adapt a written essay to the screen, which is already quite challenging. A further degree of challenge arises when the piece is conceived audiovisually, from the beginning. This is disruptive even within the arts and creative industries courses in that it challenges the dominant hegemony of the written text. Some class members were not comfortable with their voices being heard. One modified her voice through software. Another preferred to ask someone else to narrate for her. A French student felt more comfortable narrating in her native language, and decided to subtitle the film. This was particularly coherent in an essay on the sonic dimension of exile, leading to some kind of recursion, with further instances of recursion along the video essay. Arguably without her notice, she was further contributing to decolonising the curriculum, by moving away or even resisting knowledge dissemination just in English.

  • Despite the excellent creative response from class members, what the experience made clear was the need to design, along this assessment method, a much clearer guide. With written essays, class members have more or less an idea of how to produce these, particularly at postgraduate level. The University offers a wide range of study skills helping class members with academic writing. This is not the case for video essays, and while this is a great opportunity for creativity, a lack of guidance can lead to “painful” experiences for all class members, including tutors. Quoting hooks, Dovey (2020) draws on the way in which teaching may sometimes be painful, in different ways. There was, indeed, some degree of pain when listening to class members about the amount of hours they had devoted to the making of this video essay. This was however counterbalanced with a clear sense of pride, sometimes explicitly vocalised by students. Despite the learning by doing approach and opportunities for self-teaching and peer learning in the implementation of this creative assessment method, training is necessary to ensure an inclusive teaching environment, aware of equality and diversity. This is why I decided to put together this introductory guide about how to make video essays, in an effort to acknowledge and synthesise the pioneering work on this field, and to do it as a teaching research (research and practice based). I also requested some licences and training, at least to provide basic training for students willing to engage with the assessment at high technical standards

  • The reliance on narration may also have been due to the fact that video essays were solely marked based on the produced piece. I had invited class members to be as experimental as they wished, and justify their aesthetic choices orally, during the class presentations. However, I suspect the inclusion of a narration could foster clarity in the argument, in a way audiovisual language may not be able to perform so efficiently. A written supporting statement explaining the rationale behind the video essay can facilitate the moderation by external examiners, as well as encourage reflexivity in film research. The suggested structure for the statement included in this guide will be adapted to the courses at SOAS.

  • Another very important dimension implied in the application of this creative assessment was the legality of the process of making video essays. This very often requires sourcing the video with copyrighted creative work, which students found themselves downloading not so “lawfully”, even if there was a sense this was used “fairly”, for learning purposes. It was precisely my own research on this front which would then foster the production of the introductory guide on how to make video essays. We have included a section on copyright and creative reuse, written by Bartolomeo Meletti, the Education and Research Executive of Learning on Screen and Creative Director for CREATe, the UK Copyright and Creative Economy Centre at the University of Glasgow.

  • A final area of improvement regards the marking criteria. Instead of including the generic SOAS marking criteria, this kind of creative assessment requires a much more deconstructed set of marking criteria. This should refer explicitly to the various tasks involved in the making of a video essay, with clear and inclusive language. These are some of the aspects a marking criteria could draw on, based both on the video essay and the supporting statement:

    1. Knowledge and understanding: evidence of engagement with film theory and debates; critical thinking; contribution to knowledge; clear presentation of an argument, situated within an existing debate.

    2. Creativity and research skills: originality of the idea; ability to take risks; understanding of innovative research methods for creative industries, in particular, audiovisual criticism; application and performance of audiovisual language; close engagement with the video essay as a recursive scholarly piece of work, evident in the decision-making process (for instance, on inclusion or not of voice over).

    3. Transferable skills: ability to research and work independently, with creative application of technological innovation, delivering academic work of professional standards (for instance, editing); close attention to detail, evident in the careful consideration of the instructions, guidance and recommendations given in the assessment brief; application of Harvard Referencing system, either in the final credits of the video essay or/and the list of references at the end of the supporting statement; ability to acquire a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the film practice, both for industry and research purposes.

    Such criteria would contribute to reducing the uncertainty revolving around this creative assessment method. At the same time, whilst the screening of video essays in class followed by feedback was as enjoyable as enriching for the course, some class members were not comfortable with the public revelation of the grade boundary in which their work would fall. In fact, once I realised this (which was confirmed in one of the comments in the course evaluation surveys), I changed this immediately for the undergraduate “showcase”, and instead told class members I would only indicate their grade boundaries if they wanted me to. These are just some of the many aspects I was taught by my class members.

Podcast with SOAS student voices on video essays as a creative assessment method for film and screen studies:

Winner of the SOAS CCIMSS Video essay Award 2019-2020:

Mathews, Donovan (forthcoming 2020). ‘Embracing Nonsense: Narrative Form and Finding Meaning in Trinh Minh-ha’s Reassemblage’.

  • A longer version of this case study has been included in the journal article Sendra, Estrella (2020). ‘Video Essays: Curating and Transforming Film Education through Artistic Research’. In Damásio, M. J. & Mistry, J. (eds.) (forthcoming October 2020) International Journal of Film and Media Arts GEECT, Special Issue Mapping Artistic Research in Film, 5(2): 65-81. Available online (13.11.20) here.