Brief Encounters: Video Diaries in the Classroom

Kathy Corley
Webster University
"It was revealing and intimidating and exciting. I was afraid of depicting myself as someone who I'm really not. The whole process helped me learn more about myself and my identity, and just come to terms with that and what it means to be me."
-Sarah Bruno, video diarist

As an Advertising and Marketing major at Webster University in St. Louis, Sarah Bruno never thought she'd be using a video camera outside of ad campaigns or corporate motivational media. But last year, Bruno joined more than three hundred students in an experimental program, the -ISM (N.) Project, sponsored by the Institute for Public Media Arts (IPMA), a media literacy, community education and media arts advocacy organization based in Durham, North Carolina. Following the completion of a 1996 pilot program, IPMA screened applications from colleges and universities and selected seven schools to participate in a year-long program where university faculty and staff worked as teams to develop a two-semester class designed to allow students to explore discrimination and various diversity issues through readings, class discussions, and video production.

Although video cameras have found their way into humanities and social science classes in recent years, the creation of a national model to merge media production with diversity studies is quite unique. As a filmmaker and media production educator, I relished the opportunity to create diversity documentary projects with a network of faculty, staff and students from Central Washington University, Golden West College in Huntington Beach, the University of Arizona, the University of Central Florida, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and my own school, Webster University in St. Louis.

The course was challenging for both students and instructors. Some students came to the course equipped with prior technical knowledge of media production, but the majority were neophytes when it came to shooting and editing video. By the end of an academic year, they were expected to complete individual self-portrait video diaries and to work in a production team on documentaries that would focus on diversity issues within their individual communities.

Although the longer documentaries provided interesting perspectives on "-ism" driven themes, the video diaries marked most students' first attempts at capturing thoughts and images with a camera. In preparation, -ISM (N.) instructors used a variety of methods and tools to develop both the students' production skills and their ability to express themselves.

Students had access to S-VHS camcorders, off-line editing systems, and occasionally low-end DVE and character generators. All received what was essentially a crash course in basic camera operation, lighting, audio and editing. Although the faculty from the participating schools independently developed a syllabus for their own class, we could easily exchange ideas for specific readings, in-class exercises, and viewing assignments through the - ISM (N.) project listserv and direct support from the IPMA staff.

Along with hands-on training sessions with video equipment, the students watched documentaries and experimental films and videos and read journals, autobiographical fiction and poetry. Reading lists across the country included works by bell hooks, Audre Lord and other writers who, in the words of one - ISM (N.) teacher, "really put themselves out there. In some schools, students worked with still photography as a prelude to working with video cameras and moving images. Shooting and directing techniques were developed through a variety of exercises: One assignment required students to draw storyboards of a significant life event; a student would tell a personal anecdote while being taped by another classmate; some experimented with point-of- view shooting while walking across campus or self-interviewing techniques with a mirror.

No rigid ground rules were set for the diaries, although stylistic alternatives to the "talking heads" techniques were encouraged. Students could adopt any style or approach of their choice in producing short works that would link racism, sexism, classism or any applicable -ism concepts to their personal lives. Above all, the underlying principle for the video diary was that the actual process of self-exploration was as important as the video production itself.

The 350 - ISM (N.) video diaries provide an interesting look at the lives and times of contemporary American college students. While some diarists were more creative or technically proficient in their productions, others' ability to reveal themselves on camera more than made up for technical weaknesses. A number of students explored their racial identities while others explored sexual identities and gender orientation. Some diarists revealed painful secrets and memories of incest and other physical abuse. Other students simply recorded the personal transformations that were taking place as they passed from high school adolescence into the adult work of college life.

Central Washington University assigned still photography projects prior to the production of the video diaries, a move which helped to develop students' perceptual skills. "We did a lot of looking, with technical as well as visual/rhetorical frames of reference," says professional photographer and - ISM (N.) professor Mike Emme. "I also took them through a still image self-portrait project which was intended to help address the frame and camera angles and lighting as well as self-representation."

Many of the video diaries from University of Central Florida reflect the stories of students in a racially and ethnically diverse environment. "The video diaries that were most successful were from the students that had something to say from day one," says Professor Maria Cristina Santana. "They had an idea from the beginning and were very interested in learning the video process." Most of the twenty Florida diarists relied on voice over narration, photos and music to tell their stories. Tricia Panarello intercuts family photos with statistics on child abuse in her diary "Survivalism: Voice of a Child Survivor." Addressing the camera, she frankly shares her thoughts as an abuse survivor: "Sometimes actually I like to think about it. It's like I have this little box inside of me, and I like to take it out and browse through and remember. I don't ever want to forget. It's a part of me. It's a part of who I am."

A few experimented with dramatization techniques: in "Maybe Baby," diarist Nasima Pfaffi acts out "what if" scenarios after a pregnancy scare; Demetrius Mizell uses military interrogation dramatizations in "Death of a Patriot," his diary about joining the Marines. Race and culture clash in Jason Leiba's "The Man in Between," an engaging self-portrait that uses MTV and "Trainspotting" inspired visuals. Faced with a "look like them, talk like us/talk like them, look like us" dilemma, Leiba gives viewers his direct and ironic take on what it's like to be a black man from England living in the U.S.A.

The video diary was not a completely new phenomenon in the classroom at the University of Arizona. "I love teaching video diaries," says Professor Beverly Seckinger. "Small-format courses in video production - courses informed by the aesthetics and politics of independent media making, rather than commercial broadcast genres - encourage students to draw upon their own experiences to make powerful, innovative tapes from the heart." The Arizona diaries were distinctive in that each student told his or her story through a montage of images and sound accompanied by poetic monologues rather than on-camera revelations. Some, like Michelle Brown's "This is Where...," are Alan Resnais/Marguerite Duras styled excursions into the diarist's past, connecting time, space and memory.

The - ISM (N.) class at Webster University was the smallest in size (a total of six students completed the course), a factor that allowed for more individualized attention to be given to the students. And, unlike the majority of students at the other schools, all were communications majors who had some prior formal media production training and media literacy/diversity classes. Our students viewed a variety of documentaries and films - ranging from the classic and very close-to-home CBS TV program "16 in Webster Groves," to Mark Rappaport's "From the Journals of Jean Seberg" - to inspire approaches in communicating identity and culture through investigative and creative methods.

The impact of "lookism," the standards of physical beauty promoted by mass media and society, was a prevailing topic in all of the women diarists' work, but each student explored different aspects of a personal obsession. Sarah Bruno used the video diary as an opportunity to document the cutting of her waist-length hair. Her initial discomfort at the hair salon is humorously apparent. ("I am definitely not feminine," she declares, her words punctuated by the ripping of wax from her eye brow.)

Kelli Harris' "Hair Hegemony" is one African-American woman's contemplation of the phenomenon of hair straightening. Her personal conflict between race and self image is played out in an on-camera demonstration set in her bathroom, as she displays an array of hair products and explains the enormous time investment required for her daily hair grooming rituals.

Body image is the topic examined in Deborah Allen's diary. After showing closets packed with dozens of clothes, some with the tags still attached, Allen explains that we are looking at a special collection in her wardrobe: "These are all the clothes that I can't fit into." Deborah then discusses her lifelong conflict between weight control and self-acceptance. Weight is also the basis for student Karolyn Florence's diary (a music video that contrasts before-and-after clips of the author after a significant weight loss), but Florence's video is also an ode to a newfound independence in the life of a college student away from home.

Societal attitudes toward people with physical disabilities was the topic of choice by diarist Dan Moses, a student with a severe visual impairment. Moses, who says that he has invested a good deal of effort in learning how to impersonate fully sighted people, takes a farcical approach in portraying how the world looks to him and how he functions with limited sight in a world populated by objects of obstruction. "What's effective about this piece is that he turns things on their heads and says, 'It hasn't been so bad after all,'" says documentary producer and IPMA Associate Director Alison Byrne Fields. "It makes all of those people who have been trained to pity blind people get all itchy in their seats because the emotional response they have been trained to have no longer fits."

As a white male student, Frank Unger worked themes of oppression and diversity into a personal manifesto piece that calls for action and social change. "It made me sad to see students across the nation expressing their sadness, of their persecutions of being who they were," says Unger. "Therefore, I identified with that experience and wanted to use my gift to provide a light and simple solution." Unger's "Solutionism" was one of the more technically inventive video diaries with limited production resources. Although his images appear to be digital video effects, they were created simply by using a cardboard matte as he shot video images off a TV monitor.

The - ISM (N.) Project ended last summer, but its impact is far reaching on the students and teachers who participated in it. Unlike most media production classes, it was a multi disciplinary program that required special considerations for both the instructors and the media artists. Working with personal subject matter presented obstacles for some students. "What was hard for me was to choose how much of myself I would divulge to others, because I was letting the viewer see my deepest, deepest insecurity," recalls diarist Karolyn Florence. "I obviously got over it because that was part of my commitment to doing the piece on myself was to not hold anything back and be as expressionistic as I could. And I couldn't see anything benefitting me to hide something for the sake of what the viewers might think of me."

The learning curve associated with video productions was sometimes a bit too frustrating for some students to manage, despite their membership in a high-tech, MTV generation. "I was very surprised that most of them had no artistic inclination," says Professor Santana. "They were not even aware of camera angles, texture or music used. I thought all college students were into music videos and fast editing and I was wrong. For most of them, showing how different angles change perspective of view was like a revelation. I thought they were more media educated. It gave me the satisfaction of going back to basics and kind of working from the skeleton on to the outside." Her University of Central Florida colleague Professor Lin Huff-Corzine concurs: "Many were fearful and having the diary during the first semester stifled their work. Some just froze up until later in the next semester. Others found it a difficult assignment, but waded through it."

The general consensus between students and teachers alike is that the benefits outweighed the drawbacks. "I think that the idea that they could 'become a part of the media' was an important discovery fro many of them," says Professor Emme. "Their stories definitely broadened my understanding of the existence/impact of race in this country. Seeing 'the personal is political' in action was exciting to me."

Professor Julia Balen at the University of Arizona notes: "We had a most amazing session during which the whole class came together to support - through honest, caring feedback and encouragement - one student's struggle with articulating, or even emotionally facing the material she had chosen. Her video turned out to be one of the most compelling."

Like many successful media productions, the - ISM (N.) project actually has a sequel in the works: IPMA's Alison Byrne-Fields and director Frances Reid are screening more than 200 hours of video diaries for "My So-Called Community," a special documentary project featuring new work by students diarists who participated in the -ISM pilot program. As for myself and some other project faculty, we will be incorporating video diaries into future production classes as well into our own documentary and narrative films and videos. And for many -ISM diarists, the experience of self-exploration on video became an act of personal transformation and empowerment. "I saw using video in a new way following the video diary," says Frank Unger. "If there's one idea that I walked away with was that other student could possibly provide solutions using video as a powerful means of expressing simple thoughts for a hurting world."

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