Videographic Criticism with Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley
Amplified is an audio blog series about the sounds of scholarship from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network. From the halls of Middlebury college in Vermont, Dr. Jason Mittell and Dr. Christian Keathley are leading voices in the videographic criticism movement, a creative and pedagogical scholarly practice that has led to a series of workshops, an open peer review journal, and a thriving community of practitioners interested in the conceptual use of moving image media as a mode of scholarly rhetoric and exploration. The duo join Amplified on the mic this month to share their insights into the benefits of engaging with non-traditional forms of scholarship and explain ‘what exactly is videographic criticism?’
Stacey Copeland: [00:00:00] Can see you both have your mics going, [oh yeah]. This is always the privilege of interviewing other media people. [laughter] tend to have these things lying around
Jason Mittell: [00:00:08] and we have people to help us if we don’t know what we’re doing. So-
Stacey Copeland: [00:00:11] That’s right. Yeah. Just call in the hallway, right?
Jason Mittell: [00:00:13] Yeah,
Christian Keathley: [00:00:13] Exactly.
Stacey Copeland: [00:00:15] Welcome to Amplified, a podcast about the sounds of scholarship from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network.
I’m your host Stacey Copeland. This month on Amplified. I’m joined by Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley from the halls of Middlebury College in Vermont. The duo are part of an emerging practice in film and media studies called videographic criticism, a creative and pedagogical scholarly practice that has led to a series of workshops, an open peer review journal, and a thriving community of practitioners interested in the conceptual use of moving image media as a mode of scholarly rhetoric and exploration. I first came across Jason and Christian’s work in 2019 when a special issue of their journal [in] Transition featuring audio works, started to circulate in my field of study sound and media studies.
Since then I’ve followed the work of Jason, Christian, and they’re [in] Transition journal team. As they’ve brought together a strong and lively community of scholars, interested in reimagining the future forms of scholarship. Jason and Christian, join me on the mic to share their insights into the benefits of engaging with non-traditional forms of scholarship and explain what exactly is videographic criticism.
[Theme Music fades out]
Jason Mittell: [00:01:46] Jason Mittell. I am a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury college in Vermont.
Christian Keathley: [00:01:53] I’m Christian Keathley. I am also a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College in Vermont.
Stacey Copeland: [00:01:58] Our topic today is videographic criticism or, what others who maybe aren’t familiar with the term might think of -video essays at first might come to mind, or just generally the concept of scholarly video. Though I’m sure we can dive a bit more into a lot of those nuances together. Since both of you have spent a lot of time. I’m sure thinking about the particular terminology there, but before we get into that, I’d like to start off with an opening definition. What is videographic criticism, particularly, how would you describe it to someone who has never heard of such a thing before?
Christian Keathley: [00:02:32] In the Arts and Humanities, most of us, our research work, our scholarly work consists of writing books and writing articles. In recent years, the rapid developments in digital technologies make it easy for people, not just scholars, but people to use audio, visual materials, films, television shows, import them into editing programs, manipulate them, recut them and so forth.
So what videographic criticism is, it is the presentation of scholarship, work that would’ve previously found expression in writing, in an audio visual form. You know, as we know, scholars in literature can literally quote their text. What videographic criticism affords is the same opportunity, but not only to quote an audio visual text, but to work with it, to reshape it for the purposes of scholarly understanding.
Jason Mittell: [00:03:25] Videographic is the term graphic there refers to writing? I always just refer to videographic criticism as writing with sounds and images. And then there’s also the criticism angle, where for us as film and media scholars our object of analysis is film and media, right? So we are not making video essays about sociology or about history in general, unless it’s film history.
Really the object of our analysis is the things we’re working with to convey ideas. And that doesn’t mean that that is the only thing you can do in a video essay, certainly, but from our area of expertise, the students we work with, the other faculty that we work with that is the focus is the critical exploration of film and media texts.
Christian Keathley: [00:04:14] I believe the term videographic criticism probably originated with our colleague Catherine Grant. Part of the reason we embraced it is because we wanted to make a distinction between what we were doing and the video essays that were commonly showing up on YouTube and elsewhere. Now there’s obviously some overlap, but the terminology is meant to signal to some extent that we are scholars. Making work primarily for other scholars, if there is a viewership outside of academia, that’s great, but we want it very much as much as we could to communicate that.
Stacey Copeland: [00:04:47] This is a lot of what we’re thinking about with Amplify around podcasting too, is, is who’s the audience, right? What does it mean to articulate, uh, a particular audio work. Particular media work for a scholarly audience. You can tell both of you speaking on the subject, you’ve been thinking for a long time a, about this work. I mean, what brought you both to videographic criticism and kept you in it?
Christian Keathley: [00:05:10] So, when I was an undergraduate at university of Florida, many years ago, I had always imagined I wanted to be a film director. And then I got to college and I started reading. A lot of interesting scholarship, critical theory that, that excited me in a way that movies excited me. And I thought about what would, what would it be to adapt one of these, the way movies, adapt novels and so forth. And I did a master’s degree and I did one of these. I did this, um, one hour video called Clues. That was an adaptation of the historian Carlo Ginzburg‘s [essay] called Clues. And it was also about the Lindbergh kidnapping and it was also a family story and the three strands kind of wove together, but it was very much about adapting a scholarly piece, but working through with narrative elements and I did something similar, I did an MFA at the art Institute and I did another essay adaptation there.
Then I did a PhD and wrote a book on Cinephilia. And then after that was published, I wanted to come back to this a little bit. Technology had developed quite a bit. And so I started making short pieces again, short videographic pieces, primarily about individual films or individual scenes or so forth. And then I started to try to develop a class here at, um, Middlebury, because at that point I wasn’t the only one in academics that was getting interested in this thinking about presenting scholarship in this form. So I started teaching the class and I had to go through it a couple of times, and then each time Jason and I would talk about it. And Jason didn’t think he was interested in –
Jason Mittell: [00:06:45] [laughs] not at all,
Christian Keathley: [00:06:46] but then something changed. With this, I hand you the baton.
Jason Mittell: [00:06:50] Right, so, so my background is more, I would say traditional scholar, but of an untraditional thing. Television, you know I wrote books and articles. And I still do that some, but, you know, my thinking was very much like I enjoyed these conversations with Chris, we’re good friends where offices are down the hall, and I really liked the videos he was making, but I was very much more interested in digital humanities and digital publication. And that was sort of where my interest was in this. And I was one of the initial editorial members of this startup organization called media commons, which was trying to innovate the way in which academics and media studies were using, um, online technology for both creating scholarly communities and for disseminating material.
And I was also particularly interested in rethinking the role of peer review, which was something media comments was, was working with. So like the, that was my kind of interest here. And Chris was teaching this class and doing this and I said to him, Hey, you know, we should apply for a grant from the national endowment for humanities to run a workshop where you could teach. This mode of scholarly practice to faculty here, we applied once and didn’t get it and applied again and got it. And at the same time I was working with Chris and Catherine Grant and Drew Morton to develop [in] Transition as a project for Media Commons [in] Transition was born of the desire to find a way to have scholarly video essays, count. You know, for the work of, of academia. I was vested in thinking about, okay, how do we build a platform to make that work? And how do we think about peer review and whatnot? Whereas Chris and Katie and Drew were the, the editors, the founding editors of the journal.
Christian Keathley: [00:08:50] The trick was figuring out then how to teach this, how to approach it. Conceptually, I had been through several iterations of the class and they worked a little bit, but I felt like I hadn’t found it. One winter term here, we have a four week winter term at Middlebury. I was teaching a course called filmmaking with limits and, and it was an idea, I’m happy to admit, I stole from our friend, Eric Faden, who teaches at Bucknell. And the idea is all the assignments or exercises are form based. They’re not about content and there are strict parameters, formal parameters and restrictions on every single assignment and the students loved it. They thought it, they thought it was great fun. Let me give you one example. There’d be three people in a group and you tell them you have to make a two minute video, uh, silent. All three of you have to appear in the video, but only one person can appear on camera at a time. And every cut has to be motivated by an eyeline match. Go do something. And the goal was to get them to see that form generates content. Well, Jason and I had great fun coming up with ideas. And at some point we realized this is the way to teach videographic criticism.
That is you start teaching the tools and teaching the concepts with this, um, this kind of process of focusing on exercises that are parameter based and this is what got Jason really excited. And I have to say he’s particularly good at coming up with them.
Jason Mittell: [00:10:20] We figured out a way to get people to enter into an editing platform with the right mentality. The way that we phrase it in our workshops is, make first think later, this idea that you don’t go in- I mean, as scholars, we tend to think, oh, I have an idea and I wanna pursue that idea. And then I want to express that idea. And we found that like, a lot of the videographic work that we were seeing in, and this was in the, so in transition was formed in 2014 and the first workshop was in 2015. So this is around that era. Most, a lot, not most, but a lot of the videographic work we were seeing felt like it was, um, what you might call an illustrated lecture, you know, a conference presentation where someone stands up and tells you something for 20 minutes, and there’s nice, pretty pictures playing at the same time. And that felt like it wasn’t taking advantage of the form. But by doing these exercises that didn’t allow you to come in with an idea because you had to fit these very arbitrary parameters. It allowed people to make discoveries through the process, which is really what it’s all about.
Videographic criticism. It straddles between the research driven academic mind and the creative poetic, exploratory artist mind. And this really pushed faculty, many of the faculty who participated in our first workshop had, you know, been professors for 10, 20 years and suddenly we’re asking them not to think, but just to make something. And it was a shock for a lot of them, including myself, you know, as I learned how to do it through this process.
Stacey Copeland: [00:12:04] You brought up one of the key issues I find in trying to encourage other scholars to engage in any sort of, you know, quote unquote nontraditional scholarship or alternative scholarship modes. And that’s getting them excited about play again in ways that we’re just not really supposed to engage with when we’re, uh, you know, academics or professors. So what were some of those barrier breaking activities that you found worked best with some of the more maybe hesitant folks who had curiosities in getting involved in videographic criticism?
Christian Keathley: [00:12:38] Well, mostly with the workshops, of course we had a self-selecting audience cuz they had all applied. And there was at times maybe some resistance, not in a negative way, just in the old habits are hard to break kind of way. But that’s why the exercises we do in the first week are designed to feel arbitrary and they are applied very strictly. That is the exercises themselves sort of prevent that kind of thinking in advance and doing something. And they facilitate play. I remember in one of the first. Workshops recombining image and sound. And someone said, well, how, how does this constitute scholarship? And I remember Jason said, we didn’t ask you to make scholarship. We just asked you to play with images and sounds, that’s all you’re doing, but you’ll use that playful skill when you then turn back to trying to communicate ideas.
Jason Mittell: [00:13:33] The way in which we structure our workshop is the first week are these parameter driven exercises, which participants will work on one film or one television show for that entire week. So they’ll really get to know it and know it in a way that isn’t driven by ideas as much as patterns and discoveries. And then the second week they shift to a more of a scholarly project that they came to the workshop to work on sometimes about the same thing they were working on week one, sometimes different. But the goal is that you learn. How to learn in your editing platform. So we use Adobe Premiere, and the idea is by watching and playing with a film in Premiere, you’re going to make new discoveries that you couldn’t make just by watching it on your TV. That’s the mentality. And it we’ve seen a, a good number of people make, really important discoveries about. The, the work that they’re doing, including films that they have written books about. They’re like, oh, wow. I never noticed that until I broke it apart in Premiere. And suddenly I see it totally differently.
Stacey Copeland: [00:14:38] Yeah. I love that. The journal, [in] Transition, the first peer reviewed academic journal of this kind of content, right?, of videographic film and moving image studies. Could you walk me through a bit of the development of how you decided to go about peer reviewing this kind of scholarship?
Christian Keathley: [00:14:53] Part of the way this got started is Catherine Grant. And I were talking about this and we were motivated again, there’s this process that Jason raised about how do you legitimize this kind of work within the scholarly community? And so Katie Grant and I were talking about it and I think she had floated with me the idea of a journal that would be peer reviewed. Jason was doing things with Media Commons, and Drew Morton approached him about it. And Jason said, well, you guys should get together. So, part of this, again, was the desire to have a platform that was specifically a scholarly platform, right? That would, it would be a journal that people would submit work. It would be peer reviewed. Jason brought a lot of the open peer review concepts from Media Commons.
Jason Mittell: [00:15:42] Yeah, my investment in this whole project was, was not as a videographic critic. I had never done it. I hadn’t really see myself as interested in doing it. I was more interested in the digital publication end and rethinking peer review. Part of the Media Commons mission that was really forged by Kathleen Fitzpatrick, one of the co-founders, was to rethink peer review, especially advocating for open peer review. The peer review process, as it stands in, the humanities is very, it’s very idiosyncratic. In that you write something, it gets sent to, to people on average, who then read this and then tell you their perspective. And then you have to remake your work in order to fit their perspective. For the reader, they have no idea how the peer review process impacted the scholarship. Open peer review is the idea of saying, we want to go ahead and shine a light on this process so that we can understand what goes into making this type of scholarship. But for a new form, like videographic criticism, the crucial thing is that there’s no vocabulary for what makes a video essay good scholarship or not right?
I mean, sometimes you see something you’re like, oh, well, yeah, this definitely works. And you know it, but beyond that, like why, what makes this successful? So the model that we adopted from the very beginning, it [in] Transition is that all, everything we publish will have ideally two, sometimes there’s only one, but ideally two reviewers whose reviews are signed and published alongside the video. With the idea being that this will provide the vocabulary to explain why this video that someone’s watching is effectively scholarship. Kinda the audience that I imagine for this is things like tenure committees. So if you’re going out for tenure, and one of the things you’re submitting is this publish video essay, you know, the people who are on your tenure committees from other disciplines, or even a film scholar who doesn’t do this type of work may look at this video and say, this is weird. Cause a lot of the videographic work we published is experimental in a lot of ways. So you see this and they’re like, well, this is weird. I don’t understand this. Why is this legitimate? Well, to have two scholars sign their names to something to say, this is why this is legitimate. That to me was the real transformation. And what it would do is beyond just validate that individual person’s work, it would develop a vocabulary for the entire subfield to be able to say, these are the types of things that videographic criticism can do effectively. These are the types of. Innovations that we’re seeing, these are the types of areas for further exploration.
Stacey Copeland: [00:18:37] Yeah. It’s a great way to kind of articulate the importance of open peer review, especially when it comes to more emerging forms of scholarship and, and ones that people maybe don’t see as valid or counting in the same ways as traditional scholarship. It also makes me think more about how this might be applied in other visual centered disciplines. I think of like dance or theatre, being able to use a form like this, for instance, um, and how others might grow this out of the work that you’ve been doing within [in] Transition. I mean, where do you see it, videographic criticism, going next for the two of you?
Christian Keathley: [00:19:13] Where things go from here depends on a whole lot of people now. Not just a handful of people, me, Jason, Katie, Drew, and so forth. Since we’ve been doing the workshops, gosh, there must be now dozens of conference presentations about videographic work, conference panels, other journals now taking it up and publishing videographic criticism, a variety of them now. So this community of practice Jason described is strong in expanding all the time. And that’s really a lot of the momentum here.
Stacey Copeland: [00:19:47] Bringing up how I’m talking to the two of you, but this community of practice as you call it around videographic criticism has really just grown, it’s blossomed over the past few years, and I’ll be sure to put in the show notes for the audio blog, uh, a ton of those resources, because you know, getting into this topic myself, there’s just so much you can read through of the different developments from, you know, when you’re writing about it in like 2011 to now.
Jason Mittell: [00:20:15] I mean, Chris and I are, you know, very privileged to be tenured full professors and thus have very little at risk by experimenting. So I think that, that one of the things I really thought of after tenure is how do you leverage that privilege to be able to make risks that are gonna make a difference for other people? Right? So it’s not just like, oh, I can do what I want now. It’s like, I can do what I want and blaze a trail that other people can, you know, pick up the baton and run with right? And do interesting things, not just to say, now I’ve created this new form and everyone can make stuff like me, but rather to say, now I’ve opened the door to saying, Hey, this can be a lot of different things. And therefore, let’s see what you come up with. And that’s really, really important. I know I mean, not just for the two of us, but I know all, all of our collaborators on, [in] Transition, this is very much the goal of the journal is to make it a space in which people can come in, publish their work and feel like it’s being validated by a really supportive community. That’s gonna help them at their, you know, in their career paths as well. [Theme Music fades in]
Stacey Copeland: [00:21:30] You can find out more on videographic criticism @ videographicessay.org and check out the in transition journal @ mediacommons.org. Links in the show notes. A big thanks to Dr. Jason Mittell, and Dr. Christian Keathley for joining us here on Amplified this month. If you have comments or want to take this conversation further, please do reach out. We’re always interested in hearing from other folks engaging with scholarly, podcasting, and other modes of academic publishing. Thanks for listening to Amplified, a podcast about the sounds of scholarship, coming to you each month from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network.
Christian Keathley is Professor of Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. He is the author of: Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees (Indiana UP, 2007); The Videographic Essay: Practice & Pedagogy, co-authored with Jason Mittell & Catherine Grant; a BFI Film Classics volume on All President’s Men, co-authored with Robert B. Ray (Bloomsbury, 2023); as well as numerous articles. He is founding co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, and co-director of the NEH-supported workshop series Scholarship in Sound & Image.
Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture at Middlebury College. His books include Complex Television: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015), The Videographic Essay: Practice & Pedagogy (with Christian Keathley & Catherine Grant), and How to Watch Television (co-edited with Ethan Thompson; NYU Press, 2013; revised edition 2020). He is project manager for [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, co-director of the NEH-supported workshop series Scholarship in Sound & Image, and series editor of Videographic Books for Lever Press. In 2022, he received an NEH/Mellon Fellowship for Digital Publication for his project, “The Chemistry of Character in Breaking Bad: A Videographic Book,” the first NEH fellowship awarded for videographic criticism.
Links and Resources
“The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy” by C. Keathley, J. Mittell, & C. Grant: http://videographicessay.org/works/videographic-essay/index
Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshops in Videographic Criticism: https://sites.middlebury.edu/videoworkshop/
Journal of Embodied Research is an example shared by Jason of videographic work being done outside the field of film and media studies. A “peer-reviewed, open access, academic journal to focus on the dissemination of embodied knowledge through video”. https://jer.openlibhums.org/
Intro + Outro Theme Music: Pxl Cray – Blue Dot Studios (2016)
Written and produced by: Stacey Copeland