The Audio-Visual Essay in Teaching and Research Symposium – A Report/Reflection

Keith Johnston and Sarah Godfrey, co-organisers of the recent symposium ‘The Audio-Visual Essay in Teaching and Research’ held at UEA on Tuesday 19th May, have written us a very insightful Report/Reflection on the event…


Conference or symposium reports tend to be written by people who can offer a (hopefully) impartial view of the day, commenting on the content of panels and the overall success of an event: Carolyn Rickard’s recent blog post for this very site is a great example of that kind of writing.

This, then, can’t be a traditional report because we were the organisers of this event, and know too much of the behind-the-scenes organisation (from why there were only two people on the second panel to why there were no Jammie Dodgers with the tea and coffee). Acknowledging, then, our completely partial knowledge of the event what we aim to write here is not a report on the symposium – this won’t be a paper-by-paper, panel-by-panel analysis – but a reflection on what we set out to do, what worked (intellectually, not in terms of biscuit allowance), and what bigger issues the whole symposium raised.

Expanding our knowledge of the audio-visual (AV) essay was at the heart of this symposium, and one of the key aims driving the larger project of which the symposium was part. We have been investigating the possibility of introducing the AV essay as an assessment method within UEA undergraduate work, partly to find ways of breaking down the recurrent divide that often appears around theory and practice. The symposium was – in part – a way to engage with parallel work done by colleagues at other institutions (and by engage, we largely mean shamelessly borrow the approaches that worked), and to present some of our own findings. That latter element was delivered by a team led by UEA’s Denzell Richards (also including Miriam Bross, Stephen Mitchell, Toby Reynolds and Carolyn Rickards) who discussed the experiences of tutors and first year undergraduate students when teaching / assessing the AV essay for the first time. This successful trial, taking place in a film history module (and not a film aesthetics or AV essay course), produced high levels of engagement and attainment, albeit after initial student reservations. It was clear, however, that tutors and students alike tended to return to that question: what should an audio-visual essay look (and sound) like?

Mirroring that concern, various terms rose and fell in prominence through the symposium: audio-visual essay, videographic essay, video essay, desk-top documentary… While most in the audience agreed with keynotes Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López that video essay wasn’t a great term because it ignored the audio dimensions, it was clear that definitions / taxonomy could become as much of a problem as a benefit to this newly developing field. It was only late in the day that Catherine Grant pointed out that a recurring binary around ‘explanatory’ and ‘poetic’ AV essays wasn’t representative or useful. The wide continuum of work that already exists in this field cannot be reduced or encapsulated by such terms (and indeed, there are similar continua across theory/practice, art/essay, analyst/producer) and that spectrum was displayed in many of the examples shown here: from Susan Smith’s experiments drawing from her own research on Elizabeth Taylor and Pasquale Iannone’s work on Italian neo-melodic montage to WeZ Nolan’s fascinating participant-led video research.

Several papers demonstrated the richness afforded by that continuum, discussing how the use of audio-visual means to explore, interrogate, and analyse film/visual/audio forms opens up more opportunities than it closes down, usefully blurring boundaries between the aforementioned categories of academic, essayist, producer or artist. Indeed, the symposium directly complicated the specificity of the current terms and definitions under debate. All three keynote speakers and Nick Warr’s overview of video art (and video art criticism) offered historical parallels and complications to the audio-visual turn that has recently developed in media studies: an important historical reminder that the AV essay is part of a longer, richer heritage that needs to include ‘essay film’, ‘collage / montage’ and ‘video art’.

For us, however, while the research papers and keynotes gave food for thought (not least in terms of our own practice and slowly developing audio-visual pieces), the discussion over teaching remained the most potent of the day. Chiara Grizzaffi’s observation that we are still learning to do with images what we do with words was echoed by Katie Grant’s point in her keynote address that handling the materials of analysis (rather than using them at a distance, describing them through words) remains new and can feel unfamiliar. This was a direct echo of our own experience of student anxiety about the form and expectations of this kind of work. The emphasis on play, on experimentation, recurred throughout several papers, but it raises the question of how we teach our students (and colleagues) to be playful when we also institutionally require them to work within (much less playful) assessment boundaries (or, in terms of colleagues, the likes of the REF – which came up a couple of times!) Adrian and Cristina’s example of condensing a feature film into a short AV essay that identifies a central theme remains a potent approach, as does the film history model developed by Denzell and his team. These examples, and others from the day, show the potential scope for different approaches within pedagogy, perhaps another continuum of this new approach as it develops. As a tool, the audio-visual essay contains scope for future application, but as Garwood, Grizzaffi and others revealed, we are still in the early days of figuring out all the details. Based on the symposium discussions, the key seems to be not setting parameters or strict definitions, but embracing the idea of playfulness as a way of furthering that creative and academic potential.

In conclusion, then, what we learned at the symposium was partly what we hoped and suspected:

  • That starting to produce an AV essay is hard, but worthwhile. Susan Smith made a valid point about the time it took for her to produce her pieces: this mirrors our own experience, and may be a particular block to other colleagues and students joining in
  • That you need to keep producing. Katie Grant talked about having several essays on the go at once, waiting for moments of serendipity and inspiration, again allowing space to play with the material
  • That we need to balance the ‘fantasy’ of what we think the AV essay can do with student’s own experiences and ‘reality’. Ian Garwood made a great point that students can often focus on the skills of production and forget the intellectual purpose of the essay
  • That we shouldn’t forget the audio element here. Aidan Delaney made a great defence of the use of voiceover in the AV essay, linked to ideas of performance and auditory learning. However, as Pasquale, Katie, Adrian and Cristina demonstrated through their examples, music and dialogue remain key elements to the success of an essay
  • That essays are not supercuts. As Adrian and Cristina argued, the AV essay does more than just collect, it compares, interrelates and articulates in order to critique. Linked to the teaching experiences expressed through the symposium, we wonder if that is where students (and colleagues new to the form) struggle most?
  • That assessment may be the key here to the expansion of this for students, and for encouraging colleagues to develop this within their own teaching practice (and, arguably, research). Adrian and Cristina get students to do individual work; Denzell and his team had students work in groups: examples of both reveal strong work, but raise as many questions about how to grade such work as answer them

All in all, then – the lack of Jammie Dodgers aside (they didn’t have any at the shop, that’s the only reason, we promise) – we feel the symposium did what it intended to do. It brought a group of disparate scholars and teachers together to talk about this new form of essay production. It offered entry level descriptions of research and teaching practice to encourage others to try it out. It raised a series of pedagogical and methodological questions. And – we hope – it was simply the first of many such events that help to develop and solidify this work within the field.

A Storyify of Tweets from the day here can also be found here: http://sfy.co/t0R9p

By Keith M. Johnston and Sarah Godfrey

Senior Lecturers in the Department of Film, Television and Media.

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