Compelling Video vs Compelling Research

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Way back on Aug 3, I wrote a piece on the technical challenges of creating an academic video that could have the same function as a written thesis. However, I think there's an even bigger challenge in that compelling video is typically NOT the same thing as a compelling research.

Compelling Video

For many classroom video projects, the goal has been to encourage students to be creative, to develop a rich narrative or even arouse the sense or emotions. Successful projects have included hip-hop videos, mini dramas, slide shows, or readings of family memoirs.

What they have NOT been are research papers. In fact, when one instructor reported that students read content over a series of bullet points, his comment was "the content of that film was actually excellent...but it was tortuous to watch".

As a culture, we generally have the expectation that a video is going to somehow engage us beyond the mere data. Either the images/music will be dynamic, or there will be some sort of "plot" or "parody" or there will be a "story" behind the history. This can be a good goal, but it's not the goal of research.

Compelling Research

There are many types of research methodologies, but most of them actually involve placing data over emotion or plot. A NASA researcher may count ring bands in Saturn, an anthropologist may observe behavior in unusual groups (maybe even watchers of reality TV) without passing judgment or a linguist may collect data from sources ranging from epic poetry to the most obscene pieces of graffiti - again without passing literary judgment.

Boring? Maybe. Critical? Yes. Because at some point, we may draw a hypothesis (maybe) on what we think is going on. But for many researchers, I think there's always a background concept that any conclusion may be overturned at any time by new data. Maybe a satellite will get closer to Saturn, or yet another piece of ancient prose will emerge from the dirt or they will find a better way of observing TV viewers. Some findings may seem definite, but really it could be reinterpreted in the context of a new finding later on. In other words, there is really no ending - only a series of ongoing chapters.

Why the emphasis on lack of judgment? Because many disciplines know the dangers that emotion and a predetermined conclusion can lead to. Archaeology is full of stories of governments using "data" (or lack thereof) in a constant game of historic one-upmanship. Similarly, linguists know that many people have used data on language origins to reinforce old ethnic tensions. We can all tell a compelling "story", but is it the right one? Is it the one we meant to tell?

I don't know, but one thing I can say is that a lot of good research it is really bad video. Interestingly, my "favorite" pieces of research are raw data points. It may be a map of data points, a chart of numbers, or a word list pulled from a dictionary. I may have an interpretation, but really, it is beneficial if multiple researchers can examine the same data and draw their own conclusions. Not only is this bad video, but it's probably bad PowerPoint too!

Back to Video

Now that I've taken a side trip to the researcher's ivory tower, I'm going to come back to earth and say I do believe that the narrative video does have a place in the academic curriculum. As much as I may love words lists, I also know that most non-linguists find it gibberish (much as I would an astronomical table).

At some point, the scientific community has to find a way to disseminate key findings to the public, and video is a great way to do that. Thus far, most academics have left it to others to do the task of dissemination - whether it be journalists, video producers, free lance writers or Star Trek writers. Now I will say that these folks have produced some fine work, but in a lot of cases, the results seem a little dubious.

Perhaps the lesson of video is that academics need to find a way to take what they have learned and repackage it in a way that is compelling to the average educated adult, yet accurate enough to be useful. Because a better informed society just makes better decisions. On on a more personal level...although this skill might not help a researcher get the next NSF grant, it may make more NSF grants possible in the future.

And Back to Rigor in Video

Before I could press the "Submit" button, I realized that there is an ethical component to consider. There are actually are academics who have mastered this skill of presenting academic information to the public, but sometimes it can be presenting disinformation to the public. I think this is where academic rigor is important in video - it just isn't the same role as in an written thesis. Maybe responsible videos will include a written component for video projects. It works for PBS.

2 Comments

Elizabeth, you're doing a great series on video. We've successfully pigeonholed video as a fun, popular medium that can rise as high as edutainment but not much else. Can video be more than a package for low stakes information delivery to relatively uninspired masses? I'm thinking that as long as we judge it with the same standards that we use to judge music videos or late night TV, that's all it will ever be. Would you describe a favorite list of data points as having "excellent content" but being "tortuous to read"? Probably not, though you'd recognize the differences between the data list and Asimov's latest. I think it's critical that you're looking at this and are writing about it here.

ELIZABETH J PYATT Author Profile Page said:

Interesting comments again. Actually data points are a little tortuous to read if you think of reading in terms of a novel. For me, data is about scanning (and scanning quickly). You mentioned video scrubbing last time, and I think it's a factor here.

If I were watching a video tape for specific data points, I might play it quickly until I heard a target word, then slow down and probably repeat it several times (I wish more tools included the 4 second window like Parity does).

There are great uses of video for research (e.g. motion studies), but the analysis still usually happens in text. Maybe what I'm saying is that most video projects we are seeing are like non-fiction general audience books (which can be good), and not true research projects.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in the back of our minds.

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