YouTube Scholarship

Web video isn’t just about dogs attacking toilets and guys skiing down escalators (to mention two recent YouTube videos championed by TopYouTubeVideos.com)–it also can be a powerful mode for disseminating ideas. Universities such as UC Berkeley and USC now have their own YouTube channels, and digital humanities groups such as MITH and HASTAC are making available talks and conference summaries through YouTube. In “Thanks to YouTube, Professors Are Finding New Audiences,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that over 100,000 people view some scholars’ YouTube lectures and that web video is becoming an important medium for “public intellectualism.” Billed as “You-Tube for ideas,” web sites such as FORA.tv and the recently-launched BigThink make available talks by and interviews with prominent thinkers such as Steven Pinker, Isabel Allende, and Kwame Anthony Appiah.

Although it seems that most academic web videos take the form of lectures, some scholars are using video to share research data or develop new approaches to making scholarly arguments. Perhaps the most prominent example of a scholarly digital video is Michael Wesch’s The Machine is Us/ing Us, which has been viewed over 4.3 million times and demonstrates the impact that a researcher can have by disseminating work through YouTube. Wesch, a cultural anthropologist who won a 2007 Rave Award from Wired and the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Media Praxis from the Media Ecology Association, found that the standard academic essay was the wrong medium for exploring Web 2.0–video better captured its dynamic nature. In Wesch’s video, the web is in a sense itself the central character, and the fast-paced editing and techno music reflect the central argument. Scientists are also beginning to recognize the power of video for documenting experiments, communicating with fellow scientists, and reaching out to the general public, as Maxine Clarke observes in Video as a tool for science communication. For example, SciVee, a sort of You Tube for science, launched last fall; it is operated by the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC). At SciVee, scientists can increase the visibility of their research by uploading “pubcasts,” “the combination of a scientific publication and video or audio presentation.” For example, you can watch a computational biologist discuss his work on the structure of proteins, read the associated paper (which is synchronized to the talk and made available as open access), find related resources, and make comments. As a non-scientist, I have much easier time understanding someone talking about research than comprehending a scientific paper. SciVee also makes available lectures, such as Fran Berman of the San Diego Supercomputing Center talking about cyberinfrastructure for the humanities. To encourage contributions, SciVee provides tutorials that guide contributors through the process of making pubcasts (the very name makes me crave a Guinness) and explains that pubcasts increase the visibility of research. Scientific journals are also incorporating video, such as the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), which bills itself as “an online research journal employing visualization to increase reproducibility and transparency in biological sciences.”

Now comes a new model for using video in scholarship: the YouTube conference abstract. HASTAC II, which focuses on “techno-travels,” includes an intriguing requirement in its CFP: “In addition to filling out an application, participants will be required to make a two minute video of their proposal, upload it to YouTube and tag the YouTube video with ‘HASTAC2008.’” Wow! I’ve never before seen such a requirement, but it fits squarely with HASTAC’s aim to promote innovative approaches to communication and collaboration across (and beyond) academia. Since many of the posters and demos will likely focus on GIS Maps, mashups, geographic visualizations, and the like, video would represent dynamic, visual media much more effectively than a textual description would. By making available the videos through YouTube, HASTAC can reach a broader audience. Short videos describing multimedia projects might even serve digital preservation, since one could study how the project actually worked. Before attending a conference, I’d love to check out brief video previews of the talks so that I could know what to expect (and get a sense of how good the presenter will be). Video abstracts would also serve those who can’t attend conferences. Since I have two kids under four and therefore don’t travel to many conferences, I would really appreciate being able to see what I missed. For the presenters, HASTAC’s requirement poses a thrilling challenge: how to express complex ideas in a two-minute video. What fun!

But the realist in me (who is much less fun than the dreamer in me) wonders if this requirement may deter some people from submitting conference proposals, since they may lack the skills, time and resources necessary to put together a short video. Perhaps I’m being too skeptical; the HASTAC folks certainly know the community of likely presenters better than I, and I would bet that many digital humanities folks would be adept at producing videos. Even if the presenters aren’t experienced video producers, they could find collaborators who could help out with
the technical details, or they could take up the challenge to themselves learn how to make a simple video. Although it does take some time to make a video (I’d estimate it would take about 8 hours for a novice to produce a 2 minute piece), the process is lots of fun and isn’t that difficult. After all, hundreds of thousands (millions?) of people have figured out how to upload videos to YouTube, which had over 500,000 user accounts in 2006. One could use an inexpensive camcorder or even a webcam to capture footage and put together the video using free editing tools such as iMovie and MovieMaker–or one could bypass a camcorder altogether and use screen capture or slideshow software. In any case, I think the benefits to be gained from experimenting with this approach to scholarly communications outweigh the risk that some potential presenters might not be up for the challenge.

Indeed, I hope that HASTAC ’s requirement will stimulate more humanities scholars to experiment with video. Even as culture shifts toward visual media, I’ve noticed a general lack of interest in video as a means of scholarly communication. Almost every scholar knows how to bang out an essay in a word processor, but far fewer know how to craft a movie. As the manager of a university digital media lab, I’ve encountered few faculty members who want to produce their own videos, although some scientists have borrowed camcorders to capture experimental data. At most of the traditional literature conferences that I’ve attended, you’re considered cutting-edge (or freakish) if you use PowerPoint, never mind video. (I should say that the very best paper I saw at the 2007 American Literature Association conference was a beautifully delivered, brilliant talk on Whitman that Ed Folsom gave without any technological aids except paper–but I sure wish I had a video recording of that talk). I suspect that the obstacles to video scholarship (there’s got to be a better name) are the familiar ones: lack of training, resources, time, incentives, etc.

We need more models for multimedia scholarship, as well as more motivation for scholars to produce it. That’s why HASTAC’s experiment is so exciting, since it gives researchers a reason to play with video. I’ve made a few videos–a twenty-minute documentary about a feminist activist in Houston and a couple of short digital stories, as well as the obligatory kid vids–and I can testify to how exhilarating the process is. I get caught up in thinking about how to use images and audio to express ideas, how to assemble clips into a coherent narrative, what to cut to get to the essence. With video, I can follow that old writing adage of showing rather than telling, whether it’s the passion of an activist or the way a web site works. Then there’s the satisfaction of interacting with the audience. After I released my digital story about Oveta Culp Hobby on YouTube, I got great feedback and heard new stories from her son and grandson, as well as from a history grad student working on a dissertation about her.

What will it take to encourage more scholars to make videos? Two communities provide possible models:

  • Digital storytelling: Since the 1990s, the Center for Digital Storytelling has trained thousands of people to produce their own digital stories, two-to-three minute personal narratives that usemultimedia (photos, video, music, sound effects, and the human voice) to tell the story. Teachers are finding that digital storytelling is a powerful way to motivate students and show them both how to craft a narrative and how to use technology, while the BBC is using digital storytelling to engage its audience in sharing their own stories. I attended a digital storytelling workshop last year and was amazed that my colleagues learned how to create such compelling stories in only three days. For instance, David Noah’s Photo Opportunities and Kerry Ballast’s Rituals illustrate the power of digital stories to move viewers and explore ideas such as family, duty, ritual, memory, and the nature of photographic representation.
  • Digital journalism: In 1997, veteran photojournalist Dirck Halstead published The Platypus Papers, which recommended that photojournalists prepare themselves for the increasing prominence of the Internet and learn new skills in multimedia production. Halstead founded The Digital Journalist, which bills itself as “a multimedia magazine for Photojournalism in the Digital Age”; he also runs Platypus Workshops to train photojournalists in multimedia technologies.

Both of these communities provide training programs to help people quickly develop the skills to make their own digital narratives. In both communities people have powerful motives to learn these skills, whether to express themselves, develop communication strategies for community organizations, advance students’ knowledge of narrative and new media, or make a living as a photojournalist. Perhaps one way to encourage scholars to produce videos, then, is to offer training programs that would allow them to learn key skills and would build a community of practice. Universities are beginning to offer courses that explore the rhetoric of video, such as “Writing with video.” I’d love to see the NEH’s Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities program fund a workshop focused on video. Humanities scholars also need more forums (channels?) for publishing research-related video. In disciplines such as art history, film and media studies, and cultural anthropology, video would allow scholars to incorporate visual evidence into their work and explore ideas dynamically. Of course, some humanities journals are already pioneering the publication of multimedia scholarship; for instance, the Journal of Multimedia History provided an early model for using audio and images in historical scholarship, and Vectors is publishing thrilling, fascinating multimedia essays.

While some types of academic arguments certainly work best as books, articles or blog posts, I think that video will eventually become an important scholarly medium. I’m eager to see what the HASTAC folks come up with–I’ll certainly stay tuned.

2 responses to “YouTube Scholarship

  1. I enjoyed chancing upon your blog this morning, which ended with this one, somewhat dated, I see. I spent last semester teaching about and on YouTube in an experimental class (www.youtube.com/mediapraxisme). While I entirely agree that video will become an important scholarly medium, I learned from the course that YouTube’s corporate imperatives are limiting the complex functions we need to teach and write well with video in an academic setting. Of course other sites can and will offer what might work better, but I think it’s important to think historically about the quick (corporate-led) consolidation of media forms and formats, and how YouTube video (short, concise, easy to get: what I call slogans) are quickly becoming the standard for all on-line video. I write extensively on this on my blog, aljean.wordpress.com and would love feedback from HASTAC-types.

    Alex

  2. Hi Alex,

    Great to hear from you! I’ve been fascinated by your YouTube experiment and can certainly see limitations with YouTube. There are alternative sites for scientists (such as SciVee) and educators (such as EduTube), but I worry that if academics set up their own video sites they will isolate themselves from the rest of the culture. But maybe sites set up around particular communities of interest can break down those potential barriers….

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