Head or Tails — The two Sides of Educators #Performance in #Videos

(this article was also published in the Media & Learning News, March 2018)

On the face side of the coin, there is the speaker. The Roman rhetorician Marcus Fabius Quintilian stated around 50 B.C.: “It is often the case that the same language is free in one speaker, foolish in another, and arrogant in a third.” (1)

As ancient this quotation is, it still resonates today and becomes almost comically obvious when watching certain videos of educators, performing as so called Talking Head. One speaker might be shy and freezes while talking, a second nervously twitches his facial muscles and a third may wiggle with his legs and hands, slightly hyperactive. Or as Felix Seyfarth coined it in an expert interview: “Some [speakers] are more successful, because they have a better handle on the camera/studio situation. In particular for scientists it is difficult not to get superficial, jovial or flippant when confronted with the demand to stick to five or six minutes, express themselves extremely precise, without reading off, but yet scripted and with an academic aspiration for the knowledge to be transferred. “

But there is another side to this coin: behind the camera. The speakers often work with a media designer (film maker), yet it is rare to find discussions mentioning the interference of the universities’ broadcast studio production set-up with the speaker’s performance. The following fictitious dialogue was composed entirely from sentences captured as transcripts from several educational video production events at different universities:
 
Film maker: “You can’t move, otherwise you get out of my depth of field.”
Educator: “This is really difficult! My brain has to rethink all the time. “
Film maker: “Try to stand upright!”
Film maker: “Shoulders back!”
Film maker: “Don’t wiggle around!”
Educator: “I guess I’m learning to swim”
 
The dialogue exemplifies several issues found in university studios around the world. The first quote shows how educators are put into a tight space, often even demarked by invisible borders. In that unfamiliar space, they are put into an even more unfamiliar situation with a camera, sometimes a green screen, lights in their face or Wacom tablets they need to control while talking. And while the instructions on their body posture coming from the media designers behind the camera are generally well meant, such feedback can make the situation yet more unfamiliar for educators: The feedback addresses the unconscious bodyschema of the speaker, but not the bodyimage and therefore, it can be assumed that he or her is not able to control such intrinsic movement patterns without highly controlled cognitive focus. As a result, the gestures and body posture of the speaker turns quiet unnaturally, and this awkwardness in turn becomes embodied in their cognition (self-referential gestures), throwing the already confused educators off even more. They are learning to swim, indeed.
 
But we are not condemned to a never-ending flood of awkward educational videos. There is a well-established body of knowledge within media and film studies as well as applied film making. We know that different media design can completely alter the appearance of a speaker. A different reading of Quintilian’s statement suggests that we can find the right language for a speaker, and in the same way we can find the right media design. Each speaker brings his or her own qualities, potentials and restrictions: There is no ‘one-style-fits-all’ approach to video media design. However, various universities take exactly this route, building expensive one-for-all studios, often featuring nothing but a flimsy green screen. A green screen is a powerful trick tool and if the educator needs to ride a dragon through the clouds, it certainly is the best choice. Yet most other shots can be realized more authentically without such tricks.
 
Every educator who embarks on, needs to practice speaking in front of the camera. And let’s be frank, even with training, it is a very difficult thing to learn. As Chris Boebel said: “How good are they on camera? First of all, there are some people; you just love to watch them perform. And then there are other people, like, ‘not really’.” (3).
 
But the media designers at universities are far from perfect, too. While some of us choose to minimize their own workload by forcing every speaker into the same standardized format, media designers can engage with the speakers and their topics on a deeper lever, becoming co-designers, who help to transform the educator’s knowledge into the audiovisual medium instead of just reproducing a presentation on video. This is where the potential of media design for educational video really lies.
 
To paraphrase Quintilian: “It is often the case that the same video style is free in one speaker, foolish in another, and arrogant in a third.” And while I wish I could ask Quintilian himself on his opinion on this interpretation in a Roman tavern over an amphora of wine, unfortunately todays virtual reality and artificially intelligent chat bots are not quite up to that task just yet. Educational media design remains a dynamic field with many avenues to explore as technology advances.

ps: some video-based impressions in a short mock-up: https://vimeo.com/123714676


Literature:
(1) Marcus Fabius Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, Book 12.
(2) Original in German: “Es gelingt manchen besser, weil sie mit der Kamera-/Studiosituation besser umgehen können. Es ist insbesondere für Wissenschaftler schwierig, sich mit der Anforderung auf fünf oder sechs Minuten begrenzt, sehr präzise, ohne vorzulesen aber doch gescriptet und mit der entsprechenden ›Flughöhe/Dichte‹ und dem akademischen Anspruch an das zu vermittelnde Wissen [nicht] oberflächlich, jovial oder flapsig zu werden.” Expert Interview with Felix Seyfarth, HSG, St. Gallen, in Zurich, 2015, in: (forthcoming) Spring 2018: Media Design Expertise for Videos in Higher Education — a Collection of Interviews with Lecturers, Filmmakers and Communication Experts from the Fields of Science Teaching, Media Design, Gesture Studies and Digital Education).
(3) Expert Interview with Chris Boebel, MIT, in Boston, 2015, in: (forthcoming) Spring 2018: Media Design Expertise for Videos in Higher Education — a Collection of Interviews with Lecturers, Filmmakers and Communication Experts from the Fields of Science Teaching, Media Design, Gesture Studies and Digital Education).