In my first year composition course, first semester, my students do a group project. This project is a digital presentation (video, new media, multimedia presentation). They are supposed to analyze a commercial rhetorically: audience, argument, appeals. They may also analyze the commercial using the conceptual elements (design, play, empathy, meaning, narrative, symphony [big picture], and innovation).
This has been a very successful assignment and students really like it.
Note: My university is very technology enhanced. That is part of the focus of the university. We have an entire learning studio with audio rooms, video rooms, cameras, video cameras, and computers with editing software that the students can use. We also have at least four full-time workers in those rooms available to help students with projects.
The assignment set up
To introduce this assignment, I use TCE’s Analyzing Videos post. This post was designed to look at non-professional videos or those which were not commercials, but some of the ideas are relevant. Some of them are not, however, so I may revise this idea next semester.
After we discuss the post, we watch a university-created video. I divide the class into three large groups to discuss the three “points” the video covers. Students are supposed to look for where each of the adjectives that describe our university are used and where examples of those adjectival meanings are presented in the video. They are also supposed to look for misleading, false, or inaccurate information. (The students’ experiences of the university are not monolithic. Some students find issues with the video that others vehemently disagree with.)
After we watch the video as a class, I give the students time in their groups to discuss it. Then the groups report to the class on their findings.
Usually each class has someone mention an aspect of the video which is clearly a public relations slant. (Videos taken in front of “the only flowers on campus” or some such.) We discuss that and talk about whether and to what degree that is appropriate/inappropriate for the venue of “university-created video on how wonderful university is”–so basically on a commercial for the university.
The whole-class practice
Then in class we watch several commercials. Among them have been: Dove Evolution
Dove Beauty Pressure
Chrysler’s Imported from Detroit
Budweiser’s 9/11 Commercial, though the 9/11/11 version is a better quality video.
Klondike’s Five Seconds to Glory
Since I’ve done this before, I am able to also show them several examples of student drafts of commercial analyses, but they don’t really need them. Last year’s videos were not significantly different in quality for the first draft from this year’s. (But this year I had drafts and last year the first draft was the final version.)
We talk about the target audience and how we can identify them as the target and about their expected response to the commercial and our reasons for thinking that.
These audiences can be identified by many different elements, which can include gender, social class, educational levels, professions, hobbies, geographic location, and political or religious ideology.
We talk about unintended audiences and how they might react to the commercial. (Some of these are positive and some are negative.)
We talk about the argument the commercial is making and how it makes it.
We talk about ethos, pathos, and logos in the commercial.
We talk about unexpected elements or surprises and how that impacts the video.
We talk about the images within the video and where they came from and what they are and the symbolism the commercial is creating/using with those images.
We talk about use of color, camera angles, and fashion.
Then the students begin their own commercial analysis, which culminates in a digital presentation.
I have evolved a very involved, but simple process, based on experience and conference presentations from other people on the same or similar ideas.
I start by asking folks to self-identify if they have created a project with iMovie or Movie Maker (though we are an Apple-centric campus) or Final Cut Pro or some other video software. If I have six or more students who raise their hands, I stop and announce that they are the group leaders.
If I don’t have that many, I continue with other technology experience questions.
Next I ask who has created a Prezi or a PowerPoint or Keynote with sound.
Finally I ask about people who have worked with Photoshop or Lightroom.
Usually by this point I have the number of group leaders I need.
I tell the class that those folks (who raise their hands again at this point) are the group leaders and ask everyone to self-group.
I only allow groups of three to four students. This means that a class of twenty-five (the maximum for our fyc courses) will have six to eight groups.
All students choose three commercials to watch on YouTube or equivalent.
I get emails with the links for the individual’s commercials. The email includes a one paragraph per commercial discussion of the commercial’s content and why the student chose that one as one of their top three.
They then send links to “their” commercials to all others in their group.
By the end of that, each student has watched at least nine commercials and could have watched twelve. (Though many watch a lot more than that looking for “good” ones.)
I actually don’t tell them what kind of commercials to look for. They just pick ones they remember, most often. Some few, who don’t watch any commercials, probably Google “good commercials” to find the ones they choose.
Then, after everyone has watched the commercials, the group has to decide which one they will work on together. I have never been around when they chose these, so I assume that someone who is very verbal and/or bull-headed could get his/her choice picked by sheer dent of argument, but most people seem happy with their group’s commercial. I think this is because there are so many good commercials out there that the students can choose from.
Then I get a group email with the name of the group and a link to the commercial the group chose. (I teach email etiquette and I sometimes grade these.)
After that the groups begin work.
Parameters of the digital presentation assignment
I tell the students that they must have images, text, and audio in their digital presentations.
Though they can use clips from the commercial, they may not include the entire commercial in their analysis. (We watch the commercial before we watch each presentation.)
They may also use clips from other commercials for the same product. (I have had students do this to show lack of gender and/or age bias, even if the particular commercial they are examining is focused on a very specific target audience.)
The time limit does NOT include any filler. So, for example, if they have a thirty-second sword fight in the video for no purpose other than to get to three minutes, I will not consider the video to be long enough. (They get the point.)
They must AT LEAST cover the target audience of the commercial, but they can cover just about any other thing they wish to.
The groups need a script. (This is because otherwise some groups will simply ad lib and the work is not as strong.)
The digital presentation quality rubric
Digital Presentation Rubric
On this rubric, I have very little about the topic. That is because we have been discussing it all the time. I also try to remember (sometimes I succeed) to give them the Digital Presentation Peer Review handout in email, so that they can see what might go into their work.
The groups get together outside of class to work on the project.
While the students are working on the group projects out of class, in class we are beginning the visual rhetoric essay. All the requirements for that assignment are done in class–except for choosing an artifact.
Many of the aspects we talk about for this essay also can be applied to the commercial analysis. Students may use any part of this information in their analyses as well.
We read a chapter from our textbook related to analyzing images. The students are given an extra credit option of creating good notes from the chapter. (Usually over half the students do that assignment, perhaps because it relates to over a quarter of their final grade.)
I use this handout as the note-taking outline for a lecture on the topic of examining art.
How to look at art
This allows me to intervene in a group if needed and/or to substantiate a group’s need to “vote someone off the island.” (I do tell them at the beginning that if someone is not contributing, they can be ousted from the group. I have had one group do this. I have also had one person remove herself from a group. Each of those people created their own digital presentation.)
In the third week, students bring a mobile device (computer or iPad) with their video uploaded. Then I rearrange the groups so that no two people from the same commercial analysis group are watching the same digital presentation and have three to four people peer review each video.
All the students who watch a video are supposed to fill out their own review sheet, so that the group has multiple perspectives on their work.
This is the peer review sheet the students use.
Digital Presentation Peer Review
This does several things:
1. Lets students see if they are on track or really off.
2. Lets students see good examples and ways they can improve their video.
3. Gets the groups several different perspectives on their video.
4. Gives students confidence that they know what they are doing.
Group conferences/Teacher review
Then I have group conferences for the next two class periods. The entire group comes by my office with their digital presentation and I do an on-spot critique.
These are during class so that all members of the group are able to attend my review of their work. I allot twenty minutes to these meetings.
Note: This has not been perfect. One group had done a decent job on part of the assignment but not the other. I could not think of any way to tell them to fix it besides “do it all over.” I just don’t think that fast. So next year, I will ask for a flash drive with their commercial analysis on it and watch each one BEFORE the conferences, so that I can have some time to determine what to tell them.
Making it a big deal
The first year, we simply watched the videos in class. They are very amazing and fun. But I realized I wanted to make a bigger “deal” out of the presentations, so I decided to create a premiere event.
I reserve a room on campus (not a classroom) where more than one class can come and I can serve food. The room I reserve on our campus has space for multiple round tables, where folks can eat, and space for a “movie theater” type set up in front of the projection screen. It is not perfect, as the screen is centered on the wall, but the projector is not, so about 1/5 of the image is not on the screen. For space issues, though, it is the best.
Then I send an invitation to the Premiere Event to the students. We have Gmail on campus and the little icons dress up the invitations. I include BOTH classes invitations in one email, because I give extra credit to students who come to both events.
At the Premiere Event, I provide snacks.
Note: It is good to tell the students there will be food. Otherwise, they’ve already eaten and don’t want any. That is a pain when you have carried the stuff across campus!
Students eat and enjoy some time together around the tables.
Premiere peer reviews
Then I move everyone to the movie theater seating, where the Premiere Peer Review sheets are waiting.
Premiere peer review
I have asked students for different information at each premiere.
Usually I ask the students to label the commercial by title of the commercial and then take a few notes. These can include: whether the students’ names are included in the video, whether they have a Works Cited at the end, the audio and image quality of the video, and the strongest idea/point/section of the video. Sometimes I just ask them to put a star, minus, equal sign for (yes, no, and kind of).
Students rank presenations
After we have watched all the presentations, I ask the students to rate the top two commercial analyses–not including their own.
I have done different things with these ratings.
This year I gave 10 points for each #1 and 5 points for each #2 and put the total scores in the homework average as a single extra credit slot. (I also–without telling them–gave all the presentations that were turned in 20 points. That way no one felt totally rejected.)
This was a little unfair as one class had 25 students, and six visiting students, and the other had 16 students, with four additional students. I haven’t really figured out a simple way to fix that problem.
My perspective on the assignment
Students do well with this assignment. They enjoy it.
I enjoy the results.
I don’t handle everything in this class. I don’t discuss group dynamics. I don’t teach them how to use the technology. (Though I do alert them to the resources available for that on campus.) I don’t teach them how to write scripts or edit videos. So far none of these lacks appears to have doomed anyone to a poor grade.
My colleagues sometimes think that digital presentations are outside our scope of practice. I explain that it is a composition and that students are supposed to be learning to write/create compositions that they can use in other classes. I think this counts.
My colleagues sometimes think that students are “automatically” great at visual rhetoric analysis and that none of the preparation work I do is necessary. None of those colleagues have taught a digital presentation, so I ignore that.
Potential issues with commercials
I do tell the students that they need to do research to make sure that the commercial they choose is a legitimate commercial and/or what the commercial’s background is. My first year’s groups had two problems.
The groups covering these two commercials did a good job of analyzing audience and pinpointing potential problems. HOWEVER, neither of them did any research on the commercial.
The Nolan Cheddar Cheese commercial is actually a rÃ©sumÃ© item for an animatronics creator. Oops.
And the Stop the Bullets commercial is, as they thought, British, but not really an ad to convince voting age people to pass anti-gun laws. The British have very strict anti-gun laws already in place. (Some information in very positive approach can be found here and a newspaper account here.)