Conclusion: What have we learned?
Could the videos produced in fulfillment of this assignment have been more intellectually rigorous, more self-aware, more carefully edited and executed? Definitely. But as they are, they show a wide range of strategies for composing with sound, a much wider range than we suggested or taught. Can we as instructors offer guidance to students composing with sound? Definitely, as long as we don't make the mistake of limiting their choices, boxing them in when in fact we want them to employ the creative spirit that drives the box logic Sirc has described. Our research team, as teachers of this assignment, have learned that we and anyone else who might teach a variation on this assignment, can offer our students more direction, or more prompts, than we did in the fall of 2005. Rather than simply suggest that students start with a song and illustrate the song, or start with a concept and support that concept with music, we can offer them the general categories of literal illustrations of songs, associative applications of songs, background enhancements through songs, and mixed methods. These strategies can be suggested along with the range of genres we have already identified (the traditional video, the trip video, the concept video -- categories that would benefit from additional analysis and definition, but that is another article.
One of the ways in which we and others will be able to draw more educational value out of this assignment is to use the kind of post-assignment self-analysis that Jody Shipka suggests for multimodal composing tasks. Shipka makes strong arguments for seeing the complexity in these tasks and in acknowledging that "students are able to prove that, beyond being critically minded consumers of existing knowledge, they are also extremely capable, critically minded producers of knowledge" (292). Where we have asked the students simply to reflect on their time commitment, their experiments with PowerPoint, and their use of visual composition strategies, Shipka suggests that students articulate their goals for a multimodal composition, then explain how their composing choices were intended to meet those goals, as well as why they made those choices rather than other choices (289-90). The students in our study were generally able to provide these kinds of explanations during the interviews, and revealed, in cases like Amanda Houkom and Erich Wilkerson, methodical and careful composition strategies. Rich Rice, in his collaboration with Cheryl Ball, expresses a concern that "Students who use presentation or form to schmooze the audience, but do not themselves understand the rhetorical affect or even why they're presenting what they are presenting, limit their opportunity to learn." What we found in our students, and see in the work of other students discussed in others' scholarship, is a high level of understanding on the part of students, an understanding that we have tried to tap into through this research.
If instructors want to try and ensure that students use some of the more demanding tasks and strategies that we saw employed in this assignment, certain multimodal composing tasks could be required.
1. Splicing and remixing of music was a new and demanding task for those students who worked with multiple clips. Selecting 3-5 clips, yet still producing a coherent whole, demands careful consideration of the clip selection, the arrangement, and the co-ordination of the music with the images and/or text.
2. Privileging, even requiring, the associative approach over literal or background uses of music would force students to acknowledge the meaning and intent of the song(s) being used, and then require a careful and coherent match between their own purpose and the original song's message. We have suggested that this approach is analogous to incorporating research into a print-based essay—a task we know that most students find difficult and demanding.
3. Assigning "degrees of difficulty" to certain tasks can give students a range of tasks to attempt, and such guidelines can give instructors a clearer sense of how to respond to student work accordingly. Literal illustrations and background enhancements can demand careful and nuanced literal illustrations, they can demand precise co-ordination between the movements of a Concerto and the movements of images or text on a screen, and the careful choice of music can bring a variety of moods, tones, tempos, and cultural associations to a particular video. Of course a difficult task for one student is not always a difficult task for another student, so students and instructors would have to work out individualized "degree of difficulty" grading contracts.
The field of composition, as it considers the implications of "composing with sound," is perhaps rediscovering an underutilized set of hermeneutic strategies students may already have developed. Kate Ronald and Hephzibah Roskelly argued for "Listening as an Act of Composing," although even in 1986 they worried that students' "headphones attested to their comfort with the passive sort of response to music that lulls a hearer" (29). Our interviews with student composers, and the reflections of students in Ellertson's and Ball's work, suggest that there is much more going on than passive reception of popular music. We can see that students generally listened carefully to lyrics -- and listened actively in the sense that they listened for images and concepts to illustrate directly or themes or motifs to play with. Composing with sound assignments might be able to build off of this willingness upon the part of students to listen carefully, whether as the basis for analytical assignments, for other kinds of multimodal composing assignments, or as an analogy for teaching close reading.
We also learned from our surveys that 53 of 60 students put in more time on this assignment than they put into the other assignments in the course, 7 put in the same amount of time, none said they put in less time; ten did not respond to this question, perhaps not wanting to acknowledge that they put in less time. Not all students indicated on the survey how much time they put into the assignment, but only 13 said they spent less than 10 hours on the assignment, and 27 said they spent between 10 and 15 hours on the assignment. While putting all this time and effort into a small assignment might not be what instructors think is in the students' best interest, we think that writing teachers need to recognize what kinds of assignments elicit commitment and effort and build assignment sequences around those kinds of assignments. We have collected additional information through surveys and interviews that suggest that students found the assignment both technically and intellectually challenging, but that topic needs further exploration and definition. We also found students regularly commenting on the fact that they learned quite a bit about fair use guidelines and copyright law, a topic we hope to elaborate on in a future publication.
The technologies that support composing with sound are becoming increasingly stable and affordable, making it likely that opportunities to do music videos in any number of software programs, podcasts, or any kind of audio recording that blends music and dialogue, will seem increasingly feasible. Music is so clearly important to our students that we overlook an opportunity to engage students with innovative assignments when we choose to only analyze music, or not include it in our courses at all. Students bring to the tasks of composing with music some strong, intuitive skills that if exposed and tapped can potentially lead to stronger text-based compositions as well.