Cross Cultural Video Production

Cross-Cultural Video Production – Developing a Dual Hybrid Course Model

Jon Rubin, Associate Professor
Film and New Media
Purchase College

The linked co-production of videos by students in different countries is the central mechanism through which a cross-cultural experience is mediated. This model involves team taught classes that meet face-to-face in each country and which also meet together online for collaborative work. The course has been offered for four years, first linking Purchase College to a university in Belarus and more recently linking Purchase College to universities in Mexico City and Istanbul, Turkey.

The Genesis of the Course

Prior to developing this course my experience had solely been teaching face-to-face film and new media courses. I had never before used course management software nor had doing so even occurred to me. However, I had been exploring non-hierarchical approaches to collaborative media production in my film classes and was already interested in ways that media could be used to create meaning in new ways. 

The impetus for teaching an online course came through a Fulbright fellowship that I received in 1999. From February through June of that year I taught courses in “Alternative Media Production” at two universities in Belarus, a small country sandwiched between Poland, Russia, Lithuania and the Ukraine. Although these courses were primarily viewing and discussion classes, I brought with me student video work from Purchase College and I also received support from the Open Society Institute to purchase three video cameras for my Belarusan students so they could create their own videos.
 

ImageBelarus

Although the time available for technical instruction was very limited and although we had no post-production facility, the videos that the Belarusan students made were quite evocative and compelling. I returned to Purchase College in the fall and when I spoke to my students I often made reference to my recent experiences in Belarus, but without evoking too much interest on their part. Then I decided to show my students the videos that the Belarusan students had made and they suddenly became much more interested in this other culture far away.

This led me to conceive a course where students in different countries would communicate with each other through the medium of video. However, in late 1999 there were many technological problems to be overcome in order to develop an exchange of video content over the Internet. In addition, I needed to develop a pedagogically valid course through which to pursue these goals, locate funding for course development and convince department chairs and deans that this goal was worth pursuing.

Developing the course

Over the next two years I developed a syllabus, studied the technology (which was constantly changing), familiarized myself with the Blackboard course management software that Purchase College was using and was fortunate to receive an Alumni Initiatives Award from the Fulbright Foundation. This grant is specifically to develop the working relationship established during a Fulbright fellowship by creating a course which links the fellow’s home university to the university where s/he was in residence. With these funds and a syllabus in hand I was granted release time to teach my Cross Cultural Video Course during the 2002-03 academic year.

My partner institution in this collaborative course was European Humanities University in Minsk, Belarus. This small university had no media program or any media equipment whatsoever, so my course was a completely new direction for them. But because video production was central to my syllabus, I took on the responsibility of purchasing three video cameras and two video editing workstations for their university. The funds to do so came from the AIA grant.

One of the first things I realized as I developed the curriculum with EHU was the huge discrepancy in our academic calendars. Purchase College begins fall semester classes in late August and wraps up in mid-December, while EHU begins classes on October 1 and finishes in late January. As the course demanded an extended period of time when the students could work together collaboratively, I created a two-semester syllabus that took advantage of the two nine-week periods when both schools were in session over the course of the academic year.

I conceived the course in what I have recently come to think of as a “dual-hybrid” format. By this I mean that each group of students meets face-to-face with an instructor in their own country, but the students also meet together online to do their collaborative work. At Purchase College the course was listed traditionally. In fact, Purchase College did not offer online courses at that time and the online component of my course was seen only as an enrichment. Students received credits from their home universities and no additional payments were made to either school.

My colleague in Minsk was a graduate student whom I had met two years earlier during my Fulbright. She was skilled in video post-production and during this period she was working with other faculty to develop a media studies program at EHU. I sent her twenty videotapes that I felt would be relevant to our course and asked her to adapt my syllabus to their calendar and cultural perspectives. All students at EHU were required to study English and they also occasionally took classes given in English taught by visiting instructors. A few of them had some trouble with English speaking, but all could read, write and understand spoken English reasonably well.
 

Teaching the Course

During September when my class was meeting at Purchase - but EHU was not yet in session - I devoted most of my class time to an exploration of Belarusan history and culture so that my students would have some perspective on the students with whom they were about to collaborate. During October I visited Minsk for a week of intensive workshops with the Belarusan students, while the two groups of students were introduced to each other through online autobiographies, which included images that they had chosen to represent themselves. Discussion groups were created where all the students could discuss their feelings about the project work as it developed.

Because of my artistic training and perspective I wanted to develop a collaborative approach that would allow the students to interact immediately on an emotional level, in an effort to bypass cultural, linguistic and intellectual defense mechanisms. To do this I employed techniques that the surrealists had developed in the 1920’s, in particular “The Exquisite Corpse”. This was an approach to sequential collaboration where one artist (or in this case one student) would begin to draw or write and then pass the work to a second artist who would continue the work, adding to what had already been written or drawn and then would pass the work back to the initiator or to a third participant. This process would continue for as along as was pre-defined by the participants with each extending the ideas and gestures of those who preceded them.

In our case we began the collaborative work by creating two-person teams or dyads, which were each given their own discussion thread in which to write. One student was asked to begin a story by writing a paragraph from four to eight sentences long and their partner was asked to write the next paragraph of the story. This exchange would continue until at least eight paragraphs had been written and then new teams would be set up and the process would be repeated. The students were asked to read each other’s stories and later comment on them. This writing served as a personal communication between the students’ inner narrative worlds. Although they generally did not learn factual information about each other’s lives from these exchanges, each student was immediately immersed in the other’s construction of a fictional world – and then was invited to imaginatively participate in its development.

During November we began media work as each student was asked to create a short video (under five minutes long) that reflected his or her idea of “home” or what home meant to them. The Belarusan students met twice a week during October and November to receive technical training in video production and editing. Most of the Purchase students had already learned video basics in prior classes, but those who were less skilled received tutorial assistance to help prepare them for this work. All the finished videos were compressed and sent by FTP to the other university and all students viewed all of the videos. It should be noted that the Internet available at EHU was extremely slow and that we had to send the videos overnight, when the university server was otherwise unused.

Once the videos had been screened, the students were asked to submit a prioritized list of potential partners from the other group with whom they wanted to work on an extended video exchange project during the next semester. They made their selections based on the autobiographies, the writing and the home videos, but I had to make the final decisions on partnering as some students were chosen by many and some were selected by very few or none at all. Nevertheless, teams were constituted and the teammates were asked to email, chat or phone each other over Purchase College’s Winter break to determine a theme or motif on which they would base their video exchange project.

In February the Purchase students (and a few EHU students who had special access to equipment during their break) began the production of their first exchange videos. Once these were complete they were compressed and then transferred abroad where each student’s partner would view the video and then have two weeks to shoot and edit a video that would constitute the next scene of their shared work. This exchange continued until May with each team making a total of six videos, with a total running time of 20-25 minutes. Additionally, the students communicated through discussion forums about the production process and readings in visual anthropology were assigned.

At the end of the process my colleague and I selected the students who we felt did the best work overall from each group and these students were invited to visit New York or Minsk to present the final projects to their peers. Their plane fares and local transport to campus was paid for by the AIA grant and they stayed with students or their families, but they had to cover any other expenses on their own. The biggest issue in carrying this off was dealing with the American Embassy, as they often reject visa applications from young Belarusans. But in the end we were successful in getting the Belarusan students visas both years that this program took place. The possibility of being chosen to make this trip was a real incentive for the students during the year and provided a satisfying sense of closure for all their hard work.

Political Changes and New Partners

During the spring of the second year that this course was offered, trouble began to develop for EHU in Minsk. The Belarusan government did not like the liberal ideas espoused by the university and liked even less the western lecturers who came to visit. Just after the school year ended in July of 2004 the government sent in troops and the university was closed. The Rector of the university had to flee the country for fear that he would be arrested and 1000 students were without a university.

This was a very frustrating and depressing period as there was nothing I could do to change the course of political events, but as I was about to take a sabbatical and would not have been able to teach the course the next year in any case, this catastrophe gave me some time to rethink what I was doing. Because SUNY was very much involved with developing programs in Turkey and Mexico at this time, I worked through the Office of International Programs to locate potential partners in these countries. Through a series of emails I was put in touch with a screenwriter who was teaching film production at Istanbul Bilgi University and with a designer who was teaching interactive design at Ibero American University. We discussed working together on the course and I was able to arrange visits to both schools to meet my potential colleagues.

Because such interesting prospective partners from both countries developed so quickly, I decided to expand the course to three nodes. However, the academic calendar problems proved to be even more complex this time as the university in Mexico began classes in early August, while the university in Istanbul began on October 1. Nevertheless, as both schools had adequate equipment to manage the media production on their own, we set out to structure text and video exchanges that would link New York to Istanbul, New York to Mexico, and Istanbul to Mexico. In addition, we added a third intermediary text/image format, where students would collaboratively create one-page graphic novels, before they began working in video.
 

Sample ImageCreated sequentially by three students in Mexico, New York and Turkey over a two week period. Each contributed one panel at a time. When complete each student had made two contributions. 

Once underway this three-way collaboration proved very interesting, but somewhat unmanageable. Because the dual hybrid format demands that there be careful guidance and oversight by professors in each classroom, any lack of continuity in this regard can easily lead to missed deadlines which effect students at all the participating schools as they are so strongly linked and interdependent. Similarly, a lack of commitment to participate in online discussions can lead to the productions themselves becoming virtually the sole focus of activity of the course. Both of these problems developed with our Mexican partner where a faculty change occurred in the middle of the course, while the students were often too overloaded with work in their other classes to actively participate in the discussions. Although some of the projects the students produced were quite interesting, there were many missed opportunities and frustrations.
 

Back to the Basics

This year (2006-07) I have continued to work with Istanbul Bilgi University with whom I had worked the year before, but we decided to limit ourselves to a two-way exchange and to drop the image/text exercise to keep things simpler, and to begin the video exchange sooner - late in the first semester - rather then waiting until spring. Because I have gotten to know my colleague in Istanbul quite well, we are now able to navigate the difficult passages more easily.

As I write this summary on December 27, 2006, Purchase College has just begun its winter break while the students at Bilgi are working on their response videos to be completed before their semester ends on January 10. My Purchase students will see these when they return to university on January 22. The course is progressing more smoothly than last year, although the Turkish cohort includes undergraduate and graduate students some of whom may not be able to continue the course into the spring semester. This will necessitate the addition of a few new students next month.  The one problem that has lingered from the previous year is that there has not been enough group discussion of the interactive working process or enough interpretation of what is being produced, so I am thinking of ways to encourage this when both schools are back in session in late February.

 Sample ImageFeride Cicekoglu from Istanbul Bilgi Univ with Jon Rubin and his class at Purchase College

Conclusions
 
My thesis that utilizing an “Exquisite Corpse” model for cross cultural media production would lead to an intensive and revealing interaction amongst the participating students has largely proven to be correct. However, the different countries and university groups with whom I have worked have responded quite differently to sharing their creative ideas with each other and in some cases the defensiveness that I was seeking to avoid has still made collaboration difficult. 

Undertaking a team-taught international course demands very strong rapport and commitment between the participating teachers. Teachers’ different styles and cultural perspectives can be the doorways through which their students can pass to a greater understanding of each other’s world or they can be an invisible barrier to a successful learning experience.

Artistic collaborations between students living in different countries can be an almost magical path to their learning about each other’s inner attitudes and feelings, but building on this interaction through online discussions can be more difficult than it would seem. The inner resources that are tapped in artistic exchanges are not always intellectually accessible by the participating students and their language skills may not have the subtlety they need to make themselves fully understood when trying to describe their own processes.  

Jon Rubin ( jon.rubin@suny.edu)