Animate to Advocate for Non-profits
Presenter: Moe Folk
School Affiliation: Kutztown University
My poster centered on a four-part assignment given to FYC students. The project hinges on linked audio and video arguments that develop from a genre analysis, ending with a critical-rhetorical reflection of the work and the composition process. Special attention is given to developing animated videos for real-world clients. Please check out the assignment sheet: Folk_Animate_to_Advocate.pdf
The assignment was completed in ENG 023: College Composition, my university’s first-year composition course required within the general education guidelines. I approach the course as a project-based one built on principles of digital rhetoric and composition; I want students to understand how new technologies contribute to new types of texts and be able to differentiate between the affordances and constraints of various semiotic systems relative to intended audience(s). The assignment is the second project of the semester and is meant to act as a bridge between the first assignment, a narrative project completed in Google Maps, and the last assignment, a researched argumentative synthesis completed in the medium best fitting their audience and purpose. As can be expected, the course always includes a wide range of majors and a mix of students by year (e.g., transfer students at the sophomore level and beyond).
The primary goal of this assignment is to familiarize students with crafting persuasive arguments in various modes; particular attention is paid to aural and visual rhetorics. Students are asked to make a significant argument, one that could possibly influence other people’s lives, and they are free to interpret that aspect as being some sort of campus, local, national, or global issue they identify. Students are encouraged to work with real-world clients such as local non-profits in order to have a real audience for their work.
Because I believe invention is so important for students to grapple with, I encourage students to generate and develop their own topics. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that even though many of my students were politically, socially, and environmentally active, and felt very strongly about certain groups and ways of being, they only rarely tackled issues of advocacy in their work. One day I brought this up in my current class, asking students why they shied away from advocacy projects despite the open-ended nature of my assignments. The short answer was the importance of style—the students felt the predominant styles of the designs related to advocacy issues they were interested in were often (in their words) too boring, preachy, or dull. In class, when we analyzed and discussed the main audience for a variety of charity websites and videos, the students said they often felt as if they weren’t part of the target audience, that many of the works they were familiar with seemed to be aimed at a much older, suburban, affluent, middle-class to upper-middle-class audience. Many indicated they were tired of what they identified as the dominant advocacy style: the talking head of a semi-famous person, interrupted by pathos-heavy images of people obviously in need or in danger. As a result, we looked at Diana George's article "Changing the Face of Poverty: Nonprofits and the Problem of Representation." When I asked students to gather advocacy arguments they found rhetorically effective, I noticed they chose appeals characterized by technological savvy, sometimes related to the objects of advocacy themselves, but mostly in the actual execution of the video argument itself, particularly with the effective use of advanced animation techniques. The students were emphatic that they cared deeply and wanted to help others by designing effective compositions, but they also indicated they wanted to make compositions that were more participatory, more able to invite a wide swath of people open to the issue and able to do something about it. So I asked students if they wanted to make stuff that challenged their stereotypes about persuasive advocacy appeals, they said yes, and off we went. Here's an example of the kinds of appeals and styles many students found rhetorically effective:
The Soccket Ball (video for a soccer ball developed by four Harvard students that generates electricity after being kicked)
The Topsy Foundation (video showing dramatic recovery of a patient)
Operation Christmas Child (animation for the Samaritan's Purse charity)
Girl Effect: The Clock Is Ticking (animation for girleffect.org)
Because the course consists of students from so many different majors and so many different realities regarding digital access and composing aptitudes, I let students use whatever programs they choose. I show them different alternatives and real projects made with the respective programs to help them make an informed choice (i.e., this program is easy to learn for basic outcomes versus this one that's hard to learn but yields high-end outcomes, etc.). I usually feature one program in class, and I try to make it an open source one so the majority of people can access it easily. For the audio aspect of this project, for example, I focused on Audacity, but some students were already familiar with Garageband and used that, while others were in a major that would eventually require them to use Pro Tools, so they decided to try that since they would be using it down the road anyway.
The animation aspect of the assignment as related to program selection was much, much trickier. It’s one thing to have students put together a brief argumentative video consisting of found clips or self-produced footage, but the learning curve on animation is something altogether different. Fortunately, a lot of open-source animation programs are available, but the choice depends on a number of stylistic choices: what overall look students prefer, whether the students want to draw their own elements by hand on paper (or draw directly into the program by digital means), whether to use existing images exclusively by importing them into the animation program, whether they want an intentionally “lo-fi” piece populated by stick figures, etc. Our school has an excellent art program, so many students from those ranks wanted to draw by hand, but just as many had no interest in drawing anything and wanted to use only existing images. In the proposal stage, students identified which approach and which program they would use and why. I was open to any of their suggestions, although I did dissuade them from using things like xtranormal that includes so many pre-fabricated choices because I wanted students to have to consider as many self-realized rhetorical choices as possible, even if their final products wouldn’t look as “professional” compared to such programs. For this animated video stage of the project, I didn’t feature just one program for the class as I did with Audacity for the audio segment, but I did spend time showing one of the high-end programs, Toonboom Animate, which is used to produce many famous animation series such as the Simpsons and Family Guy. The program is quite expensive but does have a free trial, and though it can garner impressive results, it has a steep learning curve, especially within the context of individually composed animations produced as part of a project cycle over a four-week period. The Toonboom company makes other products suitable for quick use (see here), but I have used Animate and students were interested because it was used to make shows they were familiar with and thus posed a relatable challenge. I've included some of the other programs that could be used for such an assignment; each, of course, has a much different set of benefits and drawbacks compared to Toonboom Animate:
Go Animate http://goanimate.com/
Do Ink http://www.doink.com/
Plastic Animation Paper http://www.plasticanimationpaper.dk/
I attempted this assignment in a four-week window, and that was simply not enough time. I used the genre analysis so students could get a sense of the prevailing arguments surrounding their topic and identify what they found most rhetorically effective; this part in itself could have taken three weeks to do thoroughly. In addition, I envisioned the audio aspect dovetailing with the video aspect by serving as a soundtrack (in part as a way to save time and also to question how the audio worked alone versus how it worked when synced with images), but many students had such difficulty with the audio aspect, they barely had time to work on the video aspect. In the future, I would re-figure the time allotted for this assignment, as well as the relationship between the audio and video aspects. One major drawback in undertaking this project was the lack of a dedicated computer lab for my classes. Though I do have access to a computer lab, getting it when needed is almost impossible, plus the wide variety of programs and platforms students used within this assignment would have made using those labs problematic anyway (e.g., getting download privileges for one program on one machine, another program on just two machines, making sure a trial version wouldn't get wiped off the image, etc.). I also severely underestimated the amount of work involved in an individual attempting to invent, develop, edit, and produce just a brief animation, especially when it is the first time a student attempts any type of animation. In many ways, so much of the animation we see obscures its makers, multitudes of specialized composers (something the Simpsons intro clip done by Banksy evokes very well). Many students just felt overwhelmed by the animation aspect and ended up embracing "regular" video because they found it much easier. Other students were frustrated that they couldn’t produce what was in their heads, and they indicated they would have selected more lo-fi options if they could have started over; that way, they felt they could have mastered a style and deployed it with the utmost rhetorical care. When doing this assignment again, I would focus more on one of the lo-fi open source programs; however, if a dedicated lab stocked with Toonboom Animate were available, I would also be sure to offer that as a viable option because it offers so many more rhetorical choices than counterparts such as Flash and it exports usable movie files. In the end, this assignment reinforces the importance of what I call multimodal style in determining and producing what's effective in current contexts, and the challenge in moving forward is developing enough expertise to craft a style that has enough rhetorical oomph for the audience.
AmericanExpress. (2010, October 6). Members Project: sOccket. YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5gqoYkL8To
banksyfilm. (2010, October 10). Simpsons. YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DX1iplQQJTo
George, Diana. (2001). Changing the face of poverty: Nonprofits and the problem of representation. In John Trimbur's Popular literacy: Studies in cultural practices and poetics (pp. 209-228). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
GirlEffect: The Clock Is Ticking. (2011, March). TED: Ideas Worth Spreading. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/initiatives/aws/girl_effect_the_clock_is_tick.html
SamaritansPurseTV. (2011, December 1). Change A Needy Child's Christmas With Shoebox World. YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v7NFumFuTrA
thetopsyfoundation. (2010, March 1). Topsy | AIDS patients dramatic recovery. YouTube. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6zCNdEfm5w&feature=player_embedded