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Ken Burns and the art of digital memories (ci.5410.1b)


There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you. --Maya Angelou

Art is the transfer of emotion from one to another. --Tolstoy

both quoted by Ken Burns on 9/5/07

This past Wednesday, I had the fortunate opportunity to go see Ken Burns preview and discuss his new documentary film, The War. I knew that I was in for a treat. I had been enchanted by his work, The Civil War, the way in which he layered still images, music, and voices reading poems and letters of Civil War soldiers and survivors. Also, I had heard him speak on NPR and was impressed how articulate he was about his craft of using film to archive memories.

The power of memory and emotion in film came up again last Wednesday, when Burns described the role of documentary filmmakers as "emotional archeologists" who collect and our "greatest inheritance", memory in order to avoid preventing historical amnesia. This focus on emotion got me thinking a lot about the co-presence of auditory modes such as music with visual modes such still photos and moving images. Layered together, these two elements are very powerful for evoking emotion. Then when you add the voice over, narrating related content the experience is intensified. No wonder, YouTube and videoblogging have been so popular.

So I guess you could say Burns pushed my thinking on videoblogs and video sharing sites like YouTube. Videos, or "vids," allow writers/composers to capitalize on the various rhetorical resources that surround us such as the emotional potency (pathos) of music and images. The presentation of info. using these elements has a very different effect on viewers. Those who watch Burns' documentaries (or any documentaries for that matter) will experience the Civil War in a very different, perhaps more visceral way than if they were to only read an illustrated book recounting the same content.

I don't mean to say that video will replace writing, because it won't. Writing will always have it's specific form and purpose. However, if we are to consider the fairly easy distribution of video files for communication (e.g. the YouTube forum), we can't ignore that this medium is becoming an increasingly preferred mode of persuasion.

So how does this all relate to Ken Burns? Well, first of all, we all have memories, something Burns takes very seriously. Secondly, we and especially adolescents are drawn to consuming and composing multimodal texts. So, how can we as educators better tap into the multimodal draw of video composition/blogging to get our students to more deeply examine memories and related issues to write expository pieces?

With this question in mind, I spent three hours trying to find some good documentary vlogs that might serve as models for use in the classroom. My search was not very successful, but I hope to find some in the future. In the meantime, I'm going to try making some documentary shorts to play with the medium myself.


I'm caught by the notion that music and video can more powerfully evoke emotion than word based test, which makes me think about how emotion influences memory and learning. Don't we learn better and remember longer when our emotions are engaged? Makes me rethink the purpose of summative assessments. Wouldn't it be better in the long run to use multimodal projects if we want students to remember what we teach?