While the interview was conducted with Dr. James Schirmer, James Schirmer is not how I think of him or his work. My introduction to Schirmer’s work and presence was through his presentation and through chats on Twitter, and in his in absentia presentation, @betajames figured more prominently than James Schirmer. Since his public, performative, and discoursing face was labeled as @betajames, and @betajames is how I interacted with him, that is how I chose to refer to him in the interview.

I love Moodle. I hate Moodle when I grade. Without administrative access, Moodle is more frustrating than rewarding, so I often hack my own solutions. That said, I love learning from others and how they have rolled their own DIY LMS solutions. Among many colleagues, LMSs are an emotionally charged topic — talking about them is exciting and aggravating. So, early on a Saturday morning at a professional conference in Vegas, I looked forward to hearing colleagues address some of the problems and tensions surrounding LMSs in their session: “The DIY LMS: Reaching New Publics with Homegrown Learning Management Systems.”

The presentation’s purpose: three researchers and scholars who had grown weary of the LMS’s restrictions would offer approaches to working with, resisting, or working around LMSs. While they originally thought about directly attacking or critiquing LMSs, they moved beyond antagonism to adapting and using LMSs when and where it brought their students’ learning and/or their teaching value.

Showed up early. No one. I came back and learned that one speaker would present in absentia. Ugh. However, given the other presenters’ ethos in technical communication, writing, and techno-rhetoric, I decided to stay. Glad I did. Better still, the session — particularly @betajames’ in absentia component — shifted my understanding of conference presentations.

While I knew presenters could make video presentations in absentia, I had never seen it done. @betajames’ presentation did not stand alone; it was framed by the compelling, related, and relevant work of co-panelists Quinn Warnick and Brian McNely. When the panel closed, I left stunned. “How did they do that?” I asked myself. As a rhetorician, learner, audience member, and researcher, I noticed that Schirmer established social and scholarly presence more effectively and rapidly than many conference presenters ever do — and Schirmer was not even in the room.


As a presenter, I struggle to engage audiences. I want my audiences to feel the way I did watching and listening to @betajames’ work. I wanted to know why his work grabbed me. How could his work help me improve my own presentations?

To bolster my own practice and understand @betajames’ approach, I contacted him via Twitter. He agreed to an interview. @betajames was quick with responses, friendly with comments, and he easily adapted to changes in publishing strategy.

The good news for many of us is that @betajames has a very limited background in video content or creation. He describes his technical skill set as “active amateur.” The piece took him about 15 hours of “cobbling.” This was also the first time he had presented in absentia or worked with that many different media components (text, video, audio) and he has never created screencasts.

@betajames: It’s difficult for me to consider myself as an expert or a professional in anything image- or video-related. I have a rudimentary knowledge of iMovie and I know how to get PowerPoint to do what I want. Beyond that, there’s a lot about those programs I don’t know.

As you started the piece, did you have specific images in mind? Or did you complete the text and then go find the images?
The piece overall is in an amended pecha kucha style. Instead of the regular 20 seconds per slide (common to pecha kucha), the piece went 30 seconds per slide. I had some general ideas in mind for what images I wanted to use, but nothing specific. Each slide had 3-5 associated keywords, keywords I planned to use when searching for images.

How do you select the images?
I use a Creative-Commons-based search on Flickr for all images. I want to make sure my use of images in a presentation is allowed, encouraged, or at least granted by their creators.

Do you have collections of images in folders, or do you go hunt them down?
I am an image-hunter. I’m pretty wedded to the pecha kucha presentation style. I’ve thought about building an actual collection of images, but I don’t have one beyond the presentations I put together.

How long did it take to determine which images would work and which wouldn’t?
The 3-5 keywords I use for searching Flickr tend to bring up 3-5 results that might work. Usually, these results show on the first few pages. Rare is the occasion for me to click through more than ten pages of search results. I tend to make snap decisions about which images work, no more than 5 minutes.

Weren’t you a bit worried about your audience? Or…
Maybe I assumed too much on this point or didn’t factor in audience enough. I figured, though, anyone interested in LMS issues must have a rebellious, resistant edge to them. Based on Twitter activity during the piece, I may have been right.

You planned this piece as a one-off to be used at this conference specifically. That must have helped you focus on your audience. Who was your audience for the piece?
Conference-goers. That’s really about it. I’ve been to 4Cs five times in the last ten years. While infrequent in attendance, I think I have a good grasp for the range of individuals at the conference any given year. I knew I wanted my piece to be accessible in terms of differing abilities as well as terminology. Of course, had I been more mindful of access, I would have captioned the video, too. I’m sorry I didn’t think of doing so until after the conference was over.

Why don’t you appear in the video?
I figured my voice was enough. I’ve also seen videos in which the speaker appears and I always found it somewhat jarring.

How do you limit the videos which you think work best?
The Douglas Rushkoff bit forced me to break the 30-seconds-per-slide rule. The Groucho Marx, RATM, and Rollins/Black Flag pieces all lent themselves to satisfactory 30-second segments. I just couldn’t get Rushkoff down to the same time. I knew there were extraneous phrases, but my editing skills weren’t good enough to eliminate them. Even if I were able to eliminate them, the end result might have been too abrupt and choppy to be effective anyway.

Would you describe your process for blending texts?
I had my initial proposal and I followed that with an outline. In the outline, I noted how each “A,” “B,” and “C” represented two slides and I figured I’d deliver a talk of at least 12 minutes. From the outline, I compiled and arranged images in PowerPoint, making sure to include placeholder slides for videos. I exported the PPT file as an image set and then imported the set to iMovie. I checked the timings and got to work on the videos. I used KeepVid to pull everything from YouTube and then upload all to iMovie, too. I suppose this particular action contradicts how I handle images from Flickr. I cropped each video, save for Rushkoff, to a good 30 seconds. I checked the timings again, letting the piece run through once before returning to my initial proposal and outline to write and record the script.

Did you create the script/transcript as you went along or did you create the transcript as you created the content?
The script/transcript was the second-to-last thing I worked on. Everything but my voiceover was set before the script/transcript came to be.

Even though there is a transcript, you don’t include or use captions. Was that a conscious choice?
This was an unconscious choice. I didn’t consider it, and I really should have. If I ever put together something like this again, I’ll be sure to include captions.

What did you learn from this process that you could share with colleagues, i.e., other faculty, and graduate students?
First, that this process is possible, even for those with little to no prior experience with video. It appears that the necessary tools are getting easier to use all the time. [To graduate students] This process leads to what I consider to be a respectable, viable form of presenting at a conference. I’d hate for any graduate student to be discouraged from undertaking a similar process.

Do you feel empowered to create more pieces for in absentia presentations?
I do. I also feel empowered to do more pieces like this for my own classes. I can see how these might work well if coupled with Twitter. While a video plays, while I’m “lecturing”, I can have a live-tweeting conversation with students.

How would the piece have differed had you been present?
Presenting live would have been a messier, more spontaneous endeavor. I tend to ad-lib and improvise while giving a live presentation. I suppose I tried to keep some of the mess and spontaneity via Groucho Marx, Douglas Rushkoff, RATM, and Henry Rollins.

The success of this piece leads me to consider the possibility of putting together videos for all future conference talks, regardless if I’m able to present live. In fact, I was part of some conversations on Twitter about encouraging more presenters to put together their own videos for a variety of reasons.

@betajames’ approach, if imitated and developed, could benefit many. From those who cannot make their scheduled appearance due to unforeseen circumstances, to adjuncts, graduate students, and others who cannot afford travel — and, of course, conference attendees who enjoy creative, strong presentations — videos can help give voice to people who might not otherwise have an audience. As well, hybrid pedagogues benefit from this type of presentation because the very enactment of these presentations demonstrates their hybridity.

Good video can help enrich our conferences by encouraging people who collaborate with citizens and organizations outside of our field to have their collaborators present via video. Making voices present that would otherwise be absent benefits our research, scholarship, and — most importantly — our teaching, by allowing us to hear, see, and share those voices in and outside of our immediate learning communities.

[Photo by Manoj Vasanth]