Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, Ithaca College, Ithaca New York
So Long NTU
I’m leaving NTU and Singapore in 18 hours. Allied International Shipping just came and boxed up books, DVDs, clothes, my sheet music, an Indian lantern, some Indonesian batik, a small Tibetan prayer wheel from India. The air is cloudy from the mosquito spray the NTU gardeners just dosed our neighborhood with in the endless battle against mosquitos and dengue fever. The apartment is empty.
And...my head is crowded with new ideas about how to teach documentary and media, gifts from my energetic, hard working, and inquisitive students here.
My wonderful colleague Chun Wah was my unofficial diplomatic aid while at NTU. Almost daily, we’d chat in the staff lounge at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information. I sipped on my beloved Yellow Label Lipton tea. He’d share his memories about rain drumming down on a metal roof before Singapore became developed. He also taught me about Chinese New Year. The number 8, he said, is auspicious, good luck, good fortune, good, well, everything.
The Final 8
So I thought I’d end my time here with a homage of 8 auspicious take-aways from my NTU students. They’ve changed how I think about teaching, documentary, Asia, zen, discussions, and new media.
1. E Learning Works. For crisis preparedness, NTU mandates a compulsory elearning week. You choose the week, and then organize online interactions for the students. I thought a film studies class could not work online. My students dove in, energized the discussion boards, shared ideas, and changed my mind about e-learning and film studies. I actually think they worked HARDER during e learning week, reading more, watching more, and arguing and observing more astutely. I learned that engagement with cinema migrates across many forms. So many film scholars rhapsodize about dark screenings rooms. I learned there are many forms of screening rooms from my students. They reminded that films are only as good as the debates they provoke.
2. Banned Films Sell. Got you, right? Banned? Contraband and underground screenings got my students really jazzed up. In truth, many of the films I screened were not quite banned, as in governments censoring them or impounding them. Some did not have theatrical distribution. Some didn’t have copyright clearance on archival footage beyond educational settings. Some didn’t have distribution at all. Some were only available from the filmmakers. Here’s what I learned: screening work in a class that students can’t get elsewhere amplifies interest, and gives our teaching some urgency.
3. Cosmopolitanism is real. In the trendy intellectual world of cosmopolitan theory, the antidote to postmodern ennui and isolation is the collective hybridities of cosmopolitanism. Global cities are positioned as seething cauldrons of a more open way of thinking. My students taught me that this theory is in fact based on reality. It’s a cliché to say Singapore is cosmopolitan, but it’s true. In a society with many different ethnicities and languages and a port town to boot, students here are really open to a lot of different film and new media from around the world--more than most of my American students. In polyglot Singapore and Southeast Asia, it’s nearly impossible to teach a course about one nation state or from one part of the world. Singapore has been an entrepot for hundreds of years. So with this student audience, I found I had to develop an “entrepot” theory of documentary, where works resonated across borders and time periods and formats and analog and digital. Cosmopolitanism is engraved in the psychic and intellectual DNA here.
4. Even digital natives need curation. A lot of brouhaha circulates about young adults, the digital natives living in the dense forests of code and user generated everything. Yes, they know about Facebook and Twitter and use them incessantly. However, I learned that curating connections between documentary history, new media, social media, and new platforms is necessary. Teaching here meant creating environments for explorations of connections between the old and the new.
5. Whiteboarding works. My students read everything before class. I’ve never experienced this kind of dedication. Noone walked out of any screenings. So discussions of films and new media dug into close textual and epistemological analysis. An engineering school, NTU classrooms are flanked by whiteboards. I loved them—I could easily (and without chalk dust!) draw maps of our discussions. The students seemed to connect with the mess of the mapping. For me, it reminded me that ideas are alive on the whiteboards, erased, revised, connected, drawn, redrawn, scribbled, edited.
6. Embrace Power Points. So many academics I know deride power points as reducing ideas to bullet points and diminishing improvisation. However, my students here really wanted power points. I’ve learned that Power Points are passports across cultural differences and linguistic divides. I have an accent, the students have an accent, I lecture fast, documentary history and theory is dense. So I gave in. I not only did the Power Points (I did really non-flashy modernist versions with black on white, nothing fancy) but I put them up on the course blackboard site so students could study from them. In international and cross cultural situations, where accents on words can change meaning, powerpoints don’t reduce ideas, they create a common ground.
7. Experimental works are the zen koans of film theory. Initially, I worried about programming a range of experimental analog and digital works into my class. Some colleagues warned me that students at NTU have a commercial broadcast orientation to documentary, a more empirical and observational style emerging out of the BBC. However, I found that the students in my class were not only really open to formally experimental works, but developed a craving for them. Maybe it is because these works are “banned” as it were from more public venues, hard to see anywhere, even in the US. Maybe it is because these works function like elegant zen koans on theoretical ideas. Maybe it is because they are short. I loved seeing students develop fan admiration for the works of experimental film from Europe in the 1920s like Joris Iven, and Tony Cokes, China Tracy, Miwa Mitrayek, Jan Svankmajer,Jackie Goss, Bill Morrison.
8. My name is too long. At NTU, my business cards and official documents used the name on my passport, Patricia Rodden Zimmermann. Several of the students in the course told me repeatedly: “name too long” or "very long very hard name." When you are in a culture with names that are one syllable, my name can be a mouthful. Students took matters into their own hands and called me “Prof Z.” The name stuck. Even the administrative staff called me that. When the students said it, it sounded more like “profzee” . That nickname made me feel welcomed here.
In a few hours, we're off to Bangkok, now under a state of emergency, en route to Luang Prabang in Laos for a final family trip before repatriating, as they say here. I'll mobilize these 8 auspicious take aways from my students here in my fall intro to film aesthetics and analysis course. I've heard a lot of talk here at NTU about benchmarking with "western" and "US based" universities. But, in the spirit of reverse engineering, I'd like to propose that US based colleges and universities might benefit from some of the ideas and strategies I've encountered here in Southeast Asia and Singapore.
And, who knows, maybe, on my way to the projection booth in Park Auditorium to load up Sergei Eisensten's Battleship Potemkin, these 8 auspicious take aways will drift into my mind, reminding me that we as faculty really don't teach, we just learn new ways to reconsider old ideas and films from our students.