Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, March 28, 2010
The email from the departmental assistant in Broadcast and Cinema Studies popped into my inbox about three days after I arrived in Singapore in January. She requested that I pick either week 9,10, 11 or 12 of the semester for e-learning.
Still jet lagged by the 18 hour flight and narcotized by sleep everyday around 4 p.m., I wasn’t sure I completely understood what was meant by the compulsory, university wide e-learning scheme.
Give up a week of screenings and lectures for Blackboard e-learning? No way, I thought.
A heavily curated group screening that creates juxtapositions, contexts, debates, disturbances is a tradition inscribed in the DNA of cinephilia, film culture, film festivals and cinema studies. It’s the lifeblood of the field.
But I was game for anything.
I figured, I’m in Singapore, I’m at a major university known for engineering and technology, I teach new media, so why not let go of my East coast private college assumptions (and perhaps, brainwashing about face to face interactions with students) and learn something new.
Back at Ithaca College, embodied face to face teaching is priveleged. Blackboard is considered a supplemental teaching aid during the semester. Exclusive online teaching is sequestered in the “off season” interim and summer session courses.
While grabbing my daily dose of Yellow Label Lipton tea in the faculty common room, I learned from colleagues that the university was promoting the e-learning scheme for crisis preparedness in case of outbreaks requiring quarantine like SARS, H1N1 and other diseases that would wreak havoc on the small island.
Top Five Reasons to Do E-Learning for Film Studies
Eight weeks after that first email, I’ve changed my mind entirely about this NTU e-learning scheme.
So here are my top five reasons to dive into a week of e-learning and abandon face to face teaching for a week or so in critical studies courses:
1. MAKE THE COURSE, DON'T TAKE THE COURSE.
My initial reaction was to make an argument that a cinema studies class just would not work in an email learning environment.
But I remembered that my colleague Diane Gayeski, an expert in new technologies and learning, once coached me as I mounted a new on-line (summer session) course with the phrase STUDENTS MAKE THE COURSE THEY DON”T TAKE THE COURSE.
After weeks of lectures, discussions, and shaping of dialogue, e-learning week tosses the responsibility for intellectual engagement over to the students. Tag, you’re it!
2. LET STUDENTS GET LOST. ADAPT YOUR SYLLABUS
I am teaching a course here called Documentary, Technology and the Environment, which investigates the history of international documentary, critical theory, environmental justice issues and historiography. It also explores how new forms of digital interfaces extend and shift conceptions of documentary.
I had to change my syllabus for e-learning week, since I worried that doing the scheduled week on direct cinema and cinema verite, where I would show Primary, about the Kennedy-Humphrey 1960 Wisconsin primay and Iraq in Fragments required me to explain these historical movements grounded in US history and foreign policy in person.
So I switched and decided to do films from the war in Vietnam and contemporary works from Cambodia and Laos for e learning week, thinking that students might have an easier time with southeast Asian content. The students watch the DVDs, ranging from US government propaganda to Daniel Reeves Smothering Dreams to Emile De Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig to Rithy Pranh’s S 21 at the Asian Media Resource Center which is on the first floor of the School of Communication and Information here.
My students requested that I provide some websites with timelines about the history of the war. I found them. I also added the website for the incredible Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects testimony from victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge.
3. USE DISCUSSION BOARDS FOR WHITEBOARDING IDEAS—AND IMPROVING ANALYTICAL WRITING
Given that film/media/new media theory courses rely heavily on interactive discussion where conceptual models are applied to films through comparison and contrast, I worried about losing the verve of “whiteboarding,” an engineering term I picked up here at NTU, where new thinking is concretized on a white board with erasable markers. Every faculty office in our building has a whiteboard, which I love. And the entire front wall of the tutorial rooms are whiteboards, which I also love. Ideas seem fluid and alive.
The biggest problem both stateside and here at NTU in critical studies classes is that students have a hard time writing analytically, probing why and how, unpacking implications and meaning. Discussion boards are diagnostics: you can see how students’s ideas unfold, you can write privately and encourage more meta or more examples or less “is” verbs. Discussion boards can be reconceptualized as virtual whiteboarding. Gotta love those engineers…
4. HAVE FLEXIBILITY TO GO TO A CONFERENCE, DO RESEARCH, WRITE.
Faculty everywhere do more than teach: they have research, writing, and service work. Part of research is going to conferences—but that means missing class. At many places (including Ithaca College), attending a conference means getting an all ready overworked colleague to cover for you in exchange for a lunch or two.
What I have observed here at NTU is that many colleagues have slated their e-learning to roll out when they are overseas at important conferences or out of town doing fieldwork for their research projects. They can do regular visits to Blackboard, keep threads going in discussions, have their lectures online—and present their conference papers guilt free. They don't have to burden their colleagues as much as we do at IC.
E-learning schemes like the one here at NTU enable flexibility for faculty and a change of pace for students. The scheme is imbedded into the semester. It's not solely a supplementary pedagogical tool. It’s a win win.
5. COOPT SOCIAL MEDIA FOR INTELLECTUAL INQUIRY AND NOT JUST STATUS UPDATES ABOUT WHAT YOU ATE AND WHO YOU SAW
Students –in both Asia and the US--are immersed 24/7 in social media, so why not stop complaining about their wired brains and upgrade them from status updates to using discussion boards to explore ideas swirling around provocative, not easily-accessible films? I had to ask my students here to NOT have their laptops open during our screenings—they were on Facebook all the time.
Social media mobilizes user-generated content, engagement, pinging off someone else’s ideas, collaborating, crowdsourcing. Most uses of social media like You Tube, Facebook,and Twitter are vaudevillian or melodramatic or market driven or consumerist in content and approach. Corporations use social media to push out their brand. As faculty, we can toss out some of our old school pedagogies and learn some new technology and see how we might torque social media through Blackboard.
Why not model how to reverse these consumerist push out social media flows through e-learning? Pull in students to crowd-source rigor, deconstruction, analysis, abstract thinking, insights, perceptions. Maybe in the future their status updates in the more public realms of Facebook and Twitter might include some good online artists websites or hard to see documentaries from southeast Asia….or some analytical insights into international independent documentary.
The Moral of the Story: Get Lost
As faculty, let’s face it, we are all control freaks, pushing out concepts and fighting for space for ideas and films and digital art not out there in popular culture. Warriors for our own disciplines and ideas, we want to lead the way through concepts and control the framing of arguments through our lectures and by shaping discussions.
E-learning forces us to let go--and to let the students become befuddled, confused, stumped, stymied, lost.
The documentary film historican Erik Barnouw once shared with me a story from a Robert Flaherty Seminar in the early 1970s. French documentary filmmaker extraordinaire Chris Marker was asked by a young film student how he managed to be such a brilliant editor. Marker’s simple reply: “I get lost.”
Getting lost in complicated work can be powerful. You have to find your own way out. Getting lost on your own and with others in discussion of complex material is maybe the only way to learn how to think.
So maybe, on either side of the Pacific, we should all consider installing e-learning to liberate our teaching, to get ourselves to conferences guilt free, and to let our students make the courses we set up. And maybe we all--students and faculty alike-- should just let go--and get lost.