Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The Big Question
Film studies online? Impossible, you say?
This winter term, I took the dive. I gulped down the red pill and jacked into the matrix of online film studies.
And I am having one of the absolutely most transformative and best teaching experiences of my career as a film studies prof.
I have to thank Facebook for teaching me how to engage by asking questions and responding, rather than lecturing and having positions on everything…crazy, I know.
I nestled my intro film studies course into a participatory Web 2.0 environment. I decided to teach online. Insane? Not quite.
I figure, if students can argue about the delicacies of self-amputation in 127 Hours and the obsessive intricacies of anorexic, self-scratching ballerinas Black Swan on Facebook, they can handle some discussion about Battleship Potemkin and other, well, battleships of film history.
I tossed out all of my graduate-film-school-in–the-1970s-cinephiliac-film must-be- seen-in-a-theater–on-35mm-film-preconceptions along with all of my dog-eared copies of Christian Metz and various imaginary signifiers this winter.
And I dove into teaching an intensive two week winter term course called Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis for Ithaca College. Online. All of it. And, I’m having one of the best teaching experiences ever.
Here’s some context.
Film studies is not one of those intimate, 10-15 person, sit in a circle, know your professor, talk-a-LOT-about-your-impressions kinds of experiences. The topography features a body of knowledge to learn, complex histories to understand, and methods for deconstructing films that require rigor. And reading. Lots of it.
At Ithaca College, our lower level film studies courses are large, like they are at most places that teach disciplinary based undergrad film. My Intro course had 155 students, with “small” (really?) break out sections of 32. I love the large classes. Programming films and ideas for a large, mostly eager, crowd entices intellectually.
But here’s the rub.
I’ve only taught smallish classes a handful of times in three decades of teaching—a couple of 24 person seminars at Ithaca College, and then, some seminars on new media during two different stints at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I’m one of those traditionalists, with lectures, books (more than one, and at least 100 pages a week ), and screenings on big screens, often in the local art cinema on 35mm.
So online, guess how many students I have? 5.
Yes, that’s not a typo. 5.
I know them all. They are reading more than Julian Assange at WikiLeaks.
They write EVERYDAY. I can drill into their exegetical work on the readings as well as their analytical work with much more precision and care than when I have so many more students.
In this context, I can coach them to become more sophisticated deconstructors of cinema, and more persuasive argumentative writers. I’ve seen these students make huge, huge leaps in just two days after absorbing detailed criticism from me in the form of track changes, a system I actually use when doing collaborative research with partners in different parts of the US.
For the last two years, I’ve been working with Sam Gregory from WITNESS, the nongovernmental organization working with human rights participatory media, on a large, on-going research project probing ethics in human rights social media.
We’ve been thinking quite a bit about questions of representation in participatory online environments where images and words circulate, remix, morph, change. In these networks, images can not be controlled.
So questions of who says what to whom in what channel--traditional research questions of communication-- and how and why it said--the domain of traditional documentary studies-- shift a bit. When social media meets human rights meets advocacy campaigns in RL (real life), the body enduring oppression and the bodies recirculating its images in Web 2.0 landscapes end up functioning as equal parts of the equation.
Production and consumption, representation and exhibition, giving voice and sharing voices, merge. And this blend is rife with ethical problematics. The human rights issues of protecting the dignity of the victim get amplified, as images can no longer be controlled, and representations are no longer fixed.
This research has prompted me to rethink how my students engage online with courses.
What parts of what they do in a class should be public, open for circulation and commentary? What parts should be shared in a controlled environment open only to the class? What parts should be private communiqués between professor and student?
Can thinking through the ethics of human rights social media and forms of engagement that connect to important advocacy campagins about rape in the Congo or water rights in Bangalore be mobilized to engage another group that is not part of the power elite, and can also be victimized by networks, i.e. undergraduates?
Is there a way to organize a course to traverse these different kinds of publics, respecting the dignity of the student in a human rights framework? And is there a way to think of teaching as advocacy work for serious intellectual engagement?
My tentative, provisional answer: yes
The third context emerges from my sabbatical teaching at Nanyang Technological Univesrity in Singapore, a country besotted with bad press and postmodern orientalism.
At NTU, one week of every term is MANDATORY (yes, you read that right, MANDATORY) online education, called e-learning week. This week where faculty are instructed NOT to appear in their classrooms was not prompted by some marketing firm telling an institution of higher education to get with the dizzying apps of Web 2.0, or any dreams of creating a profit center to offset the Great Recession.
A small country at the equator, Singapore also boasts of the best public health systems in the world.
Connection, you ask?
Well, it turns out that e-learning week is designed for emergency preparedness in case of punishing monsoons or the need to quarantine to stall the outbreak of deadly diseases like SARS.
Full disclosure: I was quite skeptical about doing film studies this way. But this was a case study in the lessons of cyber-Buddhism. My students taught me something I would never have learned in an e-learning seminar--they loved it.
They wrote more, argued more, watched more, dug in deeper, and engaged complex ideas in a more systematic way. They studied media produced around the war in Vietnam, which, in Southeast Asia, is actually called The American War.
IMPOSSIBLE to hide, and IMPOSSIBLE to not participate (well, I required participation by specifying the number of postings required on Blackboard. ) students just keep on writing, and writing, and writing. I learned that how I structured the discussion board questions made a huge difference: questions need to eschew easy, instrumental answers.
I also learned to just keep asking questions. That’s my Facebook apprenticeship (shout out: my friend and writing collaborator Helen de Michiel pushed me to get on FB about two years ago. She told me to imagine it as a “cocktail party” not a “soapbox.” Thanks, Helen!)
Since I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s, the discipline of film/media studies has pushed and pushed to frame cinema as a “text.”
The convergence of semiotics, structuralism, Marxism and feminism argued films were constructions that obscured power relations, meanings, and ideologies. Doing a decoupage of a film, cutting it apart shot by shot to unpack its structure and meaning, was central.
We were all a bunch of decoupage junkies. The thrill of the deconstructive kill. But back then, it was really hard to do: you needed an archive with a flatbed editor.
As film theorists Charles Acland, Barbara Klinger and Dale Hudson have pointed out, cinephilia has changed. Films no longer function as rare objects in archives. Screens multiply, shrink, blow up, expand, migrate.
Films are finally, after all these years, TEXTS. Literally, figuratively and metaphorically.
Netflix functions as an archive, but then, so too does Amazon, Ubuweb, archive.org, and Facets Media. Films live on DVD and also get streamed.
And, in the space of about five years, it's no longer a Hollywood-only environment—my students purchased Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven, Deepa Mehta’s Earth, Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, each for the cost of sending five text messages from London to Ithaca on Verizon.
In film studies, we have moved from cinema as a place of aesthetic worship to cinema as an object you can collect, dig into, discard, trade, loan, slow down, speed up, take apart.
Rather than lamenting the end of film rental budgets that often support modernist ideologies of artifactual fetishization, maybe we need to explore what possibilities this proliferation of images in a new technological dialectic might offer us. I doubt any of us film profs out there will have our once-ample budgets restored.
And, we can now move cinema studies online, and finally, three decades after the “linguistic” turn in film studies, film is finally, at last, a text. Students can buy them like textbooks or CDs of their favorite indie bands, do close readings, and learn the addictive thrills of decoupage as undergrads, all while jacked into their Macbooks.
In my online class (full disclosure, it’s running while I type these words and students are posting on the use of color in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad ), I can work much much more closely with students on developing exegetical skills to describe structures of arguments and deployment of facts.
In a world of quick status updates and sharing feelings, systematic exegesis is, uh, undeveloped. A lost art. So is deductive, analytical writing, where one drills into a film (read text) and works through how it negotiates a concept or a history derived from readings in a systematic way.
It’s not about whether you “relate to” or “like” a work ( refrains I hear repeatedly from my hordes of first year students who are experiencing analytical film studies for the first time), but how you engage its structures, and find patterns,and think about meaning.
These two skills—exegesis and analytical writing—constitute the most necessary professional skills for any job, whether in the entertainment industry or selling stocks.
Both require time, detail, patience to learn, a pas de deux of trial and error, gentle coaxing and hard critique, between teacher and student. With less students, it’s possible to function more like an Olympic coach of a top athlete than as a police officer of syntax. And my five students respond like world-class, elite mogul skiers, adjusting and recalibrating based on my constant feedback.
I will admit a few things to you. Teaching film studies online differs from the embodied version. They are not equivalent. They offer different gifts.
The online class slants more towards very very close readings of both the films and the books. While it deemphasizes group viewing, it amplifies writing, an epistolary engagement rather than a performative structure.
The students write so much more than they do in a traditional course. It’s harder. They can’t sit back and plug in their iPods and cruise FB and pretend to listen. They write in public on FLEFF blogs, they write in semi-private on discussion boards, they write to me privately with their assignments. Like my thinking about social media and human rights, it's a process of exchange and respect for what circulates.
I have a suspicion that they are learning something new about how to think about and how to see cinema in a way that differs from their multiplexed pasts.
And I have finally learned, after all the traumas and insecurities of graduate school, that all those theorists from the 1970s had it right: film, and film studies, is a TEXT.
In case you're thinking I'm a cinematic heretic, l do believe adamantly in the power of cinema as a collective experience that can jolt your senses and mind like lightning in a theatrical setting.
Of course. That’s why we became film professors in the first place, its why film festivals intoxicate us, and its why we so passionately and often desperately want to invite our students into a larger conversation about cinema that exceeds the limitations of commercial blockbuster intoxications.
Maybe online film studies teaching can function a bit like e-harmony, a sort of online dating service with conceptual ideas about cinema that are bigger than you, but that you eventually want to meet in the flesh. Or on celluloid!