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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 12:10AM   |  21 comments
film experience

Blog post written by Patricia Zimmermann, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College, and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival

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.

Context #1

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.

Context #2

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

Context #3

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!)

Lesson Learned

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,, 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!




I've also been thinking a lot about the state of film studies lately--particularly in relation to students' willingness to sit down and actually watch films—as well as read and talk about them. For whatever reason, I don’t encounter the same kind of passion for film among students as I did in the past. I think you really have been lucky to get your “fabulous five” together and on track, but I’ve always been a bit disappointed with the various sorts of email groups, online forums, and other digital activities I’ve set up in the past. I do envy the energy of your group. I think that you are right—asking the right kinds of questions is key. Keep us posted on this, since I do agree that we’ll all be teaching more online in the future, and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (By the way, talking about the 1970s—I HIGHLY recommend Godard’s FILM SOCIALISME. It may not be for everybody, but it really reminded me of being in grad school in the Seventies. Enough Sergei Eisenstein to make me—at least—leap for joy.)

Prof Z, I think it's incredibly enlightened of you to think of cyber education in this way! But some things change, and some things don't, students still need a guiding hand to lead them through the arduous terrain of academia.

Professor Z, I am a Freshman at Ithaca and have never taken an online class before, so this was another new experience upon entering college. I enjoyed the online discussions and I felt I learned a great deal from the critiques. I agree with Koon Yen that students do need a guiding hand through our courses, and I feel that we did get that.

I think you have really got to heart of what makes online work which is ongoing/active engaged interaction. I tell people you don't need any sync components. Let's just think about where are your students most engaged: in lecture hall (sync) or on facebook, youtube (where we view and communicate mostly async)? But we speak *to* each other in these contexts (of course not always) and the quality of speech does as your students note above in comments need guidance. Online teaching is a completely different work flow and requires more "hands on" even though again, admin types have this vision of simply posting an assignment/quizzes (and therefore they believe less labor so you can do in infinite repetitions to any number of people). I modify my assignments constantly due to feedback, what I see is working,what students need. So it is not the robo instructor that admin believes. I have been moving though unfortunately to less of ongoing engagement because I have been successful and numbers keep increasing.

I'm excited to have been a part of something that has played a part in changing your views on something. I have really enjoyed this class and the discussions it has facilitated. As I have told you, this is my fifth online course through Ithaca College and each one has provided me with a learning opportunity that I might not have gotten in the classroom. While three of the five courses were semester-length classes, your course and the one week poetry course I took were accelerated. It is surprising what one can learn not only in an online environment but also in the span of one to two weeks. I am very pleased to say that some of the best professors I have had at IC have been those I have encountered in my online studies. Thank you for giving us an innovated learning experience!

Your text is so dense with all sorts of ideas that it is difficult to know where to begin. So let me start with my area of expertise: archives. I agree that the moment has come when film studies departments would be better served by not continuing to build collections of film/video, as was the mantra for four decades, but rather to create a digital infrastructure for on-line delivery of content to students. Within the next few years I believe that the delivery of new films will occur on-line for more than 90% of the potential audience. Also, more and more historical work will be available on line for free or for a modest fee. Archives are feeling ever greater pressure to be performative, i.e. to open their collections to a digital portal and grant online access. That sea change in the behavior of moving image archives is a a necessary prerequisite of on-line film courses.

I think it is a great idea to have an online film course. I agree that internet is wide-spread and common now, and film industry are gradually spreading their market on the internet, just like what they did to television. Nothing is more convenient than buying a movie only by a click. However, truly speaking, I would prefer more face-to-face discussion; it is so unreal to work with a computer. In fact, online course is great idea, especially to international students like us who want to go home for winter break but still want to grab every minute to study, but I hope that there will be video conference online for discussion in the future. Otherwise, it would be like everyone is studying in their own space, facing textual comments every day.

I agree and disagree with Ling Kiu. Sometimes an online class with no personal interaction is somewhat daunting, but other times during face-to-face in-class interaction I find myself wishing that I could have taken the class online. I guess what it mostly boils down to is whether or not online learning is right for you AND if the subject is right for you. I think that sometimes you have to be extremely passionate about the subject matter in order to take an online class because of all of the self-motivation that is required. I hope this analogy doesn't seem too far-flung, but in a way it's a lot like a weight loss plan. Some people have the self-motivation required to complete the plan on their own, while others need motivation and support. I think that distance/online learning is an excellent tool that all of us will see increasing in popularity in the future, but to what extremes? Will it replace learning in the classroom? Personally, I think that like Ling Kiu said, it can be hard to face textual comments every day, but if we integrate video conference technology into distance learning will classroom learning see an eventual decline? I guess this goes for most aspects with regard to the internet: to what extent do we need person-to-person social interaction?

Looking ahead, I think film courses taught via mobile devices, like iPads, might be an interesting adventure as well. If learners log-on, always already seduced by textuality, how then does cyber change the art of pedagogical seduction?

Thanks for this thought-provoking piece, Patty. Great comments, especially Chris's that digital infrastructure should be the place where cinema studies focuses its energies and resources. One of the resources that I once had was closed-classroom streaming for any titles that the library held in its DVD collection. It was a great first step towards a point when all students could have access to all titles owned by the library.

I haven't taught an online course, so it's great to read about faculty and student responses to them. I've used online components in some courses -- even tiny ones with fewer than 10 students. I ask students to prepare for our in-class discussion by contributing posts and responding to their classmates' posts on a class blog. I've found that students quickly become comfortable asking questions about anything they didn't understand in the readings, and other students respond thoughtfully. From there, substantive discussions of the material would emerge and spill over into class. The blogs helped create a collaborative (and decentered) learning environment, and they became a great resource for students to revisit when preparing for an exam or developing an argument for an essay since the posts were tagged and could be searched. I'd love to hear other comments from people who've taught or taken online cinema studies classes.

Very interesting to read about your experience with teaching an on-line course. I've wanted to take one for quite some time now, but can't afford to take a course outside of the semester. Not only are on-line film courses great for the discussion boards, but also because they allow someone to gather their thoughts and opinions on the piece before hearing anyone else's. After really thinking about the piece, the students can then go to the discussion boards and compare and contrast their thoughts with others. I believe that it's because of this that they can in many ways be more effective than a lecture.

Until reading your post, I do not think I would have ever considered taking a film studies course online. With your feedback, and information on your experience it seems more inviting. As a freshman in college, I took an online sociology course, and I found I mastered the information much quicker, and on a deeper level due to the amount of writing that was required. Perhaps it was a personal preference, but I did find I was more engaged, and actually formed opinions rather than listening passively and spitting back information. The internet has the potential to be an excellent learning tool, but I too wonder what is lost by the lack of social interaction. Do we lose, or weaken our abilities to debate and discuss ideas and opinions face to face?

Wow! Film A & A in just two weeks, and online! I took the course last semester and am now taking your Non-fiction Film Theory course and I can't imagine how comprehensive and fast paced the online course must have been! I'm wondering what version I would have enjoyed more. The most valuable part of the course for me, and what I look forward to experiencing this semester, it the dialogue that occurs between you and within the students about the films. Being there person-to-person and bouncing ideas off each other, and then relating them to authors such as Corrigan, White, and Nichols, was helpful and effective. I appreciate the fact that new media outlets such as Facebook allowed you to conduct your online course with similar means for interaction. Hopefully you were able to include some charts which proved to be extremely useful in your online class!

Teaching a film studies course online is a very interesting idea and it's nice to hear that it worked out so well. I suppose it does make it easier when you have five kids in your class, as it becomes so much easier to spend more time on each individual student. I figure in our non-fiction film theory class you are using a similar approach with the blackboard postings, and when you were away in Europe, that was basically like having an online course. I actually felt like the discussions on blackboard went very well when you were away and are going just as well now. There is definitely a different "feel" online, maybe it has something to do with people's personas on the internet. Whatever it is, it feels like a comfortable space to share ideas which is nice.

A class largely based on Social Media 2.0 taught online? This has to be one of the best decisions ever made! What better way to have academic conversation and debate than through the forum of Blackboard postings and through using interactive social media sites. It is not surprising to me to learn that students thrived through this method of learning - I, myself, feel as though I would participate more fully and comprehensively through online, written comments and argumentative debate with my classmates and professor. Using the internet and digital space as a means to teach is a brilliant idea. Students are more likely to develop their ideas and arguments, and as a result, get much more out of the class. As the saying goes, "If you can't beat them, join them." Integrating digital spaces into a course centered around 2.0 media projects is a step in the right direction.

As a student who has used blackboard I can advocate for its use as an augmentation to an in class discussion but I firmly believe that a small intimate in person classroom is the ideal situation. Online communication resources are great but the pace at which post/respose/reponse can take place is slow and disheveled. People forget about posts and so on and so forth and conversations can just end because someone forgot to check. I think there is something to be said instead for live chat room type conversation on laptops WHILE the class watches a movie together. Then you can follow it up with a vocal discussion.

I am personally entirely resistent to the online teaching trend which becomes more popular with the lack of educational funding and the dangerous increase of students who decide to go to college. It sounds like Dr. Z's success relied more on the number of students in the class and not so much the medium in which was conducted. My experience in taking a class online was not so positive, despite the smaller number of students. I have a deep rooted belief that face-to-face interaction is utterly essential, that the physical interactions and performances that take place not only between the teachers and students but between the students themselves is what makes the difference between hanging out with people and hanging out with ghosts. Albiet inspiring ghosts, but dead people who only have their texts for us to interact with. The advantage of having living, breathing beings to live and grow with should not be taken for granted.

That's so interesting that e-learning week is mandatory is Singapore when we aren't even required to post online for a majority of the classes here at IC. I couldn't believe that online engagement actually increased participation. I feel like online posting encourages more self-involvement from the students, which heightens their understanding of the subject they are studying. I think that personally online posts helped me to incorporate others ideas and perspectives into the learning experience. Instead of just learning from my point of view through what the teacher assigns for us, I can expand my knowledge to include others opinions and suggestions. I think it especially helps that Professor Zimmerman guides our conversations when we get off track so we know what to focus on more.

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