Ithaca College  »  FLEFF  »  Blogs  »  Open Spaces  » 


Open Spaces

Open Spaces

Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media

Next » « Previous

Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 4:45AM   |  7 comments

The Problem

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.

The Solution

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:


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!


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.


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…


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.


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.



Hi Prof Z,

I must say that your e-learning week is by far the most rigourous of ALL the e-learnings i've been though my entire 4 years at SCI! Not that it's a bad thing, just that for so long, e-learning weeks were almost all about 'no-learning' - lecturers just post their e-lectures or just simply assign readings.

My only regret is that e-learning week this year fell on the same week in which our FYPs were due.

I can only agree with Wei shan that it is a pity the e-learning week fell on the same week that FYPs were due. I think that for e-learning to be enhanced, all material has to be made available to student entirely online, which will mean more challenges for the technical team to explore, especially for a film module like this.

I've had many e-learning weeks in this school, and have always had to come back to school to get a hold of material required from the library or in tutorials, always puzzled how i would have been able to do that if there was really an epidemic.

Different professors also vary in their responses towards the university's practice of elearning, which explains the variation in each elearning experience. Perhaps it takes lots of creativity to come out with a comprehensive all encompassing online learning avenue.

However, if we were really struck with an epidemic, schools would be closed, and faculty and students alike would depend heavily on elearning. Even though it may be a chore to many, i suppose we have to try to make it work for us.

It was interesting to read this Patty. Even though I am a 'trained' online learning designer, I have to admit my reaction to being forced to do e-learning would probably had been the same as yours. It's interesting that your school sees it as 'disaster preparedness,' but I also think it might not be a bad idea to force all faculty to design at least one week of their course as an e-learning experience. If nothing else, it forces us to re-think our pedagogy. I have been using wikis since I've been teaching at Oswego, and they have become a really important part of how the students 'create the course' not just 'take the course.' For instance, instead of just assigning readings and assuming students will do them (!), we use the wiki to collaboratively create a set of notes for each reading. These notes become important study materials and 'landmarks' of what students learned. They are also supplemented by a discussion board attached to each wiki notes page where students can discuss the readings in preparation for our classroom debates. It's a really effective method. Here's the link for one of the note pages (you might not be able to get access to all the features as an unregistered guest):

I'm so happy to read this post, Patty -- and your comments from faculty and students on experiences.

I started using blog in courses on critical theory a few years ago as a means for students to collaborate in the construction of a searchable database of responses to readings and screenings to use in preparation for exams and research papers. A few students lead the online discussion, and the others are encouraged to respond (or ask questions) before we discuss the material again in the classroom. I've found that the students who take it seriously, learn considerably more through the weekly "whiteboarding" to "make the course" (though I didn't know these terms). It also allows for a different discussion dynamic than in the classroom, so more voices get heard. Ulises, I really like your assignment of using a wiki for collaborative notes on the reading.

Another great assignment is to ask students to curate a small exhibit of film or new media around a particular question or topic. The assignment is to do what we typically to in terms of programming a screening. I also attended a workshop- in the digital humanities where a few people discussed collaborative projects (wikis, databases) that are generated by original student research. Really useful for discussions about the production of different types of knowledge.

It was a worthy e-learning week, Dr. Z! I think you've set the benchmark for the faculty. :)

In another class of mine, the lecturer also engages his class using wikis and encouraging collaboration. While it seemed like a great opportunity to get students to 'make the class', I felt that the lack of guidance hampered the learning process, leading to lacklustre notes on the wikis.

While it is a tactical move to engage students in their comfort spaces, the old face-to-face never goes out of fashion in education.

Like Wei Shan has mentioned, this has really been the most demanding e-learning week ever, considering how e-learning has always been seen as a 'holiday' for profs and students alike.

After this, I really wished we'd had this discussion board started at the beginning of the semester, so that we could have been more actively engaged in the course material and all the screenings.

I am genuinely thankful to the owner of this website who has shared this fantastic piece of writing at at this place.

Next » « Previous

You can follow posts to this blog using the RSS 2.0 feed .

You can see all of the tags in this blog in the tag cloud.

This blog is powered by the Ithaca College Web Profile Manager.