The Show Must Go On

By Grace Collins ’23, November 20, 2020
Transitioning one of IC’s longest running and most nationally regarded courses to a virtual format.

Since 1968, first-year cinema and photography majors in Ithaca College’s Roy H. Park School of Communications have had the opportunity to hear lectures from expert professors and to screen films from across the globe thanks to one of the longest continuously running classes at IC: Introduction to Film Aesthetics & Analysis.

A hallmark of the film student experience at the college, the course pivoted to remote instruction this semester due to the coronavirus pandemic. Before the semester began, Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies, was hard at work ensuring the transition to a remote semester didn’t affect the quality of the course.

In fact, Zimmermann, who has taught the course since 1991, thinks that this particular modality of the course provides students with the unique opportunity to develop the intellectual and social skills required to operate in a remote environment.

“Students ... engage 125 years of cinema from around the world across narrative, documentary, and experimental forms, a very heterogeneous and dynamic structure, rather than a singular advocacy for one mode of cinema or one kind of national cinema.”

Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies

“I'm envious. I wish I was a student right now,” she said. “Every industry in the world is being destroyed, rebuilt, reset and recalibrated. This is happening right now in the communications world — massive changes are in motion. It is a great time to be young and entering into these worlds.”

One of the most unique aspects of the course is the team-taught approach, where longer-tenured faculty such as Zimmermann partner with more early-career faculty members, adjunct faculty and postdoc appointees to teach the course.

Patricia Zimmerman Headshot

Patricia Zimmermann has been teaching the Introduction to Film Aesthetics & Analysis course since 1991. (Photo submitted)

One advantage to this approach is that it gives the students the chance to learn from professors with a wide variety of backgrounds and academic specialties. The course, which was recently approved for ICC diversity designation, highlights international and multicultural cinema such as Janar Panahi’s “Taxi Tehran” (2015), “1947: Earth” (1999), “Shanghai Triad” (1995), and “Arlit, deuxième Paris” (2005), directed by assistant professor of media arts, sciences and studies Idrissou Mora-Kpai.

“Students get a carefully curated highly crafted experience of immersion in cinema. They engage 125 years of cinema from around the world across narrative, documentary, and experimental forms, a very heterogeneous and dynamic structure, rather than a singular advocacy for one mode of cinema or one kind of national cinema,” said Zimmermann. “They're studying with a team of faculty with very different research expertise and teaching passions and backgrounds in the larger film culture beyond the academy.”

When constructing the course syllabus for the upcoming semester, Zimmermann, along with postdoctoral teaching fellow in screen studies Rachel Schaff and visiting assistant professor Arzu Karaduman — who team teach the course with her — sought out ways to adapt to remote learning platforms and incorporate virtual instructional tools into their class sessions.

Because films can’t be shown over Zoom, their biggest hurdle was finding a way for students to access all of the content they’d be analyzing. In collaboration with the college’s library, its staff was able to digitize and upload content to Sakai for students to view asynchronously.

“We are blessed with an amazing set of librarians, and they worked with us to get 65 different pieces of media uploaded,” said Zimmermann. “They were so encouraging and supportive. You can’t mount a course with 150 students and three professors without people helping you.”

“What we've done over the decades is to create a place that functions as a think tank to train future faculty how to teach cinema — and how to teach cinema in a way that is inclusive, diverse, international across all modes.”

Patricia Zimmermann, professor of screen studies

Other adjustments include the introduction of “After Hours” sessions to allow students a chance to mingle with professors after lectures and the creation of weekly student meeting times in place of traditional office hours for small groups of students to continue the conversations and explorations about world cinema together.

Additionally, the professors worked with Yolanda Clarke, who serves as the manager of tutoring services within the college's Center for Academic Advancement, to develop Learning Coaches and academic skill-building workshops. The Learning Coaches, who are students hired by the Office of Student Success, help run learning cooperatives to aid students taking the course with analytical reading, academic writing, and study skills.

“They have been absolutely extraordinary in providing this very significant peer to peer support,” said Zimmermann.

In addition to these initiatives, 20 international guest filmmakers, curators, scholars, archivists and exhibitors have also done weekly sessions with the 150 students in an interview master class format that brings the course content and films to life through a larger disciplinary conversation.

In keeping with a long-standing tradition, this semester’s iteration of the course also collaborated with Cinemapolis, Ithaca’s independently run movie theater. Owned by Brett Bossard '95, the theater has worked with screen studies course professors for decades to bring students to the theater for film screenings and post-viewing discussions.

“Dr. Zimmermann has succeeded in developing a team-taught approach to the course that takes advantage of the excellent faculty resources in the Park School. In doing so, she has nurtured the early careers of countless film scholars who have gone on to successful careers at other colleges and universities across the country and internationally.” 

Thomas Bohn, former Dean, Park School of Communicationa

This semester, current release contemporary films, many fresh from the festival circuit, will be available for student screenings through a virtual platform called Theatrical Video on Demand, and Bossard will be virtually attending a class session to talk with students about the world of independent film distribution and exhibition.

“As an alum, it's always a great opportunity to keep in touch with current students and share my experiences as somebody who walked the same halls,” Bossard said.

Considering the course has been in existence for more than half a century, it’s no surprise that its impact extends beyond students, and even the IC campus.

Zimmermann’s method of teaching the course as a heterogeneous combustion across nations, genres and modes has inspired faculty at several other institutions, which she calls an honor. In addition to holding a strong international reputation as an innovative media course, the course has been used as a model in graduate Ph.D. programs for how to program films and teach film analysis in introductory level courses.

In particular, the team-teaching approach allows for newer faculty to hone their teaching skills in collaboration with more experienced colleagues.

“What we've done over the decades is to create a place that functions as a think tank to train future faculty how to teach cinema-- and how to teach cinema in a way that is inclusive, diverse, international across all modes,” said Zimmermann.

“Dr. Zimmermann has succeeded in developing a team-taught approach to the course that takes advantage of the excellent faculty resources in the Park School. In doing so, she has nurtured the early careers of countless film scholars who have gone on to successful careers at other colleges and universities across the country and internationally,” said Thomas Bohn, former Dean of the Park School of Communications. “Her approach has been widely adopted at film programs across the country and stands as a model for the discipline.”