Archive for teaching

Documentary, Service Learning, Video Annotation

In case you missed them elsewhere, here are a couple of recent publications where I discuss my Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy course, which I have revamped into a class focusing on documentary ethics In the course, students watch documentaries, and we discuss them, in part, in relationship to ethical principles. The course also includes a service-learning component, in which my students create short documentaries about a local community group. Here are the articles:

  • Local Truths, Tactical Pedagogies: Documentary, Ethics, and Service Learning,” Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier 2.2 (Spring 2014). This article discusses the course in general and how I responded to my university’s decision to significantly rework our core curriculum to a “literacy” model.
  • Using Video Annotation Tools to Teach Film Analysis,” Profhacker, June 2, 2014. This article focuses specifically on a video annotation tool I was able to try out, Social Book. The tool allows students to comment direct;y on specific scenes within a film. It also makes it easy to locate student comments by going to their avatar on a timer bar.

Comments

Documentary, Ethics, Service Learning

To follow up my post on my junior seminar, I’ll quickly add a copy of my course schedule for my Introduction to Film course. In the English department, we have adapted the Intro course so that it will fit into the “ethics and civic engagement” competency for the new core curriculum here at Fayetteville State. With that in mind, I’ve reinvented the course to address issues of documentary ethics and to include a required service learning project in which students make a 6-7 minute documentary about a local community organization (last semester it was Fayetteville Urban Ministry; this semester, it’s the local chapter of the American Red Cross). Last semester was very much a “beta test” for the class, in that I had never taught anything like this. It ended up working out pretty well, but I’ve learned a few things that I can write up later if anyone is interested. Students will also be required to write a paper addressing an ethical concern related to documentary. For now, below the fold, is our weekly schedule.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments

Primetime Politics

I’ve been out of the loop for the last few weeks, but several people have requested that I post my syllabus for my junior seminar, “Primetime Politics,” which focuses on representations of Washington D.C., in Hollywood films and TV series. Obviously there is way too much out there to cover, especially in a junior level course, so I decided to focus on a few major strains: historical films (and some documentaries) depicting actual presidents or public figures; backstage narratives that look at the behind the scenes aspects of DC culture (Scandal, Thank You for Smoking, and House of Cards all fall into this admittedly broad category); and finally parodies and satires of DC life (Colbert and Stewart are big, but I’ll also cover SNL’s depiction of politicians from Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford to Tina Fey’s uncanny depiction of Sarah Palin). I’m trying to avoid a fully straight-forward chronological organization, so I will start with John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln before doubling back to Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

At one time, I was leaning toward teaching only texts that were available on Netflix. When I discovered that Netflix’s selection was too thin for what I needed, I did decide to put personal DVD copies on reserve for a few films, but in making that choice, I ended up leaving out a couple of films (Bob Roberts, in particular) that I think would have worked well. I strongly considered including something like The Parallax View to reflect Watergate-era cynicism, but couldn’t quite work it in. I also considered using JFK as an alternate form of myth-making (to compare to Lincoln), but Oliver Stone’s direction typically gives me a headache. The class starts tomorrow (Tuesday, January 14), so I have time to do some last minute tweaks if you have any suggestions.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments

Primetime Politics

This spring, I’ll be teaching our department’s junior seminar, which I’ll be structuring around the theme of “Primetime Politics.” I’ve written quite a bit in the past about citizen-generated political mashupsonline parody videos, and image macros that mix popular culture with political commentary. To some extent, this grew out of a fascination with the debates about how social media tools were opening new forms of political engagement. But more recently, these interests have led me to think about how Washington, D.C. has been depicted in television and film. Washington culture has certainly become the subject of fascination for many TV viewers with shows like Scandal, House of Cards, and Homeland currently attracting enormous attention, while parodies of DC politics (SNL, The Daily Show, and Colbert) also continue to play a vital role in how we think about politics, even to the point that Daily Show appearances can lead to political operatives getting fired.

With that in mind, I’m planning to structure the course around popular culture depictions of Washington, D.C., both past and present. For now, I expect to bracket off most documentaries, like Fahrenheit 9/11, and instead focus on scripted entertainment and will likely focus to some extent on contemporary media, although I’d like to take a look at a few past texts. I’ve generated a longish list of TV and film texts that I’m considering, knowing that I likely won’t be able to show all of them in a 16-week course. I’d welcome suggestions of texts that I might be missing and with the TV series suggestions about specific episodes that you believe might resonate the most. For Scandal, for example, I am strongly considering showing season one, episodes six and seven, which traces a major portion of the “Amanda Tanner affair” plot, while also introducing quite a bit of backstory to the president’s campaign. For The West Wing, I’m considering showing the debate episode (between Matt Santos and Arnold Vinick) and one early episode. Below the break, I’ve listed some of the movies and TV shows that I’m considering and some (very) loose themes to organize them.

Obviously it’s somewhat inaccurate to suggest that we have evolved from a naive faith in Washington to a more skeptical or cynical view (one could hardly be more cynical than Kubrick in Strangelove), and the 1990s introduced a number of polarizing views on (sexual) scandal and the role of media in shaping political perception. K Street and The War Room potentially help to turn DC insiders such as James Carville into “stars,” a situation that eventually inspires Stewart and Colbert’s satirical response to these media narratives. I’m turning over writing an article or even a longer text on some of these issues, so suggestions about both readings and texts (movies, TV shows, and even novels or short stories) would be much appreciated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (3)

Technology in the Classroom

It’s syllabus time again, and I’m revising my graduate-level course, “Using Technology in the Language Arts Classroom,” which I have taught several times in the past. It’s getting close to the end of summer–classes start August 22 at FSU–and I’d like to rework this syllabus a little, in part to keep it fresh but also because we have reworked the curriculum to make this course part of our professional writing certificate program, which means I’ll be addressing two very different audiences. So far, I haven’t done any serious tweaking to the schedule (which I’ve included below the fold), but I can anticipate that I’ll cut a few things.

First, Delicious and Google Reader are no longer available or no longer seem to have a significant place for most online media users, so I’ll likely cut that entire week (I only use Diigo about once a month now and rarely consult my current RSS reader). Scratch, the basic programming tool, didn’t seem terribly effective, and I had a difficult time teasing out any specific pedagogical purpose for it. If people can offer good reasons to keep this material, I will. I’ll almost definitely cut the Nicholas Carr “Google is Making Us Stupid” article. I’ve become completely unconvinced by his arguments. Oh yeah, I’ll drop the Rushkoff, too. I don’t know enough about programming to make a serious argument there, although it might be worth introducing the students to basic HTML and design skills toward the end of the semester.

That leaves at least two weeks to play with and maybe three. I do think a week on information literacy is vital but don’t have any readings that I find helpful. I’m tempted to do at least one week where we reflect on (and critique) the idea of a digital generation, using Siva Vaidhyanathan’s excellent article as a starting point. Beyond that, it would be incredibly helpful to know what tools, ideas, or concepts you might add (or take away) from my course as it is currently constructed. Facebook and Twitter comments or emails are welcome.

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments (5)

Sunday Links, Hulu, Video Privacy, and 56 Up

Embracing the last quiet Sunday morning before classes start back to catch up on some of my online reads. This semester will involve a number of transitions for me in that I’ll be teaching an online class for the first time (Introduction to Business Writing, which is also a new prep for me) and I’ll be preparing to teach a completely revamped Introduction to Film course next spring. I’m also in the final stages of polishing up my second book (page proofs should arrive in my inbox in the next few days). But all of these changes point toward the possibility that 2013 could be an exciting year. Here are the links:

  • I’ve been writing bits and pieces about the Video Privacy Protection Act, the 1988 law that is now being revised to allow companies like Netflix greater freedom in sharing customers’ rental habits. The bill is designed to give Netflix more freedom to create an app on Facebook similar to Spotify that would allow users to post what they’re watching in their Facebook news feeds (I’d assume something similar would be in place for Twitter, too). Think Progress has a great article on the implications for the bill, but I also wanted to highlight an Ars Technica article that documents how much (over one million dollars) Netflix has spent over the last two years lobbying Congress to pass this bill. It’s also worth glancing at some of the other media companies have spent to pay for lobbying efforts.
  • David Poland attempts to forecast where the studios will go this year in terms of cultivating new delivery systems. Since this is a major aspect of my next book, I was intrigued by Poland’s analysis. The most striking prediction is the speculation that Disney may eventually “eat” Netflix and seek to split its independent and children’s content into separate systems. I’m hoping to write further about some of these issues elsewhere, but Poland’s hunches–from my experience–have been pretty solid.
  • Hulu CEO Jason Kilar has apparently left the company. Om Malik reviews his tenure at the company and where Hulu might go from here.
  • Michael Atkinson has a review of 56 Up, the latest in Michael Apted’s long-running documentary series. I think that my introduction to the series came at around 35 Up, so like many others, I now feel as if I have quite a bit invested in the series, and I’ve also been fascinated to watch as it has evolved from an effort to document class stratifications in Great Britain to something more profound about the changes associated with aging, and how that experience is altered by having your life documented periodically.
  • For my online course this semester, I decided to use audio podcasts to deliver the course lectures. After struggling mightily with a podcast function on our university’s course management system (CMS), I had the good luck of stumbling into a slideshow instructing people on how to embed podcasts on Blogger (which I can then link to in our CMS). The cool part is that you can upload your podcasts to the Internet Archive where they are stored for free and where they uploaded very quickly. My two 7-minute mini-lectures both went up in about five minutes or less.

Comments

Technology in the Classroom Blog

This is just a quick update to point interested readers to the blog/website I’ve created for my English 518, Technology in the Language Arts Classroom course. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions and advice about the course.

Links to the readings should go live by midnight, January 11, but I wanted to make sure interested readers would be able to see the course as it stands right now.

Comments (3)

Rethinking Technology in the Classroom

I’m in the process of rethinking my “Technology in the Language Arts Classroom” graduate course that I last taught (as far as I can tell) in spring 2010. The course is a required class for the M.A. in teaching here at Fayetteville State and is designed primarily for high school teachers (although I have taught some middle school teachers, too). Tweaking this course demand quite a bit of reflection, not only about the pedagogical demands of the high school classroom but also about my own considerations of how “technology” factors into education. In the next few days, I will post a revision of my syllabus, but for now, I’m interested in raising a couple of questions about what has changed for me since I last taught the course.

Many of these changes are based on observing my wife and children as they engage in different kinds of classroom experiences. I’ve always included blogging requirements in my classes, but thanks to one of my wife’s children, I’ve learned more about Glogster, a tool that seems targeted towards high school students. In teaching Glogster, I won’t necessarily be endorsing it, but I’d like my students to get a better understanding of how different blogging platforms might encourage different kinds of expression.

Further, as I have become more comfortable with PowerPoint, I’d like to spend a little more time discussing various uses of presentation software. My wife was required to produce a narrated PowerPoint as an assignment for a course she was taking, and I think it could be a useful tool, but one that ended up being way more complicated than either of us expected, so while I am thinking about requiring that students produce a narrated PowerPoint, I am dong so with the expectation that they might struggle with making one (and if they struggle, I hope to turn that into a learning experience, not something that will be a source of frustration).

I’m also trying to rethink how I will tweak the wiki requirements. In some versions of the course, I had ambitions that students taking the class would create a wiki, usually about topics related to the course, but the assignment always seemed too ambitious and, in some ways, redundant, especially given that most of the terms they could have defined were already on Wikipedia. But several of my students recognized that the storage space on wikis could be useful for their course materials, so I would like to find some way of encouraging them to play with a wiki, probably Wikispaces.

Both of my wife’s children have had assignments that invited them to create movies using iMovie (other options were available, so this wasn’t required), so I am considering a more detailed discussion of that as well. But one problem I have encountered–and it’s related to the iMovie assignment, which asks students to interpret a popular staple of modern American literature–is that the web allows assignments to circulate a little more visibly. This kind of sharing can help teachers looking for a creative way to get students to produce interesting work, but it also (quite obviously) makes it easy for students to find those assignments, whether they copy them directly or simply consult them.

Probably the main shift that has taken place, though, has to do with my own attitudes toward social media. I’m still somewhat active on some social media sites, although I’m often torn between more personal interactions on Facebook (and fun distractions like Scrabble) and the professional connections that I usually find on Twitter. I’m blogging less frequently due to time constraints, but all of these social media tools now feel like a part of our social fabric rather than an innovative curricular change. Even if students or teachers don’t blog, they are likely aware that blogs exist. I’ve heard about assignments that require students to create Facebook or MySpace pages for characters in novels or plays. There’s nothing wrong with such an assignment, but I wonder what kind of pedagogical purpose it actually serves.

I’d welcome any suggestions, observations, or experiences regarding these issues, but I will likely post a revised syllabus later this week. Here is a draft version of my Spring 2010 syllabus, if you’re interested.

Comments (11)

Reframing the Documentary

For the first time in several years, I will be teaching Fayetteville State University’s senior seminar in the spring. The course fell into my lap late in the semester, so I haven’t had the time to prep that I would normally want, but I’m excited to have the opportunity to explore a set of research questions in detail with my students. The last time I taught this course–way back in 2007 (!)–I focused on the theme of “Documenting Injustice,” a phrasing that I hoped would encompass a wide range of activist, narrative, non-fiction texts in a wide range of media. Because the course is taught in a fairly traditional English department, I wanted not only to include a focus on literary texts but also to respect approaches based in textual analysis. Thus, while I’d enjoy teaching a course on the political economy of digital cinema (say), I don’t think my students would receive the “capstone” experience this course is supposed to represent.

That being said, the students who have signed up for the course know that I am the “film guy” in our department and know a little about my interests. So, with that in mind, I have decided to do an updated version of that course, which I am tentatively calling “Reframing the Documentary,” in part to entertain some slightly different questions about various forms of non-fiction. For the previous course, I sought to discuss a wide range of media forms–written non-fiction, photography, and film–and I’ll maintain that cross-media focus this time. Once again, I will require my students to read Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives and Agee and Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, texts that explore different aspects of documentary and observation with the goal of some sort of social change. But unlike last time, I am going to add David Eggars’ category-defying narrative, Zeitoun, in which he tells the story of a Syrian-born Katrina survivor, writing from Zeitoun’s voice.

In addition, I want to introduce some significant case studies on photography, such as the Dorothea Lange “Migrant Mother” photographs, Robert Capa’s “Falling Soldier,” and others. I’m planning to avoid directly studying most of the recent controversial photographs (especially the Abu Ghraib photos), although I may teach at Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure. Instead, I’d like to look at some of Morris’s essays on older photographs, possibly including this essay on whether photographs lie (new to me: Morris’s New York Times essays on photography have been anthologized in a book). Or, more likely, that I will be teaching The Thin Blue Line, Morris’s blog posts on documentary re-enactments. I’ll supplement this discussion of Morris with screenings of either Strange Culture or Road to Guantanamo (or both).

From there, I ams till trying to decide how to engage with some of the “limits” of documentary. By that, I mean definitional limits, rather than where documentary itself is limited. I will likely include the animated Israeli documentary, Waltz with Bashir, and I’m thinking about doing a couple of mock documentaries, most likely Confederate States of America, and, thanks to some recent research by a former student, the boundary-defying film, The Watermelon Woman. One other area of emphasis will likely be autobiography, and I’m leaning towards Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, if only because I am familiar with it and because its production history is pretty catchy.

Finally, given some of my own recent work on “transmedia documentary,” I will likely finish with a couple of recent documentaries that used online media to expand the limits of what counts as a documentary, including The Age of Stupid. Following up on this idea of “transmedia documentary,” I’d very much appreciate any suggestions about online videos, photography series, or articles that depict aspects of the Occupy Wall Street movement. One “text” that I would certainly like to discuss would be the “We are the 99%” tumblr blog, but I may also set up a discussion of how iconic images of #OWS, such as the macing incident at UC Davis, have been remixed or repurposed.

I recognize that this post is all over the map–and mostly consists of a list of possible texts–but I am still brainstorming to some extent, trying to decide how, exactly, I want to frame this course. I am looking forward to doing an in-depth study of documentary, activism, and narrative, but I’d welcome any reminders about texts that I’ve neglected, including short essays, short stories, or other explorations of how we document our lives and how we use non-fiction images, sounds, and narratives to represent significant social and political events. Feedback (on Twitter, Facebook, or in the comments) is welcome.

Comments (10)

Week in Review: No Time to Write Edition

Here are some of the topics and issues I’ve been thinking about over the last few days (weeks, in some cases) while I’ve been away:

  • Jeffrey P. Jones, a media studies scholar at Old Dominion University, has a good historical overview of political humor in today’s Washington Post. I think there is a tendency to ignore some of the historical precedents for Colbert, Stewart, and all of the web-based political satire, but Jeffrey makes some useful connections here. Also, if you’re in the DC area, I hear the print edition has some illustrations that go along with the text.
  • I’m hoping to write a longer blog post about this later, but I’ve just been assigned a senior seminar for spring semester, and I am thinking about reviving my “Documenting Injustice” theme from back in 2007, when I last taught that course. I’ll probably start with some of the same texts (Evans and Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, etc), but I’m hoping to build toward more contemporary practices, especially the distributed efforts to document Occupy Wall Street (including Twitter streams and other ephemera), as well as the use of animation and other platforms to create “documentary” narratives, such as Waltz with Bashir. The course is for English majors, so I’m trying to balance film and written media carefully (books, stories, etc), as well as my students’ limited book budgets.
  • I’m also teaching our graduate level course, Technology in the Language Arts Classroom, and may do a little crowdsourcing soon to get ideas for updating that course. I learned, for example, that some local teachers are using Glogster for student projects, but if there are other similar resources out there, I’d love to hear about them.
  • Some of the early reviews are out of UltraViolet, the new digital locker service supported by most of the major studios, and New Tee Vee is reporting that they are mostly negative. Given the company’s ultra-high-profile launch and the fact that it often takes users a while to figure out how to incorporate a new technology into their media routines, I think some complaints are inevitable. As Home Media Magazine asserts, consumers will likely have to be “educated” (or persuaded) to see the long-term benefits of the service. Of course, I’m not convinced that Ultraviolet is answering a specific consumer necessity, given that we no longer need to own copies of movies (physical or cloud-stored) anymore. Still very interested to see how this plays out.

Comments

Teaching Rhetoric

With a new academic year on the horizon, I’m starting to turn my eyes back toward the classroom and another semester of teaching first-year composition. I’m still in the process of rethinking how I’ll teach the course, but I stumbled across a video produced by some graduate students at Clemson on the (real) meaning of the term rhetoric, which often bears the unfortunate connotation of “empty words.” It’s a great little introductory video that might work well for students (thanks to Kairos for the link).

Comments

Sometimes There Are Bad Questions

…at least on the S.A.T. This year, one of the questions on the test focused on reality television, asking students to weigh whether the contrived scenes in many reality TV shows undermined their authenticity.  After a brief description of reality television, the prompt asked, “How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?” Which might be fine, if all teens were avid TV consumers and familiar with the many different genres of reality TV (or at least familiar with enough shows to offer sufficient examples). As several friends mentioned on Facebook, we wouldn’t ask students to write on a genre or subgenre (poetry, Shakespearean drama) without some confidence that all students were familiar with it because they’d be forced to resort to generalities.

For this reason, I’ve been disappointed by the flippant reactions by some TV and media critics (Drew Grant’s Salon piece is one example), essentially mocking students for panicking about the question. Although Grant suggests that you don’t need to know Snooki’s arrest record or whatever, people who watch reality TV are at a profound advantage for this kind of question. And while Angela Garcia, executive director of the SATs, argues that any teen will have an opinion about reality TV, the phrasing of the question presumes familiarity with the shows, leaving students to scramble for examples (although the student who tied reality TV to Jacob Riis would likely get a high score in my book).

I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of asking a question that will encourage students to draw from interests in popular culture, but this particular question ignores the fact that reality programming may actually reach a much narrower audience than the S.A.T. test writers assume.

Comments (1)

More SCMS Reflections

I’ve been intrigued by the wide range of SCMS conference reports that have been published this year. It seems that more and more scholars, including many junior scholars, have been thinking about the ways in which SCMS expresses something about the fields of film and media studies, and although a conference is an incomplete snapshot, one marked by individual tastes, I think that SCMS’s decision to embrace some of these social media tools has helped to foster some of these conversations. Rather than update my previous entry, I would instead like to highlight what others have said about their experiences at the conference.

Chris Cagle’s thoughtful roundup of the conference argues that SCMS would benefit from requiring contributors to submit papers in advance of the conference and creating a mechanism for publishing “proceedings” of the conference. I’m generally in favor of having authors submit complete papers, and Jason’s decision to post his paper to his blog illustrates how well this can work to encourage conversation. I’m a little less intrigued by the idea of conference proceedings, but an anthology of papers that address a specific theme–such as this year’s conference theme of media citizenship–could be valuable.

On a related note, Justin Horton argues that there is a “gulf” between TV and film studies in terms of social media use, and I think this is a reasonable observation–one that was occasionally raised at the conference. Justin also calls into question the 20-minute presentation, but again notes that more “traditional” media like film seemed to invite longer-form presentations while TV scholars were more likely to do shorter workshop and position papers. I’m tempted to attribute this, in part, to the different models of fandom associated with both media. Even with all of our discussion of asynchronous TV viewing through DVRs, streaming video, and other platforms, TV, far more than film, seems to inspire more real-time chatter. But that’s just a hunch on my part.

And it’s worth noting that many of these scholars have expressed a great deal of ambivalence about the conference. Although my experiences were generally positive, Mabel Rosenheck, among others, has pointed out that SCMS can (still) be an alienating experience, especially for younger scholars seeking to network and/or navigate their way through panels and other aspects of the conference that are less than transparent. In particular, Mabel points out that the purpose of scholarly interest groups (SIGs) isn’t clearly spelled out, and I tend to agree that is something that conference and SIG organizers could work on.

Noel Kirkpatrick also highlights some of these limitations, including the politics of tweeting (especially when you might be the only person tweeting a panel). Noel also offers a useful reading of the blogging “workshop,” which I wish I could have attended.

In all cases, these perspectives on the conference are well worth reading, and I hope you’ll drop by and comment on some of their posts. Although many of them are far more ambivalent about the conference than I was, their reflections help to illustrate (at least to my mind) the ways in which social media can be used to rethink our current practices as academic professionals.

Comments (3)

Wednesday Links

Social media, film, and other topics I’ve been following over the last few days:

  • Via Tama Leaver, a New York Times article on Wikipedia’s efforts to increase the percentage of female contributors to the website.  Currently, only about 13% of the contributions are by women, while the average age of contributors was in the mid-20s.  There is some interesting food for thought here when it comes to how knowledge is constructed within Wikipedia (and perhaps the web more broadly).  I’m in the process of starting up my (slightly updated) composition students’ Wikipedia project, and this article might provide good discussion material.
  • Tama also points to an article reporting that Google has created a device that allows people to post tweets by making a telephone call in response to the internet blockade in Egypt.  Like a lot of people, I’m reluctant, at best, to ascribe the events in Egypt to social media, but I do think that social media tools might allow people to organize more efficiently, and they can also make these events visible in different ways.
  • In honor (?) of the Oscar nomination for Banksy’s documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop, street artist Mister Brainwash (who was, in some sense, the subject of the film) has created a somewhat perplexing street mural.  I only wish MBW had gotten around to this a month ago when I was writing an article on fan adaptations and activism.
  • The Self-Styled Siren is hosting a film noir blogathon later this month.  Given that I’ll be teaching an early noir, The Maltese Falcon, for the first time in several years (I usually do The Third Man), I’m hoping to participate.  The blogathon is linked to a fundraiser designed to solicit donations for the Film Noir Foundation to go toward their film preservation efforts.
  • Lots of discussion about Amazon’s plans to offer a streaming video service linked to their Amazon Prime membership.  For $79 a year, not only do you get free shipping on all Amazon products, you also get free streaming videos.  This would complement Amazon’s existing streaming video-on-demand service and seems to represent a logical step after the online bookseller purchased the UK-based LoveFilm recently.  It will be interesting to see how Amazon functions as a competitor for Netflix, but as New Tee Vee points out, this could also encourage people to buy more stuff through Amazon thanks to their “Prime” membership.
  • I think I found this via Girish, but it’s worth noting that Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism has a very cool new online launch.  Girish also points to Cinema Scope’s new online presence.
  • Finally, New Tee Vee also has an article discussing BBC research on how to improve online video recommendations.  Interestingly, they found that older viewers were more likely to vote on videos.

Comments

Waiting for Superman

Several days after watching it, I’m still mulling Davis Guggenheim’s documentary, Waiting for Superman (IMDB), in which we are presented a number of claims explaining why our educational system is failing.  We are presented with apathetic teachers who casually read newspapers while students play a game of craps in the back of the classroom.  We are told that these apathetic teachers are protected by teachers unions and a tenure system that discourages innovative classroom performance.  After all, why do anything to improve student performance when you will not be rewarded with merit pay?  And we are told that students will be conditioned to do the bare minimum to get by, unless they are challenged to do more.  We get some righteous indignation from activists and teaching executives such as Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee, the latter of whom took on DC’s teachers unions. We are also presented with some of the most emotionally staggering images I’ve seen in some time as five students, of a variety of backgrounds and ages, wait to see if their name is selected in the lotteries designed to choose who will attend local charter schools.  All of this is grounded in Davis Guggenheim’s own experience both as a parent and as someone invested in improving (and supporting) public education.  Guggenheim even cites his past documentary work on public education, The First Year, which documents the experiences of five public school teachers.

However, despite the film’s alignment with Participant Productions, a movie producer that mixes films and activism, it is unclear to me after seeing the film what kind of response Superman is seeking to elicit. The website offers several actions that participants can take, including writing their local school boards to demand “better teachers,” while supplementing the film with statistical information about dropout and college attendance rates for individual states.  It also offers other forms of activism or involvement ranging from seeing the film (done that!) to attending school board meetings.  But within the film itself, we are presented with some pretty clear heroes and villains, as innovative educators are pitched against teachers unions in a struggle over how children will be educated.  As a result, Waiting for Superman has been embraced by a number of conservative bloggers and critics, as Patrick Goldstein documents.  Unfortunately, many of the films claims are misguided, at best, as Dana Goldstein of The Nation points out, listing off unionized school districts that do quite well in educating students, while pointing out that four out of five charter schools are no better than the public schools in their neighborhood.  I think it also gives a pass to some of the more harmful attempts to politicize education, most notably the introduction of intelligent design as an “alternative” to evolution in some science classes.

What seems significant about the film is that it seems to falter when describing the innovations that could be introduced to the classroom to improve student performance.  We see one teacher who makes learning fun by turning multiplication tables into a rap, but for the most part, actual classrooms are less prominent than the talking heads seeking to fix them.  At the same time, we are introduced to five children struggling to get a good education, including Daisy, a Latina girl who dreams of becoming a doctor or veterinarian, to help people.  We also get single mothers and grandmothers struggling to help their children get into a good college.  All of them seem to be banking on their local charter school lotteries, which amount to exercises in emotional cruelty, despite what appear to be their creators’ best intentions.  The five families wait, usually in crowded gymnasiums, watching and waiting for their number or name to be drawn, giving them a ticket to a better school, and presumably, a better life.  It’s implied that if Daisy doesn’t beat the odds–her chances of getting into the charter school are pinned at 1 in 20–she’ll face insurmountable odds in her dreams of attending medical school (a similar practice is depicted in the documentary, The Lottery).  Although Superman seems to imply that all five of these students–and others like them–all deserve the best education possible, I don’t think the film is critical enough of the charter schools themselves for offering this fantasy of escape in such a public format.

There are some things in the film that seem perfectly on target.  Canada’s anecdote about his childhood wish that Superman would come along and eliminate the slums and fix the broken schools in his neighborhood.  It’s a useful reminder that there is no Superman, but that the work of countless individual teachers, parents, executives, and students is needed to make a difference.  The film also argues for higher standards, for challenging students to improve, a position I essentially share.  In too many places, however, the film seemed to be offering reductive answers to complex problems.  I think it avoids the worst excesses of some anti-youth screeds–all of the five children depicted in the film are clearly very bright and ambitious–but by reducing its picture of public schools into something of a stereotype, it does a serious disservice to the work of countless public school teachers who are making a sincere effort to educate today’s students.  It also avoids addressing how we can truly engage students every day in order to instill the pleasures of learning (while also cultivating a better understanding of what we mean by learning).

Update: Via Craig Phillips on Twitter, a pointer to secondary education professor Mark Phillips’ column on Waiting for Superman.  For the most part, Phillips’ comments echo my own, but his post reminded me of another scene that bothered me that I’d forgotten about.  It’s an animated video showing a teacher pouring knowledge into students’ heads, until he/she reaches one unfortunate student for whom the teacher misses the hole, allowing knowledge to spill out all over the student’s desk.  It’s an oddly old-fashioned depiction of (rote) learning, one that Paulo Freire, in a slightly different context, would have called the “banking concept” of education.  Learning as a transaction.  Knowledge can be dumped into our heads, in much the same way that Neo is programmed to learn kung fu in The Matrix.  It’s a highly flawed view of how learning works.  Phillips adds a number of useful observations about how Guggenheim’s film simplifies a much more complex set of practices, so it’s well worth checking out his entire evaluation of the film.

Comments