Documenting Injustice

With fall semester fast approaching, I’m starting to think about the courses I’ll be teaching. Once again, I’ll be doing one section of “Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy,” and for now, I’m planning few changes from the version of the course I’ve taught in the recent past, with the exception of using Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust as one of my “American independents.” I may make some other minor tweaks, but the course worked well enough last year that I don’t feel an urgent need to reinvent it. And for my composition classes this semester, I’m planning to focus on election rhetoric (which also worked well the last time I tried it). With the 2008 election heating up so early, there should be plenty of material, and I think that the number of citizen-generated videos will present an interesting wrinkle in the campaigns this time around, but more on that later, in another post.

But the course that I’m still wrapping my head around is the senior seminar I’ll be teaching. Because I teach in an English department, I’m a little wary of overwhelming my students with film and media theory, but I’m also trying to provide them with an interesting and engaging capstone course. My current (somewhat self-indulgent) solution is a course I am tentatively calling “Documenting Injustice,” which will look at interesting case studies of using photography and film to document (and therefore, presumably, change) examples of injustice.  As I articulate this course concept, I realize that it sounds terribly vague, especially my somewhat broad definition of “injustice,” but I wanted to leave the theme somewhat open so that students could produce final projects from a range of approaches.

So far, I have five major (written) texts for the course, and I’m a little hesitant to add much more, especially given that I’ll be introducing my students to documentary films and photography archives.  The texts are:

  • Walker Evans and James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
  • Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
  • Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
  • Timothy Corrigan, A Short Guide to Writing about Film
  • Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary

The course, as I imagine it now, will spend about eight weeks on photography (Evans and Agee, Barthes, Sontag, the American Memory Archives) before moving into documentary film.  I’ve included the Corrigan book simply because some of my students will not have taken Introduction to Film, and it should be a quick way to get students up to speed on film analysis.  I’m planning to use Nichols’ book simply to provide my students with one useful language for talking about documentary (the four modes, etc).  From there, I’d like to come up with 4-5 documentaries that my students could watch that relate loosely to various forms of “injustice” (a word that still doesn’t seem to fit).  Some of the docs I’m thinking about are In the Year of the Pig (or Winter Soldier), Sir No Sir, American Blackout, sections of Eyes on the Prize, and maybe something like Battle of Algiers that tests the limits of what counts as documentary.  Finally, if I could get it on DVD before the end of the semester, I’d love to finish with Sicko (but Roger and Me could work very well here).

I’ve considered adding both The Thin Blue Line and Harlan County, USA, but because my film students have already seen them, I wouldn’t want to repeat material I’ve already taught.  I’m hoping this sounds like an interesting course, and writing this post has been, in part, an attempt to convince myself that it will work as a class.  I’d love to hear your suggestions about other films I could teach or supplemental readings I could add to make the course feel a little more integrated (and if you have a better idea for a title, that would be cool, too).


  1. newcritics - » The Whole World is Wacthing: Medium Cool, Redacted, and Documentary Said,

    October 18, 2007 @ 9:04 pm

    […] me busy over the last few weeks has been teaching a senior-level seminar course on the theme “Documenting Injustice.” The course examines various strategies and debates about the role of documentary practices […]

  2. The Chutry Experiment » Friday Links Said,

    March 14, 2008 @ 12:50 pm

    […] Soldier, a film that truly astounded me when I had the chance to teach it last fall in my “Documenting Injustice” […]

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Week in Review: No Time to Write Edition Said,

    October 23, 2011 @ 10:04 am

    […] 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 […]

  4. The Chutry Experiment » Reframing the Documentary Said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 5:52 pm

    […] 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 […]

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