- The Teacher as Exhibitor:Pedagogical Lessons from Early Film Exhibition
One of the first points that I cover in my film history course is the active role of the early film exhibitor. In doing so, I have come to consider this enterprising, creative exhibitor as something of a role model in my own teaching. More than just another metaphor in an overcrowded field of teaching analogies, the teacher as exhibitor model provides specific strategies for organizing and presenting material, inspiration for thoughtful response to the circumstances of an individual class, and a paradigm for students to follow in their own active learning.
In the first years of cinema the experience of viewing motion pictures could vary greatly—they might be seen anywhere from a beer hall to an opera house—and the exhibitor held a considerable amount of responsibility for shaping that experience. While the content (the films themselves) was manufactured elsewhere, the exhibitor could make several interventions at the point of delivery, including promoting the product, designing the venue to suit the viewing experience, arranging the program (typically a variety of short films) in a particular order, and accompanying the silent images with sound (anything from live music to sound effects to actors standing behind the screen). At times, the exhibitor even directly altered the product, cutting and splicing together the film stock to fit the needs of his program. Film historian Charles Musser (1990: 223) argues that in certain programs of cinema in the 1890s "the exhibitor was typically the creator—or at least the arbiter—of narrative, the author of the show."
As instructors who present material to an audience of students we, too, are the authors of the show. Before a course begins, we familiarize ourselves [End Page 327] with the product and we promote it (through course descriptions, fliers, even our teacherly reputations) and arrange it into a program (through our syllabus and individual class plans). Rarely will the material covered be of our own making, but we creatively alter it both in advance (the choice of textbook or reader; the decisions of what to include, what to leave out, what order to give the individual readings) and at the point of delivery (as when we tell students to skip something on the syllabus, give them a supplemental assignment, or even devote time to discuss local and global events). In the classroom, we orchestrate the presentation of our material (our methodologies) and determine what "effects" (lecture, discussion, AV equipment, student presentations) might best enhance its delivery. If possible, we reshape the venue (moving desks from straight rows into a circle or holding class in the library or computer lab) to enhance the audience's engagement with the material. Finally, at the conclusion of a course we evaluate it, gain feedback from our audience/students, and research the latest developments in the profession to help determine how to put the show on even better the next time, ensuring continued success.
By stating the analogy in these terms I have intentionally foregrounded its most negative connotations. The exhibitor, as some of my language suggests, might all too easily become the exhibitionist. To think of a class as a "show" involving promotion and "effects" smacks of commercialism and of a drive to popularize our content—even if that means having to dress it up or dumb it down. To claim that we carefully orchestrate the material we present seems to tear us away from the goals of active learning, as students once again become passive audiences mesmerized by an instructor/exhibitor who commands the stage. And to evaluate the results with an eye to student/audience satisfaction flirts with the disheartening consumer model of education that turns our institutions into retailers and students into customers rather than learners or participants (for a recent lament of these pressures facing academe, see Winkelman 2005). Yet I contend that by acknowledging and embracing certain elements of this model—even its showmanship, but especially its creativity—we can better understand and enjoy our active (and, I would argue, inevitable) role as instructor-exhibitors without reducing our students to passivity or our teaching to salesmanship. This model is most obvious...