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Reflections on Teaching America Abroad
Teaching (Less of) Hollywood in Australasia
By virtue of their global dispersion and popularity, Hollywood films possess an exceptional status among American texts circulating overseas. Paradoxically, this circumstance suggests pedagogical rationales both for and against the teaching of these texts abroad, because it implies distinctive opportunities and distinctive problems alike. Whether the teacher's goal is to increase their awareness of film history (or of American culture) or their language ability or both, film as a subject matter readily engages the students and is therefore conducive to learning. At the same time, it cannot be assumed that these students have nearly the same view of Hollywood or the same awareness of canonical film texts as American students do (although familiarity with classic film texts seems to be waning even among the latter); it was a revelation to me that my Thai students, who were well acquainted with, say, the films of Meg Ryan and, of course, Leonardo DiCaprio, had never heard of The Wizard of Oz, and that my Australian film studies students, with extensive video libraries and rental stores at their disposal, had never heard of that other American chestnut It's a Wonderful Life. My Taiwanese film genre students would have immediately recognized the image of Audrey Hepburn, who has somehow become something of a national icon, but they had never heard of such recent horror series as those based on Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
One must be wary, then, of assuming that one's students have contextual knowledge widely shared in the United States, and one must be ready to fill in the gaps. This is true regarding popular film—but it is even truer regarding American life generally. Few students will have visited the United States, and the impressions that they have of it will have come, by and large, from film and television shows, filtered through local lore; the students will have few data to tell them that what they have seen on screens is not necessarily an accurate image of life in the States (in this sense, their knowledge will mirror how U.S. students apprehend the rest of the world). An unsettlingly common picture I have received from students in various countries is that the United States is a paved, urban landmass inhabited mainly by blue-eyed people, most of whom carry guns to use on each other and on foreign visitors. So American teachers need to keep in mind at all times that their students have [End Page 377] little of the contextual information that American viewers have and, consequently, that film texts must be situated for them with respect to American culture.
Nevertheless, the importance of film as a subject matter for the three disciplines I discuss here—American studies, film studies, and English as a foreign language (EFL)—should be apparent. It is axiomatic that the Hollywood film industry plays a central role in American culture, that various institutional, political, economic, and textual features of Hollywood can be fruitfully examined in an American studies context, as quite a few American studies works attest. In film studies as well, while there may be polemical reasons to decenter Hollywood or to defamiliarize its texts, it would be absurd to absent them from the curriculum completely, given their historical influence and present hegemony. Understanding almost any film tradition requires, in part, an understanding of Hollywood's relation to it. Hollywood film is not nearly so crucial to the teaching of EFL (especially, of course, if British or Australian English is being taught), but in certain controlled circumstances it can still be useful: familiarity with and enjoyment of Hollywood texts can help, for instance, lessen the anxiety often felt in language-learning contexts, allowing students to lower their guards (or "affective filters") and be more receptive to the target language (Knee 2001: 145). And the fact of the matter is that Hollywood films are widely employed by EFL teachers (although not always for the best pedagogical reasons).