Teaching is central to what almost all SCMS members do every day, yet we spend surprisingly little time talking about how we teach film. It is, of course, often secondary to research in the institutions where we work. But even those of us who work in teaching-focused liberal arts do not have much opportunity to exchange ideas about film pedagogy. In addition, many film scholars are the only "film person" in their institution or department, which limits the possibility to exchange ideas with colleagues. The only stories we share tend to be recollections of what the students "didn't get" and the frustrations of what did not work. This section is an opportunity to exchange some ideas about what works.
Film is a particular challenge in the classroom precisely because our students arrive with a lifetime of experience with cinema and strong notions of what movies should look like (invariably betraying a preference for contemporary Hollywood narrative film). It can be difficult to get them to understand and appreciate films that are beyond this experience, and equally difficult to have them look anew at something they have known all of their lives. For that reason, the definition of "difficult" we use here includes not just the exotic and the foreign, but also the familiar and quotidian.
Effective teaching might be best understood as an act of intellectual empathy, depending as it does on our ability to understand what our students do and do not know, to correctly recognize the framework of their assumptions and preconceptions so that we can begin building at a suitable point. With film, there are often old ideas to be dismantled as well as new ones to be built, and those ideas are wrapped up in notions of pleasure and entertainment that can be difficult for students to face, let alone unravel.
In my classes, I always want it to be clear that I am not trying to replace their emotional and visceral enjoyment of film with a purely intellectual appreciation of "better" film. I point out that my intellectual and academic study of film has never ruined for me the emotional pleasures of cinema. Rather, it has allowed me to greatly expand the sources of that pleasure, and that is what I try to do for them. [End Page 93] Of course, for anyone who has become a professor, intellectual ideas are in themselves a source of pleasure, so there is no need to sacrifice one for the other. Indeed, convincing students of this interplay is one of the goals of a liberal arts education. Thus, as a bridge between the visceral and the reflective, between the emotional and the intellectual, film studies is uniquely situated to convince students of the joys of intellectual inquiry.
Paul McEwan's current research project is a book on the history of the reception of The Birth of a Nation. Previous essays have appeared in the International Journal of Cultural Studies and the collection Affiliations: Identity in Academic Culture. He is assistant professor of media and communication and associate director of film studies at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania.