Cinema Journal 39.4 (2000) 81-83
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Connecting Film/Media Studies to Student Experiences
Ramona Curry *
SCS Committee on Teaching
The readers of Cinema Journal collectively have taught many thousands of students over the past three decades since they heard--or, as students, raised--widespread calls for educational reform. Beginning around 1970, many U.S. colleges and universities have aimed to achieve greater "relevance" (to use the sixties term). The goals were to broaden the range of student interests and needs, the variety of course topics and programs of study offered, the particular (and often particularly gendered and raced) perspectives embedded in assigned materials and faculty identities, and the instructional styles brought to bear on those topics and materials.
Arguably, one can trace the significant growth in the number and range of film studies courses offered at U.S. universities during this same period to this drive for socially relevant education. Yet film and other media studies curricula are not themselves exempt from calls for revised modes and emphases in addressing students, even apart from the ongoing theoretical and political debates about redefining or displacing the so-called film canon and integrating racial, gender, cultural, and class diversity into the entire media studies curriculum.
As teachers, we thus find ourselves continually challenged to make our material and its presentation relevant. Some of the changes we undertake in the classroom may be direct responses to perceived generational disparities in our students' frames of reference, from the specific films or television programs we presume they are familiar with to the widely diverse sites and formats in which young people now consume media. I have been surprised to learn how many students at my admittedly "high-tech" university watch popular recent movies that have been "downloaded" onto their home computers.
Along with recognizing how thoroughly contemporary audiovisual media permeate and structure our students' lives, many liberal arts teachers are participating in two particular means of reaching and teaching contemporary students. The first strategy, arising from an educational reform initiative called "writing across the curriculum," presumes a largely "student-centered" pedagogical approach that emphasizes project work and discussion in small peer groups and the assignment of multiple, sometimes rather short essay and "response" assignments that frequently call for students critically to relate the material under study to their out-of-classroom observations or experiences.
The second, somewhat older teaching development is fostered by video technology--namely, the integration of narrative feature films into high school and college courses bearing rubrics from literature to history to philosophy to family [End Page 81] sociology, urban design, and educational methods, to name only a few offered at my institution. Many faculty specifically trained in media/cinema studies readily critique such courses, especially those that seem to employ movies primarily to leaven more abstruse material or to present films as transparent illustrations of a given theme. Yet whether we can influence such "viewing across the curriculum" at our institutions or not, courses of this sort may well help shape the approaches to media that many of our students bring into our classrooms.
The three essays in this special teaching section, which arose out of a workshop that the SCS Committee on Teaching organized for the 1999 Society for Cinema Studies conference, address pedagogical issues in critical media analysis that many of us consider key to our discipline--and to our role as teachers. Robin Bates and Linda Ehrlich both discuss specific pedagogical strategies they have developed to engage undergraduate students with no prior media study in willing, thorough-going analyses of films that may initially seem quite alien(ating) to them. Bates describes a sequence of three challenging essay assignments he gives in his History of Film seminar to help his students, first, to conceive of themselves as historical beings and then to build on those insights in researching how and why specific films that initially might strike them as dull or dated have had a powerful historical and social impact.
Linda Ehrlich's essay recounts her experiences in teaching film history, aesthetics, and genre as a film studies faculty member...