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Cinema Journal 39.4 (2000) 89-93

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Teaching The Scent of Green Papaya in Saigon:
Cinema in International Context

Linda C. Ehrlich

In general, when we teach a film studies course, we frequently build our syllabus around films that bring us into contact with locations we can only experience vicariously. During the fall semester of 1998, however, I taught three cinema classes in an overseas program that provided exactly the opposite challenge. Although some aspects of that experience do not translate to the average classroom situation, others are relevant to any attempt to integrate information about a film's context into an already packed course syllabus.

Teaching in the Semester-at-Sea program (a joint undertaking of the Institute for Shipboard Education of the University of Pittsburgh and the Seawise Foundation, which provides the vessel) allowed us to visit ten ports in Asia and the Mediterranean region on a hundred-day voyage that covered more than twenty thousand nautical miles. 1 Four to five days were spent in each port. Depending on the geographical location of the next port, there could be just a few days, or as many as ten, between ports, and classes met every other day while at sea (following an alternating A day/B day schedule) in an (often vain) attempt to cover the material of a regular semester. The longest stretches came, of course, at the beginning and end, while crossing the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and in the middle of the voyage, between India and Israel. During these periods, classes could provide introductory overviews or summaries. But it was hard to shake the feeling that the real classroom awaited us every few days in a new port city and country.

Before everyone jumps to sign up for this program, let me hasten to comment that it was a voyage, not a cruise. It was neither the Love Boat nor the Titanic, but it was certainly one of the hardest teaching assignments I've ever had (and also one of the most rewarding). The pay was terrible, and the hours were long. 2 Seasickness, poor film-viewing facilities, and general maintenance problems on the forty-year-old steam-powered passenger liner S.S. Universe Explorer made life [End Page 89] challenging, if not downright miserable at times. 3 With twenty-seven faculty members and their families (from universities throughout the U.S. and London), approximately seven hundred students from more than 125 colleges and universities, about twenty-five "Senior Passengers," several interport lecturers and students (who served as resident experts on each new country), and the staff and crew (including two audiovisual coordinators, a videographer, and a photographer), the shipboard community was varied and unforgettable. 4

With the locations and the journey so compelling, the challenge was how to integrate the films into a course syllabus in a way that they could be seen both as individual artistic expressions and also as products of a more general cultural milieu. On land, our film history courses often compete for our students' attention with football games, chemistry labs, and the fast track to an engineer's salary. Quite a different set of distractions awaits the student studying overseas.

Since another professor on board taught a course specifically on the documentary, I decided to focus on feature films in my three courses: "World Film History," "The Comic Film--International Perspectives," and a seminar on tragedy that examined both dramatic literature and film. 5 Each class had between twenty to thirty students. Scheduling difficulties (and the fact that most students disappeared on programmed or independent trips soon after reaching a port) made prearrival film viewing the only viable option. As one might expect, practical considerations also limit one's choices in such a classroom setting. I could use only video (most of which I shipped myself, wisely not trusting the outdated list of audiovisual materials reported to be on board). The closed-circuit television system of tiny screens in each cabin, to which the course materials were relegated, proved inadequate for the showing of...


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