Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Beyond the Clip: Critical Uses of Film in the Non-Film Course

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Beyond the Clip: Critical Uses of Film in the Non-Film Course

Article excerpt

The digitalization of film over the last decade has not only put enormous repositories of video at our fingertips but has also made film easy to customize for classroom use. Not too long ago, the teacher's use of film was limited to the occasional "movie day," and if you were a teacher of literature, this was generally an adaptation of some piece of fiction on the syllabus. Such an approach to course design seems antiquated today, if not downright stuffy. Free software, a DVD drive, and a broadband connection now make it possible for the teacher to become a sort of disc jockey, spinning video into the classroom experience with as much facility as a line of verse.

Such a classroom experience, meticulously constructed from the materials of short film clips and other electronic media, is attractive because it includes a sort of built-in defensive mechanism against the risks of committing much class time to showing films. If the film is on the computer, all the better: we feel that we are doing more with it. Our suspicion of film runs even deeper. While we tend to assume that our culture has recently grown more fixated on visual media, the transformation of film into another branch of information technology has tended to undercut any kind of breathless fascination with the world on film that we might still have. Anti-visual models of Western education that have been around since Plato also retain their influence. Inculcating suspicion of what we see and show, we wish somehow to integrate film with the traditional commitment to the verbal dialectic, and digitalizing film appears to give us a way to do this. It is not merely the development of new technology, in other words, that has turned us away from entire films and toward clips; it is the entry of film into the teaching repertoire of faculty who are excited by its possibilities yet remain puzzled about how to use it.

Let me cite myself as an example. As a teacher with a special interest in questions of race in U.S. literature, I always consider it important to address questions of visuality such as the invisibility or hypervisibility of people of color. In my first-year seminar on "Race and Ethnicity in Twentieth-century U.S. Literature," I press this theme further, considering it a matter of simple intellectual honesty to teach students approaches to visual representation, without which they may neither be equipped to confront the ever more subtle racism pervading contemporary American culture nor to appreciate the challenges to it coming not only from great literature but film. Yet my training as a scholar of texts (and eighteenth-century ones at that) does not always help me to teach film, since there is no simple analogy between the decoding of visual representation and the interpretation of a text.

I once believed that when I examined film clips with my class, I could approximate the effect of explicating a passage from a text. Yet when I tried to apply the same pedagogic methods to film as I had to texts, I recognized that clips do not offer a true equivalent to quotations, and that I could not plan the same activities with the former as I had with the latter. It wouldn't do, I found, to break students into groups to break down clips (even were this technologically feasible) with the same instructions they might be given when I asked them to analyze quotations.

It is true that a cleverly chosen clip can provide an arresting transition to arguments about the social function of literature. David Henkin, a model professor during my graduate training, once illustrated the complex relationship of social class to professional identity by extracting a few scenes from the 1999 satire Office Space, then asking students to compare them to conditions of white-collar labor in Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener." A colleague, Susan Tomlinson, uses an episode of Law & Order to facilitate rich discussions of the connection between race and class in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. …

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