Trying to create meaningful assignments that encourage students to develop critical thinking and demonstrate course-related competencies? This category is for media instructors to share assignment ideas from their classes — from papers prompts to service learning projects to media production.

May 312014
CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(2) Spring 2014
 Paul McEwan
 Muhlenberg College

“What’s the most interesting idea you’ve learned here in the past year?”

A few weeks before students begin my Video Production course, they receive this prompt from me, in an email that spells out the requirements of the story pitch they must deliver on the first day of class. The written part of the pitch has to explain the idea, and then provide three possible plots that might convey that idea on screen. The best one of those three is the one they will pitch to their classmates, in a bid not for money but for time, since we work in groups of two or three so only the best pitches can get made.

Teaching at a liberal arts college, I can use the above prompt knowing that my students have taken a broad range of courses before they arrive in my classroom. Students at Muhlenberg use about a third of their total credits taking general education requirements, and these cover all areas of the curriculum, from the traditional humanities to social science and natural science. I tell them that good ideas for films can come from “philosophy, psychology, physics, and everything in between,” and recent experience has confirmed this hopeful view.

The prompt was a reaction to a frustrating situation in the first few iterations of the course nearly 10 years ago. Students could pitch decent stories (sometimes), but even halfway through the semester they could not tell me what their film was about without simply reciting back the plot. This was not just an intellectual exercise. Given the million and one adaptations to chance and circumstance that must occur as a film gets made, filmmakers who do not know what they are trying to say, or what the point of the work is, find themselves unable to make decisions about what to do next. The only way to make sure their work had a theme was to make them come up with that first.

By the time they arrive at college, nearly all students are capable of talking about the themes or ideas underlying artistic works on at least a superficial level, and most can go relatively deep with a little prompting. In the film studies courses I also teach, this is how we spend much of our time. Despite this, they are reluctant to think about their own work as having a theme, since they seem to think of that as a synonym for making a social issue film or being directly political, and that seems both limiting and intimidating. Many of them have of course made films that are explicitly political, and this is encouraged, but the sense that tackling a “big important issue” was a requirement to make a substantial film was a bar too high for most undergraduates. This is why asking them “what they wanted to say” did not work. It made the message too direct, like a call to action, while most of the serious films we watch in class are better described as observations or commentaries on some facet of human experience. Thus, starting with an “interesting idea” broadens the possibilities considerably.

The proposals vary widely, but certain themes re-occur, and of course some are more compelling than others. A common “most interesting idea” is an unusual condition they have learned about in a psychology class, and the students want to turn these into some kind of psychological thriller. While a couple of these have worked well, as I point out in the original proposal assignment the goal is not to act out the idea literally, but to use it as the foundation for a story. So a psychological condition could be read as social rather than medical, it could be a way to consider individual isolation, or it could simply be a metaphor that undergirds a narrative about healthy individuals. It need not be a story about a person with X syndrome, and should not simply be a story about someone’s descent.

One of our more ambitious films came from a short story that a student had read in Spanish class (films can be found here) [1]. She didn’t adapt the short story itself – just one of its conceits, that a story that at first seemed to be constructed in flashbacks eventually became one in which it was impossible to tell if the protagonist was in the present day imagining the past, or in the past imagining a future. For the rest of the semester, this fuelled endless discussions about what elements of our society could have been reasonably imagined by someone 100 years ago. Two narrative films inspired by ethics courses examined the question of what we owe long-term friends from whom we have grown apart, and what the difference is when you become the medical caretaker of someone you are dating and to whom you do not necessarily have a long-term commitment.

The latter film was one of the strongest our students have produced, and we ended up talking a lot about making our films non-exploitative. Many of our students have taken a course on the ethics of documentary making in which they spend a semester thinking about what it means to decide you are going to tell someone else’s story [2]. These are the kinds of intellectual linkages for which the liberal arts curriculum was designed, and film making offers students a way to process and share ideas they have encountered in a way that requires them to translate those ideas into a new form, and think about the act of translation itself. While these are intellectual goals that are not limited to the liberal arts, liberal arts colleges are uniquely situated to develop and nurture them.

Although film production and the liberal arts are an ideal fit in many ways, this is not immediately obvious when one looks at the range of production programs in the United States. Most of the elite production programs are at large universities, and most liberal arts film programs are focused on studies rather than production. On the surface this makes sense, given that larger universities have the resources and the space to offer what can be a relatively expensive program. Liberal arts colleges have generally developed from a great books model of teaching and learning, and while there are now obviously a great diversity of approaches and styles, there can also be a greater reluctance to embrace programs that seem practical and skills-based rather than more purely intellectual pursuits.

Despite this general hesitance when it comes to skills-based programs, liberal arts colleges generally do not have a problem training painters, actors, and musicians, as art-making courses have long been part of art, theatre, and music programs. It can be a bit more difficult to find a place for filmmaking, given the perception, mostly true, that it is more commercially oriented than other art forms. In our screenwriting courses, which are taught in collaboration with the college’s creative writing program, some of the creative writing students expressed concern that the pedagogy was too focused on selling a screenplay rather than simply the craft of writing, inverting what they are used to hearing in their other courses on poetry or fiction writing. Screenplays are unique as a writing form in that they have almost no social use outside of trying to get the films made. There is no non-commercial audience for a screenplay in the way that there is for other kinds of writing. Even plays, their closest relatives, are objects of scholarly study in a way that screenplays rarely are. Given that this difference is real and substantial, bridging the gap is an ongoing process. Our film students want to write screenplays that someone will make into a film, but our pedagogy has to recognize the fact that other students might see them as simply an exercise. We have to support broader pedagogical goals on our campus rather than just benefiting from them.

That sharing also helps with more practical budget matters. We do not have the resources of a larger school (or a large endowment), but by shopping carefully have managed to build an equipment closet with most of what we need. We have several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment at this point, much of which is represented by a production studio with up-to-date television cameras and professional lighting and sound. This investment made sense to the college because the space is also used by theatre and dance and art students for camera-oriented courses. The space is now used much more than it was before, and our students can form collaborative working relationships with students from across the campus. For campuses with more limited resources, the rapidly dropping price of equipment means that you could start a production program for $25,000 or less, assuming you don’t already own sufficient computers for editing. If you do, the price is much lower. With that and perhaps $5000 per year for new gear and maintenance, you could grow your program slowly over a few years. If demand outstrips the supply of places in your courses, that will be a good problem to have. It helps to be able to make the case that film and video production do not have to run alongside the liberal arts curriculum, but can be an integral part of it.


[1] The story is “La Noche Boca Arriba” by Julio Cortazar, and the film was Doll Face, originally conceived by Joanna Whitney and made by her, Nicole Machrone, Lara Pollack, and Jake Ramsay. This, and the other films mentioned here, are available for viewing on the Muhlenberg Film Studies website at

[2] This course is Documentary Research, designed by my colleague Lora Taub-Pervizpour. It is a required course in the Media & Communication major, which many production students are completing. The rest of the students are drawn from Film Studies and other majors.


Paul McEwan is Associate Professor of Media & Communication and Film Studies at Muhlenberg College, where he teaches both production and studies.  He edited a special section on “Teaching Difficult Films” for Cinema Journal in 2007 that included his essay on The Birth of a Nation. That film is also the subject of a BFI Classic volume he has recently completed, to be released later this year.  He is currently working on an annotated bibliography on film pedagogy for Oxford Bibliographies and is the author of a book, Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo (2011) and a forthcoming essay on Griffith’s Intolerance for the Companion to D.W. Griffith.

May 312014
CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(2) Spring 2014
 Bryan Sebok, PhD.
 Lewis & Clark College


Teaching film and media studies, including production, at liberal arts colleges offers unique opportunities and unique challenges that differ from other types of institutions.  Small class sizes and a focus on advising and mentorship afford a level of intellectual and creative engagement impossible at larger institutions.  Limited physical resources and a smaller faculty body in the subject area restrict the scope and scale of course offerings and limit the types of student projects created in classroom settings.  Many media studies programs in the liberal arts, including my own at Lewis & Clark College, have grown out of communication sciences programs housed in the social sciences, and remain focused on a wider and less specialized curriculum spanning rhetorical criticism, interpersonal communication, and socialization, along with media studies and production.  Professors teaching media studies in this context are, in a very real sense, “one (wo)man bands,” who are responsible for film and media theory, history, and production.  Here, I’d like to offer a few strategies for how to build that band into an orchestra of support for students interested in exploring media studies and production.

The orchestra begins to form via the recognition that collaboration, engagement, and involvement are necessary and inherently valuable.  Scott Carlson’s recent article for the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives” reviews the Gallop-Purdue Index Report suggesting that College graduates “had double the chances of being engaged in their work and were three times as likely to be thriving in their well-being if they connected with a professor on the campus who stimulated them, cared about them, and encouraged their hopes and dreams…Graduates who had done a long-term project that took a semester or more, who had held an internship, or who were extremely involved in extracurricular activities or organizations had twice the odds of being engaged at work and an edge in thriving in well-being.”  The research suggests that liberal arts colleges do a particularly good job in this regard; engagement between faculty and students defines the small college tradition while offering a viable avenue to value creativity and institutional differentiation in a competitive academic marketplace.  So, if we all (presumably) care about our students and encourage their hopes and dreams, what are the best practices to turn that sentiment into a collaboration that will result in thriving alumni with strong ties to their alma mater?

First, a collaborative model of curriculum support and development is necessary to foster an atmosphere supporting students and faculty alike.  While we may appear to be going it alone, we must recognize that media support services staff at our institutions play crucial roles in technology maintenance, training, and development, and can be key collaborators in training students and faculty in software and hardware use.  Technology workshops offered by support services staff in conjunction with my own classes create a complementary atmosphere that aid student learning.  Staff initiated workshops and “showcases” featuring faculty who are innovating with technology in the classroom stimulate creative integration of technology into course and assignment design.  Technology upgrades should be executed after consultation with supporting staff.  Technology grants, institutional grants, dean’s office and departmental budgets should be tapped into in order to maximize monetary outlays for new cameras, sound, and lighting equipment.  Learning these new technologies alongside staff allows faculty-staff bonding and camaraderie that translates directly to the classroom.

Furthermore, collaborative course offerings allow students to build links between conceptual and practical skill sets while connecting experiences from courses across the social sciences and humanities.  Revisions to a media studies curriculum growing out of social science traditions should strive for efficiency by building links between theory and practice into each course and across the division.  In so doing, inter-departmental collaboration complements intra-departmental curriculum design and embraces the diversity of perspectives coming from the social sciences.  Courses in media studies can be linked to courses in political science, sociology, anthropology and economics through shared course projects, collaborative teaching, and team research.  I have had the pleasure of collaborating with my colleague, sociologist Robert Goldman, on a course designed to innovate new techniques to put big ideas into short media forms.  His expertise in advertising and critical theory complements my experience in short film production, movie trailer production, and film theory.  In this liberal arts context, students’ work in the arts serves to broaden their interests and sharpen their aesthetic skill sets, while their work in the social sciences connects patterns of human behavior and socio-cultural structures to film texts.  In each stage of coursework, a co-curricular and extra-curricular offering can complement the work being done in the classroom and afford students the opportunity to master techniques and concepts in more depth than in a single classroom.

Once a collaborative and coherent curriculum is established, extra-curricular and co-curricular offerings should work to engage students with professors.  One strategy to involve students in research and creative work is to incentivize students with internship, practicum, or independent study credit.  Students participating in these offerings should be able to apply credits toward graduation in the department, rather than solely as general elective credit.  Another is to apply for internal and external grants to pay students for their time and effort.  In so doing, students re-conceptualize the nature of their work as pre-professionals, often engaging more seriously than otherwise would be the case.  Demonstrating that student labor is valuable, and should be compensated, is crucial to building an enduring relationship over long-term projects.  With each creative and research project I undertake I involve my students in key collaborative positions.  For instance, for the past year and a half I have been directing a feature documentary about the mobile food movement.  Over the course of pre-production and production, I have worked with nearly two-dozen students.  Rather than conceptualizing such student labor as a burden requiring additional management efforts, I view their contribution as key collaborators who have demonstrated their competencies first in my documentary class, then in their own creative work outside the classroom in film clubs and internships, and finally each day on location.  I view each day shooting as an opportunity to present a module to my students on documentary technique, ethics, engagement, and executing a vision.  They have been trained in sound recording and camerawork in the classroom, and are able to provide key contributions in those areas.  Each day begins with a production meeting that identifies goals for the day, reminds the students of key framing and sound considerations, and links that day’s shoot to the broader project goals.  Each day then concludes with a summary of the accomplishments and challenges of the day while reflecting on the broader issues of documentary style, form, and ethics.  Students have ascended to roles as widely differentiated as project manager, sound technician, and social media manager.

Student experiences, therefore, are enriched by mentorship, engagement, and reflection.  I embrace every opportunity to involve my students in all aspects of my work both within and outside of my home institution.  For example, I am currently writing this entry at the Cannes Film Festival, where I serve as a mentor for students interning with businesses buying and selling media content.  Through the American Pavilion, students from around the world gain access to the festival via these internships.  Five of my own students are currently interning with companies ranging from Lionsgate to Archstone Distribution to Lakeshore Entertainment.  Their involvement enriches their Media Studies experience in the liberal arts, and is contextualized via mentor meetings with me.  I link their internships together and spend time asking them to reflect on the differences between distributors and production companies, and the structure of their companies, the division of labor therein, and how their business experience is integrated into their experience with media coursework.  The students go to screenings in the evenings and are exposed to global cinema on an amazing scale.  I encourage them to broaden their horizons by going to screenings from filmmakers they haven’t heard of, from nations around the world they may not have access to when they return to Portland.  They blog about their experiences, write reviews of the films, and share their stories with our home institution.  This reflective exercise serves to both afford the students the opportunity to process their experiences in detail and in real time while also promoting the department’s co-curricular dynamism to the broader institution.

Whether curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular, student-faculty collaboration builds bonds, enriches student experiences, and strengthens the links for alumni to the institution.  This process, though, must begin with faculty collaboration within and between departments and faculty-staff collaboration in technology acquisition, training, and maintenance.  The liberal arts environment should foster an atmosphere where collaboration is not only possible, but becomes crucial to long-term success for students and faculty alike.  Building an infrastructure for media studies and production means embracing students as collaborators, working with them over long periods of time as they work towards graduation, not as an end unto itself, but as a step in a lifelong chain back to the College.  It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an orchestra to teach Media Studies in the liberal arts.

Works Cited

Blow, Charles M. “In College, Nurturing Matters.”  The New York Times, May 7, 2014, accessed May 15, 2014. 

Carlson, Scott. “A Caring Professor May Be Key in How a Graduate Thrives.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2014 , accessed May 15, 2014. 


Bryan Sebok is Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at Lewis & Clark College, where he teaches courses that integrate film and media studies with production.  A working filmmaker, he has produced a narrative feature, Dance With the One, and is currently directing a feature documentary on the mobile food movement.  He has also published articles in Velvet Light TrapMediaScape and Spectator.

May 312014
CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(2) Spring 2014
 Karen R. Achberger
 St. Olaf College


Since 2007, educators are increasingly turning to a model of instruction called Flipped Learning where lectures and homework are reversed (or inverted): the lectures are viewed outside the classroom and homework assignments are done in class, usually in groups. In this decade of MOOCs (massive open online courses), the Khan Academy and other forums of online education, the advantages of “flipping the classroom” have been well documented [1] as the community of “Flipped Educators” continues to grow [2].

In the flipped learning model, information is conveyed to students efficiently and effectively through exported micro-lectures that can be viewed online at the students’ convenience, with the option of repeating, pausing, and freezing at will, thus obviating the need for extensive note-taking and eliminating the time loss due to technical glitches as a variety of media are seamlessly incorporated into easily digestible 5-10 minute bits of course content.

Presenting focused micro-lectures outside of class also frees up blocks of class time for higher-order student engagement with the course substance and critical methods of the discipline. Students collaborate creatively in small groups to solve problems, respond to questions, or compile evidence to support or refute claims made about the subject in question while the professor is available to move about the room and provide individualized feedback and guidance in response to each group’s ideas and questions. She has the ability to address the class from anywhere in the room and move from group to group, providing assistance or advice to individual students, learning teams, or the entire class. Students can also move around, either to share laptops, tablets, or other devices or to examine the work of other individuals or teams. They may work from multiple devices, sending content to projectors, or huddle near whiteboards, working out a plan or an analysis. Discussion is encouraged and often replaces explanation as the primary avenue to learning.

In the case of German Cinema, students have an opportunity to actively practice film criticism as they take a position on some of the more interesting questions and controversies of the discipline, gathering evidence from the films and their times to support their propositions. Teams of student film critics then debate one another on questions such as: Does the character Hutter exist as a separate individual, or is he part of the vampire Nosferatu? What elements of Murnau’s cinematography suggest the one or the other interpretation? Or, in examining the use of music in Germany’s first feature-length sound film, The Blue Angel, students are asked to uncover how the musical subtexts serve to characterize Lola Lola and Professor Unrat in a way radically different from that of the film’s narrative. They also examine how the music functions to foreshadow the protagonists’ eventual outcomes. Students are asked to gather evidence from the film and its times to support or refute the proposition that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), although ostensibly not a war film, is nothing if not a film about the Great War.

There are a number of ways to engage students creatively during the large blocks of class time freed up for active collaborative learning through the use of online lectures. My favorites have been those where students collaborate in small teams to support an argument with evidence from the films and their respective times, applying what they have been learning about the rhetoric of film and about Germany’s troublesome history in order to present their team’s position to the class and defend it together against opposing arguments. These class activities help students develop the ability on the one hand to collaborate and be a “team player” and on the other to make a good argument and support it with empirical evidence, two essential skills in today’s world, as our nation’s top organizations continue to model for us, from the teams of doctors at Mayo Clinic to the teams of statisticians at Google.

The following is a list of changes I have noticed in my flipped German Cinema classroom during the January 2014 Interim, along with some of the findings of flipped classroom studies reported online, with some overlap and in no particular order:

  • a shift from teacher-driven instruction to student-centered learning based on collaborative knowledge, discovery, and creation;
  • classroom is transformed into a group learning space;
  • students interact more in class;
  • more individual face-to-face time between student and professor;
  • students engage more deeply with content and practice skills;
  • students receive more feedback on their progress;
  • professors can devote more time to coaching students;
  • students get more help with procedural fluency if needed;
  • students become the agents of their own learning;
  • students take on more challenging projects;
  • students are more likely to ask for assistance;
  • more self-paced student learning;
  • more constant and positive interactions with teachers and peers during class;
  • more access to course materials and instruction;
  • more choice in how students demonstrate their learning;
  • more collaborative decision making with other students;
  • more engagement in critical thinking and problem solving;
  • more instructor attention to student interests, strengths and weaknesses;
  • a more democratized learning environment.

The “flipped classroom” may sometimes be likened to a “blended classroom” or a “MOOC.” Both models are becoming increasingly widespread in the academy and, like the flipped classroom, both serve to redefine and expand the group and individual learning spaces. “Blended learning” is the term generally used to designate the strategic combination of face-to-face and online learning experiences. Courses like the free MOOC offered by UCF and EDUCAUSE serve to assist faculty in designing blended courses and producing online materials for these. Blended courses, however, do not generally emphasize small-group collaboration on homework assignments during the class period. Similarly, the weekly online office hours, online tutorials, interactive user forums and group discussions included in some MOOCs are not comparable to the face-to-face interactions in the flipped classroom.

The interest in flipped classrooms, online lectures, screen-casting and the like at St. Olaf College does not appear to be a recent response to the proliferation of online courses and MOOCs. The move toward using technology as a pedagogical tool at St. Olaf seems rather to have predated the advent of MOOCs and online courses by over a decade. In 2001, the Center for Innovation in the Liberal Arts (CILA) introduced the initiative “Teaching with Technology,” created a task force, and designated participating faculty as CILA associates. It became increasingly common for faculty to teach courses designed around digital materials available electronically online, initially course syllabi, readings and PowerPoint presentations.  The college continues to enhance its digital collections, especially in the humanities, as well as offer a number of “Let’s Get Digital” and “iPads in Teaching” workshops and Learning Communities focused on “MOOCs” and “Tools and Techniques for Online Learning.” To date, St. Olaf faculty have offered two Teaching and Technology Showcase presentations (in April 2013 and in May 2014), each with over 20 exhibits on a wide range of topics related to digital teaching and scholarship, from Moodle to MOOCs and beyond.

In keeping with national trends in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) courses, flipped classrooms at St. Olaf first appeared a few years ago in Chemistry and Statistics. Likewise, an eight-week ACM-funded pilot course first offered in summer 2013 involved online Calculus taught by faculty at St. Olaf and Macalester, not a MOOC, but a SPOC (small private online course). It is not surprising that evidence of the benefits of active learning over lecturing is strongest from the STEM courses.  A report in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the value of the flipped classroom focused on a Biology course and a recent meta-analysis of 225 studies of student performance in STEM courses provided strong evidence on the superior results of active learning over traditional lecturing, further validating educational models like the “flipped classroom.” In spite of the fact that student agency is nothing new, especially at liberal arts colleges, this kind of strong evidence on the different outcomes between active learning and lecturing is encouraging.

In an effort to move digital technology beyond the STEM disciplines, however, two recent Mellon Foundation grants have focused attention on the “Digital Humanities.” The Mellon Foundation “Tri-College Summer 2013 Digital Humanities Seed Grant” provided support for faculty at St. Olaf, Carleton and Macalester colleges to “use digital tools and methodologies to address questions and issues of interest to the humanities.” The funded projects focused on teaching, research, curricular development, or a combination of these areas. A few, like my German Cinema course, developed digital microlectures for flipped and online learning. While creating the digital lectures using ScreenFlow was initially the central focus of my project, flipping the classroom requires above all a new approach to teaching that promotes experiential learning and active student engagement in the classroom.

In late 2013, St. Olaf College received a four-year, $700,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation for “Digital Humanities on the Hill,” to enhance research, teaching, and mentored undergraduate research in the humanities and related humanistic fields in the social sciences, fine arts and interdisciplinary programs through the use of digital technologies. In the case of “German Cinema,” this funding supports efforts during Summer 2014 to curate a collection of digital resources for students to better understand the German silent horror film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), in the context of its times.

This digital collection will provide online access to authentic primary sources for students of German Cinema to use in their group and individual research projects. At the same time, students may also contribute to the digital collection themselves and thereby enlarge it through their own creations, e.g. translations, for those with adequate German proficiency, essays and critical commentaries or annotations of a source. As co-developers of materials, students play an active role in the production of knowledge and thereby serve to enlarge the collection by contributing additional resources for film scholars in future years.


[1] The University of Washington Library Guide provides extensive information about the flipped classroom. Edutopia lists five best practices for the flipped classroom model. The Chronicle piece made quite a splash when it appeared. The White Paper by Pearson lists the top motivations for higher education faculty to flip their courses. The New York Times“Classroom lectures go digital” discusses flipped learning and online courses of Khan Academy. See also: Literature Review of flipped learning,  Dissertation 2012 weighing the efficacy of the flipped classroom model, and a recent meta-analysis of 225 studies shows “active learning increases student performance” in STEM courses.

[2] Since early 2012, the not-for-profit Flipped Learning Network™ (FLN), a free online community of “20,000 Flipped Educators,” serves to provide educators with the knowledge, skills, and resources to successfully implement the Flipped Learning model.


Works Cited

Berrett, Dan. “How ‘Flipping’ the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, accessed May 28, 2014.

BlendKit 2014, a free five-week MOOC on Blended Learning, accessed May 28, 2014.

“Digital History: Teaching and Tools.” The University of Washington Library Guide, accessed May 28, 2014.

Fitzpatrick, Michael. “Classroom Lectures Go Digital.” The New York Times, June 24, 2012, accessed May 28, 2014.

“Flipped Learning in Higher Education.” Higher Education White Paper, accessed May 28, 2014. FINAL.pdf

Flipped Learning Network, accessed May 28, 2014.

Freeman, Scott, Sarah L. Eddy, Miles McDonough, Michelle K. Smith, Nnadozie Okoroafor, Hannah Jordt, and Mary Pat Wenderoth. “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, accessed May 28, 2014.

Hamdan, Noora and Patrick McKnight. “A Review of Flipped Learning,” Flipped Learning Network 2013, accessed May 28, 2014.

Johnson, Lisa W. and Jeremy D. Renner. “Effect of the Flipped Classroom Model on a Secondary Computer Applications Course: Student and Teacher Perceptions, Questions and Student Achievement.” Dissertation University of Louisville, March 2012, accessed May 28, 2014.

Miller, Andrew. “Five Best Practices for the Flipped Classroom.” Edutopia, accessed May 28, 2014.

“Teaching and Technology Showcase.” St. Olaf College, April 25, 2013, accessed May 28, 2014.

Topaz, Chad and Kristina Garrett, “Applied Calculus Online Course,” Associated Colleges of the Midwest, Summer 2013 and 2014, accessed May 28, 2014.


Karen R. Achberger, Professor of German at St Olaf College, teaches courses in German language, literature and cinema.  “Flipping” her German Cinema classroom was made possible through a 2013 Digital Humanities grant funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and “Contextualizing Caligari” will be supported through a 2014 Mellon Foundation grant for “Digital Humanities on the Hill.”  She is the author of two books and 27 articles on 20th century German writers, especially the Austrian Ingeborg Bachmann. She has published two translations of stories by the East German writer Irmtraud Morgner and is currently completing an annotated translation of Bachmann’s critical writings for Camden House.

May 312014
CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(2) Spring 2014
 Chuck Tryon
 Fayetteville State University


This essay offers what was essentially a tactical response to both the devaluation of the liberal arts and the decline in funding for higher education. Specifically, I focus on how my colleagues and I redesigned Fayetteville State University’s (FSU) Introduction to Film and Visual Literacy course to respond to a changing technological, economic, and social landscape at FSU. To make sense of how to teach film and media in an era of declining resources, it is crucial to focus on the characteristics, needs, and even histories of the specific institutions involved. All colleges and universities face specific challenges and offer unique opportunities that may not be available elsewhere, making a tactical approach necessary.

FSU is a historically black university that has its origins as a normal school where students were trained to become teachers, most of them in liberal arts fields. This emphasis on teacher training resulted in our university’s film course being housed in the English Department because it was a requirement for North Carolina teachers, but this placement shapes how the course has fit into a wider curriculum, in part because students enter the course expecting training on how to use film and visual media in the high school classroom. Like many state colleges and universities, FSU faces significant budget cuts, especially to operating costs, a reduction in funding that was attributed to a declining economy. These challenges exist within a state political climate where the very value of a liberal arts education has been called into question. In interviews, North Carolina governor Pat McCrory has dismissed the value of liberal arts degrees and proposed that universities be funded not based on enrollment but on whether graduates can get jobs (Kiley 2013). While I am highly skeptical about this stance, both in terms of their value for promoting critical thinking skills and their ability to prepare students for a competitive work environment, it is well worth asking how liberal arts curricula can respond to this political and economic climate.

With that in mind, I began thinking rhetorically about how to reposition the course both in terms of my goals of promoting critical thinking skills and in terms of situating the liberal arts as a field that could prepare students for a wide variety of careers. Thus, rather than continuing to teach the class as a course focusing on the formal elements of film, I began thinking about how the study of film fits within a wider civic culture, one in which my students are or could be participants. As a result, I reframed the class to require that students not only study documentary storytelling but also to make their own documentaries as part of a service-learning project to ensure that students could use these critical thinking skills in a real-world context.

This effort to revise the Film and Visual Literacy course was based not only in statewide economic trends but also within a specific institutional context, informed by the work of education scholar George Kuh, in which high-impact practices, including service learning, were placed at a premium (Kuh 2008). Service learning is a practice that involves students performing community service as part of a graded assignment for a course. The project is something that is designed to meet specific community needs, and students are expected not only to engage in a community project but also to reflect on their experiences. Our university places tremendous emphasis on service learning because of the benefits to students, to the university itself, and to the wider community. Proponents have offered evidence that students who complete service-learning projects have higher retention rates, a major concern at FSU. For this reason, the service learning office had some funding available that could be dedicated to consumer-grade cameras and other tools, such as tripods, that may have been unavailable through other channels. Experiments with service learning and innovative uses of technology are also viewed favorably when it comes to promotion and tenure, even if there is relatively limited funding to support such projects.

Finally, the university’s core curriculum was changing dramatically. In the academic year 2012-13, I worked with colleagues in my department to significantly revamp our Film and Visual Literacy course to address this new core. Instead of a discipline-based model, students would now take core requirements that would provide them with various literacies or skills, such as information literacy, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, and global literacy. One of the new requirements entailed taking a course in “ethics and civic engagement” (ETCE). Recognizing the important role that ethics plays in the documentary film, I saw this as a useful opportunity for providing students with a set of questions that would allow them to reflect on how documentary has been used to shape our interpretations of the world. Students would be expected to reflect on documentary both as consumers and producers of media. They would consider the ethical implications of specific filmmaking choices while also recognizing that films—including documentaries—can have a profound effect on the world.

As a result of these expectations, the course is structured around two major assignments: a five-page paper on documentary ethics and a five-minute documentary on a local community organization. To frame these assignments, the class would watch one documentary per week that could be used to address ethical issues, using Bill Nichols’ (2001, 13-15) formulation for describing how documentary filmmakers should treat both the people they film and the audience for the film: “I speak about them to you.” This formula, as many teachers of documentary will know, proves tremendously pliable in looking at everything from Morgan Spurlock’s condescending depiction of working-class people in Super Size Me (2004) to the playful manipulations of identity in Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). But in teaching these films, it’s also important to remind students that documentaries invariably entail some form of what John Grierson calls the “creative treatment of actuality” and that most documentary filmmakers should not be expected to maintain complete objectivity (Aufderheide 2007, 2-3), but instead are free to convey a point of view about the world.

In practice, these discussions of documentary ethics can grow out of relatively subtle directorial choices. One of the cases I invariably address is a key scene in Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (1994), the brilliant documentary that follows two Chicago as they pursue their goal of having a career in professional basketball. In one scene, Bo, the father of Arthur Agee, one of the two players, is seen in the background buying drugs while his son plays basketball on a playground nearby. As Nichols (11) points out, the filmmakers agonized over whether to include the scene, in part because of the risk of incriminating Bo legally or embarrassing the family. But the Agee family actually insisted the scene be included to show Bo’s struggles with drugs and his eventual recovery. This discussion often provokes further inquiry for many of my students, even those who might normally be reluctant to participate in class. Because Hoop Dreams taps into so many of my students’ concerns about the world—poverty, racial bias, competitive sports—many of them independently do further research on the experiences of the two teens at the center of the film and they are quick to recognize the film’s subtle politics.

Once students have begun reflecting on these ethical issues, I then introduce the documentary project. Each semester, my classes partner with a local community organization—in spring 2014, we worked with a local chapter of the American Red Cross—to document some of the services that organization provides. A representative from the organization will speak to my students early in the semester, and I then form groups of students. The first stage of the filmmaking process is a proposal, in which groups describe how they plan to make their film. My students and I discuss in detail how their filmmaking choices—even details like framing a shot or musical cues—might have ethical implications. I then provide students with several weeks to shoot their videos. Once they have finished filming, they are required to submit a rough cut of the film about twelve weeks into the semester. Both the community organization and I view the rough cut and make suggestions for changes. I then schedule a screening party for the last week of class, inviting not only members of the community but also department and college administrators, a technique that ensures students will feel an additional layer of accountability for their work. The project officially concludes with reflection papers written by each student about their experiences with the project.

Creating videos as part of a service-learning project is not new. However, this project functions as a calculated response to shifting institutional dynamics. It helps to provide students with professional and critical thinking skills that go well beyond video production. Students are required to craft memos and other professional documents with concrete audiences, giving them vital professional experience, and the final product—a short video—can have dramatic real-world consequences, a detail that ensures that students will reflect on the ethical nature of their interactions with the world, even when they are forced to come up with creative solutions to unexpected problems. In this sense, the course brings together two highly pertinent objectives for higher education in the liberal arts: it provides valuable professional experience even while ensuring that students must use critical thinking skills to produce a short documentary that depicts others respectfully and ensures that their stories are used in a meaningful way.


Works Cited

Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary Film: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

“Definition of Service-Learning.” Colorado State University, n.d.

Kiley, Kevin. “Another Liberal Arts Critic.” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013.

Kuh, George. “High-Impact Educational Practices.” Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008.

Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.


Chuck Tryon is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Fayetteville State University.  His research focuses on the transformations of movie and television consumption in the era of digital delivery. He is the author of Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence (2009) and On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies (2013), both from Rutgers University Press. He has also published essays in The Journal of Film and Video, Jump Cut, Popular Communication, and Screen, as well as the anthologies, Moving Data: The iPhone and My Media and Across the Screens: Science Fiction on Television and Film.

Feb 112014
CJ_Final.indd  Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 2(1) Winter 2014
 Matthew Holtmeier
 Western Washington University


In the Fall 2013 issue of the Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier, Marc Raymond describes his experiences teaching History of American Cinema in several universities in South Korea and the strategies he developed using paratexts to help students grasp unfamiliar contexts. As someone who teaches global film in an American university, my situation is the opposite of Raymond’s, but raises similar questions. Namely, how do you communicate the relevance of particular texts to students who might be unfamiliar with important connections and connotations? Raymond found support through the use of parody trailers, which engendered “a broader discussion of how meaning is constructed” and “gave the students an accessible point of entry into the cultural texts being studied” (Raymond 2013). While not necessarily utilizing pre-existing paratexts, I take a similar approach through an assignment that expands the personal relevance of global films by asking students to develop transnational connections between global media and current events closer to home.

The ‘Current Events Connection’ is a four-stage guided writing sequence that has two main goals: mutually enriching the student’s understanding of the global text and the current event they bring into the discussion and moving towards a critical pedagogy in emphasizing students’ self-discovery through the process of making their connections.

In teaching global media, I am wary of falling into two pedagogical traps:

First, that I follow what Paulo Freire labels the ‘banking model’ of education, which he considers inimical due to its dismissal of critical thinking, by explicating films fully for students in order to deposit the appropriate culturally specific meanings (1). While this might teach students how the spectators from the home-nation of a film might view the text, it simultaneously stymies the ability for students to draw their own interpretations and connections. While it is important to explicate the relevance of certain features of foreign texts, I believe that there is a balancing act between giving the necessary contextual information and assigning meanings.

Second, that, without any context, students resort to exoticizing the subjects depicted in the films or become uninterested due to their inability to relate to the events of the film. In both of these cases, the issue students seem to have is that the film is so different from their own experience that they are unable to find value in it. The challenge then becomes how to help students find ways of investing in these films beyond the historical or cultural significance we teach, even when, as instructors, we might think that this should be enough.

The goal of the Current Events Connection is to provide, as Laura Mulvey puts it, a “contribution to the ‘texture’ of understanding, so that films that travel abroad can begin to convey more explicit meanings and resonate beyond the appeal of the exotic” (Mulvey 2006, 257). The growing of this texture comes through a four-part scaffolded writing assignment – in the course I’m currently teaching, on the quarter system, students have two weeks for each ‘stage’ and the entire assignment lasts eight weeks. Each part consists of a particular writing task that draws upon what the student has written before, starting with the explication of a passage drawn from the class reading:

CEC Flowchart

Since the larger goal of this assignment is to discover something new about what a student already knows, through an unfamiliar global text, the first stage of this assignment provides a common lens through which to view both film and current event. The historical, theoretical, or political passage students begin with helps to ensure that a relevant connection exists between the film being analyzed and the current event that is drawn into a relationship. This ‘lens’ will be applied to the film and current event independently, which is why the arrows in the flowchart split from stage one to stages two and three. This ensures a closer reading and more careful analytical process, before students are asked to make the difficult move of exploring what a foreign film might reveal about issues closer to home. It also gives students a chance to come to terms with their framework before moving into applying it. The frames below are short samples given to my students to model the type of writing and responses I am looking for in each stage.


To practice visual analysis and close reading, I ask that students isolate a particular sequence for this assignment. This sequence should respond to the historical, theoretical, or political passage from stage one of the assignment. The goal of this assignment is to illustrate how the student’s chosen passage plays out formally in the text.


The student then explores a current event through the same passage, for the moment independently of the formal film analysis but connected to stage one. Perhaps the most creative part of the assignment, I encourage students to find an example they feel passionate about as long as they can make a relevant connection back to the theoretical situation of stage one. This helps to enrich the relevance of the foreign text for the student.


The final portion of this assignment draws together stages two and three to explore connections between global films and potential transnational connections. The goal of this final component is to explore what revelation a film from an unfamiliar context might offer the more familiar current event, illustrating the potential value of global media more broadly. In this way, the connection between the global film and the current event mutually enriches our understanding of both.


While I give the above example to students to illustrate what the flow of the assignment might look like, I am open to a range of connections they might make, because they will always see connections I do not. Possible connections include: linking Ousmane Sembène’s Moolaadé (2004) to reproductive rights in the US; looking at immigration politics through Half-Moon (2006); looking at punk/DIY culture through the lens of Breathless (1960) and the French New Wave; and using Third Cinema and Vidas Secas (1963) to think about Occupy Wall Street.

I find this to be a versatile assignment, because of its adaptability for courses focusing on global media even when they vary in size and focus. At Western Washington University, I am currently adapting this assignment for a Postwar Global Film GUR course (General University Requirement) with 60 students, which has a 5th hour requirement (reading/writing beyond the normal credit load, due to the credits per hour configuration.) This assignment can work in a classroom of this size because of the structured nature of the assignments. I give a detailed rubric to ease the grading load in a class of this size and separate handouts for each stage (samples can be found here). It can also be tailored to smaller, writing intensive classes by extending the length/depth of each part of the assignment, and also by extending the last part of the assignment into a full film analysis. Similarly, the rubric can be tailored to the learning outcomes of the particular class, in case there are certain threshold concepts focused on in the course. Currently, I use this assignment in 300 and 400 level film courses (almost exclusively juniors and seniors at my university) and have adapted it to courses both with and without a film pre-requisite by adjusting the requirement of formal analysis.

Freire argues that educators have an important pedagogical responsibility in helping students to practice an emancipatory form of knowledge-building. In other words, to oppose the ‘banking model’ of education with the ‘problem-posing model’ of education, which “enables people to overcome their false perceptions of reality” and “thereby come… to know [reality] critically” (Freire 2000, 69, 86). In the most successful cases, I hope this assignment encourages dialogue in the way Freire intends it to facilitate a “profound love for the world and for people” (Freire 2000, 89). The discovery of value in global media is not just about teaching students how to read foreign texts, but also how to forge transnational connections and to embrace the potential insights of cinematic difference, whereby each film offers its own unique perspective on (once) familiar issues. As a result, this assignment asks students not just to learn about particular films, but to learn about the world, its people, and themselves through the process of drawing these connections.


In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire argues educators can play a liberatory role by following the problem-posing model of education, which enables learners to think critically about the world and their place in it. If educators follow the banking-model of education, however, whereby they deposit hegemonic meanings into the empty banks of students’ minds, they perpetuate an oppressive system that does not allow students to create new knowledge. Here, I link the banking-model to a style of teaching world cinemas that emphasizes the explication of culturally specific or discursively rote readings of global films.

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2000.

Mulvey, Laura. Afterword to New Iranian Cinema, by Richard Tapper. . 254-261. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.

Raymond, Marc. “The Value of Paratext in Teaching Media in a Foreign Country,” Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier. Vol. 1 (3) Fall 2013. Link.