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.

Feb 232015
CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Volume 3 (1) Winter 2015
Antoni Roig and Talia Leibovitz 
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya/IN3

This paper presents the first results of an on-going experiment on distributed creativity in screenwriting and film creation, which is taking place in the Audiovisual Final Project of the online Degree of Communication of the Open University of Catalonia. In this initiative, we have taken advantage of our ongoing research in participatory filmmaking (Roig 2009; 2013) and crowdsourcing in cinema (Roig, Sánchez-Navarro & Leibovitz, 2012; Leibovitz, Roig and Sánchez-Navarro, 2014). Furthermore, we have applied our experience in the design of collaborative creative environments and tools (see Creus et al., 2014), where we focus on stimulating cross-disciplinary social skills to understand and solve complex problems through co-creation (as stated by Sutherland, Eagle & Joubert, 2012), taking into account that online environments are particularly suited for the collaborative construction of knowledge and learning (Gros et al., 2009; Luther et al., 2010).

Institutional background and project justification

The Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (Open University of Catalonia, from now on UOC), established in 1995 and based in Barcelona, is a pioneering online higher education institution with a strong commitment to internationalization. The UOC began teaching a Degree on Audiovisual Communication in 2002, and one of the authors of this paper was the designer of its curriculum. In 2009, a new Degree in Communication, adapted to the requirements of the European Higher Education Area, was created. Drawing from the experience from the previous degree and taking advantage of the enormous technological, social and cultural advancements for online creativity at all levels, different initiatives have been fostered to turn the challenges for media creation in an online environment into advantages for collaborative work and innovation. In the Audiovisual Communication degree we use mainly three key strategies for content creation:

  • Shared resources through creation, edition and remixing of CC-licensed raw material.
  • Transdisciplinary online space for production and direction through teamwork.
  • Personalized guidance for individual short format production and longer format projects.

In the new Communication degree, the Final Project subject adds further emphasis on collaboration and sharing skills and content through a practice-based and professionalized environment, plus visual tools for oral presentation. For our purposes, instead of focusing on personal projects under the guidance of a professional expert, we have developed a collective project defined in specific but still broad terms that focuses on both collaboration and creativity. The main challenge for a coordinated online filmmaking project is the physical distance between participants. Therefore, a sort of distributed creativity strategy seemed like the more convenient way to go. From there, we had to choose between two possibilities:

  • A single project/ team with task specialization.
  • A project made of multiple pieces and teams.

We chose the second possibility in order to test as wide a range of skills as possible. After weighing the option of developing a documentary under a common subject/ topic, we opted to undertake an experiment with fiction for one main reason: its own complexity. Fiction allowed us to work more fully in all the key elements from screenwriting to pre-production, shooting and post-production. Our goal was to combine creativity with a series of well-defined specifications in terms of conceptualization, format and production values.

Therefore, we opted for a collaborative endeavor based on distributed creativity, and we designed a premise in the form of a networked and distributed narrative (as stated by Walker, 2004).

The premise: description and justification.

A man/ woman wakes up in a hotel room. New place. New body. On the bedside table, an envelope with the instructions for the day, some pills, a cell phone, a gun and another closed envelope only to be opened in the case of an emergency. In the wardrobe, as usual, the same kind of functional clothes. She still remembers the first day of this nightmare.

This is the first paragraph of “The Awakening” narrative premise, one part of the two documents students are given on the first day of the course. It is intended as a way to raise expectations and to set the tone for the final product, while keeping it open to interpretation. The full activity document is structured as follows:

  • Overview of the job and work methodology.
  • Narrative premise (excerpt above).
  • Format of the final product.
  • Suggested questions as inspiration.

Once the open fictional world premise is presented, every student is asked to individually elaborate a short script within this shared universe: all together will eventually end up forming a longer short episodic movie. Actual plot, genre and visual approach are open, as long as every piece is coherent with the premise and some broad tech specifications. Thus, before creating the first version of the scripts, students share their vision of the fictional world, foresee possible development challenges and share their own synopses in the virtual classroom. Once the first drafts are written, they are distributed for random peer-evaluation, thus securing coherence with the premise ‘rules’ and assessing possible production issues for a ‘no budget’ production. Consequently, even if the original author makes the second draft, it is already fruit of a participatory process through peer feedback on the script. In consequence, the original author is in charge of shooting and editing process with a team of her choice, under supervision of tutors, who provide general feedback and facilitate filmmaking equipment if needed. In the end, each student is writer/ director of her own original story (3-5 minutes at most) and engaged in a peer’s project as script reviewer. Finally, edited versions are collectively assessed and overall order of the pieces are decided.

An additional support document details tasks to be developed, timing and calendar. As the term lasts four months, the following structure was defined:

Screen Shot 2015-02-23 at 8.35.11 PM

Although the project demands a continuous process of dialogue between students and tutor, three partial assessment milestones were proposed (marked in Table 1): first script (A1), pre-production pack (A2), including definitive literary and technical scripts plus any other possible support material) and final edited version (A3).

Pilot experience

For the pilot experience we worked with a reduced group of five students, with both authors acting as tutors. It is important to note that we had written more background story than was given to students: it helped us to have a bigger picture of the narrative without compromising creativity. In broad terms, planning was maintained and these were the main issues observed:

  • Understanding the project’s overall aim was the object of most of the initial questions.
  • The concept was not much discussed nor challenged, but we got some suggestions and interpretations prior to script development. Some of them diverged from our ‘hidden’ background story (for instance: one idea revolved around AI, which was completely unrelated), but we decided to keep them as they opened the concept in unexpected ways, thus prioritizing creative freedom.
  • We discussed whether to allow students to shoot their own written material or to pass it to another colleague in order to emphasize its dimension of professional teamwork rather than individual effort. Being a pilot experience, we decided to let them keep full control over their own material.
  • Students shot their pieces with their own equipment.

Still from “The decision”


Feedback and future development.

Feedback from students, collated from a survey at the end of the process, has been mainly positive. The most remarkable observations were those related to peer collaboration, learning process, fun, guidance, professionalization, challenging nature, the diversity of approaches and development from a single shared premise and creative freedom. Negative comments focused on organizational hurdles, time and plot constraints, dilution of initial premise in some cases, and uneven production means and needs. For future editions, participants suggest lesser constraints in some aspects (i.e. running time), more delimitation on others (i.e. maximum number of actors) and shooting other peer’s scripts. Curiously, there are different perceptions regarding whether there should be a tight initial premise or not, but there is an agreement that a shared premise helped the collaborative creative process.


Still from “25 assignments”


We plan to replicate the experience with the same concept in order to have enough material for public release and to collect more elements for analysis. We will focus on not only the particularities of the project in itself but also the production issues, from technical tips (sound, lighting, camerawork) to production limitations (sets, actors, props, etc.). We will also encourage more initial discussion in the group in order to strengthen collaboration, decision-making on the actual creative process and debate on the concept and its potentialities. Additionally, we will be setting up a public page for the project with the help from other communication students interested in the fields of social media strategies and web design.


Creus, Amalia; Ornellas, Adriana, Lalueza, Ferran, Roig Antoni, “Learning and Creating in Peers: Analyzing Students’ Experience in two Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Environments”. In European Conference in the Applications of Enabling Technologies. Glasgow, November 20-21, 2014.

Gros Salvat, Begoña; Lara-Navarra, Pablo; García González, Iolanda; Mas García, Xavier

López Ruiz, Jose; Maniega-Legarda, David and Martínez, Toni. The UOC’s educational model: Evolution and future perspectives. Universidad Oberta de Catalunya Ed. 2014. Accessed: June 1, 2014.

Leibovitz, Talia; Roig, Antoni and Sánchez-Navarro, Jordi. “Collaboration and Crowdfunding in Contemporary Audiovisual Production: The Role of Rewards and Motivations for Collaboration”. In Cinergie, il cinema e le altre arti (4). 2013. Acessed 28th January, 2015.

Luther, Kurth; Caine, Kelly; Ziegler, Kevin and Bruckman, Amy. “Why it works (when it works): Success factors in online creative collaboration”. In Proc. Int. Conf. Supporting Group Work (GROUP), pag.1–10. ACM, New York, 2010.

Roig, Antoni. Cine en conexión: producción cultural y social en la era cross-media. Barcelona: Editorial UOC, 2009.

Roig, Antoni. “Participatory filmmaking as media practice”. International Journal of Communication (7). Los Angeles: University of Southern California, 2013. Accessed 17th January, 2015.

Roig, Antoni; Sánchez-Navarro, Jordi and Leibovitz, Talia. “¡Esta película la hacemos entre todos! Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding como prácticas colaborativas en la producción audiovisual contemporánea”. Revista Icono14 10-1, 2012.

Sutherland, Rosamund; Eagle, Sarah and Joubert, Marie. A vision and strategy for technology enhanced learning: Report from the STELLAR Network of Excellence. 2013

Walker, Jill. “Distributed Narratives: Telling Stories Across Networks”. Presented at AoIR 5.0, Bristol, 2012. Accessed 17th January, 2015.

Dec 302014

A Media Literacy Assignment by Dr. Chrys Egan, Salisbury University

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games franchise uses a dystopian future “Panem,” a thinly veiled United States, to offer a thought-provoking social commentary on the growing economic disparities among its people. Using techniques of media literacy to analyze and evaluate texts (Aufderheide, 1993), audiences can apply major themes raised in the fictional story to contemporary concerns in the US regarding: inequality, work, food, class, gender, and race. The driving force of The Hunger Games narrative is the extreme unethical imbalance and oppression that occurs with the wealthy, minority citizens of the Capitol ruling the poverty-stricken majority of citizens in the segregated Districts. While The Hunger Games depicts the bleakest possible view of an America ravaged by civil war and depleted resources, it undeniably offers a glimpse of current concerns about inequality and the growing divide among citizens. This analysis helps media users consider real-life issues of inequality, work, food, class, gender, and race. To examine these issues, the lesson has two components: analysis and application. In the Hunger Games analysis, students read or view The Hunger Games to understand the six concepts. Examples of each theme are illustrated, followed by students identifying additional examples from the text. Then students use current findings on these concepts from the US Census data and/or Inequality for All documentary. To apply the six concepts to their lives, students view the selected United States Census Bureau tables and/or watch the documentary Inequality for All. Ultimately, students consider the evidence for economic opportunities, fairness, and justice in their present and future.

This two-pronged media analysis increases media literacy among users to understand what is presented, how to apply it, and why it matters. Fiction often allows for less threatening reflection on reality. While consumers of The Hunger Games may not typically be considered the same consumers of US Census data and documentaries on the economy, this assignment allows audiences to approach the hard data in a softer way. Completing this exercise results in a serious consideration of complex relationships between work opportunities, economic prospects, and social stratification.

For full resources, see Egan – Land of Inopportunity.

Oct 142014
CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 2 (3) Fall 2014

Colleen Montgomery
University of Texas at Austin

Like many film history instructors, I find that most of my students enter the classroom with both a wealth of personal experiences with cinema and enthusiasm at the prospect of “watching movies for credit.” Getting my students excited about studying film is not usually a difficult task; most take great pleasure in discussing the aesthetic merits of their favorite or most recently viewed films. Getting my students—many of whom are not film or media studies majors—excited about doing historical research, however, is a more complicated task. This pronounced challenge stems not only from many students’ general lack of familiarity with humanistic research methods, but also from some students’—particularly those looking to pursue careers as media practitioners—increasingly instrumentalist, or what David Hesmondhalgh terms “vocationalist” approach to media studies education. Hesmondhalgh focuses specifically on this vocational impulse within critical media industries research and education. Yet, the “menace of instrumentalism” has widespread implications for all those teaching humanistic approaches to research given the sustained neoliberal attack on humanities-based education and the resultant pressure from within and without the academy, from students and university administrators, to privilege career-oriented media “training” over more broad-based forms of open inquiry.

In an effort to counter this trend, I strive instead—in my course design, screenings, and lectures—to “instrumentalize” students’ appreciation of film as an expressive medium in the service of more critical forms of historical/intellectual inquiry. In this respect, I draw inspiration from Paul McEwan’s assertion that, “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” (94).

Few of the joys McEwan discusses are offered by the traditional final assignment in my department’s film history survey course. For too many students, the final paper either sits half-forgotten at the end of the course schedule or hangs over their heads, forbiddingly demanding ten or so pages of prose during finals week. Of course, many students write excellent term papers, but there is often an equal array of papers that betray frantic last-minute research. The apparent ease of online research, or at least the easy accessibility of material, seems to encourage this tendency: those reading this will have encountered more than a few essays in which the student has cobbled together Google Scholar excerpts, citing properly but reproducing the arguments of others and deferring to their authority. These papers do little to develop what seems to me one of the most important analytical skills and critical competencies those of us tasked with modeling humanistic inquiry should seek to develop in our students—the habit and ability to assess the provenance, context, and larger significance of scraps of data that comprise the vast digital repositories now available to us. And more generally, and in line with the traditional aims of humanistic historical inquiry, the final paper ensures neither the visceral pleasure of encountering a surprising primary source nor the intellectual satisfaction of finding an approach to a film overlooked by earlier scholars. Rather than assigning students a final paper, I require students to prepare a research portfolio of archival and scholarly documents in order to analyze how film texts both make meaning and have meaning ascribed to them by their particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts. To accomplish this, students learn both how to effectively navigate online archives including The Media History Digital Library,, and digital newspaper archives, and how to contextualize their findings using scholarly literature and humanistic analytical methods. The attraction of this assignment, for me, is that it accomplishes three broader pedagogical aims: 1) to help students hone critical and historical reading skills by analyzing academic, popular, and trade discourses; 2) to familiarize them with digital research tools and humanistic research methodologies, and most importantly; 3) to emphasize the broader utility/applicability of such competencies in everyday practices within and beyond the classroom.

More specifically, the assignment consists of five primary components. First, students select a film around which to structure their research portfolio. Students are limited in their choice of film only by the parameters of the fifteen-week structure of the introductory film history survey course, which covers an approximately one hundred-year span of film history from the 1890s to the 1990s. Students are provided with a list of suggested films, selected based on the availability of archival and scholarly resources, but are also given the option to propose an alternate topic of research to allow them to explore particular films, movements, national cinemas, or directors that interest them. Second, students do preliminary research, using the AFI catalogue, and Film Index International to find basic production information for the film. The larger aim here is to encourage them to begin to think about the historical, industrial, and national contexts within which the film was produced, distributed, and exhibited.

After completing this initial work, students are asked to broadly consider which elements of the film (its textual properties and/or extratextual conditions relating to its production and circulation) strike them as the most fruitful avenues of inquiry to pursue. Based on this initial, exploratory inkling they then create a scaffolding of rough research questions to provide a basic entryway into the more involved stages of their research. These questions necessarily shape, but are also, in turn, shaped by the materials they end up working with—a matter to which they will return and reflect upon in the final part of the assignment. The third major component of the portfolio is designed to introduce students to humanistic archival research. In order to begin to consider how their film was discursively constructed in the popular and trade presses at the time of its release, students use a plethora of online archival resources to find four primary documents pertaining to their respective film, including: trade/popular press reviews; advertisements; production code reviews; local censorship board documents, and other public and legal records; program notes; oral histories of participants involved in the production, etc.

One of the major benefits of this exercise is that it affords an opportunity to integrate theory and practice in the classroom. Before students set off on their archival expeditions, they complete a series of assigned readings in class that theorize the politics of archival research practices in film and media studies.[1] To complement this reading, students also spend time in class navigating the Texas Archive of the Moving Image in order to begin thinking about how online media archives collect, curate, and organize their holdings. Most importantly, incorporating such a critical consideration of the archive as a necessarily ideological construct, shaped by the politics and economics of preservation practices, dissuades students from viewing the archive as a neutral repository of historical truth. Instead, it encourages them to approach their archival research with an eye not only toward what is available, but also to what is left out; rather than view archival documents simply as a window onto an empirically retrievable past, they are primed to remain aware of the ways in which these archival platforms and materials frame our understanding of media history.

Putting this understanding into practice, students are then tasked with considering the following questions pertaining to the archival materials they curate: where the material is preserved (in online and/or physical formats) and how it was accessed; the author or creator of the text; its target audience and intended use; where, how, and to whom it circulated; and what information it provides about the film. They then write a short assessment of the evidentiary value of each primary document to their research, outlining what sorts of historical claims the artifact could be used to support or challenge.

To further contextualize their findings, students subsequently complement their archival research with a critical analysis of a small sample of scholarly literature on their topic. Students find four scholarly articles that address their tentative research questions, and compose both an annotated bibliography and a comparative assessment of the authors’ claims. Using a critical reading guide distributed at the beginning of the semester, students are asked to summarize and evaluate each author’s arguments, evidence, and methodology. Ideally, this mini-literature review functions not only as a critical reading project but also as a historiographic one that enables students both to contextualize and interrogate their primary sources and to consider how the historians with whom they are engaging have respectively employed and framed their primary materials.

Finally, for the fifth component of the portfolio, students must synthesize their findings and reflect on how the body of research they’ve accumulated could be activated in a scholarly research paper. Students compose a more refined set of research questions, based this time not only on exploratory impulses but also on the avenues of inquiry suggested and shaped by the primary materials and scholarly literature reviewed. Most importantly, students are asked to identify how their proposed questions engage with and contribute to the existing literature in the field (addressing perceived gaps in the field, expanding upon new/underdeveloped areas that remain to be examined, etc.), how their archival research might help them support their arguments, and the methods and further sources they would employ in seeking to answer their proposed questions.

Ultimately, the utility of such an assignment lies not only in its emphasis on the acquisition and development of (digital) humanistic research skills, but also in its focus on student-directed, open inquiry. Shifting the emphasis of the final assignment away from the product-centered final paper toward a more process-centered evaluation has the benefit of both pushing students beyond an instrumentalist approach to research, but also of framing humanistic research not as an abstract exercise in theory and argumentation, but as a form of intellectual exploration that merges theory, praxis, and pleasure. Pedagogically, the portfolio ensures students leave the film history survey understanding historiography and research practices, better positioning them to succeed in upper-division courses where lengthy term papers are required. Ideally, such an assignment not only enhances and deepens the pleasures students derive from cinema, but also gives them the opportunity to experience historical and humanistic inquiry as pleasurable and potentially joyful activities.

[1] Frick, Caroline. “The Politics of Preservation.” Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 3-26. Print.; Gilliland, Anne and Mckemmish, Sue. “Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research.” Archival Science 4.3-4 (2004): 149-197, accessed July 18, 2014. doi: 10.1007/s10502-006-6742-6.; Prelinger, Rick. “Archives and Access in the 21st Century.” Cinema Journal (2007): 114-118.; Streible, Dan. “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive.” Cinema Journal 46, no. 3 (2007): 124-128.

Works Cited

Hesmondhalgh, David. “The Menace of Instrumentalism in Media Industries Research andEducation,” Media Industries 1.1 (2014): 26, accessed July 18, 2014.

McEwan, Paul. “Introduction,” Cinema Journal 47. 1 (2007): 94, accessed July 18, 2014.  doi:10.2307/30132000.



Oct 142014
CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 2(3) Fall 2014
Jonah Horwitz and Andrea Comiskey
University of Wisconsin – Madison

In 2012, we developed a research assignment for a large undergraduate lecture course, taught by Jonah, on US film history since 1960. For this project, students researched and wrote five-to-seven page argument-driven histories of film exhibition in assigned cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Each paper was accompanied by at least one original chart, graph, or annotated map.

This assignment added depth to a major theme of the course: the ways that film exhibition and consumption changed in the “post-studio” era. But just as important, it gave students an opportunity to conduct historical research using a rich mix of sources and to construct an argument based on that research. Though many of their sources were online, students also had to use offline reference materials that contemporary undergraduates too often never encounter.

This project was structured but exploratory. We gave students a set of objectives and a set of core sources but encouraged them to allow their findings to determine the particular focus and structure of their papers. The result was an interesting, sometimes revelatory, variety of observations about historical film exhibition. This article describes the assignment, its outcomes, and how it might be adapted for any course, large or small, in US film history.

Locations and Sources

Each student was assigned a location, a series of years—one for each decade from the 1940s through the 1990s—and the name of a local newspaper. For example, one student was assigned “Cedar Rapids, Iowa / 1949, 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999 / Cedar Rapids Gazette.” Most locations were large towns or small cities such as Greenville, Mississippi; North Adams, Massachusetts; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. (We couldn’t resist giving one student Paris, Texas.) Some students were assigned a neighborhood of a large city, such as Chicago’s “Loop.” Our goal was to select locations with enough theaters to keep the students busy but not so many as to overwhelm.

The locations, dates, and newspapers were not chosen at random. Doing our own preliminary research was crucial to the success of the assignment. We did not want to send students down any dead ends, so we assigned only locations and years for which we could verify that newspaper coverage was available online in proprietary databases (such as Newspaper Archive and ProQuest Historical Newspapers) or on free websites (such as Google’s Online Historical Newspapers). Our selections ensured that each student would find something.

We also gave students a list of essential print and online sources. The former included annuals like Film Daily Yearbook and International Motion Picture Almanac, which contain lists of US theaters by location, with information on their ownership and seating capacity. (Relevant volumes were placed on reserve at the library.) In addition to the newspaper databases listed above, recommended websites included Cinema Treasures, a user-generated trove of information on individual theaters past and present, and the American Film Institute Catalog, which offers detailed information on individual films.

The Research Process

Beyond providing students with key sources, we suggested some initial questions: Where in town were theaters located? Who owned them? How large were they? How many screens? What were the admissions prices? What sort of films did they show? What clientele did they cater to? And, above all, how did these variables change over time? Students were not researching in a vacuum. Lectures and readings had provided them with a basic understanding of the history of US film exhibition and its relationship to broader media-industrial and social changes. They knew crucial terms and concepts: the picture palace, the multiplex, drive-in, art house, rate of program change, saturation booking, exploitation.

Because historical research was unfamiliar to many students, we sought to guide the initial stages of their work. One lecture walked through a sample project on Madison, Wisconsin, showing how data might be gathered, cross-referenced, charted, and ultimately used to craft an argument. We also created video tutorials on using Newspaper Archive and other online databases and posted them to a course website.

Students were advised to first create synchronic “snapshots” of their locations’ film-exhibition ecosystems. To do so, they would select a particular week—say, the third week in September—and look at that week’s movie listings for each of the years assigned. One student discovered that Kokomo, Indiana in the 1940s was dominated by the Alliance Theater chain, which owned five of the town’s six movie theaters (all downtown). The smallest theaters specialized in “B” Westerns, while the largest theaters showed star vehicles like A Foreign Affair and often featured live acts as part of an evening’s entertainment. Programs typically changed every two or three days.

Students could then build diachronic surveys of film exhibition in their locations by comparing these “snapshots.” A student discovered that Chicago’s “Loop” boasted nineteen theaters in the mid-1940s, including one specializing in newsreels. By the 1990s, only one commercial cinema, showing mostly foreign films, remained. Observing the changes across decades would give rise to new, often more expansive, research questions: When did this theater close? Why did that one start showing foreign films? Why did screens move from downtown to the suburbs?

Such questions governed the next, more open-ended phase of students’ research. They were encouraged to look beyond the initial sources and expand their research backward and forward in time. They searched for coverage of individual theaters and their owners, found books and magazine articles about their towns, and discovered the online work of amateur historians documenting local exhibition. Some contacted local historical societies; others interviewed the managers of surviving theaters.

The Results

All the students’ papers offered synoptic histories of local film exhibition, which they were expected to compare to the more general histories offered in lectures and readings. Some localities fit the broader patterns, but others bucked trends—for example, a downtown single-screen picture palace showing first-run features well into the 1990s.

Beyond the synopses, students isolated problems or topics specific to their assigned location. Some focused on the diversity of programming in a particular decade and how different theaters carved out niches in the exhibition ecosystem. Several considered how theaters, faced with declining admissions and shifting demographics, searched for alternatives to mainstream exhibition with foreign films, exploitation films, and pornography. Others discussed how studios’ divorcement from theater chains and later attempts at re-integration were reflected in shifting patterns of local theater ownership. One student crafted, by means of scattered references in “ethnic” newspapers, books, and websites, an alternative exhibition history of Galveston, Texas—that of a handful of African-American and Spanish-language theaters that thrived mid-century: the Booker T, the Dixie, the Carver, and the Teatro “Rey.” Students’ visualizations included maps of theater locations, pie charts depicting market shares, and animated graphs illustrating the interaction between theater size and the number of screens. In their discussion sections on the assignment’s due date, students compared and contrasted their findings.

Challenges and Opportunities

On the whole, students appeared to find the assignment rewarding. It was evident from their papers and from personal interactions that many took pleasure in their discoveries. In end-of-semester surveys, many students responded that they appreciated the opportunity the assignment afforded for creativity and originality. A few were critical, expressing frustration that not all of the needed information was in the recommended sources. Both reactions are apposite. The assignment was designed to encourage and reward critical thinking and problem solving. Those dead ends, unanswerable questions, and incomplete data presented opportunities to exercise these essential skills. Jonah and his teaching assistant, Leo Rubinkowski, encouraged students to meet one-on-one for advice on refocusing their research, seeking out new sources, and finding new ways to make use of the available data. Witnessing students encounter obstacles, overcome them, and, in the process, find new purpose and direction in their research was gratifying.

The assignment added depth to students’ understanding of the history of film exhibition and consumption. Their research demonstrated how such history is written as well as how local histories reflect—or resist—general trends. Near the end of the semester, as the course approached the present day, students were asked to reflect on their personal histories of film consumption: How did they see movies as children? What about today, as college students? How did their experiences of cinema relate to the historical forces they had studied? In this way, students’ research helped them understand themselves as historical subjects.


As noted, this project was assigned in the context of a large lecture course on US cinema since 1960. It could be adapted for a course in studio-era or even silent-era cinema, with the added resource of the many materials available at the Media History Digital Library, such as the trade journals Variety and Independent Exhibitors Film Bulletin. It could also be adapted for a smaller class or seminar, with students asked to produce class presentations in addition to, or instead of, written papers. Similarly, students might present their research and conclusions as a web site, which could incorporate interactive maps, photographs, and video clips. The assignment also lends itself to collaborative work, with students in a group tasked with researching different periods in a particular location’s exhibition history. Instructors might set up a Wiki to which students could contribute data and observations.

The shape of the assignment depends to a great extent on the resources available to students at their particular campus. Instructors whose schools do not subscribe to proprietary newspaper databases may have to restrict students to researching towns whose papers are available in print or on microfilm. Other schools’ holdings may afford greater opportunities for students to research exhibition histories of their hometowns.

We hope that other instructors choose to incorporate this assignment into their US film history courses. We encourage anyone who does so to share their experiences, questions, problems, and creative adaptations here.

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.