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:
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.
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.