Local Truths, Tactical Pedagogies: Documentary, Ethics, and Service Learning

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. http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/teaching/service_learning/definition.cfm.

Kiley, Kevin. “Another Liberal Arts Critic.” Inside Higher Ed, January 30, 2013. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/30/north-carolina-governor-joins-chorus-republicans-critical-liberal-arts#sthash.zriv2vRw.dpbs.

Kuh, George. “High-Impact Educational Practices.” Association of American Colleges and Universities, 2008. https://www.aacu.org/leap/hip.cfm.

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.

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