Parapedagogy: Teaching Film Analysis from the Digital Periphery

CJ_Final.indd Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
 Vol. 1(3) Fall 2013
 Lynne Stahl
 Cornell University


At a time when humanities instructors feel perpetual pressure to make courses “sexy” and “relevant” to attract students to majors with dwindling enrollments, many attempt to do so by adding film and videographic media to their syllabi—adaptations, intertexts, reconceptualizations: film as paratext.  While this curricular expansion is not inherently problematic, supplementary media are too often unattended by any critical apparatus, a glaring omission inconsistent with the meticulous close-reading practices and scrupulous attention to form such classes emphasize when students approach print literature. However, this is also a time when students are constantly engaging with—and astoundingly fluent in—digital media.  This fluency enables the use of filmic paratexts in and as pedagogy and may constructively counter the negligence of critical lexicons specific to the cinematic medium. The trending treatment of film as supplement might be productively viewed not as an undesirable relegation of film to the margins of syllabi, but as an opportunity to provide a critical vocabulary while developing intellectual curiosity and independence in students.

In this essay, I advocate for pedagogical applications of filmic paratexts and multimedia as supplements in classes that are not film-specific but have significant film components—for example, a Shakespeare course that incorporates film adaptations or a popular culture class that draws from a variety of media. The omnipresence of trailers, parodies, clips, and other paratexts within and outside of academic life makes analytical attention to them essential and conducive to the development of broadly-ranging inquisitive thought, and I use my own digital “textbook” (accessible here) to foment such attention.  This online project, built on the multimedia platform Scalar, incorporates a wealth of paratexts as pedagogy, including trailers, annotated film clips, fan art, and links to pertinent websites, all of which help explain aspects of cinematic analysis: students propel themselves from one paratext to another and digress as they wish, channeling their own interests into exploratory and analytical assignments. The flexibility of time and content that such platforms as Scalar afford make them ideal paratextual teaching resources: through them, one can teach film analysis alongside the primary content of the course and simultaneously instill good research techniques through assignments constructed around the filmic paratexts featured within the website.

In high school, students often look forward to movie days as respite from the rigors of the regular curriculum, assuming (often correctly) that they are not required to apply any intellectual energy on a popular visual text. The challenge of teaching film in a non-film specific class at the college level is therefore twofold: first, instructors must re-train students to take film seriously as a medium, to become willing to invest their time and energy in the same type of formal analysis with which they would treat a poem or a novel, and second, to teach them quickly and effectively how to render such an analysis with what will for the majority be an entirely new critical vocabulary. For those instructors who strive to elucidate the relationship between film form and content to literature majors who don’t study film or engineering majors who don’t study literature except by curricular mandate a difficulty lies in condensing that process into less than a semester. Time in the classroom, of course, is precious and fleeting; to an extent it makes sense to relegate such fundamental instruction to the realm of homework—but as an alternative to encumbering students with traditional film textbooks (edifying though many of them are), digital, multimedia resources can be incredibly rich tools for furnishing students with the basics of film analysis.

In no small part because movies are predominantly viewed as entertainment within United States culture, and books as “work,” students feel familiar with film, a familiarity that can breed contempt and passive spectatorship and a sense that films are either “easy” or hopelessly irrelevant to serious academic pursuit. Part of the work of teaching film, then, is to evince the complexities (cinematographic, economic, cultural) of even the “easiest” movies and to make the more difficult ones accessible. I maintain, therefore, that an informal approach to film analysis in classes that incorporate film as a supplement is particularly effective—informal in the sense that by interacting with media, students will feel they are engaging with a film rather than slogging through information.

Ambivalent though I am about the sometimes dilettantish reading habits (reading for completion rather than understanding, refusing to look up definitions or allusions) and predilection for easily digestible nuggets of knowledge that seem prevalent among undergraduates, I believe that there is something to be said for concise, compactly packaged information, especially as a starting point for novitiates to the study of film.  A multimedia website’s exploratory layout and space for ample media can be helpful in striking a balance between overloading students with more information about aspect ratios than they will ever use and reducing film analysis to a crib sheet of vocabulary terms. Even an act as minute as clicking begets a sense of discovery and agency and adds a component of self-determination to their homework: Scalar’s format is conducive to non-linear navigation, and users may move from one section to another without compromising the logic of the information presented. Further, merely by virtue of the absence of traditional page numbers, students can also eliminate the undesirable sensation of counting down pages, racing to finish a chapter on editing. The process of learning film analysis thus becomes one that takes place largely independently—but one for which it is easy to hold students accountable, as continued unfamiliarity with even a basic film lexicon will quickly become evident in their discussion and writing.

Students have learned to be discomfited by intellectual freedom, floundering without specific essay prompts and detailed direction. They seem to need some kind of guiding framework to distract them from the vastness of academic possibility, and one potential remedy is to construct a framework that impels them to investigate that vastness unimpeded by the fear of going too far afield or “missing the point” of a text. To facilitate this mode of focused digression, I have designed an assignment that demands not only that students consider the place of film (individually and as a medium) within culture but also that they narrate their own thought processes about what they find and how they get there.  The kind of information-traversing this assignment entails, I contend, engenders sound scholarly practices: it promotes metafilmic research into historical/cultural contexts, including questions of form, authorship, spectatorship, and distribution.  Further, and most importantly, it conditions students to take a greater degree of initiative in the process of their own education, and it forces them to think about their own interests—what they find compelling, curious, or boring:

Assignment: Choose any one film that appears on this website.  You may begin either at its IMDB page or by typing the film’s title and director into a search engine. From there, you must make five “clicks”: a click entails either simply clicking on a link, or finding another site by searching for a term from the current page (the link or term should be at least nominally relevant). In your write-up, outline the trajectory you took, and include the URL and a brief summary for each site you visit. Remember to comment not only on the content you find, but also on your decision-making process and what prompted you to make each of the “clicks” you made. Were you surprised to find what you did? Bored? Intrigued? Additionally, your write-up should include an account of how your final destination relates (or doesn’t) to the first.

A trajectory might progress as follows:

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Figure 1. Starting point: Google search for “mulholland drive david lynch”

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Click 1. The Guardian on understanding Mulholland Drive

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Click 2. The Guardian on David Lynch

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Click 3. Google Books preview of David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film


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Click 4. Via a Google search for “david thomson film,” a list of Thomson’s favorite films.

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Click 5. Via a Google search for “david lynch blue velvet,” a video of pop singer Lana Del Rey performing “Blue Velvet.”


This assignment emphasizes the besideness of paratext, the proximal nature of one text to another for which students must account—and which the students in fact have a hand in creating. They choose what to click, where to turn their gaze, how to navigate the infinitude of paths in front of them. Further, the writing component of this assignment is more descriptive and ruminative than argumentative, meaning the grades students earn will be based on evidence of thoughtful reflection. This system puts less pressure on students to perform academic discourse “properly” and affords more freedom to explore and experiment, all while (perhaps unknowingly) developing precisely those research skills that yield productive discourse, academic or otherwise, as they locate individual films within a much larger, more variegated environment than the context of the classroom.

Student commentary on the sample trajectory above might range from thoughts about Mulholland Drive’s plot and structure to auteurism to the role of film criticism and critics to film’s (re)commodification via commercial allusion.  Even if the sequence of links they produce doesn’t produce a coherent narrative, the students nonetheless have expanded their conception of a single film to include critical responses to that film, a director’s larger oeuvre, film studies as a field in itself, and film as it functions across art forms and within consumer culture. The importance of illuminating for students the myriad ways in which film form, content, and context interact cannot be overstated. This assignment stands, I hope, as a generative example of how filmic paratext and film studies as paratext might be used productively to foster broadly applicable research skills as well as understanding of and genuine enthusiasm for cinema as an intellectual field.

Works Cited

“David Thomson’s Favourite Films.” Mubi.

Lewis, Robin. “Understanding Mulholland Drive.” The Guardian, January 17, 2002.

Lezard, Nicholas. “David Lynch: Director of Dreams.” The Guardian, February 17, 2012.

Pelly, Jenn. “Watch: Lana Del Rey Covers “Blue Velvet” in New David Lynch-Inspired H&M Commercial.” September 17, 2012.


Lynne Stahl is a graduate student in the Department of English at Cornell University and is currently working on a dissertation entitled “Tomboys in Time: Gender, Affect, and Resistance in American Film.” At Cornell, she has designed and taught first-year writing seminars called “Shakespeare from Stage to Screen” and “Queer Self-Representations,” both of which considered film, video art, and other media alongside more traditional literary forms, and is currently serving as a TA for a course called “Desire and Cinema.” Through a grant from Cornell’s Olin Library and the Society for the Humanities, she recently created an online, multimedia film tutorial as a supplementary component of the syllabus; it aims to furnish a critical lexicon, to defamiliarize and historicize film as a medium and an industry, and to provoke thought about various cultural functions of film.



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