Politicizing Documentary Pedagogy in the name of the Precariat

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol 4 (2)
Ben Stork, Seattle University


In its current configuration, American higher education subtly attempts to foreclose explicit discussions of its working conditions through the structures of instructional employment. For contingent faculty, members of the swelling ranks of the precariat, there is significant risk in openly criticizing your employer to students who are increasingly treated as consumers. Any apparent departure from specific “learning outcomes” is sufficient reason for non-reappointment or even dismissal of contract instructors,who generally lack the basic protections of due process. But because documentary film claims, as it always has, to seek change in the world, the documentary film class is an opportunity to bring students into a discussion of the infrastructure of their own education, including the conditions of adjunct labor that now constitute the exploitative core of the university and its pedagogy.

For instance, the centerpiece of the 2014 documentary Ivory Tower (Rossi) is the Cooper Union student occupation of President Jamshed Bharucha’s office in protest against his administration’s push to introduce tuition at the historically free university. Where much of the rest of the film analyzes, without explicitly naming, the neoliberal conversion of the university into a debt driven, corporatized institution, here the film turns to the lived struggle between students and administrators. Disrupting the flow of conventional, clear, and forthright interviews, charts, and vignettes on the rising cost of tuition, increased student debt, and the consumer model of education, the visual style of the film shifts to a more frenetic and embodied mise-en-scène as students invade, blockade, and occupy the President’s suite. Here the university emerges not only as a troubling feature of contemporary American life but also as a contested space; a place of struggle.

This recent example of politics in documentary is an eminently teachable film with incendiary potential. Students identify with the film—they are, after all, its target audience. It also opens up the space to connect their own moment to earlier struggles in and around the university documented in radical films such as San Francisco State on Strike (CA Newsreel, 1969). The mix of conventional documentary compositions (seated interviews, man-on-the-street segments, and stock images of campuses) with the flashing up of student resistance produces a pedagogical opportunity to move from documentary form, and its historical imbrication with education and the university, to unpacking and critiquing the politics of the very classroom and institution in which the encounter with the film occurs. Because the film asks, “why is the contemporary university this way?” it cannot help but extend that question to students, while also suggesting, in its turn to the Cooper Union students, a response. Though the film, unlike its more radical forerunners, stops short of calling on its audience to confront the neoliberal university, its form—the exciting, haptic, and emboldening representation of student struggle within an otherwise didactic discourse—opens up space for activating these resistive and critical impulses through teaching.

Documentary pedagogy is an opportunity to openly discuss the ways student learning conditions are adjunct working conditions.

“[T]he hole in the fence where labor enters”: Documentary Pedagogy and the Politics of the University

As this example suggests, documentary history offers a corpus of films that position the university as a contested space. In doing so, the obscure workings of higher education, its history and its current configuration, are, to borrow a phrase from film studies, “put in the scene” of the classroom rather than left outside, cordoned off in administrative buildings or hidden behind spectacular student centers. In documentaries like Ivory Tower, Columbia Revolt (Third World Newsreel, 1969), and even Hoop Dreams (James, 1994), the platitudes and propaganda swirling around university education are challenged, while the promise of the university as a site of learning and resistance remain in the critical gestures these films make and the struggles they represent. These documentaries show that, as Stefano Harney and Fred Moten write, “it cannot be denied that the university is a space of refuge; it cannot be accepted that the university is a place of enlightenment” (26).

The firmament within and against the university produced by students and scholars in opposition to instrumentalized knowledge production and labor market dictates that Harney and Moten name “the undercommons,” is especially important for contingent faculty as we respond to the ways we are at once made to stand for the shibboleth of “enlightenment” while largely being denied the “refuge” of the university. This denial is not total, of course: we know things and teach them; we have the privilege of exploring ideas and fields (film and media studies) on the margins of our instrumental society. But we are also precarious; positioned in classrooms and departments that offer little security and stability, often lacking any assurance of continued employment or material and intellectual support for our teaching. We perform the central task of the university but now only on the condition that we can be expelled from it at any time and for nearly any reason (or, indeed, without reason). In this, we are like the students themselves; they give the cover of purpose for institutions where education is more and more a budgetary burden, while providing debt-financing for the university’s other, now primary, activities: capital projects, massive administrative salaries, bloated athletics departments, corporate research, and free job training and labor for businesses.

Watching and discussing Ivory Tower leads to an open discussion of the role of students and student debt in higher education, as well as the relationship between education and economics, and it is also an opportunity to introduce labor conditions into the classroom. In the context of a film that details the rising cost of higher education, as well as the explosion of administrative salaries and campus building expansions, it is reasonable to make explicit the adjunct instructor’s relationship to the institution; it is an opportunity to explain why the adjunct is not a professor and what being a professor means. Documentary has always claimed to teach its audiences; now we should use it to teach about the conditions of teaching.

Documentaries focused on the university are not the only resources for interrogating learning conditions in the documentary classroom. The ethical concerns often highlighted by documentary scholarship, questions of representation and power, propaganda and truth, are fairly easily brought to bear on the conditions in the university itself. For instance, the ways Western documentary has, since at least Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), claimed to benevolently capture and disseminate images of racial and cultural “others,” parallels the contemporary use of “diversity” in promotional material. In this sense, an essay like Trihn T. Mihn-ha’s “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,” which draws out the limits and violence of the “enlightenment” provided by Eurocentric epistemology, pairs well with excerpts from Bill Readings’s The University in Ruins and its charting of instrumentalized research programs and the drive toward rankings, enrollment, and corporate funding. Here the obvious disciplinary pedagogical value of documentary scholarship and history is at once contextualized and integrated with the broader discussion of not only documentary knowledge production but also the conditions of knowledge production more generally. The critique of documentary’s epistemological pretensions becomes a way of questioning the university as “a place of enlightenment.”

But documentary pedagogy need not stop with the demystifying and challenging the university’s hold on enlightenment; it also has the potential to produce the university as “a space of refuge.”

Political Mimesis meets Political Pedagogy

In the powerful and now canonical essay “Political Mimesis,” Jane Gaines draws out the ways radical documentary attempts to produce active political engagement in the audience; how documentary tries to move bodies from the seats into the streets. Though Gaines focuses on the relation of bodies in the theater to those on the screen, her theory suggests that students in the classroom and precarious documentary teachers in front of the class might be in a similar relationship. Documentary pedagogy not only models thinking, analysis, and critical inquiry, it also models political subjectivity, consciousness, solidarity, and organizing. Just as the films attempt to draw audiences into their efforts to change the world, precarious documentary teachers critical of the university can likewise draw students into their efforts to change the university system.

This is not so much a matter of passing along a continuous or identical form of activity, as Gaines seems to suggest of the radical documentary, nor is it simple indoctrination, but an articulation of solidarity and similitude of precarity. In the classroom the mimetic function in “political mimesis” relates to the institution; we are alike because we are both exploited by the university. Moving through films about the university to considerations of the university as a political space does not rely on an identity between audience and representation, but an identification of the underlying (under)commons that brings us together as teachers and learners, laborers and debtors. For many of us contingent teachers of documentary, this means simply making visible and recognizable the very space in which documentary is encountered, the classroom, as sharing something with the politics represented on the screen. Without being prescriptive, making clear and foregrounding the politics of our institutional position encourages students to join with contingent faculty in demanding more of the universities that use both of us; occupying buildings, joining protests, signing petitions or simply recognizing the institutional relationships and structures that condition education are all potential acts of solidarity that flow from documentary pedagogy to direct this learning out of the classroom and toward the exploitative practices now driving American higher education.

Returning to my point of departure, thinking about, perhaps practicing, documentary pedagogy as a form of political mimesis does not mean calling for students to occupy administrative offices and buildings as the Cooper Union students do, but it does mean linking these embodied actions to the activity of the classroom and the institutional relations that condition it. Where this moment in Ivory Tower serves, to a certain extent, as an outburst of politics, ensconced in the classroom the film expresses the ways this is always-already a political space, a contested space to be acted on and within.

Works Cited

Gaines, Jane. “Political Mimesis.” In Collecting Visible Evidence, ed. Jane Gaines and Michael Renov. Minneapolis, MN: UMN Press, 1999, 84-102.

Harney, Stefano and Moten, Fred. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. New York: Minor Compositions, 2013. https://www.scribd.com/doc/137347461/The-Undercommons-Fugitive-Planning-Black-Study

Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997.

Minh-ha, Trinh T. “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning.” In Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov. London: Routledge, 1993, 90-107.

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