Documentary

Another Ending (…almost)

Today was the last official class meeting for the documentary class I’ve been teaching this semester. My students have a final paper and project due within the coming days, but beyond that, we’re pretty much done. In recent semesters, I’ve always tried to find interesting ways to wrap up the semester, and this time, I went with what I called the Takeaway Tweet. Essentially, I asked the students to write on blank slips of paper one idea/concept/skill/etc that they’d be taking away from the class. And they had to do so in 140 characters or less. This, of course, is building off of other assignments I’ve seen online in which educators ask students to make headlines or bumper stickers on the last day except I wanted to make it ~millennial~.

(shout out to all of my fellow 80s/90s kids)

But seriously, end of semester evaluations are what they are, and while I do find them somewhat useful (depending on the specific evaluation), I also find that the ways that they’re structured often don’t give me the information I need. But this particular task not only allows students to reflect on their experiences in the class but also allows me to see if what I was attempting to convey actually made its way through.

Anyways, here’s what they’re taking away (p.s. I did not actually count their characters so don’t @ me 😛 :

  • “I will pay more attention to the small choices made (lighting, sound) in the films that I watch”
  • “Don’t do crime #youaintslick” (I will relevantly point out here that the class’ theme was Crime, Power, and Justice haha)
  • “Systematic injustices occur across the country. Despite the media coverage, these instances are not isolated”
  • “The main thing I took away from this class is that there sometimes is no such thing as the real truth, or at least sometimes it’s impossible to know what is and isn’t true”
  • “Truth is subjective and all people deserve justice”
  • “Things are not always what they seem & truth is a construct that can be bent & shaped in many different ways”
  • “I have a more profound understanding of the power of media in society”
  • “The directory decides their truth in documentary film #stress #fun”
  • “U.S. Film & Documentary opened my eyes to who has power within society and how they use that power #Corruption #GetOutofTheNorms”
  • “In this class, I watched a lot of interesting documentaries that were very thought provoking, and my analysis skills also improved”
  • “Always question the presentation of “truth” and “fact” “
  • “Documentary film is not always the truth. Consider who has power and why”
  • “I learned about how hard it is to make a documentary. I’ve learned to respect the process”
  • “I enjoyed watching documentaries in this class. Many documentaries are thought-provoking and mind-blowing. I’m glad that I learned these events/social issues.”
  • “Truth is subjective. Documentaries bias. Always consider the author’s intention.”
  • “Power and justice are generally relegated to the “haves” of society while the “have nots” live without it”
  • “I learned that the world is unfair”

Me after reading these:

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Fat Joe & Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” is a good representation of my feelings in this moment. (I still don’t know what a French Montana is though)

I think this final day activity is a keeper ✌🏾

Embracing the Challenge

Recently, there’s been a lot of conversation about how to navigate difficult subject matter in the classroom. Sometimes this has to do with helping students cope with the reverberations of trauma and/or horrifying world events, and other times it might have to do with engaging with “controversial” subject matter. This particular school year has seemed especially inundated with moments (on a local, national, and global level) in which I’ve felt like I HAVE to talk about what’s going on in class (and if we aren’t meeting that day/week, then via email). This is partially because I want my students to always see connections between what we’re doing in class, but also because I want to (as best I can) provide them with tools to make sense of what’s going on and to survive. To thrive even.

Last year (in its entirety) is basically responsible for the documentary class I’m teaching this semester being thematically focused on crime, justice, and power. We started with The Thin Blue Line (as one does) and have subsequently watched a variety of docs that cover a wide range perspectives and issues related to the theme. Such a focus presents numerous potential challenges, and as I was crafting the syllabus, I often thought about what types of discussions the individual documentaries might elicit, what types of pushback might come up, etc.

In most cases, I’m up for a challenge, but one subject that sometimes gives me pause is the discussion of sexual violence. There are so many reasons why this is the case, including my own personal experiences of engaging in such discussions (both online and in person) and the facts that I know that sometimes there’s a lack of understanding here that might lead to someone saying something that isn’t intended to cause harm but still manages to do so.

So as I developed the syllabus, I tried to think of ways to mitigate these issues. There are clauses on my syllabus about both inclusive language and class content, which I went over on the first day. And throughout the semester, I’ve given reminders when we were engaging with films that I knew might be especially challenging in terms of content. Sexual violence comes up in a few different documentaries that we’ve watched this semester, but it is most especially the focus of Audrie and Daisy and The Hunting Ground.

This is a MWF class, so I’ve structured it so that we generally have readings on Mondays that are about documentary form and/or about the content in the documentary for that given week. They watch the documentaries at home, and we discuss them in class on Wednesdays. I set it up this way for a few different reasons, but particularly because I didn’t want them going into the viewings cold or without context. I figured they would have better understandings of the films with some initial foundation and discussion. The week that they watched Audrie and Daisy, we read and discussed a short reading on consent. For a handful of the readings in the class, students have to write detailed response papers, and this was one of those readings. The students covered a lot of ground in their responses, but a common strain was that the reading made many of them realize how little they knew or had been taught about consent. This also came up in our class discussion of the reading, and as expected, helped to inform their understanding of the film. To my great relief, these discussions all went well.

Still, that success didn’t reduce or remove my anxiety going into this week, which is when we covered The Hunting Ground. As current college students, I imagined that this film might produce some different responses. So as we got closer to this week, I tried to think about how I could localize our pre-film discussion for them so that the reading that they had this week about rape culture might resonate more strongly. Then I remembered that my friend/fellow grad student/awesome teacher, Sam, wrote this a couple years ago when some less than welcoming signs were posted in our town and on campuses across the country: Lessons at BrOhio State, The piece is brief, about as funny as one can be about the given situation, confrontational, and to the point. Once I thought of it, I knew I had to use it. But then I also had the idea to invite Sam to the class to join in the conversation about her post, rape culture, etc.

On Monday, I had the students tease out their understandings of rape culture, and look for connections amongst the definitions. We then turned our attention to looking at several of those move in week signs and discussing what kind of environments they create, who has power in these situations, etc. And Sam specifically led them through some of the most salient points that she wanted to get across, both in her post and in general. (Sidenote: Sam and I teaching a class together is a little bit like a comedy routine with me as the straight man and Sam as the off-the-wall one I have to pull back from the edge).

And on Wednesday, when we discussed The Hunting Ground, it seemed pretty clear to me that my students not only understood the film, but they also had a good sense of the broader content and context. They also very clearly made connections back to issues that were raised when we watched Audrie and Daisy. And the terrible nightmare scenarios that I always imagined in a conversation about sexual violence? They didn’t happen (at least not this time around).

I don’t think the success of this is entirely predicated on how I’ve structured the class. My students are pretty great (I know I’m biased lol). That being said, I do think that this helped to make a challenging topic less challenging. I don’t think that this is going to stop be from being anxious about teaching certain topics/engaging challenging conversations in the classroom, but now I know for sure how fruitful embracing the challenge can be.

A-Ha

Do you trick your students?

I’m not referring to magic tricks. Although being able to wave a wand could come in handy. Also:

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Keep Calm and Ask to be Put in Hufflepuff

Ahem.

At any rate, what I mean by trick is that sometimes I take a circuitous or backdoor route into getting them to see/understand something that I want them to see/understand. To some extent, this seems like a fairly obvious thing to do, but I’ve only recently started to think about how/why it works.

For their first longer paper this semester, my students have to write a scene analysis. They’ve written shorter papers this semester that require them to analyze readings, we’ve verbally done analyses in class on the documentaries we’ve watched, and, of course, I know that analysis is part of their daily lives in a variety of ways. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll (initially) recognize the abundance of skills that they already have and apply them usefully to their essays.

So last week, we looked at a sample student essay, and I had them analyze a first draft and a final draft, looking particularly at the structure of the analysis, claims, evidence, etc. They discussed their findings with partners, and we also had a larger group discussion. As expected, they did a great job at finding places that needed improvement in these sample essays, and they were able to articulate specifically how/why the arguments didn’t work (or didn’t work as well as they could). Also, they really seemed to enjoy being able to rip apart some stranger’s essay.

Them: 😈

To pull the strands together, as we approached the end of class, I pointed out how well they’d done and how they clearly had a good sense of what worked and what didn’t in writing. And then I hit them with the: “Of course, now the trick is to remember and do all of these things in your own essays .”

Also them: 😏

Here’s the thing. I know that I’m not the first person to talk to them about this stuff, and they even had a reading on the subject for class last week (which, as we all know, some of the probably definitely didn’t read). But there’s a difference between having that information and applying it (or even realizing that you have it hanging out in your brain somewhere). However, I think that there’s a real chance that what we worked on that day will stick in their minds simply because they realized that they already knew how to do the thing I want them to do, and now all they have to do is do it.

(say that sentence 5 times fast)

Their essays are due in a week, so we’ll see how it goes, but based on the conversations we had in class, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Interlude

The past two weeks have been…a lot…which is perhaps putting it mildly. I find it a little bit difficult to concentrate on any of the things I’m supposed to be concentrating on (research, writing, teaching, etc) when the current state of the world is basically

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Dumpster Fire

Nevertheless, we carry on. It helps to have truly supportive friends and family. I know I’m not alone in what I’m feeling, and most of the folks I know are out in these streets (literally) trying to make the world better. That gives me strength. My students give me motivation. My research gives me peace (this may be a weird thing to say, but I research TV, and there are few things I enjoy more than being able to spend quality time with my TV). I’ve also been reading a lot more this semester. I try to get in at least 5 hours per week. All of this reading is outside of whatever reading I’m doing for teaching and research (though some of it is academic in nature). I’m currently working on Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which is a heavy read (both literally and figuratively) but also a great read and extremely informative.

I guess I don’t have a lot to say about teaching today. The class is still going well. I love hearing my students’ ideas and responses in relation to the documentaries we’re watching. Last week, for example, we had an expansive conversation on the heels of watching The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975, and it seemed like the documentary really spoke to some of them (perhaps more than some of the other documentaries we’ve watched this semester). Some of them expressed to me how much they didn’t know about the subject before watching, which wasn’t necessarily surprising to me and which also reaffirmed my confidence in the films I’ve selected for the rest of the semester.

On the upside of everything, it’s Friday, and ya gotta get down on Friday, right? (shout out to Rebecca Black)

P.S. By “get down,” I mostly mean sleep.

Step By Step

One of the readings my students had to complete this week was the introduction to Tonny Krijnen and Sofie Van Bauwel’s Gender and Media: Representing, Producing, Consuming. I assigned this reading served a couple different purposes. For one thing, given that I’m teaching a documentary class, I want them to be thinking about how media works, how it influences culture and is influenced by culture, etc. Additionally, one of the questions that we’re grappling with this semester is “What does it mean to represent?” In any media class that I’m teaching, this would always be a point of interest, but for this particular class, given the documentary’s general presumed status as “authentic,” “true,” and “real,” it’s a question that I want them to really take into consideration.

The other purpose that I had in choosing this reading is also tied to the issue of representation. My section of this course is focused on Crime, Justice, and Power, and as such, the documentaries that we’re viewing are often dealing with pretty heavy issues. As we’re grappling with those issues, I want them to consider who and/or what is being represented, how they’re being represented, what affects those representations, etc. Gender is one of the many spheres in which we’ll be considering these matters. And thus, this reading, which is only about 10 pages long, provided them with an accessible crash course in the theory and history of gender studies with a few relevant examples.

I’m always a little bit wary of how things like this are going to go over, especially in classes that aren’t marked as like CLASS ABOUT GENDER. Despite the trepidation, I’ve been lucky enough to have positive results in most cases, and this time was one of those positive experiences. Along with completing the reading, students also had to turn in what I call “Critical Reading Responses.” They only have to do this for a handful of readings in this class (from a student perspective, I always found it weary and tedious when we had to write a response paper for every single reading, and I do not wish to inflict that upon myself or my students). I pulled from several different response essay assignments that I saw on the internet in creating the assignment. The gist is that they’re reading closely and carefully and then writing a responses that clearly demonstrates their understanding of the text and ability to analyze while including some key components, such as a quote that stood out to them, a new concept that they were introduced to in the reading, etc.

Thus far, they’ve only done this assignment once, so I can’t speak to how well it will always work, but I was really pleased by what they turned in for this reading. They conveyed a willingness to engage with the material in ways that might not always be expected. Additionally, they were very forthcoming about their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the material. Despite what folks might think about the internet making all of these topics common knowledge, I found that many of my students expressed unfamiliarity with the ideas that gender and sex are different, that gender is a continuum, that gender is performative, etc. But even though they were unfamiliar, they were open to learning and intrigued by the prospects. And even when they sometimes expressed disagreement with certain points from the reading, they were still pretty open to the possibilities.

Now I pretty much always think my students are the best students in the world because I’m highkey biased, but I don’t think they’re unicorns. I think that we can bring new and important concepts to students and have them be received. I also think that sometimes these things will fall flat, and we have to know that, to quote Pink, “Sometimes it be’s like that” (shout out to the year 2000). But we keep trying because it’s important, and I don’t think there’s been a day in recent memory that crystallized that more clearly for me than today. As Maya Angelou would advise, I know better, so I’m doing better, and I hope you all are too ✌🏾

(P.S. If you read the title of this entry, and started singing the Step by Step theme song, we should probably be best friends)

Recovering Writing

Today is the fifth day of the new semester, and in a couple of hours, my students and I will be embarking on our third class meeting in which we will be tackling our first documentary (The Thin Blue Line for anybody who happens to be curious). I’m always, always excited to teach, but I’m especially excited to teach on days in which we’re discussing film and/or television shows because that is my jam. That’s what I do in my own work, and I love being able to open that up to students who often don’t know  (like I didn’t know when I was an undergrad) that this is something that has value, something that they can build a life on. In fact, we spent part of class during our second meeting discussing the importance of pop culture in our lives. On the short list of things that I’d like them to take away from this class (ok the list isn’t really that short, but still), I want them to understand how pop culture is intrinsically intertwined with our culture more broadly.

The other significant focus of our second class meeting was discussing writing. Though my class is one that is centered on documentaries, it is also a second year writing course. Throughout the semester, my students will be composing several different writing assignments, and I thought it necessary to both remind them of that component of the class and to see where their heads were at about writing.

When I asked how many people enjoyed writing, the raised hands were unsurprisingly few and far between. I’m not the first to say this (in fact, John Warner was tweeting about this yesterday: https://twitter.com/biblioracle/status/819534603165831168), but I think school often does ruin writing for students. It makes writing something that is wholly unenjoyable and uninspired, which is something that I intend to try to work against in my class. One of my colleagues mentioned a few days ago that one of his students said they had a teacher who dock them for the very particular way the essay was stapled.

For. The. Way. It. Was. Stapled. Y’all.

*Headdesk*

This is why, when I asked my students to write down something that they knew or believed about writing (inspired by this post: https://jcmadams.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/in-class-activity-what-we-know-about-writing/), I wasn’t surprised by answers like “Writing is tedious and time-consuming.” At some point, writing, particularly “academic writing,” all too easily becomes a series of hoops to jump through and requirements to check off without being emphasized as a valuable process, a useful means of expression, a creative outlet (yes, even the academic stuff), etc. So one of my goals this semester? Counter that. Counter it aggressively. Wish me luck, eh?

(And if you have any handy tips or suggestions, feel free to send them my way)

A Fresh Start

On Monday, classes begin again at my university. Winter break is always one of the most confusing times for me in terms of keeping track what day it is, and I’m always a little bit surprised by how the new semester sneaks up on you. That being said, I feel pretty good about my preparation this time around. Generally speaking, I spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m going to do in the classroom, but this time I kicked it into high gear. In addition to getting the syllabus done (huzzah!), I also wrote out lesson plans for each day I’ll be teaching this semester. Some of these plans are more detailed than others, and more info will be added/things may be rearranged as the semester proceeds, but generally speaking, I have a good idea of what I’ll be doing each day.

I did this for a couple different reasons. First, I’ve done it before (though admittedly not as thoroughly as I did it this semester), and I realized that taking some time in the beginning to figure it out will really save me time in the long run (I think all those unit plans I had to do in secondary ed really did a good job of making me think about the long game). The other big reason is that I’m starting my dissertation this semester (well…theoretically), and I have various other writing projects  that I’ll be working on throughout the semester as well. Planning my teaching ahead allows me to spend more time throughout the semester focused on my writing. It also frees up more time for when I need to assess student work. I also went ahead and wrote out all of the assignment prompts. In the past, I’ve typically had some done when the semester started and written others as the we progressed through the semester. But knowing that it usually takes me a while to write the prompts, I just went ahead and got that out of the way as well.

And so, leaning into this new semester, I’m feeling perhaps a little less harried than usual. I’m actually extra excited for next week’s classes because I know what we’ll be doing, and I think they’re going to be awesome days (Is my idealism showing? hmm). I’m teaching a documentary class this semester, and I’m really looking forward to digging into the assortment of films I’ve chosen (talk about your difficult choices…) with my students. Annnnd they’re going to be making their own documentaries this semester, which is the sort of thing that, when I added it to the syllabus, both made me slightly nervous and super happy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

At any rate, I’m looking forward to getting started!