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.


Year Five, Day One

Today, my fifth year of graduate school began.

I’ve wanted to teach for almost my entire life, and getting the opportunity to do so each semester is something that, as challenging as it might be at times, I find endlessly rewarding. And one of my favorite (read: super nerdy) things to do is to read through various teaching blogs and websites to gather ideas for class activities, assignments, and developing better pedagogy. Inspired by the many sites I visited in preparation for this semester, I decided to start my own teaching blog. I think this is a good decision for a couple of reasons. First, ideally, teaching ideas that I mention here will hopefully help others just as I’ve been helped by reading through other folks’ blogs. Additionally, this will assist me in keeping track of what I’ve done in the classroom, what works well, and what needs tweaking. In my undergrad education courses, we were taught to reflect on our teaching regularly, and I feel like I haven’t done that nearly enough in my college teaching.

Today was the first day of Digital Media Composing, which is a class that I’m teaching for the very first time. Given my primary research areas of Television Studies and Film Studies, I decided to focus the class around the ways in which digital media has changed television. And as the title of the course suggests, the students will have to create several digital compositions throughout the semester that reflect their understanding of the course material and that demonstrate their abilities to communicate in a variety of digital formats.

Inspired by this post, I wanted to do a bit more than simply go over the syllabus on the first day. So we started with a sort of hybrid Bingo/Scavenger Hunt activity, the idea for which I got from a poster on the Teaching Media Facebook group. I filled each box with things like “has a Netflix account,” “has livetweeted a TV show,” and “has listened to a podcast about a TV show.” Students then had to talk to each other and find people who had done these things (with no repeats!) in hopes of getting Bingo. I had them do this for about ten minutes, and afterwards, we talked about what things stood out to them, what things they had trouble finding someone for, etc. And though I don’t think this was a groundbreaking activity, I do think it gave them an idea of what the class might be about and it got them to talk to each other.

We did spend *some* time going over the syllabus. However, rather than just me reading it to them, I had them read it to themselves, then I had them talk to each other, then I had them ask any questions they had about the syllabus, and THEN I went over some key points. To me, this activity was important because it modeled the types of small group activities that I’m likely to incorporate throughout the semester, especially since I know that some students might be reluctant to speak out in large group discussion, but might feel more comfortable speaking to each other in smaller groups.

There were some other things we did in the class, such as large group introductions (name, area of study, and favorite *new* TV show from this year), going over the first homework assignment, walking through the new LMS, and getting signed up for some of the digital services and tools that will be used in the course, but those two paragraphs above stood out to me as the most significant moments.

Of course, after class, I realized there were still a few things that I forgot to point out. I think that’s probably always the case. Next time 🙂