Do you remember the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ferris’ teacher stands in front of a completely catatonic class begging his students for a response, calling “Anyone? Anyone?” Well, my worst teaching experience began in much the same fashion when I attempted to elicit responses from a group of 35 students (only 6 of whom where film majors) in a class on Race, Class and Gender in Cinema, during my second year of teaching. I learned many things from that class, about myself as a teacher, about what makes a good class, and about the nature of learning itself. I have always loved learning. This love of learning has lead me down some rather eclectic paths, but ones that always seem to lead me back to teaching. Teaching for me seems a natural response to a passion for learning. In part it is a desire to share that love with others and to help students realize that they too can become avid learners and active participants in their own education.
One important thing I learned from my recalcitrant class is that students often have difficulty thinking critically and discussing various forms of entertainment, whether it’s the latest Quentin Tarantino film, their favorite Netflix series, or the website they visit most often. One of my key roles as a teacher is to help students get past thinking of film or television in terms of “I like it/hate it” or “It is good/bad.” I have found that ‘collaborative discussions’ are really helpful in getting students to talk openly, but critically, about media, as it takes the pressure off the individual student and allows for deeper exploration into themes and topics surrounding film/television. As part of these discussions we establish the classroom as a safe place to express oneself, to acknowledge our diversity, and to be mindful and considerate of opinions and beliefs not our own. I feel diversity in the classroom is crucial to encouraging inclusivity and providing students with material they can identify with, but also challenge their perceptions, for example, in my Introduction to Cinema course, ninety percent of the films screened in class are by women and minority filmmakers like Lois Weber, Ava Duverny, Sally Potter, and Jordan Peele. Last semester I taught a Women In Horror Class, where I challenged students to not only question the stereotypical representations in horror films but also encouraged students to create alternatives to these representations. Currently, this semester I am teaching a course entitled Animating the Other: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Animation. I had my students create a code of conduct for the class to ensure that our classroom would be a safe space for all to talk openly about issues that might be controversial and difficult to them to address.
I aim to teach students to critically analyze media by examining their formal components, i.e. lighting, acting, design, sound, etc, and then derive meanings that go beyond just the narrative structure. In addition to looking at media I encourage students to break down complex theories, to understand them in relation to filmmaking practices as well as historical, social, and industrial contexts. This ability to think analytically about media and theory is an invaluable skill; and it is a tool, which students will carry with them no matter what their chosen profession, which is especially important in a field which is rapidly changing. I want students to be prepared and armed with the necessary tools to tackle whatever the future brings. For instance, my Understanding Animation, is designed to bring together history, theory and practice so that students are able to make connections between the three categories and apply them to their own creative practice.
I strongly believe that students learn by doing. For instance, in order to think critically about film one needs to know how films are made and ideally, to make them though this is not always possible. The reverse is also true; in order to make good films one must know how to think analytically about them. While having students make their own films isn’t always a practical approach, especially for large classes or small non-production departments, there are activities and ways to teach students how films are made without putting a camera in their hands. When teaching my silent film module in Intro to Film History and in my Women in the Silent Screen course, I provided students with a series of photographs and asked them to work in groups arranging the pictures to tell a story (borrowing a technique from theorist/filmmaker Lev Kuleshov). This exercise allows the students to understand how early and contemporary filmmakers use editing to make meaning, while it also helps them to understand and apply a theoretical practice to that of filmmaking. This method of active learning is also incorporated into my graduate courses. For instance, Critical Research Methods and Historical Research Methods both have modules that require students to explore the SIU University Archives. In Critical Research Methods, students explore the nature of the collection of their choice and contemplate the archive as a source of information, as well as artistic inspiration. One student explored the obituary records of an Insurance company’s archival collection and created a haunting series of prints utilizing the obituary photographs of deceased insurance salesmen from the 1950s. In Historical Research Methods, in addition to the University Archive assignment, the students are also to think and write about alternative archives, i.e. collections that are not housed in an archive per se, and to consider the types of histories these collections might present. These approaches also transforms the emphasis of the class to an active learning environment; rather than me, the instructor disseminating the information, the students are invited share their experiences and understanding to create their own learning experience.
Two other courses that I have developed that take this “active learning” approach beyond the single module into the class as a whole. In my Independent Cinema course, the class focused on the history and economic models of Independent filmmaking in the United States at the same time that students learned about independent producing. Through different exercises students were required to create a production company, find product to produce, pitch the project, write up a business plan to solicit financial backing, plan location and shooting schedules. Several students utilized what they learned in the classroom and went on to produce and film the projects they had proposed in class. The other class that follows the “learn by doing” philosophy is my Protocinematic Production course. Students in this course study cinema’s pre-history by making the ‘cinematic’ objects which predate cinema. In addition to building from scratch objects like the camera obscura, the magic lantern and the zoetrope, students are also tasked with making some piece of art or performance piece with the object. The students also learn about exhibition organizing and curating by planning an exhibit of the work made in the class. These exhibits have been widely attended events that are both educational and fun. Most importantly, I believe the class provides students with new ways of thinking about old technologies and many students have taken inspiration from the course and made it part of their arts practice.
I also encourage my students to be responsible for what they learn and at the same time help them to develop their own voice in their writings. I have come to realize that students write much better papers when they are responsible for choosing their own topic rather than having one assigned to them. By giving students the agency to write about something they are interested in, I allow them to be the experts and to work through theoretical, analytical and ideological concepts discussed in class in ways that are meaningful to them. In all of my classes, from Intro to Cinema at the entry level to Historical Research Methods, at the graduate level, I ask students to write a detailed proposal on their chosen topic and then meet with each one to monitor their progress and make suggestions, including them in the dialogic process. In my classes, I aim to encourage students to think outside the classroom, to incorporate their own experiences and to be creative in their writing and research in order to make learning a meaningful process and one they will take with them in their future endeavors.
I enjoy helping students to think about various media forms beyond their value as entertainment, to see the art, poetry, culture, and meaning beneath the surface of the text. I believe that teachers have a duty to their profession, to their students and to their field. Fulfilling this duty requires that a teacher never stop learning and continue to evaluate his or her performance among colleagues and students. As part of my commitment to learning and growing, I have also participated in peer to peer teaching mentoring through the Teaching Triads at SIU. This was an amazing experience, observing faculty from other disciplines and learning from their teaching methods and sharing my own with them. I feel I learned so much about myself as an educator, while participating in this program.
Finally, I am strive to acknowledge and encourage diversity in my teaching. When ever possible, I work to include materials for courses that show a range of diverse opinions and to incorporate work of artists from underrepresented groups, i.e. women, LGTBQ, and people of color. I work to create a learning environment where students feel safe to speak and share their experiences. My teaching philosophy is one that strives to give all students an equal opportunity to learn by promoting intellectual diversity, but the key to my philosophy rests on the idea that I must set high standards for my students and for myself as an educator-scholar.