Thoughts on teaching Film Studies in the age of Screen Culture

By Prof. Mike Baker (Film Studies)

By nature, Film Studies is a discipline invested in visual literacy and critical thinking. Well-designed Film Studies curriculum does not concern itself with trivia and simple historical facts (nor does it use feature-length screenings to knock a couple of hours off the clock). Instead, it uses film and the history of its development, as both an art and industry, to encourage students to reflect and engage with culture, society, and the world at large.

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Teaching Film Studies in 2016 is a very different creature than it was in 2006 at the height of the DVD boom, which was an entirely different creature than it was in 1996 when I was attending film school at York University where 35mm prints were more likely to be screened than a videocassette or laserdisc. Over the last twenty years, every tectonic shift in audiovisual technology arising from the rapid proliferation of digital media has impacted the design and delivery of the film studies curriculum. In terms of access to audiovisual material, there has never been a better time to be a cinephile, a film professor, or a film student. Film history as we understand it and teach it reflects a diversity that was often beyond our reach twenty-five years ago. Classics of contemporary global cinema are available for classroom use often in the same calendar year as their domestic release, archival versions of canonical works and material once thought lost forever are now restored and released on Blu-ray, and major works of less commercial international cinemas that were never known to exist before their discovery and dissemination via grey-market channels, such as bit torrent and boutique distribution companies, are now only a ‘click’ away. But this bounty also presents challenges.

“Screen culture” is a popular term: it acknowledges both the ubiquity of screen technologies like television and personal computers, and the paradigm-shifting impact of cinema, arguably the preeminent art form of the 20th century. But from a teaching point-of-view it speaks to myriad complications that must be addressed in the design, implementation, and revision of Film Studies curriculum. (For example, in some institutions, the acquisition, administration, and management of licenses for audiovisual materials used in the classroom is a full-time position within a film studies unit.) One of these complications is that students take for granted the material selected for study will be available to them outside of the classroom — we live in an age of bountiful media, after all — and this compromises their investment in the experience of in-class screenings. However, for very basic reasons the curation of screening material for a course cannot be bound by what is freely available students outside the postsecondary institution. Yet simultaneously, student attendance is not mandatory. As a result, it is necessary to include in Film Studies curriculum an explanation about the role film screenings will play in courses and an argument must be made — implicitly or explicitly — about the value this screening experience will add to their studies.

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Unfortunately, managing the classroom during these screenings highlights a second dilemma. Students assume far too much of their ability to multitask, particularly where screens are involved. Numerous studies and articles in both the academy and popular press de-bunk the myth that technological advances and “media literacy” have created a new generation of students able to multitask in the classroom as a consequence of the ubiquity of a technology in their lives. Students who try to accomplish multiple tasks in the classroom with “assistive” technology like laptops and tablets perform measurably worse and retain significantly less information while also failing to interact with classmates and instructors in a meaningful way. This problem of ‘divided attention’ is especially complicated in a Film Studies course where viewing conditions might be less than ideal, and screening material might not meet the student’s expectations of a quality presentation. Yet, the fact is that a screen is intended to demand their undivided attention. (Would you ever go to the multiplex and then watch a different film on your laptop or tablet in the darkened space of the auditorium?) It might be said today’s students are not masters of dividing their attention but are instead highly skilled in a form of ‘distracted viewing’ that complicates their ability to assess their own shortcomings in the areas of visual and media literacy.

In the face of these and other challenges, it is the responsibility of the instructor at the front of the room to carve out a space for students to interact with these works and dialogue with others in the classroom. For this reason, I tend not to deliver an impassioned plea about the importance of Film Studies education to their future success as athletic therapists, network analysts, and early childhood educators. Instead, I embed and articulate the value of visual literacy and critical thinking in everything I do. And it might surprise you to know that, ultimately, I don’t rely on the films to do this work. I put my faith in the students.

Over the last number of years, many of my in-class exercises and assignments have been revised to take the shape of small-group discussions. In these exercises, the first objective is to create an opportunity for students to interact with one another and discuss the screening material. Ultimately, they are tasked with preparing a short report. In a documentary course it might be a response to the question “How is the filmmaker representing the world? Through observation? Participation? Poetry?” The report is ultimately a reflection of their conversation, a window into their experience of the film as it was contextualized by the course materials and my in-class remarks. And it is this ‘making sense of’ the film, the lecture, the reading materials, and the opinions of their classmates that provides the student with opportunities to think critically in ways that ultimately go beyond the study of film and reflect the curriculum’s investment in designing a space where students are subtly tasked with broadening their view of the world around them.

If there is an antidote to screen culture for film studies instructors, it is almost certainly the students in the room.

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