29 January 2012

Spring Classes

Zero for Conduct
Tomorrow morning marks the start of our spring semester, and so I thought tonight I'd do my regular pre-term post about what I've got planned.

I'm teaching three classes, one of which I've never taught before. They are Currents in Global Literature, Introduction to Film, and Outlaws, Delinquents, and Other "Deviants" in Film & Society. Let's look at them one by one...

Currents in Global Literature
I taught this course last term, and it's the one that has changed the least. (Here's the syllabus.) It's also probably the last time I will get to teach it, because we're in the midst of hiring a full-time, Ph.D'ed person to do so. Thus, I didn't want to put too much energy and effort into redesigning a course I have no future with. Luckily, last term went really well.

The one big change in the syllabus is that I'm replacing Petals of Blood with The River Between. There was really no choice; A Sentimental Education and Burger's Daughter are both pretty long and complex, so following them with the long complexities of Petals of Blood was just too much for the students, though they gave it a good shot. I should probably just do a whole course of those three books, but I like having a couple shorter books in there, too. So Petals of Blood had to go. River Between is fine, but it's simpler and not as perfect for our theme of "revolution", so I'm definitely disappointed. If the term were even just one week longer, we'd still be able to fit Petals of Blood in, but I just couldn't make it work with the current schedule. We may not even get to do River Between — just last week, the campus bookstore let me know they can't get copies from their distributor because the book is effectively out of print. It's still perfectly available via Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., so I'm going to see if the students are willing to order copies themselves (if they haven't done so already). If not, we'll have to drop it.

Introduction to Film
I taught this course a few semesters ago, and it went okay, but I'm thrilled to get to teach it again because I learned so much the first time about what works and doesn't work in a lower-level undergraduate film class. I'd never taken such a course as a student, having instead had much more specific sorts of film classes ("International Comedy 1940-now", etc.), so even wrapping my brain around the idea of introducing all the various ways of approaching film was pretty difficult. I don't think I've come up with a brilliant new approach or anything now, but I've certainly changed the class a lot. (Here's the syllabus.)

What precipitated the biggest changes was our wonderful library being willing to order a lot of new DVDs to build up our collection. It's certainly nowhere near comprehensive now, but we've at least got enough films to cover most genres and eras of Hollywood film, plus some good examples of international and experimental films. This has changed my pedagogy, because I'm now able to make group activities based around different movies a substantial element of the class. Instead of us all watching the same movies, there are now a few different mechanisms to allow student choice. Each student has to do a presentation with a partner about a film everybody else has not watched, and often these are not specific films (e.g., the first pair presents on "A silent feature (60+ minutes)", etc.).

Similarly, I'm not assigning any specific pages in our textbooks (about which more in a moment). Instead, students will mine the books for information they use in their class activities. I've created a class website with Google Sites and will add the students as editors of it so that they can create pages for the various sorts of information they find. This will all be organized not only by the specific activities, but by the fact that I'll be giving them all the questions from the final exam early on (probably on our second day). I've used this method in the feminism course I used to teach (before I started doing Communications classes), and found it really helpful as a way to give the students a guide through the huge amount of ideas and information they were exposed to. The course website will, if all goes well, becomes a really great study tool for the final exam, and hopefully that will add to their sense of investment in it. We'll see.

The textbooks I settled on were the new edition of the one I used last time, The Film Experience edited by Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, supplemented with The Oxford History of World Cinema. The new edition of Corrigan & White mostly improves the text's clarity and adds some references to movies that have come out since the previous edition was released. I had hoped for some more substantial changes, particularly the book's design — there's a lot more that could be done with the images, as Bordwell & Thompson's Film Art has beautifully shown — but it's still the most intelligently comprehensive introductory film text I've seen, as well as the one closest to my own approach to cinema. The Oxford History is overkill for this course, admittedly, but I love film history so much that I couldn't resist assigning it. And while The Film Experience, especially in the new edition, is terribly expensive (c. $80), used copies of The Oxford History are plentiful and cheap, given that the book has been unchanged since 1996. (And given Oxford UP's move to work-for-hire contracts for all contributors, I'm perfectly happy for students to buy used copies that won't send money to that publisher.)

What films are we watching? Here's the list of ones we'll see in full, both in and out of class:

Sherlock, Jr (Keaton, 45 mins) & Duck Soup (McCarey/Marx Bros., 68 mins)
Fitzcarraldo (Herzog, 158 mins)
Casablanca (Curtiz, 102 mins)
Breathless (Godard, 90 mins)
La Jetee (Marker, 28 mins)
Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 68 mins)
Edge of Heaven (Akin, 116 mins)
Plastic Bag (Bahrani, 18 mins)
Miami Vice (theatrical version) (Mann, 134 mins)
Broken Blossoms (Griffith, 90 mins)
Vampyr (Dreyer, 73 mins)
Written on the Wind (Sirk, 99 mins)
Touch of Evil (restored version) (Welles, 95 mins)
Psycho (Hitchcock, 109 mins)
Peeping Tom (Powell, 101 mins)
Black Girl (Sembene, 65 mins)
Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 121 mins)
Children of Men (Cuaron, 109 mins)
Though I lost a bunch of favorites that I included last time, I think this is a more coherent group of films aesthetically, historically, and thematically. It allows us a lot more deliberate time talking about methods of storytelling, effects of genre, etc. I also decided I wanted to challenge the students' knowledge and assumptions about what cinema was, is, and can be. I fear they'll find a lot of it boring, but hopefully I'll be able to show them what to look for to find at least some engagement in each movie.

Outlaws, Delinquents, and Other "Deviants" in Film & Society
I've never taught this course before. It's a general education class based in the Communications & Media Studies department, for whom I've begun teaching one class each term (unfortunately preventing me from teaching any Women's Studies courses during the regular year, since there's now no room in my schedule, and I'm not allowed to teach more than 3 classes per term). The catalogue description is pretty general, basically saying it's a course about people who deviate from social norms. I decided to take that into some particular directions. (The syllabus is here.)

Here are the required films:
The Public Enemy
Border Incident
Pickup on South Street
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Hail the Conquering Hero
First Blood
Zero for Conduct
Rebel without a Cause
The Doom Generation
My Own Private Idaho
Women in Cages (selections)
Thelma & Louise
Easy A
So, as you can see from that list, we start with crime, move on to war and its heroes (or "heroes"), spend some time with juvenile delinquents, and end up with a variety of deviant women.

The pedagogy for this course is a bit more traditional than in my Intro to Film course because the subject matter is more specific. I'm still using our textbooks primarily as resource books for the students, though, with only a few specifically assigned readings. The books are The Cinema Book edited by Pam Cook and A Short Guide to Writing About Film by Timothy Corrigan, both of which I've written about before.

Once the term is finished, I'll post a reflection on how it all went. At the moment, I'm as excited as I've ever been for a new term, because I put an awful lot of work into preparing these courses and each one is about a subject I'm really passionate about. With luck, that passion won't reduce me to standing in front of the class each day and saying, "Isn't that just, like, so coool!"

We shall see...