Teaching introductory cultural geography with film analysis

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For the past two or three years (I change my syllabi too frequently) I’ve been teaching my introductory cultural geography course so as to emphasize how cultural geography is done over surveying content. I use Jon Anderson’s Understanding Cultural Geography (Routledge, 2009) as the primary text.

What I appreciate about this text is that it gives students a simple, but still sophisticated, theoretical framework for thinking about the world in cultural geographic terms. The key concepts are “places” and “traces”, where “places” are broadly defined as the contexts for culture, defined as “what people do”, and “traces” are “cultural remnants” that are left in place by people doing what they do (whatever that is; obviously varies by context). Places simultaneous frame what people do, the traces they make, and are the outcomes of those practices. In making traces, people also make places.

The primary nuances within this framework come from the book’s discussion of power, and how different forms of power shapes what people do, the traces that they make on a daily basis and how those practices do, or do not, accommodate difference or variations in what people do in different places. Similarly, Anderson argues that traces can be “material” or “non-material”, and can come from both human and non-human agents, in the sense that what plants, animals, objects, and natural/physical forces do are necessarily incorporated into culture.

After establishing this framework, the text goes onto to explore a variety of topical areas, such as capitalism and anti-capitalism, nature, and the body, and, in the next to last chapter, introduces students to the primary formal research methods used by cultural geographers: interviewing, textual analysis, and ethnography.

During the course of the term, I have students perform a variety of exercises, some in-class, some out-of-class, some for credit, some just as part of being in class, wherein students do work that plays at or approximates cultural geographic research. So, for example, in one exercise I ask students to choose a place to observe in order to draw conclusions about what people are expected to do in that place, how to comport themselves, what kinds of activities are appropriate or inappropriate, what kinds of identities are welcome or unwelcome (Anderson writes about places being “ordered” and “bordered” so as to specify what is “natural, normal, or novel” for people to do in a given location).

For the last three to four weeks of the quarter I move students from doing short exercises around specific questions to a broader and more formal attempt at practicing textual analysis. For this, I assign an additional text, and have used Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (Spectra, 1993), Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Pantheon, 2007), and Brian Wood’s and Ryan Kelly’s Local (Oni Press, 2008). Anderson’s discussion of methodology gives students a starting point for reading critically, and I construct an assignment that poses a number of prompts for seeing the assigned text as a creative exploration of “places and traces”. I use Anderson’s methodological discussion as a starting point for thinking about form as well as content when doing textual analysis.

In the term just ended, for the first time, I chose a film instead of a book to cap the course. The film I used is Run Lola Run (1998). I made this choice for a number of reasons:

  • The running time, 80 minutes, is close to perfect for a 110 minute period in terms of having time for set up, viewing, and discussion in one class session.
  • The narrative structure of the film is easy to break down and reconsider on additional viewing in subsequent sessions.
  • The style of the film makes it easy to talk about form; the use of slow motion, split screens, alternate versions of the story, an evolving soundtrack, are all devices that draw attention to how the film is made.
  • The movie also has clearly announced philosophical intentions that relate directly to the kinds of questions we talk about during the term, and specifically questions about what people do, how that is affected by context, and how people exercise power in relation to others on a daily basis.
  • I also anticipated that the film’s strangeness, in being in German, in being so obviously of its era, and in its style, would facilitate critical engagement more readily than a more conventional or familiar choice.

I took time in a couple of class sessions to prepare students for viewing. I used excerpts from Timothy Corrigan’s A Short Guide to Writing about Film (Longman, 2006), notably the chapter on getting ready to write and the chapter on film language, to provide students with background and a reference for doing textual analysis on a film. I spent an entire period introducing key concepts in film study, miss-en-scene, the frame, the shot, editing, and compiled online resources for additional guidance. I used a single frame grab from Lola to open up discussion of the concepts (I pulled additional frames for further discussion after viewing the film in class).

After watching the film once through, we devoted class meetings to re-watching each ‘run’, and also for revisiting the prologue, the credits, and the background scene. I used fan art and paratexts like tag lines to demonstrate different ways of framing, thinking about, and relating to the movie.

Based on the final assignments, and course assessments, I got from students, this experiment worked pretty well. Many students were strongly engaged by film study, particularly in the formal aspect, much more so than with the novel or the comics. Indeed, one lesson I took from this experience is to devote more time to preparing students for thinking about the form of texts, whatever I choose to use. The film also seemed to work in the way that I had hoped in prompting reflection on Anderson’s framework at its most basic assumptions.

For the final paper, students were asked to write about Lola and philosophy of place, that is, whether students are persuaded by the film’s suggestion that being in place with others can have profound consequences even where what we do seems trivial on the surface, such as, for example, when Lola brushes, runs into, or avoids, “Doris”, the woman with baby carriage who Lola encounters shortly after leaving her apartment building, or to write about the film and Anderson’s way of defining places as “ongoing compositions of traces”, that is, in each version of the story different locations are shown to take on different meanings depending on what people do.

I was gratified to see that students were provoked both to think about these questions in a universalistic, “what it means to be human”, kind of way and also in ways that were more sensitive to difference, considering, for example, the ways in which Lola appears out of place, as in her father’s bank or at the casino. More students than I expected were able to make interesting connections to the form of the text and their discussions of cultural geographic themes.

One of the reasons I chose Anderson’s text to ground this course is that I think it gives students a more contemporary and clearly disciplinary view on cultural geography than do most survey-level books. Having different options for students to practice at becoming cultural geographers helps to further this goal of learning in a discipline and doing so in way that is actually relevant to what I do as a professional in the field. Intro courses, at least in geography, can often seem pretty far removed from faculty research and disciplinary practice, which is why these classes can often be a drag to teach. I think I am finding ways for that not to be the case, and it is making me a better teacher.

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