Finding an audience

I’ve written previously about Comic Book City being rejected by film festivals and, taking off from a post at the Raindance blog, I’ve also written about working in an academic mode and how that may put my film in a different frame than those used by festivals when evaluating of submissions.

In thinking about the last several months of trying to secure formal review and screening opportunities for my film, I should thank Elliot Grove for his Raindance piece. That blog entry, followed by a couple of rejections from festivals that I had had some hope for, prompted me to think more critically about who the potential audience for Comic Book City might be.

While I had already given thought to submitting the film to conferences and journals in film and media studies, and that, at some point, I would try to negotiate opportunities to screen the documentary at a geography venue, it was not until the aforementioned retrenchment that I started looking closely at comics studies events.

I initially focused on festivals for the simple reason that film festivals are set up to exhibit films. Most academic conferences, let alone journals, are not. In addition, acceptance into a film festival struck me as a kind of peer review that would be readily understood by colleagues and administrators on my campus, which will have value to me when I finally decide to apply for promotion to full professor.

However, if that route is a dead end, obviously I need alternatives, and as recently announced, I seem to have discovered that a significant part of the potential audience for the film is with comics studies scholars.

As I’ve suggested before (see my response to Grove above) I can understand why festival programmers/selectors are not finding Comic Book City to be appropriate for their events. My mom, (yes, my mom) remarked after watching the film that she could see how if someone were not already interested in comics (or Portland) that the documentary would lack appeal. The film doesn’t have a conventional narrative structure (in fact, I think of it more as creative non-fiction than as a documentary, but the latter is better shorthand for most purposes). It doesn’t address a critical social or political issue. It doesn’t tell any stories about the triumph of the human spirit (at least not in a significant or highlighted way). It has an experimental visual design. The themes that it explores – place, creative process, the spatiality of different media – are fairly abstract. Which is all a way of saying that the academic roots of the project show. If I were a festival programmer, I don’t think I would see the film as something that would sell tickets or passes, or that would contribute to my event’s reputation in ‘the industry’.

While most academic conferences are not organized for film screenings, what they do have are specialized audiences, and I suspect that with Comic Book City, I need to find those audiences, that is, the people for whom the film has intrinsic interest. I am grateful for the interest shown so far by my colleagues in comics studies and only wish that I did not have to wait until May for the first conference.

I am showing the film, and have shown related works, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. Ultimately, I want to release it, and significant parts, into the wild and let the larger audience find it in their own time and own ways. Refereed screenings, like the ones I have coming this spring and summer are important to me, though, not just for the base professional reasons I’ve already noted, but also for the opportunity to watch and discuss the film with an interested audience, which, I imagine, is what any filmmaker wants for their work.

Call for participation: film project on the work of J.B. Jackson

I am starting a new film project, one focused on interpreting the writings of landscape scholar J.B. Jackson. I am interested in using and incorporating audio commentaries from others who work in landscape studies. You can see a more detailed call for participation here. You can also contact me for more information.

Florida’s proposal to set tuition by major: crazy, yes, but also too close to home

At The Atlantic this week, Jordan Weissmann posted a story about a proposal in Florida to set tuition at state institutions according to major, with students choosing “high demand” fields earning a discount, while those choosing majors less in demand would pay more.

This is the kind of proposal that is easy to scoff at, and to write off as being the product of one place’s peculiar politics, but, in truth, the underlying logic is one I see at work everyday at my institution and in the Oregon University System more broadly.

Currently, for example, there are clear mandates to direct scarce resources for faculty hires towards departments with professional or pre-professional, or even just practical-sounding, majors. Meanwhile, faculty in departments with more traditional academic majors are forced to fight just to keep existing tenure lines, or to hire adjuncts to cover course releases and leave, let alone to supplement regular course offerings.

In considering the Florida proposal, Weissmann notes the difficulty in trying to peg what constitutes a “high demand” field and how to keep up with ongoing changes in labor markets. Whether setting student tuition or constructing programs and hiring faculty, playing the market seems like a foolish risk for colleges and universities, no matter how appealing it may sound to state legislators and governing boards. Systems risk sinking investments into fields of study that may or not be relevant a few years down the road, if they were ever relevant to begin with.

Like Weissmann, I can imagine a system of data collection to try to make these kinds of decisions be as economically rational as possible, but it seems equally likely that these decisions are or would be made for less grounded reasons, such as what appeals politically or some vague sense of what an employable major does or does not look like.

Taking faculty hires at Western as a case in point, I haven’t seen any indication that decisions about new programs and allocation of resources are being made with clear data on employer demand or the likelihood of finding employment after graduation. For the most part, these decisions seem to be driven by legislative mandates, which, as Weissmann puts it, are just as likely to be based on assumptions of, “Science: Good! English: Bad!”, as they are to be founded on thoughtful study, by what sounds career-oriented, or fits in with some influential person’s general picture of the economy.

In each of these cases, what I see is an expansion of one of the central myths of higher ed in America, namely that the purpose of choosing a major is to secure a specific job or to get started on a particular career path.

This is nonsense.

For starters, and to state what should be obvious, but apparently isn’t, choice of major doesn’t guarantee any form of employment. A student can make all the “right”choices and still end up working in some other field or in jobs that don’t appear to make direct use of the content of their college major, or not able to find work at all. Simply majoring in a STEM field or in some narrowly drawn program like Heath Care Management (or whatever) doesn’t guarantee specific or gainful employment anymore than majoring in a “loser” academic field in the social sciences, arts or humanities fates one to a life of drawing espresso.

Increasing one’s prospects for decent employment is a perfectly fine reason to go to college, and there is certainly no shortage of studies and data about employment, unemployment, and earnings to demonstrate the economic value of having an undergraduate degree. The misapprehension that springs from this general point, for students, for parents, for legislators, for members of boards, for, even, administrators, is that if it’s better to have a degree than not it must be even better to study something “practical”.

One obvious risk to Florida’s proposal that Weissmann notes in his article is that many students will be tempted to declare majors for which they may not have a true aptitude or passion. Those students are likely to either fail out of their programs or end up being less competitive in the job market in comparison to those who are better prepared and more talented.

When it comes to actual funding decisions, little value is assigned to what a college education can do for students beyond the promise of specific employment. Very few people have aspirations that stop at their job. In our lives as friends, neighbors, members of families, and citizens, and in our non-employment related pursuits, there is value in having had breadth built into our higher educations. There is value in cultivating broader habits of the mind that make us better thinkers, readers, information-seekers, and communicators. Even in the context of economistic arguments about higher ed, it is worth noting that these qualities are also useful in seeking employment, and, over the course of a lifetime, likely more useful than any specific career-related or technical knowledge one may have acquired in a particular moment, e.g., when one was an undergrad.

The danger inherent in a proposal like the Florida tuition scheme or the current approach to hiring at my institutions is that, over time, “low demand” programs will die on the vine. If that happens, institutions will be left with the problem of how to actually educate, as well as train, all of those scientists, mathematicians, and engineers. There would also be the question of what to do with students who, despite all the incentives, choose to major in fields outside of the STEM or professional and pre-professional areas. I don’t think it can be overstated that there will always be students for whom science, math, engineering, and related fields, will not be good or viable options. And yet if the general economic case for a college degree holds true, state systems should have an interest in ensuring adequate alternatives for students choosing to pursue higher education, and, at some level, that means supporting academic majors in the humanities, arts, and social sciences alongside those in the STEM fields and in explicitly career-oriented programs.

One thing that I’ve noticed lately about how my institution works is while the largest majors do tend to be in professional, pre-professional, or explicitly career-focused, in the main, these programs only serve their majors. While departments in the traditional liberal arts and sciences may not have that many majors in comparison, in any given graduating class, more students will have taken courses from faculty in those programs than in the aforementioned majors, which are found in Business, Criminal Justice, Education, and Computer Science.

I don’t have a problem with this, nor would I disagree that a department with tens or hundreds of majors merits a faculty adequate to serve their students, but what I do object to is the manner in which demand seems to only be assessed in terms of markets, whether at the university or in the larger economy*. Yes, many of the social sciences, arts and humanities may have small majors, but faculty in those programs teach a lot of students from across the university. That service, that kind of “demand”, is routinely discounted, I think, because it is primarily the result of how the general education curriculum is designed.

But here’s the thing. I don’t think this is some accident or quirk of history. Disciplines like mine, geography, are meant to provide generally useful knowledge about the world. Modern professional fields are primarily intended to educate students with specific job and career aspirations. While I would not want to suggest that there is no value in, say, non-business majors or minors taking Business courses, in my experience, faculty in fields like that are primarily interested in teaching students who are looking for preparation in that field. The fact that Business, etc. are not explicitly represented in the general education curriculum, especially at the lower division, is because faculty in those programs have opted out of participation, and not because they have been excluded.

At the same time, most faculty in the professional and pre-professional areas rely on faculty in other departments to provide breadth and fundamentals to their students. Most faculty in those areas realize that their students are better off for having taken courses in the traditional liberal arts and sciences. And yet proposals like Florida’s, or decisions like those being made around hiring at my institution, seem to be made with little understanding or appreciation of how higher education actually works in practice for faculty and students.

*I also think it should be noted that “demand” is a slippery concept in these discussions. Majors like Criminal Justice or Business often do show high levels of demand on many campuses in terms of enrollment, and they do guide students into specific jobs or careers, but students with degrees in those areas largely do not command the same kind of demand in the job market that majors in the STEM fields do. So, in some ways apples and oranges are being lumped together in this blog post, but that’s largely because they do in practice, too. On many campuses, the STEM fields are likely small in terms of enrollment, but are supported because of apparent demand in the job market. Many professional, pre-professional, and career-oriented fields are supported because students want to major in those areas. In either case, departments in the middle are left to fight over whatever crumbs are dropped on the campus floor.

Fall is coming

Well, it’s actually already kind of here for faculty in the OUS. Classes don’t begin until next week, hence the title, but this week faculty were called back to campus for rituals (e.g., state of the university and college addresses), welcoming and orientating new students, administrative functions (e.g., committee meetings), and, finally, class prep.

I’ve been in a tenure-track/tenured position at Western Oregon for just over ten years now, and it has taken this long to have a fall where I’ve felt as if I’ve been able construct my courses in an efficient and minimally stressful way (most of the stress this week has come from having to work course prep in between other responsibilities, not from my upcoming classes).

One reason why I often start Fall term behind the curve, or at least feeling that way, is that summers are usually the only time I have for sustained progress on research and scholarship. I imagine that this is true for most who work at undergraduate teaching focused institutions like mine. This summer, though, I was at the dissemination stage of my current project, and while I had a book chapter to write, that was, more or less, a digest of the same project. Dealing with getting work out into the world has been its own thing, of course, but nothing like being in the field or at the editing station.

When I write above about ‘constructing my courses’, I mean mainly drafting the syllabi. Summers are also time to read and look for resources. Typically, I will defer this kind of work to attend to non-course related scholarship, which leaves me having to those tasks while teaching my courses. This year I had the luxury not to have to do that and was able to get my deeper prep done a week or so before reporting back to campus.

I am an impossible tinkerer when it comes to my courses. This year I was overhauling two of the three I am scheduled to teach in the Fall (one, I’ve already written about). What saved me this summer was not making any major changes to my introductory cultural geography course. That is an offering that I have been perpetually dissatisfied with, but for which I have finally found an approach that works for me, and seems to work for students, too, at least in the ways I would like it to.

One image that non-teachers have of teachers, at whatever level, but maybe particularly of professors, is that of someone who essentially coasts, working off of the same set of notes decade after decade, freeing them from actually having to work in their courses.

I’ve never met that person.

There’s no question that my current colleagues work harder at making their courses approachable, interesting, and appropriately challenging for undergraduates than did most, if not all, of the professors in my graduate department, but I think that’s understandable. Faculty who work primarily with graduate students and undergraduate majors can, and should, see teaching differently than should faculty, like myself and most of my social science and humanities colleagues, who teach primarily undergraduates and a significant number of non-majors. However, that difference hardly becomes the equivalent of ‘dead wood’. On the contrary, while, pedagogically, a graduate seminar is a graduate seminar, readings are always in flux. I imagine that this is also true for the advanced undergraduate courses tied to professor interests.

At present, I’ve observed that some of my more senior colleagues seem to have certain courses, ones that they’ve been teaching consistently for more than a decade or two, ‘down’, but there are also irregular courses, or newly developed courses, that require substantial preparation to work.

In short, I don’t think I personally know any college or university faculty whose courses are entirely static, which is why I find some of the other functions of the opening week to Fall, many of the administrative functions, to be frustrating or stressful.

One primary administrative concern right now is “assessment” and getting faculty to do it, but I think that it is fair to say, given that no one’s courses stay exactly the same, that class prep necessarily entails assessment and the kind of assessment that everyone is supposed to want: the kind that leads to improvements in the classroom.

The problem I’m not sure that anyone has figured out entirely is how to articulate the kinds of assessment that lead to actual changes in the way courses are taught and that also satisfy administrative imperatives for data that can be used in accreditation, or in taking to boards and legislators.

The data that I use to change and improve my courses are rarely the kinds of things that are captured in institutional evaluations or templates for reporting on assessment. The data is scattered, sometimes impressionistic, often open-ended and come from my experience of being in the classroom with students. Administratively, faculty are expected to make discrete a process that is almost necessarily ongoing and messy, rarely mapping neatly onto formulaic statements of outcomes or ‘themes’ (‘core themes’ are a recent turn in jargon, at least for our accreditation).

Our college’s administrators seem to have finally settled on a set of procedures and forms, so maybe there is an opening to establish a departmental routine that suffices for everyone, instead of having, essentially, two separate processes, one for real work in the classroom and one for bookkeeping. I’ve been told that this is possible, but I have yet to see it in action (nothing makes me more skeptical about the push for assessment than being given models from other departments that entail, essentially, standardized testing, not only because it puts a lie to all of the assurances faculty are given regarding autonomy and what kinds of instruments or data are acceptable, but also because I have a hard time thinking that the results of such tests are at all effective in suggesting what might work better in the classroom. Identifying knowledge gaps is one thing; figuring out what to do about those gaps is another).

Struggling to launch a qualitative methods course

For the past few years, I have been alternating a course in qualitative research methods (even years) with one in making digital video for the social sciences (odd years). The latter has started well in terms of enrollment, and, I think, is steadily improving. Significantly, I think that the good enrollment is related to the improvement in that having an adequate number of students gives me a clearer, and more reliable, way to see what’s working and what’s not, what’s an individual problem and what’s more systemic, and where I need to find more resources or better patches for what the university lacks in capacity to support the course.

The qualitative methods course has been a different story.

The first year I voluntarily pulled it from the schedule, early, when it failed to attract any students during initial registration. The next time I offered the course, I netted three students. So far this year I am looking at four (progress!).

In the earlier cases, I was working in a context where university administrators were at least playing at waging war on “low enrollment” sections. I volunteered to pull the course the first time in part to earn some credit to use later, and in part because the only person affected would be me. I imagine that this choice paid off the next time when I only had three students, but wanted the course to go (I don’t pretend to understand the economics of closing “low enrolling” sections, particularly in the case of my department where all of our courses are taught by full-time, tenure track faculty; the only adjuncts we’ve used in the last ten years have been to cover sabbaticals and course releases).

I’m not being pre-emptive this year because administrative discourse has shifted from being concerned primarily with individual sections to being concerned with numbers of majors. This isn’t “better”, especially from the perspective of the geography faculty where we typically graduate between nine and twelve majors each year. But it does mean that there is less pressure to account for every section.

Both the digital video course and qualitative methods course were added to the catalog as part of a revision to the geography major that instituted a capstone requirement and reorganized the elective part of the program into different streams or concentrations, e..g, “Cultural & Political”, “Physical Environment”. All majors are required to take a certain number of credits in “geographic thought and practice”, ideally from courses that make sense from the perspective of their chosen concentration and capstone plans. The changes to the geography major prefigured similar changes to the social science major at Western Oregon, which now requires students to complete a “theory and methods” requirement as well as take at least half of their credits in one field.

And yet while the DV course has met or exceeded the cap each time I’ve taught it, the qualitative methods course does not seem to be getting any traction with students.

While frustrating, this isn’t too difficult to understand. It isn’t the kind of course that presents as an exciting elective for non-majors. Furthermore, not only is the geography major relatively small, but the majority of those students concentrate in areas other than cultural and political geography, for which this course is primarily designed and most appropriate. In fact, I suspect that the students I currently have will turn out to be social science, and not geography, majors (one reason I know this is that none of the students on my list are currently my advisees).

Being able to understand why my numbers are so low is one thing. Trying to build a course while teaching such small numbers is another. I did get some good feedback from the last (small) group I taught, but all of those students were novices when it came to social science research methods, and none were especially sophisticated or grounded in social theory before starting the course. Based on my experience with other courses, including the DV course, if I had had at least nine to twelve students instead of three I would have had a wider range of individuals to work with in terms of experience and aptitude and would have ended with a more refined picture of how the course works for students.

As it is, assuming I end up teaching small numbers every time, it may take years to get a better idea of how to run the course. Right now I feel like I am stabbing in the dark and having to rely on my own impressions, which I do anyway, but I prefer to have more input from students in assessing my own thoughts than I have for this course so far.

Courses that involve scientific practice are challenging to teach in any case, particularly, I think, in a quarters system where you only get ten weeks to work with students.

I made the case for the class to go last time with three students because it seems obvious that in order to develop the course I need to teach it. I tried to split the difference between reading and field/project work. That worked ok, but the students, all three of them, told me that the one thing they wanted was more time in the field. So, this year I’m going to experiment with making individual projects the focus of student work, including what reading different students do. In effect, I decided, if the class is going to be this small, I might as well leverage that smallness into highly individualized instruction. There will be a few common readings, but mostly I will be working with students on different methods according to their interests and what they want to, or should, be practicing.

What I need, what I hope, is that somehow, in this group of four, I have at least one student who is fully invested and engaged by the material. There’s a risk of overvaluing what you observe or hear from those students, but I also think that there is value in a perspective that is above the common denominator. When I proposed the course I certainly envisioned, ultimately, having students who are prepared to dig deep into the doing of geography, both during the term and into their capstone work.

Interesting, and interested, students make for interesting teaching, and, on the whole, I think that the less engaged students benefit from the ways in which the more engaged push me to think more seriously about the material. This is one thing I think I’m missing with the methods course. On the other hand, I also don’t think I have a good sense even of “the students I have” as opposed to the “students I want”. Maybe that will become more clear this term. And maybe I’ll just keep adding one student each time I offer the course. At that rate, I can look forward to having the course take shape around the time I begin thinking about retirement.

An academic’s perspective on film festival submission: take two

Earlier this week Peter D. Marshall, via Twitter, linked to Elliot Grove’s post at the Raindance Canada site on, “16 things that film festivals hate about filmmakers“. Reading Grove’s list I gained some additional insight into some of the mistakes I have made in submitting Comic Book City to festivals, but also how the culture from which I am working, academia, is different from that of film as an industry.

In general, Grove’s advice reads as pretty sensible, essentially telling filmmakers to, “be professional, don’t make a festival’s job harder than it needs to be.” Substitute “article” for “film” and “journal” or “publisher” for “film festival” and, with some minor changes for context, the advice would still make sense.

At the same time, there is a clear implication that a film festival is necessarily an industry showcase, that the purpose of holding a festival is to provide films and their makers with exposure to people looking to buy and hire. When films and filmmakers are “discovered” at a fest, the festival solidifies its position in the industry. What unites everyone is this commercial purpose (see Grove’s comments to “#14: Filmmakers who don’t understand the role a festival”).

As someone who undertook filmmaking as part of my scholarly work, I do not share this commercial purpose. As a result, my submissions are lacking in areas related to publicity (see Grove’s #10 and #12). I do not have PR skills, nor do I have the resources to hire people to do that work, and I did not think about publicity during the making of the film anymore than I would have with a journal article, which is to say, I didn’t think about it at all. The area where this has put me in the most awkward position in relation to festivals is in provision of high resolution images for catalogs and advertising (#10). I have done what I can with the online press kit function in Withoutabox, and I have an IMDB page, but both are minimal. When it comes time to announce screenings, I do have social media I can use – like this blog and the production blog, for examples – but my social network, and networking, is likely not up to the standard advocated by Grove (see #11).

In one sense, lesson learned. On my next project I will at least know to produce a few high quality stills for use by festival organizers. In another sense, while I want my film to be seen, I do not see my film as an entrée to the industry. For me, festival acceptance constitutes a form of peer review. Whether and what an “industry person” might do with Comic Book City is beyond me, but that doesn’t make a festival screening meaningless either. It just doesn’t have the meaning assumed in Grove’s advice to filmmakers.

This would seem to make me guilty of #14, but I’m not sure that a festival’s purpose can be reduced to, “Together, the festival and filmmaker hopes that you get ‘discovered’ ie: that someone gives you a cheque. That way, we can both say ‘this is the film that was discovered at Raindance – enhancing both of our press kits.”

For one thing, many festivals include categories of films that would not normally be seen as ways to break into the industry or to have someone cut you a check. There clearly is a function of festivals that relates to filmmaking as art, and not as commerce, to access to audiences, but not necessarily access to the industry.

I think that these distinctions matter in terms of the performative aspects of festival submission that Grove focuses on. The advice in his post seems most relevant to filmmakers who have commercial aspirations, but are more curious for those of us without such expectations.

I still agree with the general sentiment that it is in a filmmaker’s best interests to not make a festival programmer’s job harder than it needs to be, but the limited resources that Grove points to for why filmmakers should have good publicity materials, and thick social networks, would seem to apply equally to, if not have more salience for, individual creators, especially those working with minimal personnel and finances, if not as, essentially, one-person shops.

As I discussed in my previous post on submitting to festivals, I am learning to read between the lines when looking at how a festival is represented. Many festivals, as implied by Grove, place a heavy emphasis on the idea of “discovery” and on connections to industry and industry celebrities. I have decided to sidestep such events, even where they would seem to be promising in other respects (size, location). Others frame what they do more in terms of providing an audience, and bringing films to communities that otherwise miss out on, particularly, unusual or less commercial offerings than in terms of being places where filmmakers can “make it”.

Obviously, Grove is on-point for most festivals when he writes, “Your job is to deliver a pleasing and entertaining film, and if you attend the festival, to be available for interview and Q&A sessions after your screening.” On the other hand, there should be room for a film to be, “challenging and interesting”, too, or where what constitutes “pleasing and entertaining” has a wider meaning than “commercial potential”.

Teaching introductory cultural geography with film analysis

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.