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.

Advertisements

Storify in the classroom update

At the end of Winter 2011, I began experimenting with using Storify as a way to supplement class material and discussions. My thought was that, compared to use of course blogs, this would be a more efficient and visually appealing way to share content with students. My last update on this practice is from July of last year.

Here are thoughts and observations from this year.

  • The one class in which I consistently use Storify is GEOG 107, which is introductory cultural geography. I “reset” the timeline each term, meaning I strip the content out and rebuild it each quarter depending on what class discussion is like. I’ve noticed that with some sections I end up with a lengthy timeline and for others I only make a few additions. What’s interesting is that this does not seem to correlate with how often students seem to reference or read the narrative, or even, to how active and engaged a class is otherwise. For example, my current group of students includes a number of individuals who went to Storify from the class blog to read the faculty page for our textbook author, but, despite that early interest, I haven’t added anything new, and class discussions are, lively and interesting.
  • I suspect that my choice to use the service here is more dependent on what students are interested in than if they are. Some topics lend themselves better to further exploration and discussion online than others. I’ve noticed, for example, that I am most likely to use Storify in my intro course for follow-up to discussions about youth culture and the body, both of which are visually-oriented, at least in the way I teach them in this course. With other topics, whether I add material to Storify or not seems more dependent on what kinds of questions students ask or where I end up with loose ends than it does on the topic itself or levels of student engagement.
  • In Fall I taught a course on using digital video in the social sciences and made extensive use of Storify to share resources on filmmaking, but, based on class questions and use of the course blog, I’m not sure that very many students made use of that timeline, despite needing the help. I do see that I have 68 views of that page, which suggests that it got some use, but maybe not of the right kind. It did not seem as if students got into the habit of using that page as a reference for problem solving. It could be that the “timeline” format is not conducive to providing a ready reference for guidance, even though it does allow me to be responsive to questions as they arise in class. Or maybe students just preferred to be told what to do as opposed to working through problems themselves. I’m sure that someone in the class must have found those resources useful and I don’t know about it because they were successful on their own. In the future, I should think about asking students directly about their use of the site.
  • This term I am looking for supplemental material on a regular basis for my upper-division course in political geography, but I am relying on Pinterest (I even started two new boards to support the class, Geography graphics & Geopolitics) rather than Storify. This is something I noticed the other day, and have only begun to think about. I think one reason for this habit might be that I do not have a primary text assigned and, therefore, a less obvious “narrative spine” for the class on which to build a Storify page. It may also be that, for whatever reason, the convenience of “pinning” has made more sense for me when I have begun to look for material for this class than has working from my page on Storify.

Whether Storify or Pinterest, these resources have been valuable ways for me to share, especially, images, graphics, and videos with students, and are far preferable, and less time-consuming, than building Power Point slides or constantly embedding content on a blog.

Documentary finished

For the past four years, almost exactly at this point, my major scholarly project has been a documentary about comics creators in Portland, Oregon. I recently finished work on the film and have begun submitting to festivals and have started to think about other screening opportunities.

One of the questions I have to address with this project, for professional reasons, is peer review and festivals seem to provide the best route to gaining acceptance of the work in a way that is equivalent to review for a journal or book.

What kind of work is this for professional purposes is another question I have to think about, or at least may have to address for purposes of review and application for promotion. Is the film equal to a book or  an article? I am writing  an article from the film, but that will be a digest more than a reproduction. Interestingly, some festivals would have me in the short film category and others in the feature film section (the running time is 57:53).

I’d rather not dwell on these matters, but in my particular professional context, I, like anyone doing non-traditional forms of research and scholarship, eventually have to make the case that what one is doing is what one should, in fact, be doing (quick references for current work on the methodological margins of cultural geography: Geohumanities, ed., Michael Dear et al, Experimental Geography, ed., Nato Thompson, Merle Patchett’s Experimental Geography in Practice, and Bradley Garrett’s Place Hacking). I’ve already had a few interesting discussions regarding Faculty Development funding of the project, although no serious threats of being denied funds. I imagine that these conversations would be tougher at an R1.

I am generally happy with the work, at least in the sense that most of the remaining flaws feel like the product of things I can’t help, such as being a first feature, being solely responsible for all of the major aspects of the production and post-production (with the notable exceptions of sound editing, by my cousin Dave, and music, from my sister’s friend, Adam Selzer, and still photography, by my dad, Pat, and my friend and photographer, Erin Marr), and having a very small budget (I received approximately $4300 in grants for the project and that also constitutes the budget, more or less).

Color correction is probably the most notable aesthetic and formal weakness of the finished film. I made some minor corrections to some shots, but stayed away from major work because I simply do not know enough about what I am doing there yet. There are also some passages that I am unsure about pacing, how long I hold on certain shots, or choices I made in terms of images, but I am also at a point in the project where I need to let go or I will never stop working on it.

Hence, the decision to be “done”, and to release the film into the wild.

You can learn more on IMDB (which still feels weird), or for additional details, visit the Welcome & Introduction on the project blog.

Video from live preview

Last week I attended the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington. In a Geographies of Media paper session, I presented a live preview of about twelve minutes from the end of the documentary. This section features interviews with Dylan Meconis and Graham Annable, and a reflection on race in Portland that includes Meconis, the previously previewed Kevin Moore and Sarah Oleksyk, and Sara Ryan, as well as Carl Abbott, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University.

You can view the footage on blip.tv.

Comics documentary preview footage

A couple of days ago I posted rough preview footage from my documentary on comics creators in Portland, Oregon to my blip.tv and YouTube pages. The footage features interviews with Kevin Moore and Sarah Oleksyk. The videos are “rough” in that I am waiting on animation and graphics work to be finished and still have sound editing and mixing to do.

 

Reflecting on a successful intro class

Before the term started I wrote about changes I had made to my introductory cultural geography course, and then had a mostly optimistic assessment of how those changes were playing out a few weeks into Fall. As the term comes to a close, I can write that the class remained a pleasure to teach and one of my most active and interesting at that level I have ever taught.

As with the earlier check-in, my reflection is based not only on my impressions of what went on in the classroom, but also from weekly learning assessments that give me an idea of how things are going and discussions on the class blog.

What elevated this class for me is the level of engagement from my students. I am accustomed to a certain measure of apathy, and even to hostility from those perplexed about what they are being asked to learn and do. While there are students in the class right now who clearly just want to get through with a passing grade, a significant core, including more than a few who did not participate much in class or on the blog, demonstrated to me a clear interest in the material.

On the final assessment for the term, students indicated that the class had taught them to be more observant about how people live and how they act in different places, has raised their curiosity about specific topics addressed during the term, such as gender, youth culture, and even research methodology, and a few even started to ask questions about what one can do with cultural geography. I can’t think of a prior term where I had students express such varying and marked levels of interest in the field.

I think that the new text had much to do with this positive orientation towards the class; the fact that a number of students expressed an appreciation for the book suggests this as well. But it is also clear from other responses to what we did, that the text came across as comprehensible and relevant to a majority of students. Equally clear is that my decision to send students out into the field to apply class concepts also worked to activate people’s geographical imaginations and underscore the relevance of the text to understanding the everyday.

What I did not anticipate is that one of the attractions to the course would be a sense of empowerment. A number of students indicated that the idea that we all participate in the making of places, and being able to see that in specific cultural activities, left them feeling more engaged, not just with the course but also with the world. Similarly, many students responded well to defining “culture” as “what people do” as opposed what they possess or are born with. This was clearly a new and liberating idea to those who kept thinking on it during the term.

I already have a list of improvements and ways to experiment with the class for next quarter, but one of the most important is finding a means to better integrate the second book. This term I had students giving a cultural geographic reading to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and that may have been a little ambitious, especially in the few weeks I set aside for the task. In Winter, I am switching to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and will see how that works. I will not be changing the time allotted.

In the same vein, a number of students expressed a desire for more time on this or that subject, and I am sympathetic to that, but in any survey context, you always have to make compromises on depth. What I saw this term was a sparking of curiosity, and that is probably the best result for a class like this. I will give this more thought as the year progresses.

I am also waiting to see if the main factor this term was the students. I may have had a unique group. I hope not, of course, but based on past experience, I can’t dismiss the thought either. I am looking to Winter with both anticipation and trepidation.

Why my intro class has been so good this term

Before Fall started I posted on changes I have made to the syllabus for my introductory cultural geography course in the hopes of improving the experience of the class for both myself and my students.

So far so good.

I have an enrollment of about forty and on any given day twenty-five to thirty show up, which, historically, is very respectable for this course. More importantly, I have a critical mass of students who act fully engaged, who do the reading, and who ask questions and are interested in what we are talking about and learning. That is not a luxury I often have at this level. I think that there are a few reasons for why this class is working so well, at least thus far.

My new main text, Jon Anderson‘s Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces (Routledge, 2009), is a selection I was optimistic, but wary about at the beginning of the term. It is more sophisticated than the average basic text for cultural geography. One reason for that is that it was written with British college students as the models, and, for the most part, those students are further along in their geographic educations by the time they reach college than are their American counterparts. So, I was also concerned that some of the language and many of the examples would be alienating to my students.

Not only has neither issue been a problem, but students seem to be enjoying the book. Certainly, on the whole, they seem more intrigued by it than I have seen from any other standard text I have used. I am gauging this from what happens in class, from assessment tools I employ weekly, and from comments to the class blog.

What accounts for this I think is that Anderson uses a consistent, accessible, but still robust theoretical framework, the ‘places and traces’ of the subtitle, throughout the book. I think that this is more effective for intro level students than is the traditional survey approach where you spend a few paragraphs on a lot of ideas. Regardless of what additional topics Anderson brings in, he always pulls it back to people, animals, things, and forces making places by making/leaving traces through their actions and relationships (where ‘action’ includes doing, thinking, sensing, and feeling). I think that this consistency gives students a clear sense of building a body of knowledge.

Anderson’s framework is also easy to translate into activities that students can do, and I have designed a series of ‘field exercises’ for the class to apply what they’re learning from each chapter. This helps me show how relevant cultural geography can be, and makes it easy to mix up my teaching for students with different styles of learning. I have not had a chance to see any completed exercise yet, those come next week, but the initial experience appears to have been nothing but positive.

It may also be the case that I simply have an exceptional group of students this term. I am teaching at 8:00 am, and based on past experience, many students who choose early classes are often more serious about being present, in an attention sense, than are those who opt for more comfortable start times. But there’s clearly more going on here than just that, maybe something that won’t be replicable.

On the other hand, Western students have been getting ‘better’ over recent years. Admission standards have been raised (still in the sub 3.0 gpa range), and there’s more of an effort to exclude from admission those students who show little promise for succeeding in college. The unversity has also been expanding its recruitment well beyond the local region which, if nothing else, means that you get a more diverse mix of students in terms of their high school experiences and preparation for higher education.

So, maybe this will be a good year and not just a good term. For now, I am enjoying having an intro class that I don’t see as a chore.