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.

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.

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.

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.