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.

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.

The broken college book market

It would be hard to be  involved in American higher education and not know that the market for books is dysfunctional. Most of this concern is about pricing and publishing practices, especially the overproduction of new editions of textbooks, and how that affects students. One way that this also affects professors and instructors is in the selection of books for classes. I am always conscious of prices when building a syllabus. I have adopted a variety of strategies for helping my students to manage the cost of their educations by looking for ways to teach with books written for broader markets, or settling for one book when more would be ideal, or working with library reserve. In any case, the economics of college texts is such that students often look for ways to avoid buying books, while many of their teachers are compelled to plan their courses around book costs as well as academic considerations.

One actor in all of this that doesn’t get discussed as much is the college or university bookstore. As more students attempt to get away with not buying their books, or look to alternate sources with better prices, our bookstore, like many I’m sure, has taken to under ordering so as to avoid taking on the cost of shipping back a bunch of books to distributors (and, for all I know, it isn’t just the shipping that is at issue, but fees from publishers or distributors, too).

I can understand this adaptation, but it is a strategy that does not always work out well for students or professors, and this term, at least, it has become my biggest challenge to getting my classes going, notably my intro level course. A half or more of my students were unable to get the main textbook this week, and only a couple report having ordered from another source, which means that I have twenty or so students who had planned on walking into their university bookstore and buying the class text, but were unable to do so for lack of stock (and, no, this does not appear to be an availability issue with the title).

The thing is, I think that my students who thought they could walk into the bookstore in the first week of the term and get the text they needed should have been able to do just that. There is something very wrong with a system that makes that seem naïve.

Which raises another point.

If bookstores are going to be playing the odds with orders, it seems to me that there should be more thought given to the size and nature of particular classes when deciding how far below the cap is too far. It’s one thing to go halfway for an upperdivision class with a cap of twenty, or to severely under order for an instructor using books made for a wider market, but when dealing with a large class, with a high percentage of inexperienced college students, and a text pretty much made for the classroom, it seems shortsighted to cut an order significantly below the planned enrollment (and, at WOU anyhow, intro level courses rarely enroll below their caps by any significant number).

I don’t have much to offer as to the deeper issues, I don’t fully understand why the college book market is as broken as it is, but I would like to see more holistic thinking and cooperation with students and faculty as we all ar seeking strategies for dealing with the ways that the market does not work for our needs. Right now, at my university in any case, everyone is mostly working in isolation and on their own side of the problem, which is why I’m dealing with the unintended consequences that I’m now having with my intro class.

What do students want?

I am one of those university faculty who rarely leave their course syllabi alone. After a few years of teaching any given class, I usually find something that needs changing. The course that I change most frequently is introductory cultural geography.

The reasons for this are clear enough. I teach it every term. It is my biggest class in terms of numbers of students, and they come from all corners of campus. The challenges in finding an approach that works for everyone are endless (which, of course, makes the question in the title essentially unanswerable, and yet here I am).

The past couple of years I have built the course around a set of books written not for the geography classroom, but for a wide, albeit educated, audience. My thinking was that students would be excited to read books that had some life and personality to them, and I could use the texts as a way to draw attention to the relevance of cultural geography to daily life, or to unexpected aspects of the world.

The results were mixed.

Yes, some students were excited, happy to get something interesting to read and talk about. Another swath of students really did not care much what happened in the class, something that seems universally true for courses that fulfill gen ed requirements.

The most bothersome reaction, and the one that led me to revise the syllabus for the coming year, was from students who felt cheated by the class. Time and again I encountered students who thought, maybe felt is the better word, that I was not teaching them cultural geography, but some other idiosyncratic and arbitrary subject. Once I began to realize how deep this reaction went, I looked for ways to frame my choices for the class better, but still, the level of frustration I perceived on the part of students reached a point last year that I decided I had to make a change.

So, this year, I am holding onto one book from the past couple of years and going back to using a text that is more traditional, though having been written for the British market, probably a little ahead of where my students will be when they start my class.

The ‘hook’ that I am counting on this year to excite my classes about learning cultural geography is the incorporation of fieldwork into many, if not most, weeks. I had made small moves in that direction the past few years with mostly positive feedback from students, and maybe, in making this practice more central to the course, I will, finally, unlock the geographical imaginations of the majority of my students.

Or, at least,  following last year, I hope to have fewer students questioning whether what they’ve learned is what they should have learned.