WESTERN WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY
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Center for Instructional
Innovation and Assessment

INNOVATIVE TEACHING SHOWCASE

2003
2004
Mark Bussell
Dawn Dietrich
Joyce Hammond
Mike Mana
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PORTFOLIO
dietrich
Dawn Dietrich
English Department

 

 

Screen Play: Reading Film

Introduction

One of the most pleasurable aspects of teaching English 364, Introduction to Film Studies, this year has been working with Tony Prichard as a co-teacher. Our collaboration, both in the classroom and without, offers a model for student-teacher work partnerships, which build upon creative discussion, critical thinking and research, and innovative classroom applications. Tony brings a great deal of expertise to the classroom with his studies in film and critical theory. He also brings a larger cultural perspective that situates film within visual and technological systems, having studied art history, Japanese anime and manga, and cyberculture. These interests, which complement my own, link our teaching in English 364, but they also link our research and publication interests.

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"Our collaboration, both in the classroom and without, offers a model for student-teacher work partnerships, which build upon creative discussion, critical thinking and research, and innovative classroom applications."

Tony and I chose to team-teach the film course, which means that we usually teach together in the classroom, though one individual may take the lead on any given day. We've also divided up some of the responsibilities for the course. For example, Tony runs the weekly film showings, bookmarks the film clips for class discussion, and posts the weekly critical film terms on the online forum for our class. I've been doing most of the conferencing with students as well as the grading for the course. But most importantly, we discuss the class together and consult with each other over all matters pertaining to the course. We talk about the films in the class, the critical readings and research each of us is involved with, the goals we have for our students, and our assessment of our students' learning in the course. It is rewarding to be able to dialogue about a class, to understand another teacher's perceptions of the class dynamics, and to be able to draw off one another to problem solve and plan for the future. We meet almost daily to talk about the course, to assess how things are going, and to plan for the next class session. Occasionally, we brainstorm about how the class might be organized differently or might include different assignments or requirements, but we always take time out to acknowledge the critical learning we see taking place in our course.

Part of my pleasure in working with Tony through the teaching practicum comes from being able to mentor a successful graduate student and talented teacher. While our conversations about pedagogy center on film studies, Tony is able to connect this experience to the writing instruction he offers students in his English 101 class. He has told me that it has been very useful for him to have another classroom context in which to understand his role as a teacher. Since he is planning on going into a Ph.D. program and teaching at the college level, the collaborative internship provides him with valuable experience in teaching an upper-division class centered in film texts and theory—a different classroom environment from English 101.

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Tony's participation in the course has also altered the class dynamic by breaking up the traditional professor/class dyad. Our students have commented numerous times about how much they've enjoyed the collaborative presentation. They like hearing us discuss our views of the films in front of the class, especially when they are invited to join in on the conversation, ask questions, and present their own readings of the film. Similarly, it's been useful for students to see the way in which power and authority get negotiated with two teachers in the classroom. As an instructor, Tony brings his own teaching style to the course. He brings different experiences, insights, and ideas to the films we study, and the students have really enjoyed this diversity. Tony is also very personable, and the students have had fun getting to know him. Many students seek him out outside of class to continue their conversations. I think, in some ways, Tony's status as a graduate student appeals to the students: while they appreciate him as a skilled teacher in the classroom, they also feel a kinship with him as a fellow student. It opens up the channels for communication.

Finally, Tony and I feel that our collaboration in the classroom provides a model for students to witness the way knowledge and critical thinking are produced in specific discourse communities, which continually involve negotiating and communicating in a variety of contexts. When we discuss our opinions of the films in front of the class, we ask each other questions, agree and disagree with one another, and generally open the door for students to offer a diverse range of readings on the film as well.

Last year, at the Society for Literature and Science Conference, Tony and I participated on a film panel entitled "Radical Space and Time in Film and the Visual Arts," where we presented papers on Takashi Murakami and Trinh T. Minh-ha, respectively. The Society for Literature and Science Conference brings together scholars from the sciences, mathematics, and the humanities to engage in discourse about technology and posthuman culture across academic disciplines. This professional organization provides a forum for Tony and me to theorize the work we're doing with technology and media in the English classroom. This year, we'll again attend the conference, presenting our co-authored paper, "Gametime: Remediation in Tom Tykwer's Run, Lola, Run," a film we taught and discussed in English 364.

English 364, Introduction to Film Studies: Independent Filmmakers

"Tony and I feel that our collaboration in the classroom provides a model for students to witness the way knowledge and critical thinking are produced in specific discourse communities, which continually involve negotiating and communicating in a variety of contexts."

English 364 is the first film course students take in order to complete the film minor offered by the English Department. The course introduces students to a wide-range of independent and foreign films and teaches them a technical and theoretical vocabulary, which is quite distinct from other English courses offered under the rubric "literary studies." Like literature courses, however, the class deepens students' critical thinking skills, writing, and understanding of technology and media, as they function within our postmodern culture. Because our film minor is attracting students from diverse disciplines, our course consists not only of English majors, but students from Fairhaven, history, engineering technology, anthropology, art, business, psychology, and theater. We also have a range of student experiences and expertise: some students are just beginning their careers, and others are preparing to graduate; some students have studied film in other contexts or are working in film production, and others are completely new to the subject. The only prerequisite for English 364, Introduction to Film Studies, is English 202, Writing about Literature, which is a course students generally take in their first or second year.

English 364 is challenging to teach because of the diverse range of student knowledge, expertise, and backgrounds, but that diversity is also a source of richness for the class. Most students choose this course as a minor requirement or as an elective, because they are passionate about film. That passion connects many of the individuals in the class across disciplines, life experiences, and years at Western. Nonetheless, students usually enter the class as casual viewers of film. Though they watch a lot of movies, they lack a critical framework with which to observe film or write about it analytically. In other words, students need to be taught how to become critical viewers of film texts. This involves introducing them to aspects of film form and technique as well as theory and criticism. Over the course of the quarter, students undergo a transformation from relatively passive and casual viewers of film to informed critical observers and writers. They become much more sophisticated in identifying the effects of film form, style, genre, mobile framing, editing, mise-en-scene, sound, and technology (including digital effects and the use of video). They also become much more aware of the ways in which the camera situates them as spectators and subjects in a technological context. This course is satisfying, in part, because students enter the class as unconscious consumers of images and exit the course in command of a filmic vocabulary that lets them articulate everything from the politics of voyeurism to ways in which narrative form functions in a variety of filmic contexts.

Class Organization and Structure: Framing Student Participation and Collaboration

The introduction to theory in the course allows students to understand the social, political, and economic contexts of film within a postmodern media ecology, encouraging them to move beyond a strictly formal analysis of film. The New Film Presentation Project is a collaborative oral presentation that includes a history of the production of a film, a synopsis of its narrative, and critical analyses structured around film technique and theory--all illustrated through the use of film clips. The students in the class look forward to these presentations every week, because they're always fun and engaging; and many of them can't resist seeing the film on their own time. Tony and I appreciate the students' work on this assignment, because they bring greater depth to our understanding of the director's work, by introducing a second film into the discussion.

Student Presentation
The New Film Presentation Project
is a collaborative student-run oral
presentation assignment.

Though our class is fairly large, enrolling 35 students, we run the class like a small seminar that feels very intimate and is inclusive of students' voices. We like to think of our teaching style as "guided discussion." Rather than lecture students routinely, we guide the students in their study of film by serving as facilitators in the classroom; this includes presenting abbreviated lectures on occasion, but it primarily means organizing instruction through class discussion, where students' questions and comments play a primary role. In order to make class personable, we often share anecdotes about our own film viewing experiences as well as ask students about theirs. In the past, I have taken students on class fieldtrips to see a new film by one of the directors we're studying. This quarter, Tony and I set up a course website discussion forum for comments about contemporary movies that people are seeing outside of class. We also set up individual discussion boards for each director, so that students could continue their discussion outside of class, if they so chose. And we set up groups for all of the New Film Presentation groups to facilitate their communication with one another and with us. We appreciate being able to employ another technological medium within the course, by participating in the online forum.

In terms of course evaluation, I look at students' written work and their oral presentation project as well as their attendance and participation in the class. Though I have primarily graded the course work in English 364, I have done so in consultation with Tony; and he has read through all of the texts that students have generated. I feel that it is important for Tony to be involved with evaluation, but at the same time I don't want to burden him with large amounts of grading while he's teaching another course, so we've improvised a system that works for us. Generally, Tony and I both take notes on the New Film Presentation project and then talk afterwards about our impressions of the presentation and each student's contribution. We reach consensus on a grade for each student, and then I write up the evaluations. On the screening reports, film reviews, and analytical papers, I generally grade the work and then discuss with Tony the differences between grade distinctions—what constitutes a C or an A paper, for example. Generally, it's been a pleasure for both of us to witness the transformation in our students' writing and to see their critical abilities become more sophisticated. In an effort to make student work available to a larger audience than ourselves, we request that students post their papers on the course website.

Technology in the Film Classroom: (Media)ting Subjects

Tony and I have emphasized the relationship of film texts to the technical apparatus, which produces them, in order to highlight the material processes involved in producing and projecting film images. Since about two-thirds of our introductory film students are English majors, they bring a literary framework to the study of film. This is advantageous, in terms of their ability to identity narrative and to see the relationships of motifs and themes in films, but it can be limiting if they are tempted to read film as a corollary to print texts. Often, this means that the film text is rendered as narrative, with little consideration given to its visual or technological components. To work against this tendency, Tony and I foreground the technology of film in our classroom environment as much as possible, drawing students' attention to the differences between our film screenings in an amphitheater designed for theatrical presentation and the presentation of film clips in our classroom with movable chairs and desks, non-elevated flooring, and a smaller screen. We introduce students to concepts of film theory and film production, which situate film within a technological and capitalist context; and we politicize the role of the spectator. We ask students to think about the ways in which they are constructed as technological and social subjects, even as they construct the meaning of the film itself. Finally, we draw attention to the ways in which film as a capitalist product responds to, and occasionally exceeds, the various cultural constraints imposed on it. We look at the way in which film traditionally serves the dominant interests of the culture, but highlight the work of film practitioners who exploit the subversive potential of film. Tony and I find that by emphasizing the technology of film in this way, students are much more likely to engage in media-specific analysis and not read films as literary texts.

Writing Assignments, New Film Presentation Project, and Video Production in English 364

I use five types of assignments in the course: weekly screening reports, film reviews, analytical papers, and a New Film Presentation project. Students also have the option of producing a digital video, in lieu of a paper assignment. All five assignments allow me to assess the students' critical reading and writing skills, both in terms of film technique and theory, and to see how they're applying these critical terms to the films we're seeing in class. It's a way of combining theory and praxis in a system of study that continually asks students to apply what they're learning and to draw on their own critical examinations of film narrative, technique, and theory. Students post their written work on the course website, so they have access to each other's work; and the videomakers present their short videos in a Class Festival, held on the last day of the quarter.

Film Studies Minor

Students can fulfill the requirements for the film studies minor at Western Washington University by completing 25 credits of film study. Students must take English 312, Film and Culture, English 364, Introduction to Film Studies, and English 464, Topics in Film Studies. The remaining ten credits can be obtained from upper-division course offerings in other departments, which offer classes in film, theory, or other visual media. Many students are taking advantage of the minor to complement degrees in English, film and video production, theater, art, business, communications, sociology, anthropology, and psychology.

Graduate Student-Professor Collaborations

Graduate student-professor collaborations in the undergraduate classroom have the potential to revitalize course content, model discourse community, and allow for undergraduate students to experience shared governing in the classroom. From the professor's point of view, it provides a chance to team-teach in an intellectually rich context and to provide mentoring to a talented graduate student interested in teaching at the college level. For the graduate student it affords the possibility of teaching an upper-division course, usually taught by professors, and gaining experience in the field by working with a teacher and a class for an entire quarter.

If a department is interested in providing professors and graduate students with the opportunity of teaching courses together, it is imperative that they have clear policies regarding the nature and limit of graduate student work in the classroom as well as fair and equitable means of compensation for their labor. In most departments on Western Washington University's campus, a course stipend and tuition waiver and/or the completion of credits toward the degree is considered adequate compensation. This should be recognized as the relatively low institutional bar that it is, and compensation should not fall below this standard. It is important that compensation and limits to labor are spelled out clearly, preferably in a written contract, so that the internship retains its primary function as a professional opportunity for the graduate student, and not as a potentially exploitative work arrangement.

Graduate Student Internships

"Graduate student-professor collaborations in the undergraduate classroom have the potential to revitalize course content, model discourse community, and allow for undergraduate students to experience shared governing in the classroom."

In the English Department, graduate students have the option of applying for one of six graduate internships, for which they are compensated monetarily (the same pay as a teaching assistant instructing a course in the Composition program) and provided with a tuition waiver. They are required to take English 594 Practicum in Teaching with the internship, ideally the quarter before they teach in the classroom, but they may also take it concurrently. The internships are competitive and are awarded on the basis of student merit and departmental need. The merit comes into play with the quality of the written proposal or "Practicum Contract", which the graduate student prepares for the graduate committee, explaining why he or she is interested in and/or qualified to teach a specific course with a specific teacher. The need comes into play, in terms of departmental pressures with the 75-person courses taught as general education requirements. These large sections, such as Women and Literature and Introduction to Gay and Lesbian Literature, are generally given first priority in the Internship program, while the smaller upper-division courses are given second priority. If awarded an internship, the graduate student may not teach English 101, Writing and Inquiry, the staple course for our graduate students who are awarded teaching assistantships. They will co-teach the literature, writing, or film course they are interning for as well as take English 594 Practicum in Teaching and another graduate seminar. The English Department suggests in its Guidelines for English 594: Practicum in Teaching "that the practicum be evenly weighted between pedagogical study and classroom experience, with some give or take given the particulars of the course, professor, and student."

The "Guidelines" also suggest comparing the Practicum in Teaching with a standard teaching assistantship a graduate student would receive for teaching English 101: "Teaching assistants have a consistently . . . high level of responsibility for independent planning and execution of teaching in a course, including grading. Or in cases where teaching assistants might not have that high a level of responsibility, they would nonetheless be paid to facilitate increased enrollments in a given class by supplementing the work of the faculty member. They may also be used to improve the level of personal instruction offered in large lecture courses."

It is useful, however, to distinguish between teaching assistants (graders) in large lecture courses and the graduate student intern. Unlike a teaching assistant in a large lecture course, the graduate student intern is not primarily responsible for grading student work. Nor does the graduate intern keep a "low profile" in the course, simply recording notes. Rather, the graduate student is selected for the internship on the basis of his or her expertise in the field and interest in teaching in a specific discipline or subject area. The graduate student interns with a professor in the field, in order to teach a specialized course that would not normally be available to him/her (in other words, outside of the Composition program). The position involves responsibility on the parts of both the graduate student and the professor. If the internship/practicum is weighted evenly between pedagogy and practice, the professor and the graduate student should spend a considerable amount of time outside of class, discussing pedagogical theory and application as well as the evaluation of the student's progress in the class. Similarly, "practice" can be defined as the time the student spends reading or viewing course materials and/or evaluating undergraduate work, and so on. What is important is to strike a balance between pedagogy and practice, so that the graduate student's workload is equitable and he/she receives the mentoring that is stipulated in the contract.

English 594 Practicum in Teaching

If students don't receive an internship award or don't choose to apply for one, they are eligible to take English 594 "Practicum in Teaching" for credit (without monetary compensation). If they choose to do this, they may still teach their English 101 course as a teaching assistant, thus retaining their salary and tuition waiver. Professors who work with students in this context (credit only) need to be doubly aware of the pressures on students' time and resources.

In our specific situation, Tony had applied for one of six graduate student internships in the English Department, in order to teach in English 364 with me, but he did not receive one because there were too many large sections with internship proposals. It has happened in the past, however, that smaller sections have been awarded interns. It just depends on the number of large classes and the graduate student demand for specific teaching assignments in any one given year. As an alternative, Tony decided to register for English 594, Practicum in Teaching, so we could go ahead with our plans. With this option, Tony earned graduate credit towards his degree but not monetary compensation. He was assigned to teach a section of English 101, so he retained his salary and tuition waiver through that course.

The most important activity the professor and the graduate student have to do once they decide to work together is to determine the nature of the working relationship through their Practicum contract. The English Department specifies the following components to the Practicum Contract: a description of the goals of the practicum and how it fits into the particular course and the student's particular interest--and a description of the specific activities the student will undertake to meet these goals. This summary can be translated into specific kinds of questions:

  • Will the graduate student plan the course and create the syllabus with the professor?
  • Will the graduate student work with an existing syllabus?
  • Will the graduate student teach the course? If so, how often?
  • Will the graduate student and the professor teach together or separately?
  • Rather than teach the course, will the graduate student complete a "module" in the classroom, perhaps creating and evaluating one assignment or running some other discrete unit within the context of the course?
  • Will the graduate student hold office hours and meet with students?
  • Will the graduate student participate in evaluation?
  • How often will the professor and the graduate student meet to talk about the course?
  • How will the professor ensure that pedagogy becomes a formal topic of the internship?
  • Will there be regular discussion of the class at hand?
  • Will the internship involve reading assignments or other formal methods of study?

It is important that a sense of how the course will operate is discussed and negotiated before the course begins, though often times the nature of the working relationship changes over time and it is beneficial to allow for the flexibility to implement changes to the routine, if it is desired by both individuals.

Though Tony and I envisioned our collaboration as a team-teaching right from the start, I want to emphasize how graduate student-professor co-teaching differs significantly from faculty team-teaching. Foremost, graduate students are not compensated at professor's wages, nor are they tenured by the University. The University does not invest them with the rights and responsibilities of faculty; and therefore graduate students should not be performing full time teaching, nor should they be put in situations, which require professional or legal authority and/or decision-making. Graduate students are responsible for fulfilling the obligations of their academic programs, attending graduate seminars and perhaps working as teaching assistants. The classroom internship and/or practicum should not impact their studies in a detrimental way, nor impede their professional growth within their discipline. In other words, while engaging graduate students in co-teaching arrangements, it is important to protect them from the larger consequences, conflicts, and/ or controversies that may emerge from teaching a class or administering a program. Granting mutual respect and fair compensation within the internship or practicum, the graduate student-professor collaboration can be one of the richest experiences in both the professor's and the student's career.


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