Pedagogies of/in Isolation

April 29, 2020 John Drabinski

I’m sure people who teach film exclusively or near-exclusively have layered techniques for guiding discussion and orienting people properly toward cinematic language, but I really struggle to keep students on track. This is especially the case with my course on Spike Lee, which I’m finishing up now. It’s so hard to get them to think about a given film as something more than a reality show in which we’re invited to judge and criticize the characters – something that’s cruel and disgusting about reality television, but inherent to the genre. Cinema isn’t that. Yet, in class, I find it’s really hard to keep students from thinking that way. I understand the impulse. We all talk about characters while exiting the movie theater, often gossiping about them as if they were casual friends. Scholarship and classrooms? We have to be different.

Lee’s films aren’t like, say, The Matrix or a garden variety science fiction film, in that they offer an existential window into life rather than an obvious set of philosophical questions. You really have to wrestle with students when it comes to Lee’s films, in my experience. They want to take on characters like we’re talking about a Real Housewives iteration, except that in addition to judging the individual characters, we get to speculate about Lee the author (whatever happened to the death of the author trend?!). But I honestly don’t care if you think Nick Cannon looks cheesy in Chi-Raq or Indigo was a fool for taking back Bleek, or if the acting in Red Hook Summer is sub-par. It’s a text. Let’s interpret it according to its internal logic, lift out the ethics, politics, and epistemology of the sound and image, embed it in other critical traditions and conversations, and so on. In other words, treat film like an intellectual venture. That’s my struggle teaching film. A good struggle, it’s part of the job, but it’s a struggle nonetheless.


Again, I imagine lit or film people reading this will sigh at me and think “Yeah, tell me about it.” I’m definitely not saying this is my unique something or other, just that it’s a different dilemma for me that presents very particular, very unfamiliar challenges. We all come to classrooms with long histories of being oriented toward the material and expecting student experiences to be very similar. Most of my teaching, theoretical approaches to theoretical texts, leads students to my classroom thinking “What the fuck was that about, please help!” and we go from there. But the familiarity of cinema and Lee’s keen ability to make emotional life visible brings a very different student mindset to the classroom.

In person, this is such a huge struggle. Moving the conversation from snark or gossip on the worst side or moral proclamation and criticism on the best side. toward the epistemology of cinematic language, is a whole other labor. And I really haven’t figured out how to do it in a large class (small classes are always different). It is for me a work in progress. Full of pleasures. But also full of frustrations.

It’s been totally different in the online phase of this semester. In really great ways. A lot of that is the result of what’s shitty about off-site teaching: students don’t draw on one another’s energy. They listen and respond more closely because my words are the center of the entire enterprise, whereas in a classroom setting the ideas and words and discussion come from a much more diffuse set of influences. That diffuse set is wonderful and often really productive. I’m not a control freak in the classroom, so discussion is both fun and productive, always. And I’m confident in my ability to guide those discussions with a reasonably strong hand. That makes diffuse voices and perspective, set in chaotic motion, fun and productive. But so is a more centralized set of orientations and concerns, especially when students are directed from those orientations and concerns into their own voice. I don’t think this is authoritarian at all. I just think it’s mentorship. Or, why not be old-fashioned: it’s teaching.

I have a simple structure in this coronavirus moment: 20-25 minute recorded talk/lecture, followed by posting prompts on the class blog for sub-groups of five, and the requirement that each student respond originally to the prompt AND respond at least once (hopefully more) to another student’s response to the prompt. The uninterrupted talk/lecture lets me set out an orientation for discussion. The prompts massage responses with targeted, precise questions – and I do ask them to be attentive to the details of the prompt, not take the prompt as a generalized something from which to spin their own questions. I’ve been struck, and somewhat surprised, by how closely students have followed my instruction. I did expect less attentive engagement – something understandable at the human level, but also something that would have required some pedagogical shifts on the fly.

This hasn’t in any way stifled their creativity or individual interests. The opposite, I’d say. The stronger professorial hand that online format not only enables, but makes almost inevitable, puts those interests and creative responses on a particular path, which then allows them to be articulated in highly structured ways. If you’re a theorist, you know this is the work of theory: generate a vocabulary that allows certain things to be seen about both an object and one’s own response to the object. Things that might not otherwise be visible. I’m contemplating how online formats might actually enhance teaching of theory, rather than make it impossible. 

This has really surprised me because, in all honestly, I’d initially thought teaching theory would be near-impossible, especially when connected to film. Because really it’s hard to imagine students not having all their questions asked and answered for clarification, shared with others as we all sit together. Clarifying the hardest stuff is not easy and shouldn’t be. You’re learning a complex vocabulary of interlocking terms and concepts, none of which are obvious or intuitive. You get trained in theory, you don’t just hear it and understand at first glance. But here we are, talking Spike Lee online and students seem to have gotten into the broader theoretical questions plenty well – and I’d say the same, if not more emphatically, about my other course Incarcerating Blackness (on anti blackness and mass incarceration). All of this has gone well in part because we had weeks in person and I was able to lay out some theoretical foundations and clarifying them in class.

But the response-structure to cinema? It’s been a very different world. It gives me a stronger mentorship or teacherly presence, for sure. At the same time, it slows students down and gives them time to assemble their own voice and concerns – which I always value very deeply – within really productive frameworks. And then push out from those frameworks. There is something to be said about the difference between the pace of speaking, especially when your energy is high and drawing from others who are present, and the pace of writing, which is solitary and deliberate even for the fastest typist.

All of this is to say, while I’m no fan of leaving the classroom for the blog, I am also taking some real lessons about how to enhance some of the more complicated, even frustrating, parts of teaching film and theory in a Black Studies context with online methods. I’ve used online stuff for a long time. But that’s always been for after class, asking my students to continue discussion, rather than generate it for the first time. My mistake. What I’ve learned over the past handful of weeks is that before class, as a way of pre-structuring conversations with a prior conversation, is probably a crucial way to deepen critical engagement and mitigate some of the really frustrating parts of teaching cinema (and art and literature, in a non-film/art/lit context … area studies always have this challenge). Slow down discourse, then deepen it in the classroom. I like this idea. I do a lot of work inside the classroom to slow discussion and push them deeper. Maybe this is a critical component: pre-structure with deliberate pacing, then draw that pace through lecture and conversation.

It’s not easy being a very different professor. I think it’s a lot harder being a very different kind of student in relation to very different professors. And that’s just setting aside the actual foundation piece, which is the generalized anxiety and terror that’s come with COVID-19 life. But I learned something important. I think. We shall see. There’s always (hopefully) next semester.

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