The semester starts next week, which means that it’s once again time to review my class syllabus. I know that there are those who think that anyone who teaches just trots out the same material year after year, but I reconsider every film and reading assignment every time I teach a course (no matter how many times I may have done it before). With an introductory course this is especially wrenching, since there are several issues which re-surface with every iteration.
ISSUE #1: Does the material make the appropriate pedagogical point?
There are always people who think that I just pick things I “like” for inclusion on a syllabus. As the previous post suggests, however, that’s not remotely how this works. “Like” has (almost) nothing to do with it. I once talked with a professor about his selections and he laughingly admitted that he included certain films because he thought they were terrible. He just wanted to see his students squirm. I emphatically don’t believe in that approach. I try not to show anything that I outright dislike, and everything I show has to have a productive point. In fact, many of the selections highlight multiple points since every screening covers material for an entire week of classes. Take my word for it, though, that leads to ME repeatedly watching things that might not be my favorite, but that happen to make the most sense for classroom use. After repeated viewings, I would desperately love to replace certain films, but they are such exemplars of particular issues that I have to grit my teeth and watch them for the hundredth time.
ISSUE #2: Has something better become available since I did this last?
Even now, when dvd releases of “older” material (which generally means anything more than a couple of years old) have slowed to a trickle, there are still new possibilities every semester. Of course, there are lots of things available illegally, but those are all eliminated out of the gate. Plenty of legal releases emerge as well, though. This semester I can consider The Artist, avant-garde films by Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, Western material from the “Treasures from American Archives 5” set, and the recent set of UPA cartoons. It doesn’t mean that any of that will be suitable, but there are always new things to take into consideration.
ISSUE #3: Do I want to editorialize?
This is actually a huge issue, and the emergence of “new media” such as this blog might have some influence on the answer to the question. I have always diligently tried to remain objective about anything I show in class, since careless editorializing encourages students to just mimic opinions. I’ve been in too many classes where the instructor will say something thoughtless (or simply uninformed) about “those old, badly acted silent movies” or “that crazy Japanese anime” (to cite only two examples). Obviously, neither of these comments is critically incisive, and they simply encourage, reinforce and/or allow equally thoughtless assessments of vast swaths of material by students in a given class. If an instructor can be so dismissive of something, why should the students take it seriously? I try desperately to avoid such statements. On the other hand, if I suggest that Humanoids from the Deep is the greatest film ever made, or Citizen Kane is the worst, I can guarantee that very few people will argue with either (eminently debatable) claim when it comes time to write a paper. My policy has always been to offer my unvarnished opinion on the last day of class, should anyone ask for it (sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t). The whole notion of a blog is antithetical to this, however, since any expression of opinion (which might make for more interesting reading) will now be available in perpetuity to bias future paper-writing. It’s a conundrum which will definitely not be resolved on the first day of class, but we’ll see how it develops over the course of the semester.
I know this may not be the most mesmerizing subject for those of you NOT about to commence another round of teaching (or coursework), but it’s definitely what’s consuming me at the moment, so please indulge me as I grapple with these issues. In the next week or two I promise to write about SEX! or VIOLENCE! or something else more spectacularly sensationalistic to make it up to anyone who’s reading!