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Teaching Film
Timothy Corrigan

Much of my first year as Director of Cinema Studies at Penn has been spent learning about the remarkable Penn students, faculty, and staff, while at the same time working to shape a future major in Cinema Studies. (In all this and more, I've been fortunate to have the indefatigable assistance of Nicola Gentili, the associate director of Cinema Studies). During the last weeks of the spring semester of 2004, however, three events stand out as climactic moments, each of which has reminded me of why I love to teach and write about film and why I am so excited about the prospects of Cinema Studies here. Towards the end of March the Jewish Studies Program organized a panel on Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, attended by about 150 people. Later that week the Cinema Studies program ran a two-day symposium called "Film Studies Today," featuring a screening and discussion at The Bridge: Cinema de Lux, followed the next day by a workshop on teaching film conducted by Professors Timothy Murray from Cornell and Patricia White from Swarthmore. And on April 8, the 2004 Philadelphia Film Festival opened with an expanded presence in West Philadelphia and the expanded presence of Penn faculty and students. Each of these was more or less an extra-curricular event, but each wonderfully blurred the lines between what goes on inside a Cinema Studies classroom and outside that classroom in ways that called attention to the remarkable excitement and learning opportunities in the field of Cinema Studies at Penn.

The panel on The Passion of the Christ was clearly a response to the loud, public, and sometime strident debates about that recent movie. The many different questions, comments, and arguments seemed to multiply exponentially as the evening went on: questions and arguments about the historical authenticity of the film, about accusations of anti-Semitism, and about the quality of the film as a film and its place in film culture. In the end, I believe, what was so important about this occasion was not some resolution about the value, danger, or importance of this film, but that it allowed people to articulate and debate ideas and disagreements that were part of their daily readings in the newspapers and part of their daily conversations. Indeed, many films‹good and bad‹seem especially capable of surrounding and infusing our private and public lives, and people are rarely reluctant to have an opinion about them. In the best situations (like this one), the familiarity with and confidence about movies allows individuals to test or articulate their feelings and ideas in a way that so many other cultural experiences often cannot. As any good teacher knows, this kind of engagement may not be the goal of learning but it can certainly be a crucial first step in that process.

The "Film Studies Today" symposium tapped some of the same energy surrounding the cinema, but with a very different perspective and aim. In this case the participants were largely academics‹faculty and graduate students from a variety of Penn departments (as well as from other colleges and universities in the Philadelphia region). Although many of those in attendance were seasoned teachers from Romance languages, English, and other academic fields, I had the distinct impression that what brought this group together was the discipline of cinema studies. If one advantage film studies has in the classroom is its unusually democratic appeal and status, this group gathered to talk about what is not necessarily self-evident about film. We were there to talk about the tools and ideas that make this a particular and demanding discipline with its own scholarship, critical methods, analytical vocabulary, and pedagogical strategies. Learning and teaching these as carefully and precisely as possible is a very important way to  develop the field as a respected discipline, to demand more of students, and, in the end, to relate film accurately and productively to those many other fields  on which it has an impact, such as history, gender studies, literature, and so on. That everyone seems to know about movies is a useful start, but learning to think precisely (emotionally, visually, verbally) about movies is a critical part of turning a casual and familiar knowledge into a productive understanding.  

With Penn's growing involvement in the Philadelphia Film Festival, the teaching and learning associated with Cinema Studies will move out of the classroom and off campus. It has also moved outside an academic framework that tends to look historically backwards at film practices. The festival has, of course, been a major part of Philadelphia life for many years, but its new proximity to Penn, both geographically and intellectually, has meant that students and faculty have more of an opportunity  than ever before to experience film as a contemporary activity with an extraordinary global range. This spring I therefore required my film students to attend several of the festival screenings. In part, this was meant to have them participate in the cultural energy (and sometimes frenzy) which surfaces at these events. And it was about having them see films that most of them would likely never have the opportunity to see: new films from Denmark, Turkey, and Korea, a  retrospective of American avant-garde movies of the 1950s and recent experiments in digital animation from around the world, to name a few. Documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee screened his new film Bright Leaves as part of the festival, and before and after that screening he talked constantly with Penn students. Whether they enjoy these festival films or not, what counts about this version of "teaching film" is that students encounter here new perspectives, young filmmakers, and a large community of cinephiles as part of an extended education in why movies matter today. Few Cinema Studies programs in the U.S. have this advantage.

The heart of Cinema Studies at Penn is of course the classroom and the curriculum. In that, much of what teaching film at Penn means is not new: critical thinking and analysis, writing and research, new ideas and expanding perspectives. Like other disciplines in the humanities, ours is a somewhat traditional program promoting rigorous and imaginative thinking and distinguished by an unusually strong and diverse blend of faculty with international interests. Penn's Cinema Studies program has a distinctive strength within this larger framework, however, by focusing students on what I consider the living cultural dominant of our times‹visual technology. Whether the specific object is the movies or another of the continually extending branches of contemporary visual technology (from television to digital communications), teaching students to think analytically, historically, and creatively about the images that permeate their lives is what makes Cinema Studies so important today‹both inside and outside the classroom. 

Dr. Timothy Corrigan is the Director of Cinema Studies and Professor of English. More information is available about Cinema Studies at

This essay continues the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See for the previous essays.



  Almanac, Vol. 50, No. 30, April 20, 2004