Talk About Teaching and Learning:
January 27, 2015, Volume 61, No. 20
Teaching the Familiar as Unfamiliar
As a professor of cinema studies, I have an obvious and perhaps not unique problem in the classroom: virtually every student there knows about the movies, and many probably arrive knowing more about the movies than the many other subjects in their academic portfolio. It might not be surprising that film studies attracts students who often assume they know the field being taught, but my guess is that many other disciplines—from literary studies, physics and history to psychology, communications and sociology—face similar issues regarding how to take advantage of that presumed familiarity and confidence and to make that familiar material and experiences unfamiliar in critical ways.
One advantage is that familiarity can generate ready and willing conversations and debates in class. Granted all my students are not born cinephiles but they more often than not come to class with considerable experience of the movies and confidence about their opinions as to what is good or bad and how to evaluate movies. The result is that on most days I can quickly make a large lecture class become a dynamic conversation about recent films, contemporary movie genres, new technologies and even thornier issues about gender and race representations or about the different constructions of cinematic soundscapes. Even quieter students who may be less prone to enter the debates seem visibly if quietly engaged because they have seen and know about the latest adaptation of The Great Gatsby or have talked with friends about Boyhood or practically any film by Wes Anderson. The movies and the media are the lingua franca for many students today, and whether they like certain films or not, they usually are confident about their perspectives and are eager to voice their different opinions. And, for me, that confidence—even when it might be misplaced—is a critical starting point for a good class. I don’t teach film history and analysis primarily for filmmakers or even for seasoned cinema studies majors. I teach it for every student, those from Wharton to the School of Nursing, who will be inundated by images the rest of their lives and who better begin to take charge of those experiences or else those images will take charge of them. That same advantage and potential is, I believe, available to other classes and disciplines that begin in familiar worlds.
That rich starting point on the grounds of familiarity is, though, only an advantageous starting point. The French film historian and theoretician Christian Metz once noted that all of us understand the movie but the challenge is how do we explain them. For me, the answer to that question and the crucial next pedagogical step is forcing students through that door of familiarity, ideally to the point of transforming the movie experience into something quite unfamiliar. Early on, for instance, I make it clear to my class that it will be absolutely unacceptable to say simply that they like or don’t like a film or to refer to a movie as, say, a “good story” or having “cool special effects.” I want detailed explanations and precise points. I want, as Jean Cocteau urged, to break the habit of students seeing movies “out of the corner of their eyes.” No one should leave my class feeling two thumbs up or down is a way to respond to any film.
Besides just challenging students to expand and develop their perceptions and thoughts about familiar experiences, I also have a spectrum of other tactics meant to defamiliarize that experience. For all their immersion in the movie world, the typical student knows and recognizes largely films made in the last 15 years. It’s, consequently, no surprise that for the most part students have a very limited sense of history, and to a certain extent that’s understandable. I am no longer shocked or chagrined that the majority of students haven’t seen Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane or Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, let alone Buster Keaton’s The General, or Fritz Lang’s M. Often that lack of a history becomes an important way to not only teach some history (about filmmakers in fascist Germany, for instance) but also to rattle assumptions about contemporary favorites. The popular bromance films of Judd Apatow, for example, look significantly less clever next to Preston Sturges’s 1942 Palm Beach Story, and many will suddenly see the recent Pearl Harbor with fresh eyes after they have watched the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front.
Equally unsettling and eye-opening for most students is how films are able to culturally and aesthetically dislocate them from their comfortable home in Hollywood. Many, of course, resist foreign films with their annoying subtitles, but when forced to take a cinematic trip to Iran or China, new worlds frequently bring new ideas and new appreciations. Watching a Wong Kar-wai film or the latest from Turkish-German director Fatih Akin almost invariably introduces spaces and places rarely experienced by most viewers. In the process these films also raise key questions about how stories can be told in ways that even a very good Hollywood film with its formulaic narrative structures could not.
These organizational strategies work, I believe, to promote different ways of watching movies, ways that complicate the common notion that going to the movies is primarily about the transparent enjoyment of a distraction. Whether it’s a familiar Hollywood film or a seemingly strange movie from abroad, I ask my students to critically engage it in an unfamiliar way, to alternately engage and distance themselves from the mesmerizing glow of the movie image. I do this through a number of more specific exercises: I insist that they take notes on two or three specific sequences for every film they see in the course, filling in those notes with more details later: I randomly ask individual students to cue up what they consider the most important sequence from the movie we have just seen and then explain why they chose that one, and I frame each film with critical and sometimes theoretical readings.
Then there is writing. In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1983 First Name: Carmen, Godard himself plays a dysfunctional filmmaker who clumsily types in hospital room the line “badly seen, badly said.” With every class I teach I invert Godard’s cryptic message as “badly said, badly seen,” which is my way of insisting on the importance of writing about film as a way of understanding and seeing the familiar in unfamiliar ways. To articulate an experience that is normally a rather muted experience allows a person to see more precisely and insightfully. Simply describing an image or a sequence alters profoundly our relationship with it, and that is a kind of awareness I want all my students to develop and refine.
Needless to say, there is more than a little grumbling about these demands, but by the sixth week of the semester more than a few are on board, recognizing that the unfamiliar place of analysis and thinking can often be the doorway to a richer path into what they thought they knew. The British filmmaker Sally Potty put it succinctly when she said that, while the pleasure of simply watching a movie is undeniable, there’s also a “pleasure in analysis, in unraveling, in thinking.”
If my apparent problem can be, in the end, a very productive one, it is likely one that other classrooms share as they work to rattle students from ingrained assumptions and experiences. My first day in my introductory course on film history and analysis I often offer this tongue-in-cheek advice to students: a sometimes problematic consequence of taking my course is that, if we’re successful, you’ll begin to see the movies you enjoy in quite unfamiliar ways and that you’ll begin to talk about films in ways that might irritate your family, friends and partners who really don’t want that much information. You might then, I advise them, start looking right now around this classroom for new friends and partners. For me, that’s the beginning of a scholarly community.
Timothy Corrigan is a professor of cinema studies, English and history of art in the School of Arts & Sciences and
founding director of Cinema Studies Pragram. He is the 2014 winner of the Ira H. Abrams Memorial Award for Distinguished Teaching in SAS.
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 www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.