Filmmaking Beyond the Film Classroom

Filmmaking Beyond the Film Classroom
by Everett Hamner

We're approaching the lovely season when department chairs start asking for next semester’s textbooks, and while the syllabi themselves may still be months away, it’s never too early to dream up something different. In the spirit of collegial inspiration, and partly to build on recent journalistic treatments of unusual teaching approaches in The Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times (not to mention Michael Pasquier’s post from Tuesday), I want to share a nontraditional seminar project I undertook this time last year. While few readers of this blog may work in bioethics, the methodology is easily transferable to American religious history, or whatever else rocks one’s boat.

On the first day of my Genetics, Ethics, and Narrative seminar last spring, I looked around the room at thirteen students and saw not only reasonably strong academic abilities, but also moderately high computer skills and levels of personal responsibility. One student worked part-time cutting video at a local television station; another had shared several short films with me during the previous semester. I had already planned for students to do some kind of creative work in the course alongside their major research papers, and my idea was simple: why not collaborate on a documentary film instead of doing individual projects?

Some may respond, “Why not take your students on a field trip every week and drive them for ice cream, too?” Sure, this is beyond-the-call-of-duty stuff, and it requires that a professor generally likes her students and is willing to deal with surprises. It also helps if one’s institutional context welcomes rather than frowns upon innovation. Given these criteria, though, there are excellent reasons to risk such an unorthodox endeavor. Paramount for me was the way it motivated my students’ curiosity about the subject matter. Knowing they would be screening the film for their peers at an end-of-semester reception, they wanted it to be good, and they had to understand the subject matter well for that to happen.

How does one begin such an undertaking? Fearlessly. Confidently. Even when one feels grave doubts. It is amazing what students can achieve when their professor believes in them. I also think they respond well to a professor working not just in front of them, but also beside them. Too often we hide the boundaries of our expertise, expecting students to collapse in dismay if there is something we do not know. Watch what happens in class, though, when the learning direction occasionally reverses, even in casual chats outside of class time. When my students have a minute to instruct me on the finer points of motorcycle engines, the logic of a baseball trade, the experience of raising children while a spouse is stationed in Afghanistan, or the going rate at local egg donation centers, we become people to each other, not just roles. They begin to care what I think rather than merely submitting to my authority for a time.

There must be a downside to such creative collaboration. Indeed: time. The investment here can be immense, especially on a first go and insofar as one cares about the result. I did, and though the final cut of our film retained minor flaws, it was accurate and cohesive. I moderated discussions, distributed tasks, and signed off on most components. According to my email client, this involved more than five hundred messages. Even so, my students owned the project: they parsed the relevant ethical questions, arranged and conducted interviews, wrote more than ten screenplay drafts, created five times more footage than we used, researched copyright laws and acquired the rights to soundtrack music, completed several edits of the whole, and advertised the screening at nearby campuses.

I’ll add one other thought: even if the final product had self-destructed after the screening, the project would have been worthwhile for its impact on the more traditional academic aspects of the course. When students work together on something they think is cool, it significantly strengthens the course’s more ordinary components. Having decided to look each other and their professor in the eye, it is no longer an option not to do the reading or just to phone in the research paper. Not every essay submitted for the course achieved all it could, but almost. .

For those who would like to view the result, here is our fifteen-minute claim to fame, Imagining Genetic Enhancement. You’ll notice how extensively bioethics and questions of American religion intersect, and that while the future is the explicit focus, past contexts remain inescapable. Whatever decisions we make about testing or modifying human genomes, we need to do so in light of the history of science and technology. And for better and worse, whether we are discussing eugenics or stem cell research, cloning or IVF, these debates have almost always involved American religion.

For those interested in the pedagogical minutiae, I’m happy to provide further details. I’d especially enjoy hearing other ways people have used collaborative or individual art in “non-creative” courses; conversely, I’d welcome skepticism about its ultimate value. Perhaps I’ll follow up in the months ahead with a post on the less time-intensive but still promising creative project I’m trying this semester.


Art said…
Great post! It sounds like a very interesting class, and I really like the documentary idea. I had asked Mike this question, and I’ll pose it to you: How did you assess the documentary? It’s a different mode of communication, and I’m sure that you have an intuitive sense that says “this is good” or “this stinks.” But at the end of the day, justifying this “sense” is a chore for written projects—so I wonder what you did.
Everett said…
Hi Art--

I made the documentary project count for 20% of the course grade, with half of this being a group grade (where everyone received the same thing) and half being an individual grade. This gave people a tad extra motive to help other, because they wanted me to be impressed with the whole, while also recognizing the inevitable reality that some students would pour more energy into their tasks than others. Because the project took place over 12 weeks, I could offer both large roles covering the whole of the project (e.g. director, video editor, graphic designer) and also more limited opportunities on an ongoing basis, giving priority to students who hadn't done as much yet. The diversity of roles also meant that students with particular life circumstances who couldn't do meetings easily (e.g. because they lived an hour from campus) could work on early drafts of the screenplay, finding appropriate interviewees, etc.