Last semester was a risk. It's always a risk, because we always try new things, every semester refining techniques, every semester looking for new ways to convey what we have to share. But for whatever reason, in the fall of 2012 in my sociology intro course I felt like trying something truly new. I blended my regular non-fictional sociological readings—chapters of textbooks, excerpts from works of social theory, peer-reviewed articles—with works of science fiction and fantasy.
It's worth pointing out that the use of fiction in the context of a sociology classroom isn't new. The Wire, just as one example, has become such a go-to for many instructors covering social inequality that there have been entire courses constructed around it. But, as I make explicit in my syllabus, I'd argue that speculative fiction allows us to engage in a kind of theoretical work that other forms of fiction don't.
Speculative fiction—both science fiction and fantasy, as well as all permutations in between—has always been implicitly sociological. Its earliest forms deal with technology and science, with magic and legend, but all of these really serve as ways to talk about other things. In The Time Machine, HG Wells is arguably just as concerned with the future organization of human society as he is with the book's namesake. Robert Heinlein explores political power and social change by positing futures in which enfranchisement is linked to military service, and technically-expert revolutionaries carry out a bloodless coup on a colonized moon. Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Joanna Russ theorize gender by inviting us to consider worlds in which our binary construction of gender no longer applies.
In fact, I’ve argued before elsewhere that speculative fiction contains conceptual tools that “literary” fiction usually lacks, and suffers for the lacking. Imagining the future is always a part of sociology, even when we have difficulties in being a traditionally “predictive” science. This is especially true in a world within which our relationship with technology is ever-more difficult and complex. As I wrote in another post pushing for the place of fiction in theoretical work:
Speculative fiction, among other genres, allows us to explore the full implications of our relationship with technology, of the
arrangement of society, of who we are as human beings and who we might become as more-than-human creatures. It’s
useful not because it’s expected to rigidly adhere to the plausible but because it’s liberated from doing exactly that: it’s free
to take what-if as far as it can go. This differentiates it from futurism, which is bound far more to trying to Get It Right and
therefore so often fails to do exactly that. William Gibson didn’t set out to imagine right now, but he was able to get far closer
to it than a lot of futurists precisely because he wasn’t subjected to the pressure to do so. I think it was far more chance
than any temporally piercing insight, but when we can imaginatively go anywhere, we usually get somewhere.
And then we can look back on what we imagined before, and it can tell us a great deal about how we got to where we are
now and where we might go in the future--and where we need to go.
The result of this is usually mixed, and I expected it to be going in; in fact, I expected a poorer reaction than the one I’ve been getting. Some students seem resistant, or at least puzzled. Some seem excited by the opportunity to do something unusual and unexpected in a class within which they may not have know what to expect to begin with. In class discussions, I ask them to consider a central question from which all other questions about the readings proceed: Why did I assign this? What is it about this particular story that speaks to anything we’ve learned? What can it tell us?
Fiction in general - and speculative fiction in particular - is not merely escapism. It’s conceptual voyaging. It’s pushing beyond what we know into what we can grow to understand. Myths and legends are all-too-often dismissed as untrue; what this attitude fails to recognize is that the deepest, most foundational stories are persistent precisely because the best of them are vectors for the most profound elements of who we are, of how we understand ourselves to be, of where we imagine we might go. These things may be harmful, they may reproduce things that we find undesirable, but we need to understand them on their own terms before we can act.
In my course, I characterize most forms of social inequality to be based on myth - on origin stories. We’re better than these other people. This thing is bad. This is what it means to live a good life. This is what justice looks like. And when we find the worlds these myths create to be undesirable, we depend on the ability to imagine the alternatives to work toward those alternatives.
Sometimes understanding these alternatives involves spaceships and robots. Or it can. And sometimes it’s better when it does.
My Sociology Intro syllabus containing my fiction readings can be found here. Currently I’m teaching an Intro to Social Problems course that follows this model very closely, and contains most of the same readings.
Dig Deeper. Consider drawing from the following films for your next sociology class.
Sarah Wanenchak is a fourth year PhD candidate at the University of Maryland and writes speculative fiction under the pseudonym Sunny Moraine.
Over the years of integrating multimedia into my sociology courses, I’ve developed a number of rules of thumb to guide the use of video and video clips in the classroom. Any criticisms, suggestions, and/or additions would be most welcomed.
1. Determine general relevance of video: does it advance learning? Consider such questions as: Does it stimulate students to think about the topic, perhaps in a novel way? Does it appropriately illustrate or amplify? Worst case: it diminishes learning (e.g., might it confuse, frustrate, or talk down to?). Is it appropriate to course, level of learning, and student population?
2. Evaluate video relative to student, university, and community standards. Might students see it as offensive, disparaging, or otherwise objectionable? Note: your point in using it may be exactly to challenge or provoke. However, be aware of possible fall-out. If potential is high that students will be disturbed, it’s crucial to provide meaningful pre-showing discussion, placing the video in learning context.
3. In what venue will students watch video? Will it be in or out of class? (Note: clips integrated into class presentation also can be linked to syllabus for online viewing). This decision might be guided by: a) importance that students see it, in combination with b) length of class time you can reasonably devote to it (if longer than 5 minutes or so, I’ll usually place it online, unless it is critical to share in class).
4. How will it fit into the course relative to evaluation? If viewed out of class, will it be required or optional? If required, will you in some way provide test questions relating to it? If optional, might you attach some kind of extra-credit to motivate students to view it? Note: if video is not indicated on syllabus at beginning of semester will you require viewing? (Some colleges stipulate that the syllabus is a contract. Therefore, extra requirements cannot be imposed after the semester begins. If this is the case, you might list as optional.)
5. If video is to be viewed out of class, how will you orient students to it? Will you provide a set of questions for students to address while viewing? (Note: without such guides, students may not see what you want them to be sure to see.)
6. If the video is to be viewed out of class, also consider the total length of viewing time you are imposing in relation to the time constraints facing students. Obviously this will vary by student population. You might assign shorter viewing lengths where they are likely to be working at outside jobs.
7. Determine also if there may be difficulties or hardships imposed on students relative to outside viewing. For example, to what extent do students have access to high-speed Internet service?
8. Note that a video may not be available at the time you want to show it (e.g., YouTube clips are particularly vulnerable to removal). Consider either downloading or have in mind an alternative, back-up video.
9. Inform students about technical considerations in using video. For example, at the beginning of the semester, warn about pop-up blockers and also indicate on syllabus necessary software downloads for their computers. Provide links on syllabus to downloads. Tell students importance of infoming you if they’re having troubles with videos. Remind students that links often break and that videos may be taken off Web. Ask them to let you know if video is not available.
10. Review the particular version of the video to be used beforehand. This cannot necessarily be determined by title. If you’ve seen it before, note the version you now have access to may not be same (e.g., YouTube clips are often extensively edited by contributors).
Michael V. Miller
Michael V. Miller is a sociologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio. His current research in this area focuses on how academic disciplines can best incorporate online multimedia and freeware media-authoring tools into instruction. For further reading, see: “A system for integrating online multimedia into college curriculum” and “Integrating online multimedia into college course and classroom.”
In my Sociology of Family course Home Economics students produce 10-30 second home movies about any part of their immediate or extended family or community to capture two very specific things: First, the real life tropes common to this kind of documentary-making, (i.e., home as a happy place, home as a time of celebration); and then second, the very small truths about family life which are usually not documented on video or film, (i.e., loneliness, secrets, fights). And the result, which you can see in this collection of these little films posted here, are not, just simply, an excellent exercise in practicing visual ethnography or documentary making. They offer students, (as well as me, their professor), the very rare chance of catching a glimpse of where, exactly, each one of them comes from and returns to, outside of the classroom where we meet every week.
This project was inspired by Alan Berliner's 1986 documentary Family Album, a clip from which is included below.
Berliner's film was profiled on a 2002 episode of the audio documentary program This American Life, which also featured excellent essays about the sociology of home movie making by Jonathon Goldstein, Susan Burton and David Sedaris. For a purely audio example of the small truths about family life technology can capture, see also, This American Life, Episode 82, Haunted, Act 1, featuring the work of Lynette Lyman.
*For another post by Audrey Sprenger about making videos in sociology classes, click here.
__How do you make social science research methods come alive for your students?
Karen Sternheimer, USC sociology professor and Everyday Sociology Blog writer and Natasha Zabohonski of W. W. Norton Sociology have a solution: Put methods in context with interesting new research on the fashion industry, hip-hop, families, and more. Below are a series of interviews where notable researchers illuminate the world of research.
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Ashley Mears:
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Jooyoung Lee:
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Brian Powell:
Questions for students after viewing this interview with Joel Best:
Karen Sternheimer and Natasha Zabohonski
Originally posted on Norton Sociology
The editors of The Sociological Cinema—Valerie Chepp, Paul Dean, and Lester Andrist—were recently named Norton's Sociologists of the Month! As part of this honor, Norton's Andrea Lam interviewed us about the website, media, and popular culture. Read the full interview here.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANDREA LAM
Q: What were the origins of The Sociological Cinema, and what are your goals for the project?
PAUL: Like most good ideas, this one started in a bar. Valerie and I chatted about how much we enjoyed working together (we also co-authored a chapter that analyzes Jack Kerouac’s On the Road from a sociological perspective) and how much we were both enjoying teaching sociology, despite all the other demands on our schedules. Then Valerie made a passing observation about how useful short videos were in her class but lamented that she was spending a lot of time looking for videos that would work. Wouldn’t it be great, she suggested, if there was a place you could go to find videos that were useful for the sociology classroom? Having wasted hours of time on YouTube trying to find clips for class, I immediately embraced the idea. Two pints later, we were already drafting preliminary plans for the site. A couple days after that, we pitched the idea to our friend, Lester, who was also doing a lot of interesting work with video in the classroom. Although he was initially skeptical, he eventually saw the light and signed on. Our department at the University of Maryland has been very supportive—which has included financial support—especially when we were drafting the initial blueprints for the site. Faculty took time to meet with us and provided feedback, and fellow grad student instructors graciously participated in a focus group. I think the three of us agonized about what the site’s name would be for at least a month! We finally launched the site in July of 2010.
ALL: The site is designed to meet several goals. First, we hope to facilitate the development of students’ sociological imaginations via engaging course content through the use of video. Second, we hope to make teachers’ lives easier by providing a resource that can help them to quickly identify useful video clips for the classroom, across a variety of subjects within sociology. Third, and related to the previous point, we believe we are also making teachers’ lives easier by meeting a need that we as teachers have—a need to make the teaching of sociology better given the unique social moment we are in. The Sociological Cinema is an attempt to bring sociology to a generation that is used to living in a digital world, accustomed to consuming information through digital mediums. We hope to help teachers operate in this new pedagogical environment.
Margaret Austin Smith, a graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Maryland, shares reflections from a classroom activity in the undergraduate Introduction to Sociology course she teaches. Her own research focuses on the social space of the classroom and students’ classroom experiences.
When Harrisburg University in Harrisburg, PA attempted a week-long social media “blackout” in September 2010, national news media swarmed the campus. A “smartly dressed correspondent from NPR stalk[ed] the staircase,” the Chronicle of Higher Education reported, and as soon as the Chronicle itself spirited away some students for an exclusive interview, a reporter from the Associated Press came barging in. “Oh no—not another one,” one student cried out. Another, weary, explained with a sigh that he had just finished begging off the BBC.
In the end, the Chronicle headlined the outage as more of a “brownout” than a “blackout,” and NPR corroborated that conclusion with sound bites from students describing increased text messaging and some tenacious hacking. Even Jimmy Fallon jumped in on the analysis in his late-night comedy show, quipping: “Check this out: A college in Pennsylvania is blocking computer access to social-networking sites for an entire week, and then requiring the students to write an essay about the experience. Yep. The essay will be called, ‘We all have smart phones, dumb-ass.’” Nevertheless, campus officials declared the experiment a success with in-house surveys revealing that 33% of the private university’s 822 students reported feeling less stressed during the week of the outage and 21% stating they’d spent more time doing homework. These were happy fringe benefits, however, as the primary objective of the project had been somewhat more metaphysical—encouraging students to “push, prod, question and generally explore social media.” Or, as one speaker invited to campus during the week of the ban put it, to encourage dialogue around the question of:
"Why are we posting on Facebook? Why are we sharing, why are we disclosing in this way and for what purpose? Many people are already in the habit of, 'I have to go post on Facebook, I have to go see what’s happening, I have to update my status.' Why? You don’t have to…"
Last year I asked my Introductory Sociology students to approach this discussion from a different starting point—starting with how they actually used social media—and how they were using it to make and share meaning in their daily lives. For 24-hours, students recorded their social media interactions in written logs, describing what they did (texting, updating a status, sending a message, posting a photo, commenting on a photo, “liking” a comment, replying to a comment, tweeting, re-tweeting, and so on) and the context in which the action took place (home, dorm room, living room, classroom [alas!]), and reflecting briefly on what they felt about the interaction at the time (for example: “I hate that picture of me, so I untagged it”). I compiled the logs into a “data package” that they could read and reflect on before coming together in groups to discuss what they saw as emerging themes—meanings that they seemed to share about how they and their classmates were using social media in their daily lives.
What follows—with many thanks to my students!—is one approach to that oft-repeated wail of “WHY! Why are students posting/ tweeting/ texting status updating?” But social media use doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens in a social context. Structures, disciplinary practices, cultural understandings, and interpersonal relationships shape interactions in any context. For these students, the classroom stood out as one particular context that created a need for social media use. In my own research, I argue that this is because power relationships shaping the classroom have informed students’ understandings of the classroom as a private place, a place where individuals need to “take in” information, but don’t necessarily get to connect to their own experiences, interests, and concerns while they are there. This social environment facilitates a sense of boredom among students.
Social media use during class was one of the most commonly observed themes from the data I collected (over 20,000 words of logs—and approximately 30 groups of students!). In the examples cited below, this theme is presented and described by students Christi G., Ellen N., Clare B., and Robby B. Particularly, these students point to the connection between their use of social media and boredom in the classroom.
Boredom During Class
(by Christi G., Clare B., Ellen N., and Robby B.; SOCY100 Spring 2011)
Often times, people get bored during class, but there are many different reasons for this. One of the more common reasons is because the professor lectures in a very quiet and monotone voice, which puts people to sleep. Another cause of boredom is general lack of interest in the class, such as someone taking a core elective that they aren’t actually interested in. Social media is sometimes seen as the answer to boredom in class, but could also be the problem. Social media is seen as a good answer to boredom, because it can be a small time commitment or an activity for the whole class period. People can talk with their friends rather than listening to lectures. Lectures are isolating because you sit and try to write everything down, and social media lets people connect with other people. Also, in large lecture halls, there is probably someone nearby on Facebook doing something potentially distracting. The person on Facebook is probably using it because they are bored with the class and looking for something to do. Another reason for being on Facebook during class would be that there’s some kind of very exciting event or conversation taking place that you want to take part in.
11:42am – Trying to focus in Econ but I can’t. Text other roommate telling her how boring econ is
12:15pm – Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.
12:00pm – I was in biology class. This class just gets boring almost every day, so I pulled out my cell phone to check if someone texted me. No text message, so I initiated a text conversation with a guy friend.
BBMing [Blackberry Messaging] my friend “Chris” because I am bored in [the library].
10:00 AM- playing wordmole on my blackberry during a very boring STAT [statistics] class.
12:15 am: Hopped on Facebook because I was bored in class.
12:30 am: Checked my Twitter for any mentions and @ replies from the Party tweets I put up earlier on the weekend.
12:43 am: Mentioned my roommate in a tweet that fried him up for putting up so many tweets in like 5 min. when u needs to be studying. I put it up on twitter and facebook so that everyone else would notice and fry up my roommate also.
12:45 am: My roommate replied back to be asking where am I at because Twitter can be used as a person to person communication medium.
12:48 am: I reply back with a [Tweet] “at class bored” because no one uses direct messages in college.
10:00 am class starts and I wish I had my laptop to keep me entertained
2:24 pm I hear my phone buzz but am doing a group project and don’t want to be rude so I ignore it
2:40 pm class is almost over and another member of the group checked his phone so I check mine. My cousin, A, texted me about her college visit to Ohio State and how she is jealous of our warm weather since it’s not as nice there. I have another text from C saying she fell asleep outside where I left her but is feeling better
8:01 PM- Bored in Physics class so I end up playing games on my phone
1:02pm: I texted my boyfriend during class because it was extremely boring and I needed something to occupy my brain. (Don’t worry…it wasn’t SOCY!) We texted for the rest of class and I don’t remember anything from lecture.
In short, when students examine their uses of social media sociologically, they reflect on their own identities, the social contexts in which those identities have developed, and the interactions that take place in those contexts. Through their reflections and dialogues via social media, they construct, share, and evaluate knowledge. These processes become particularly visible via social media. But when students reflect on their lived realities in their school work, sometimes they can become visible in the classroom too.
Margaret Austin Smith
Commercials are a useful way of teaching abstract sociological concepts (Irby and Chepp 2010). As alluded to in a previous blog post on this site, instructors can systematically and consciously include commercials into their teaching. Using the commercials archived on The Sociological Cinema, this can be done in the summer when instructors are constructing and restructuring syllabi. Well in advance of the start of the semester, instructors can identify appropriate and powerful commercials useful for sociological critique and analysis.
In a recent article in the Journal of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Irby and Chepp (2010:101) note that “using commercials in the classroom can potentially prompt students to become more media literate outside of the classroom setting.” I suggest two ways to facilitate the transformation of students into critical media viewers. First, instructors can begin by regularly showing commercials in the classroom so that students can become familiar with the exercise of critiquing commercials. Instructors can explain a new sociological concept to students and then use a commercial as a way of showing a visual example of a potentially abstract concept. Essentially, in this first step the instructor connects the commercial to the concept for the students. Second, and perhaps the most effective way to produce critical media viewers is to couple regular commercial viewing in the classroom with the opportunity for students themselves to analyze commercials through a sociological lens. Halfway through the semester as students become accustomed to seeing the application of concepts to commercials, students—rather than the instructor—can become the analyst. This can happen in a variety of ways. If in-class quizzes are a part of classroom assessment, the instructor can show a commercial and ask students to apply the commercial to a sociological concept learned over the past class period or week(s). If an instructor usually incorporates minute responses or short in-class assignments into course evaluation, commercials analysis can be used for these assignments.
In the second step, the analysis of commercials by students acts as an assignment and an assessment tool. The benefits of using commercials as an assignment or assessment measure are many. For example, it evaluates students’ knowledge of the application of sociological concepts to experiences in their current day-to-day life. This benefits instructors because it allows the instructor to evaluate student learning. Two, if students regularly critique commercials in the classroom, it likely increases the potential for them to become media literate outside of the classroom as they get in the habit of being media conscious. Last, using the analysis of commercials as an assignment might bolster student learning because popular culture appears to quickly and effectively gain student interest and engage students.
Thanks to The Sociological Cinema, sociology instructors now have a free archive that houses commercials, which are tagged by their sociological theme. This easily allows instructors to find commercials that they want to use for assignments and assessment. I encourage instructors to not only show commercials in their classroom but to also include the analysis of commercials as an assessment measure.
As teachers, we’ve all seen how student interest lights up the moment we introduce elements of pop culture into the sociology classroom. It’s a magical moment, really, as though an invisible fairy has fluttered through the classroom sprinkling unexpecting students with sociological fairy dust. Suddenly, student eyes become deglazed, spines stretch toward the ceiling, chins raise, hands spring into the air, and all at once, everyone has a point-of-view that absolutely must be heard.
This seemingly magical anecdotal experience is supported by the scholarship on teaching and learning, as much literature has been written on the pedagogical effectiveness of using popular cultural mediums to teach abstract sociological concepts. The benefits of film, in particular, have occupied much scholarly attention. While films and other mediums are useful, commercial advertisements are often an overlooked and underutilized pop cultural medium that can effectively convey sociological concepts and insights.
In an article I published last year with Amy Irby, we highlight three clear advantages of using commercials in the sociology classroom; namely, they are time efficient (often lasting only 30 seconds), current and accessible (available almost immediately online), and serve as a unique platform for sociological analysis. You can find a link here to our full article "Overcoming Constraints: Using Commercials in the Classroom."
Yet in that article, we also outline some limitations of using commercials, with one being that “there is not a centralized catalogue system that houses commercials and tags them by sociological themes” (Irby and Chepp 2010). Increasingly, The Sociological Cinema is becoming a resource that can fill this void.
There are several ways to identify commercials that have been archived on The Sociological Cinema, but here are two suggestions: (1) type the keyword “commercial” into the search box or, (2) click on the marketing/brands tag on the right sidebar of the "Videos" page. Also, remember that if you have your own suggestions for good commercials that work well in the classroom, you can contribute them to The Sociological Cinema by clicking here.
In addition to archiving commercials by sociological themes, a previous blog post on The Sociological Cinema points to commercials as a useful empirical site for sociological analysis; numerous other blog posts focus on various elements of pop culture and the sociology classroom.
So, as the school year comes to a close and you begin thinking about how to innovate and improve your course for next semester, you might consider using commercial clips in your next classroom experience. Thanks to sites like The Sociological Cinema, they are significantly easier to get your hands on than fairy dust.
***TEASER ALERT: Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that offers in-class activities and assessment strategies that instructors can use to teach students commercial analysis and media literacy!
Academics love The Wire. Well, almost everyone loves the Wire, but academics really love the Wire because they can use it as an amazing teaching tool. For example, William Julius Wilson has used the Wire to teach urban inequality at Harvard; it is used in sociology at York University; students watch it to learn social anthropology at Duke and in other social science courses. Academic books have been written about the Wire and conferences have debated the significance of the show. A variety of instructors in other disciplines have also built their courses around the Wire (click here for syllabi in an ethics , a communications, and a criminal justice course). We have a clip from The Wire on our site, and we hope to add more soon.
So, I have been thinking about how to restructure my sociology class on social problems around The Wire. And besides, I think my students are getting annoyed that I talk about it all the time and it’s time to really start assigning full seasons for class. But while some non-sociologists have posted their syllabi online, I have not found many syllabi or other resources for teaching The Wire in sociology classes. Have you used it to teach sociology? What worked and what didn’t work for you? If you wouldn’t mind sharing your ideas, please comment with links to resources or send me an email (pdean <at> socy.umd.edu). Cheers to the best show of all time!
When we think about experiential learning, what types of experiences come to mind? I suspect that, for many of us, we immediately think about sending students out beyond the classroom walls and reflecting upon particular experiences using course readings. Perhaps we ask them to engage in a campus, service learning, or civic engagement project. In our assignments, we might require students, following Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, to make connections between concrete experiences, observation and reflection, abstract concepts, and to apply their acquired knowledge to new situations (Kolb and Fry 1975; Kolb 1984). But can we achieve experiential learning inside the classroom? More abstractly, what constitutes an “experience”?
Can video be a form of concrete experience that is part of the cycle of experiential learning (depicted in this graphic)?
While we often take what constitutes an experience for granted, Peter Jarvis et al (2004) explore this concept more explicitly. They argued that, at a philosophical level, experience must be viewed existentially as a subjective encounter with the world outside of us, and interpreted through previous knowledge and discourse; this interpretation process is socially constructed. In the context of experiential learning (and teaching), experience “usually implies that individuals have, or are given, in the teaching and learning process a direct or simulated encounter with the external world. One of the major strengths of this approach … is that the whole person does the experiencing rather than just the individual’s mind or body. By the whole person, we mean the cognitive, the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual; that is, the individual’s knowledge, skills, attitudes, values, beliefs, emotions, and senses. We learn from all these dimensions of the person in episodic experience” (Jarvis et al 2004: 55). While such experience might be primary (such as with service learning or civic engagement), it can also be secondary, where it is mediated through technology and not the immediate social context. Jarvis et al note that video functions as a secondary form of experiential learning.
If you pause for a moment and consider some of your favorite films, think about what characteristics made those films so powerful? In The Power of Film, UCLA film instructor Howard Suber argues “feelings … lie at the heart of all memorable popular films. When the feelings of the filmmakers, feelings of the characters, and feelings of the audience come together, there is the opportunity for greatness” (Suber 2006: 162). At the heart of this “greatness,” I believe, is an experience: through an audiovisual encounter, our senses of sight and hearing are aroused, interacting with cognitive and affective capacities, to construct a potentially transformative experience. In Jarvis’ words, a powerful film can engage the “whole person.” I found this same sentiment in a similarly titled book (The Power of Movies) by philosopher Colin McGinn, who seeks to show “how screen and mind interact.” McGinn (2005: 14) explores the “perceptual, cognitive, and affective” dimensions of film reception, and argues “movies engage our psychological faculties in profound and unique ways ... they serve to condense much of significance into a relatively brief and isolated experience” (emphasis added). Following this work, I see film as engaging the affective, cognitive, emotional, and even spiritual levels of the viewer, bringing them outside of their normal, routine modes of thought, thus constituting new experiences for the viewer.
Let’s briefly take a look at an example from the best television show of all time, The Wire (if you live under a rock and don’t know about the Wire, lift up the rock, and go watch it. Now. Seriously, stop reading, and go watch it. I’m not joking. You’ll thank me later). The show follows the lives of Baltimore street gangs, the police that continuously try to convict them, and the local institutions that shape their struggles. Characters who might normally incite disgust among a general audience—active gang members—are seen as human and shaped by their disadvantaged social circumstances. Through unparalleled storytelling and pitch-perfect dialogue, the viewer develops empathy—and fondness—for the characters (especially Omar!), and begins to understand their situations in light of the inner-city poverty, police ineffectiveness, corrupt local governments, broken families, dysfunctional educational system, and the distortions of local media, that shape their lives, and keeps them in a vicious cycle of poverty and crime. The characters’ stories stimulate viewers at affective, cognitive, and emotional levels, in some ways feeling a secondary experience of poverty, crime, and the myriad of institutions governing the characters’ lives. As such, clips from the show (such as this clip) can serve as the basis of experiential learning, further reflected upon and connected to abstract concepts through course readings, discussions, and assignments.
Of course, not all films or videos will engage the “whole person.” For example, compared to many news clips or presentations, The Wire or Michael Moore’s Sicko (see this clip) are much more likely to serve purposes of experiential learning. However each type of video clip has its own uses, and it seems that the trick is to find the clip most effective to meet your teaching goals, in any particular class. But if you aim to draw upon experiential learning in your own teaching, you may not need to look any further than the video clips available on this site and elsewhere!
1. Jarvis, Peter, John Holford, and Colin Griffin. 2004. The Theory and Practice of Learning, 2e. Taylor & Francis.
2. Kolb, David. 1984. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.
3. Kolb, David and Roger Fry. 1975 ”Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning,” in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process. John Wiley.
4. McGinn, Colin. 2005. The Power of Movies: How Screen and Mind Interact. Pantheon Books.
5. Suber, Howard. 2006. The Power of Film. Michael Wiese Productions.