2015: Reflections on Trained Incapacities in Film Education

NOT ALL AT ONCE! Unravelling Trained Incapacities in Classroom Film Education

I have just returned from a conference on American Culture in Jena, Germany. The aim of the two-day engagement was to introduce German teachers to aspects of American Culture which may serve their own work in teaching U.S literature, language, and media and/or film.

I was invited to attend as observer a 90 minute workshop as led by Dr. Carsten Albers (MLU, Halle University), the focus of which was to introduce best practice techniques in using film in the EFL classroom. Conference participants were grouped into four teams which were allocated to separate rooms and left with tasks to do around the viewing of a pre-selected 5-minute film sequence. Our sequence was the initial oedipal struggle between father and son in BILLY ELLIOT.

Our group assembled promptly and settled in, drew the curtains, set up the DVD and sorted the work sheets. The sequence appeared and we were suddenly confronted with a usual problem. The sound wasn’t working from the laptop. Which, in terms of class morale and understanding isn’t a problem with professional adults, but we are all familiar with the potential for chaos, anger, annoyance, and faked impatience when it happens in a testy  classroom just before lunch.

The group was patient with the sequence while the team leader disappeared on several occasions to arrange for laptop speakers to arrive. The workshop participants in the meantime struggled with the meaning of the sequence (father and son at the ballet school, then the kitchen) and the tasks as laid down in the worksheets. In time twin speakers arrived and the sequence was repeated, this time with full audio and picture in synch (by now it was too loud, of course). Positive and productive discussions hurtled towards the deadline at which point we were to return the main group and deliver feedback reflections.

During the 20 minutes that the group were focused on the task I had the opportunity to reflect on the general assumptions we bring to our classroom and lecture practice when it comes to sharing such sequences with our students (of whatever experience and capacities). I was mindful of those several times, in the UK, in Europe, in Africa when the technology let me down and the rushed Plan B measures I had to undertake to appease a disappointed class. No build up falls as fast when it comes to a cancelled or messy screening,

So just as we were packing up and about to head off back to the main group I asked from the side, if we could quickly reflect on what happened today, and what changes or adjustments would we make in our usual practices when sharing such film sequences with our students?

For example, I asked quietly, given that a five minute sequence would be usually shown at least three times in a session, why, when we show it the first time, do we present it with sound it the first instance? Is it necessary?

The ah-ha! response was almost immediate, NO! We don’t have to show with sound at all. The students would do what we just did, figure out the story, make up the possible dialogue, and suggest music cues and the foley sound effects.

The exchange then quickly moved to the next point: would we show the visuals during the first showing? The answer this time was a more resounding NO! By playing only the audio the students would be more intensely focused on the sound elements (music, dialogue obviously) and how these enforce character description, scene breakdown, atmosphere, and location (where in England?). The deprivation would again intensify student engagement in what they couldn’t see. This would become a decisive factor in the EFL classroom.

The 3-stage viewing sequence (structured in this way as a puzzle to be solved) would then lead to a final concluding viewing where audio and visual elements would be finally in one piece, as originally intended by the producers of the film and as usually experienced by the paying customer.  At this point students will have actively engaged with the text as nominal producers and, finally, more informed consumers (if, that is, the technology IS working!)

The corridor conversation that followed quickly reminded participants of our own trained incapacities as teachers of literature who incorporate film into our lessons. The usual practice with the teaching of poetry, novels, plays is to immerse ourselves and students into the full text and then retreat to a nominal critical distance where the top-down deconstructive process would begin. It’s a procedure which is so easily adopted to film: we first show the full audio and visual sequence and then proceed to untangle the visual codes and narrative conventions accordingly.  It was a standard operating procedure that workshop leaders and particpants were clearly familiar with. Trained incapacity.

The alternative procedure of deprivation and developmental exposure, we suggest, is just one way of approaching the task of engaging students more fully with the rich textual fabric which all films invariably contain.

As suggested here, and as discussed with colleagues in Jena, (“I will remember that”!) the technologies now available allow for other ways and means that approach the critical procedure in ways that allow for those failures of technology that often bedevil the classroom work.

The exercise in Jena also underlined, first, the awkward ease whereby trained incapacities can be legitimised and encouraged in such collective seminar work and, two, the vital importance of securing in the first instance those quiet moments of observant reflection that can, hopefully, adjust those incapacities for the better.

The “Aspects of American Culture” teacher training seminar took place on March 20th and 21st. It was organised by the U.S Embassy, the Muhlenberg Centre for American Studies (MCAS), the Thuringer Institut für Lehrerfortbildung and the Landesinstitut für Schulqualität und Lehrerbildung Sachsen-Anhalt.

Alan Taylor’s own talk – AMERICAN YODAS – focused on the representation of teaching and learning in US film, news and social media.

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