"It’s Just Like Watching the Detectives"

A slow learner (to borrow from Thomas Pynchon), only recently have I begun to connect the understanding I have gained over the last decades about movies with my developing practices in teaching. Obtuse, I hadn’t recognized how directly the former was influencing the latter. In fact, it wasn’t until last fall, when I once again heard someone use the tired old saw, “I saw a lot of teaching going on, but very little learning,” that I began to grasp the obvious: Watching and learning are not necessarily different activities. And one can’t always “see” learning.

On returning to teaching in 2001, I quickly found myself uncomfortable with the pattern of small activities in the classroom that had prevailed since I had first taught in the late 1970s. Three things bothered me: First, the tasks seemed (of necessity) pre-digested. That is, there was little to do, ensuring completion within the allotted time. Second, results were obvious and quantifiable, as though learning only happened when measured (shades of the No Child Left Behind morass that was to come). And, third, as a result, there was no room for grappling with the truly momentous concepts that students face for the first time in just about every course they take. I felt like I would if I were trying to teach film through use of That’s Entertainment only, clips from here and there that, to someone with some grounding in the Hollywood musical, could stimulate one to explore films not yet seen but that, to someone with no experience in the genre, would probably leave one with no motivation… and the sense that one has learned all one needs through the spoon-feeding, anyhow.

In an odd way, I sensed, the desire to make our students more active was actually leading them to be more passive, more accepting that the pap they were served for sampling constituted a full meal.

The idea that sitting and watching is necessarily passive came to the fore half a century ago. With the rise of television arose the idea of the viewer as a passive receptacle, an idea that continued on through the 1970s, though some, like Marshall McLuhan, had by then begun to reject it, coming to realize that the act of viewing, while physically passive, has active elements. Others, like Northrup Frye [transposition spotted by Rodger corrected], could not break out of the trap, and extended the passive-viewer conception from the screening room to the classroom:

The educational problem… resolves itself into one of turning the passive viewer into an active one, and this process should begin as early as possible in childhood…. The passive viewer has to be increasingly stimulated: he gets bored or desensitized quickly, and so there must be a continual escalation of ferocity…. The television set is a curiously ghostly medium: in our day, if we see ghosts or hear ghostly voices in the air, it means that somebody has left the television on. But the passive viewer’s whole world is equally spectral: he cannot distinguish fact from fiction either on the screen or off it. He may see the most terrible even take place on the street before his eyes, but he will not lift a finger even to call the police. Nothing is really happening. –Northrup Frey, “Violence and Television,” remarks at a symposium on television violence at Queens University, Kingston, Ontario in 1975 and reprinted in Northrup Frey on Modern Culture (162)

And, yes, there was a lot of soul searching after the death of Kitty Genovese in 1964—witness Phil Ochs’ song “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”—but to blame lack of response on viewing… well, that goes a little far. We’ve all seen people jump from their couches into furious activity, when the need arose.

Once, years ago, a student wrote on an evaluation: “He didn’t do any teaching. He made us do all the work.” I was proud of that. It proved that I had made the students active. Now I wonder if the student didn’t have a point.

There are, of course, different types of learning. And students, sometimes, need to learn actively. But they can also learn through the viewing of “teaching”—and probably should. In fact, in terms of motivation and direction, students need to learn in both ways, and more. Otherwise, they never learn to think.

Probably the most influential film scholar of the past quarter century is David Bordwell. Certainly, he has colored my thinking on film, leading me to apply my interest in culture and context to the movies I watch and consider. Unbeknownst to me, he has also colored my attitude towards teaching. He writes:

Comprehension and interpretation… involve the construction of meaning out of textual cues. In this respect, meaning-making is a psychological and social activity fundamentally akin to other cognitive processes. The perceiver is not a passive receiver of data but an active mobilizer of structures and processes (either “hard-wired” or learned) which enable her to search of information relevant to the task and data at hand. In watching a film, the perceiver identifies certain cues which prompt her to execute many inferential activities—ranging from the mandatory and very fast activity of perceiving apparent motion, through the more “cognitively penetrable” process of constructing, say, links between scenes, to the still more open process of ascribing abstract meanings to the film. In most cases, the spectator applies knowledge structures to cues which she identifies within the film. –David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (3)

If the viewer is provided only small bits, then asked to work with them, that viewer will never be able to make the inferences necessary for an understanding of the whole.

Again, there is a place for the small, focused activity. But there is also a need for the sweeping view, the receiving of lots more information than one can consciously assimilate and deal with at the time, but that gives one a sense of a whole.

Yes, there is this need.

There’s only one problem (and it applied to movies and television, too): We can’t enthrall everyone. Even the best lecturer leaves some listeners cold… as does every movie and TV show. Someone in the back is always nodding off.

If nothing else, devising little tasks does stop that.