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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

More Experiments in Pedagogy

As readers of this blog know, I implemented a new pedagogical technique in all of my courses a while back that I called "blogging in the classroom" and that I described here and here. (If you scroll down on the column to your right, you can find links to the student blogs for courses I teach.) I think, for the most part, that my courses are structured in fairly traditional ways-- not too many bells and whistles-- and so integrating blogging into my classes has been an exciting venture for me. Since I've done it, I've tried to keep my eyes and ears (and mind) open to other possibilities for innovation... but they're really hard to come by, unfortunately. I don't want to do anything that is silly or merely "new," and I don't want to do anything that I can't justify to myself and my students as significantly contributing to the learning experience.

Recently, though, I've decided to give another "something new" a try. This semester, in my Existentialism course, I'm giving students the option of creating a short film. I'm only offering it as "extra credit" this time around, since I can't be sure what the final products will look like or how valuable the experience will be to students who avail themselves of the option. My college (like most colleges, I suspect) has video and editing equipment that students can check out of the library, so I am confident that the tools are available for whomever wants to use them. The original motivation for this experiment was to try and give more attention and weight to the "aesthetic" dimension of existentialism. I tend to focus almost exclusively on the "philosophical" dimension in my course (starting with Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, then moving up through Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Beauvoir, Buber, Frankl, Tillich, etc.), but we do look at selections from several pieces of existentialist literature (from Dostoevsky, Camus, Kafka, Marquez, Bekett, Roth, etc.). My suspicion over time has been that the literary and artistic expressions of existentialist themes gets a bit of a short shrift in my class, which is something that I need to correct since it's such a significant part of the tradition. And, as anyone who has ever taught Existentialism surely knows, students often tend to express their understanding of existentialism by recourse to personal anecdotes or movies they've seen or stories they've read or television programs they watch... that is, by reference to lots and lots of meaningful things that don't come in the form of strictly philosophical arguments. That's a phenomenon that shouldn't be ignored, I think. They're experiencing the same thing that many existentialist philosophers experienced, namely, that when we are attempting to describe some of the fundamental elements of human experience, we sometimes find that telling a story about the waiter-in-the-cafe is more elucidating than a propositional account of bad faith.

Here are the basics of the assignment:

1. Students must produce a short film of no more than 6 minutes that explains or exemplifies some major theme of existentialism. I wanted to keep the film short enough that we can show it in class and also so that they can post it to their course blog.

2. Students may work alone or in groups of no more than 3. I'm keeping the groups small because I think that way it is reasonable to expect them to have a single "vision" of their project and what it is meant to convey. Too many cooks spoils the pot... especially when it comes to art.

3. Students must turn in a 1-page "artist's statement" about their film. This is the most important part of the assignment. As I told the students, if they want to film someone sitting on a park bench looking at a banana for 6 minutes, they are more then welcome to do so, but they better be ready to explain how and why that is "existentialist." Obviously, I have to take seriously the possibility that some of them will focus on "the absurd," which is a legitimate path to take, but I don't want anything that's just silly or self-indulgent or pretentious. So, the artist's statement will serve as a kind of anchor for the rest of us, and a way for me to evaluate how well they have understood (and accomplished) the assignment.

When I announced the film option in class, I thought that maybe, at best, a handful of artistically-inclined students would be excited about it and take advantage of it. So I was surprised to learn, when I asked how many people were going to do it, that almost all of them said they were. I'm looking forward-- with both excitement and a little trepidation-- to seeing what comes of this.

Will keep you updated, as always...

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