Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Dances with Blogs: Film Criticism Assignments Online

Thanks to David Hudson's Daily blog at, Film Studies For Free was alerted to an interesting and worthwhile experiment in the use of blogs for obtaining 'real-world' feedback for undergraduate film studies assignments.

Nick Davis is an Assistant Professor of English and Gender Studies at Northwestern University. He is author of the always good to read Nick's Flick Picks, which expertly does what it says on its blog-tin, and always conducts itself with great verve and wit.

From time to time Nick also generously shares notes on some of his academic research and his teaching projects on this site (see here and here). With regard to the latter, Nick's current seminar course at Northwestern, The Film Review as Genre, has led him to pose publicly the following great questions to his students:

What is a film review? How have reviews evolved as cinema has evolved? What do film reviewers want, and what criteria do they imply not only for the movies they critique but for the prose, the logic, and the details they enlist to convey that critique? Setting aside stars and thumbs and rotten tomatoes, we will engage with the literary, rhetorical, and stylistic aspects of film reviews as pieces of writing with their own history, considering the ways in which strong reviews require the same foundations as other expository essays (structure, argument, economy, evidence) but with specific and highly diverse relations to their readers, their venues, and their points of view. As an opportunity to bridge the "critical" and "creative" facets of literary study, participants in this course will study and write about film reviews by a host of crucial figures (including Rudolf Arnheim, Carl Sandburg, H.D., James Agee, Manny Farber, Parker Tyler, Andrew Sarris, James Baldwin, Pauline Kael, Roger Ebert, Anthony Lane, and Stephanie Zacharek) and will also write and revise their own reviews in response to a wide range of required as well as self-appointed viewings. Neither the films nor the reviews will be taken lightly, and the course expects committed and ambitious students—but wit, style, and esteem for the "popular" are warmly welcomed.

But Nick also wanted his students to have more responses to their work than just his own, 'especially since they're working in a form that aspires to a large and diverse audience'. So on this occasion he has used his blog to solicit feedback from his numerous readers on well-chosen snippets from the work produced by the course students (including on Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves [1990]). The responses to his request easily reveal the usefulness of this exercise (36 generally serious comments, to date, in just a few days). Film Studies For Free salutes Nick Davis's experiment and very much recommends that other film studies teachers check it out.

Since FSFF has gone all digital-pedagogical today, it's a good time to flag up another rich and purposeful reflection on such matters by Kevin B Lee. Regular FSFF readers will remember that a while back (see here, here, and here) this blog leapt to the e-barricades in angry defence of Lee's YouTube channel which had been temporarily (and very precipitously) suspended because of a query about copyright.

Back in January, Kevin eloquently wrote in summary about his experiences with YouTube: Things I Learned from Losing - and Regaining - My YouTube Account. But, more recently, he has also posted an exploration of the potential of his video essays as educational resources, based on his discoveries about how they are actually being used as classroom and assignment tools (see Video Essays as a teaching tool: a testimonial).

If you are interested in learning more about innovative film studies teaching methods, Lee's reflections make important reading. Also, while you're visiting Lee's Shooting Down Pictures, do please watch his fabulous new video essays - La roue (1922, Abel Gance) and Variety (1925, E.A. Dupont) featuring commentary by Kristin Thompson.

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