By Kelly Anderson, New Day member
Last semester, I gave my students at Hunter College a list of documentary films they could write papers about for their midterm assignment. When students realized they would actually have to go to the library to view or check out the DVDs of the eligible films, a small mutiny broke out. Like everyone else, I had known for a while that media viewing habits are moving towards on-demand streaming. As a middle-aged person who still pops a DVD into my player quite often, however, I hadn’t quite realized that the shift had already happened.
I perused the usual sources – Netflix, iTunes and Amazon – looking for films to assign that could be streamed. And while I found some good titles, it dawned on me that with the move to streaming the range of films available to teachers (and viewers in general) is shrinking. Independent filmmakers have a hard time accessing the dominant platforms for streaming, and the availability of a film is more and more defined by its commercial — rather than its cultural or educational — value. The repercussions for education, and culture in general, are significant. Many of the films that most influenced me as a student would never have been available to me without the rich range of independent media my professors had access to.
Luckily, New Day Films now has an individual streaming option ($4.99 per stream), and I was able to create a rich assortment of films that my students could choose from. The experience got me thinking about how streaming is impacting the ways educators are using media, and changing the nature of teaching with films. I reached out to some professors who are using New Day’s individual streams with their students, and asked them about their experiences.
Many professors have students view films outside of class because it saves them valuable classroom time. Thomas Gannon, an English professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, uses Jay Rosenstein’s documentary In Whose Honor?, about Native American mascots in college sports, in his “Introduction to Native American Literature” class. “The film is a good vehicle for exemplifying Natives trying to take back the tools of their own representation,” Gannon says. “However, I stopped showing it in class after the first year or so because this is a literature class, and meeting time is always at a premium. I prefer to assign films outside of class, which is easier since this film is now available online.”
Eliot Graham, who teaches courses on individual and cultural diversity to graduate education students at Rutgers University and Harvard, assigns Debra Chasnoff’s film Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up as required viewing outside of class. “I’m trying to make my students think about how teachers propagate messages that are racist or sexist or homophobic, often unwittingly,” Graham says. “If it’s just an intellectual exercise they will do it in my class and then forget about it when they enter their own classrooms. I use Straightlaced because it shows kids talking about experiences that they had in school, and it has more of an emotional impact.” Graham says that his class periods aren’t long enough to allow him to show the 67-minute film in class, so assigning it outside of class works well. “When I’ve used it in class I usually end up excerpting pieces that total up to about 30 or 35 minutes, which is always terrible because I’m like, “I can’t possibly omit this part!”
Streaming also allows films to be used as secondary sources, or for additional research. Gannon says, “One of my midterm essay prompts regards Native American mascots, with a required source essay by Phil Deloria. In Whose Honor? is highly recommended as another source. Most of the really good papers use it, and the student writers thereof usually seem to be highly moved, even outraged, by the film.”
How does assigning a film outside of class impact the quality of the in-class discussion about it? For my students, who are asked to do close readings of films, being able to stop and re-watch a particular section is invaluable. Graham requires the students to write about the assigned film, and says that it enriches the discussions and activities they do in class together. Whether students absorb the film better together in class, or alone at home, is unclear, and likely depends on the individual student and the viewing circumstances.
What’s clear, though, it that streaming is here to stay. And with New Day’s individual streaming option, educators can find more ways to take advantage of the power of films as they teach in their own disciplines. “If there’s a video my institution owns, but it isn’t available online, we have to watch in class or not at all,” says Graham. “This gives me more flexibility to be able to more things.”