Novel Quotation—What University Professors Do


This quotation comes from the novel A Novel Bookstore, by Laurence Cossé. It speaks knowingly of the professor’s vocation.

‘That’s the way they are, those university professors,’ said Madame Huon, ‘they work one day a week.’ ‘One day!’ echoed Madame Antonioz. ‘You need at least two hours to get to Chambéry. If you take off an hour for lunch, that leaves half a day.’

We have been found out, I’m afraid!

Using “Google Sites” for a Course Project


Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

Today TOMD73’s blog has a post that explores the possibility of using blog assignments as part of a course.

I did something very like this with a class of about 75 university students, mostly juniors and sophomores.

Instead of calling it a blog, I called it a website. I had all of them use the Google website app so that (1) everyone was required to follow the same steps and (2) they could very easily create access to each other without “going public.”

With so many students, I formed the group into teams. Students would comment on the websites of those in their team. I gave very specific instructions about the kinds of comments they were to make, and explained that the quality of their comments would be a variable in their final grade evaluation.

Building a website of 5-7 linked pages was the major course project. Students could select their own topics, with two provisos: (1) the topic had to be related to the course topic; (2) I had to approve their selection.

Class met weekly. Each week students were given a series of steps to be completed by the next class period. These steps moved them gradually to completion of their website projects by the end of the semester.

The course was a philosophy of religion course for non-philosophy majors, with special focus on the New Atheism.

Many of the students produced excellent websites that they could be proud to make available to the public.

On the whole, I was pleased with the results. Most difficulties related to the size of the class. This type of assignment would have been much easier for me to manage with fewer students.

Here are some of the more significant challenges I encountered:

  1. Mastering the technology so that I knew what I was asking of the students and so that I could explain it to even the most technologically timid.
  2. Getting teams to work with so many students. There was considerable troubleshooting early on while students were learning the steps to get up and running. But more important, some students simply didn’t participate. I hadn’t counted on this since they were required to. This complicated things for the conscientious students, since part of their assignment was to respond to the comments they received.
  3. Helping the students work within a template of 5-7 pages that would do justice to their topics. Creating website pages differs from writing a paper. Developing and linking ideas is handled differently. Ideally, a decision to create a website rather than to write a paper should be grounded in the conviction that a website better serves the purposes of the project—especially because of the way material can be packaged (e.g., audio and visual tools can be included, and convenient links to other valuable items can be made).
  4. This project required more assistance from me than many other assignments. The student-teacher ratio made this a challenge. But one advantage is that I did get better acquainted with many of the students.
  5. Grading these assignments proved to be time intensive. This isn’t a bad thing. But you need to expect this when planning a course that includes this type of project.

Would I do it again? Absolutely! It would be much easier the next time around. But it has to be the right kind of course for this to count as a suitable assignment. I especially like it that students that have excelled have something to offer the rest of the world the moment the course is over!

The Stimulus of Teaching


karl-barth_with-pipeWhy did Karl Barth’s productivity as a writing scholar diminish following his retirement from teaching? Some say it’s because the pressure to produce had run out [see here].

What T. H. L. Parker wrote is that Barth “lost the stimulus provided by the need to give lectures.” The key word here is “stimulus,” not “pressure.” Teaching is the ideal stimulus for scholars who write, especially if they teach graduate courses to gifted students. The stimulus of teaching can be likened to the frequent re-lighting of tobacco in a well-used pipe.

Sources for Film Discussion Guides


As I learn of online sources posting discussion guides for specific films, I’ll list them here.

Here are sites that feature movie guides:

Residence Life Cinema has created film clips to help college and university students manage residence life. One section of the site is titled Movie Discussion Guides, where discussion guides are organized into categories of general interest to students. On this page there’s also a link to a complete alphabetical list of films for which there are discussion guides. To download discussion guides in PDF format, you have to have an account with Residence Life Cinema.

teach with movies is another site that specializes in the use of film to educate. Access to discussion guides requires a subscription that costs $11.95 per year (as of August 2008). But one page—here—that is accessible for free lists excellent questions for exploring ethical issues in almost any film.

Movie Learning Guides provides discussion guides for parents and teachers, focusing on character development.

Finding Films for Courses


More and more college and university professors are using film in their courses. Makes sense. Students like film, and film can be an exceptionally stimulating way to introduce students to complex issues in the various disciplines.

My field is philosophy, with specializations in epistemology (the theory of knowledge) and philosophy of religion. I use film in my courses in two ways. In some courses I use film to illustrate concepts, arguments, and the popular expression of “big ideas.” I also teach a course on faith, film and philosophy, which is all about the intersection of these three things. My primary textbook for that course is my own edited book Faith, Film and Philosophy: Big Ideas on the Big Screen (2007). But I’m always trawling for new film connections for my courses and public lectures.

Today I read Chris Panza’s plea for suggestions for a philosophy course that he’s been planning. His question is very specific: What films from an Asian perspective would complement a course on Asian Ethics? My first thought, naturally, was to recommend a chapter in my book. Chapter 13, written by Winfried Corduan, is called “Bottled Water from the Fragrant Harbor: The Diluted Spiritual Elements of Hong Kong Films.” Win writes about specific films in this genre, and his analysis of spirituality portrayed in representative films touches on ethical issues. But Chris’s question is a special case of a more general question: How does one find films that serve the specific purposes of a course? Here are a few suggestions.

Since I know others who teach using film, I ask them about their practices and experiences. I also have a growing library of useful books:

  1. There are several books on film with material by philosophers or on philosophical topics. My own library includes the following examples: Philosophy Through Film, by Mary M. Litch, and Movies and the Meaning of Life, edited by Kimberly Blessing and Paul Tudico.
  2. St. Martin’s Griffin publishes an annual collection of essays on The Best American Movie Writing. The essays tend to be written by popular film critics and journalists of various types. Some are filmmakers. The 1999 volume was edited by Peter Bogdanovich and contains essays by Martin Scorcese, David Denby, Molly Haskell, Gore Vidal, Douglas Brinkley, Steven Spielberg, Phillip Lopate, Andrew Sarris, William Zinsser, Roger Ebert, E. L. Doctorow, and others. Titles sometimes provide clues about the potential philosophical relevance of specific essays and the films they discuss.
  3. Some books deal with a specific film or range of films from a philosophical perspective. A noteworthy example is the book Mel Gibson’s Passion and Philosophy: The Cross, the Questions, the Controversy. Open Court and Blackwell have published popular culture book series with other titles like this one dealing with a specific film or film series.
  4. For films on religious themes with philosophical overtones, there is, for example, Catherine Barsotti and Robert Johnston’s Finding God in the Movies: 33 Films of Reel Faith. The authors are Protestant ministers and theologians, with interests that overlap those of philosophers. Several books fall into this category.
  5. Some textbooks make use of film as a complement to the exposition of philosophical themes. Dean Kowalski has composed a textbook that is part exposition, part anthology, and part film criticism: Classic Questions and Contemporary Film: An Introduction to Philosophy. Nancy Wood makes topical film suggestions in her textbook (designed chiefly for nursing students) Perspectives on Argument.

It goes without saying that search engines will turn up valuable resources on the web. I’ve been collecting URLs for websites and blogs about film and films.

I also keep track of my own associations between philosophical themes and the films I watch. While viewing a film, I’ll often make notes in the small Moleskine notebook that I always keep handy (using my Bullet Space Pen, of course). With a little practice, I’ve even been able to make notes in the darkness of a movie theatre and find them legible later in the light of day. And I don’t mind pausing a DVD to make a note now and then.

I store my notes using a software application called Scrivener. For Mac users it’s a great improvement over word processors (like MS Word) for this sort of thing. With the application open to my film file, I can enter notes on separate “pages” under different headings that I can later arrange in any order I like. (The virtues of Scrivener deserve praise in a separate blog some other time.) In my Scrivener film file I have folders for individual films, and in each folder are individual notes of various kinds. Additions to existing notes and the creation of new notes are simple activities. Note categories include: General Impressions, Themes, Quotes/Favorite Lines, Pedagogical Ideas, etc. I’m not limited to my own observations when making notes with Scrivener. I can add anything that has turned up in my research, including informal film discussions, lecture ideas, class activities, contributions by students, recommendations by colleagues, web links, and citations from books, journals, and magazines.

Because of my book on film, people often ask, “Have you seen such-and-such a film? It’s loaded with philosophically interesting ideas.” When that happens, I encourage them to write a short piece that I can add to the website for my book: www.faith-film-philosophy.com. Now I find myself with essays to edit for eventual posting there.

Our students have fertile imaginations. They frequently come up with philosophy-film connections that I wouldn’t have dreamed of. For a paper assignment earlier this year, one student told me he wanted to write about the film Ratatouille. I asked him what kind of philosophical essay he thought he could write about this entertaining animated film. He made a compelling case that the film expressed deep ideas in the realm of taste and aesthetics. I approved, he wrote a great essay, and I learned something valuable from what he had to say.

I can’t conclude this post without inviting you to post comments with (a) your own methods of dredging up films that complement the goals of higher education (beyond the film studies department), and (2) specific suggestions for films and their philosophical content. And I want to thank Chris Panza, whom I’ve never met, for raising the question that became the subject of this post.

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