New Semester, Revised Class

IU’s spring semester began this past Monday. This is the second semester I’m teaching our introductory production course, CMCL C-335 “Production as Criticism,” with the theme “Television Drama: Cops and Courts.” The class involves teaching basic video production skills to the students through a focused topic. In total, this is my fourth semester teaching C335; aside from my section this past fall, I also taught two semesters the 2008-9 academic year.

I do love the mix of theory and practice in the class, but that said, it does have it’s challenges. A big one is trying to figure out the balance of assignments between the two areas. Obviously, theory and practice become enmeshed, but how to make that happen and how to give each side their due aren’t so easy to figure out. Students are often too happy to ditch theory for practice, so it’s important to make sure they’re doing enough of the theory to be engaging with it in practice, which usually means significant reading and writing in relation to critical studies. But the students also wind up having a lot of writing for their production projects too: pitches, shot lists, scripts, artist statements, project evaluations. And then there’s the time needed to teach, enact, and process their production skills, in addition to lecture and discussion. How to fit it all in?

Despite having taught the class before, teaching it with a new topic makes it a new animal. There were a few hiccups. One was with Tumblr. I decided to use Tumblr for the class blogs (along with the main course blogs for fall and spring), but their posts were too long for the platform, and really, just too long for the nature of the class. This semester I changed their writing assignments from two 1000-word critical reviews of supplementary episodes to four 300 to 500-word Quick Takes, where the students post screen caps of scenes with significant stylistic and narrative elements then analyze them briefly in relation to the readings. They’ll also have to post one Discussion Prompt involving a clip, analysis related to the readings, and 2-3 discussion questions for the class. The writing assignment staying (pretty much) the same is a Style Analysis of a CSI episode, replete with a shot breakdown (but mercifully for them, only of the first two minutes)

The other hiccup involved including too much: too many screenings, too many readings, too many assignments. And also not enough time for talk about their productions. I’ve come to realize I need to apply Coco Chanel’s advice for dressing to my syllabus: before printing it out, take one thing off. If anything, I just reshaped the class to cover the same topics with fewer readings and screenings, with a bit more time built in for more discussion of their production projects.

Lastly, I decided to do all the screenings out of class. We did a hybrid version of this in the fall, with half the screenings in class, half out of class, mostly on Netflix and Hulu. However, I realized that the classroom, a different one from my past C335 lectures, was not at all conducive to lengthy screenings: too small, no individual desks, with unreliable audio and video equipment. So I figured we’d try this out as an experiment. The students are still required to have a Netflix Streaming account, but now they’ll also occasionally purchase episodes on Amazon and/or iTunes. We’ll still have clips and the Discussion Prompts, and the students are still graded on occasional Spot Checks of their screening notes, so there’s engagement and accountability. We’ll see how it goes. I have to admit, I’ve been wanting to try something like this or to require students to purchase DVDs as they would books for a literature class just to see how it might work, so now’s my chance.

I’ll be doing a longer postmortem post-semester, so I’ll follow-up on how that goes then. I’ll also wait until then to post the syllabus, but I’m happy to share if anyone requests. Lastly, another post that’s brewing is on the process of teaching these mixed theory and practice classes. My friend Amanda Keeler and I are co-chairing a workshop at SCMS on working between theory and practice, so I’m excited to see what more ideas might be spurred by discussion there.

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