“What the modern movie lacks is beauty,” said D.W. Griffith, melancholy at the end of the a long career, “the beauty of the moving wind in the trees.”
At film’s inception, it’s said that viewers didn’t necessarily know where to rest their eyes. Film hadn’t organized itself into the streamlined patterns of cause-and-effect that we recognize as narrative. Why not let the eyes wander to the wind in the trees?
An unspoken truth about early silent film is that it’s really hard for most people to watch for any length of time. At class screenings in grad school, we students would settle in with the best of intentions. But after an hour or so, having exchanged complicit looks, one of us would sidle up to the DVD player and press fast-foward. The damn things are silent, after all. We got the gist, even at double-speed.
The problem is that early silent film counts on a kind of attention that we didn’t have: an open-eyed fascination with the appearance of moving photographic images, and the ability to grasp allusions to any number of turn-of-the-century pop-culture references.
Having watched enough of these films, I can now, with a great deal of concentration, summon up a reverie that I imagine to be like the kind of attention early viewers brought to film. When I can, I do see things that I don’t usually see — my own equivalents of the wind in the trees.
I thought of all this because I’ve been following some of the talk around the blogosphere about concentration in the digital age:
- Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, which refutes the widely held notion that digital pedagogy panders to millennials’ attention deficit disorder
- Gary Olson’s “How Not to Reform Humanities Scholarship,” which rails against such pedagogical changes
- Mark Sample’s “Serial Concentration is Deep Concentration,” which takes Olson to task for his refusal to see rigor in the complex digital work we do.
In broad strokes, I agree with Sample. Having now done this digital work a bit, I can promise you that it does indeed require deep focus and intellectual energy. (And, let it be said, I think Olson’s piece is an example of the worst kind of academic concern trolling.)
I like the melancholy Griffith quote, too, though, for its reminder that we’re at a transitional moment in our mode of apprehending the world — far from the first, and assuredly not the last, but an important one. There’s beauty to be found in the new regime of attention (we couldn’t have had Vertigo without narrative), but there was beauty in the last one, too. I know Sample and Davidson would be the first to agree with this; I’m not actually disputing anything they propose.
This is just to say: I was drawn to silent film because its difficulty rewards a viewer with an unfamiliar kind of beauty. I probably won’t stop assigning longer papers and books, not because I think they’ll somehow prepare students better for the workplace or some such nonsense, but because there’s beauty in them, of the kind that comes from immersion in a different regime of attention.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve given a number of (somewhat) technical workshops for grad students and faculty here at Emory. I love doing it. It’s really gratifying to impart skills, and preparing for workshops gives me a chance to think through and develop my own knowledge in a systematic way.
It’s not that easy, though. Teaching a workshop requires no less skill than teaching any other kind of class, and just as much preparation. It’s also slightly different from, say, leading a discussion section; it requires a different method of instruction and different kinds of preparation.
This semester, one of DiSC’s grad fellows, Franky Abbott, has been helping us perform a comprehensive assessment of our activities, including workshops. With Franky’s help, we’ve been collecting and analyzing survey results, and I now feel I have a much better sense of what works and doesn’t work for students.
This week I twice taught a two-hour workshop introducing Emory people (students, faculty, and staff) to the very basics of HTML & CSS. The workshop was called How a Website is Born: The Very Basics of HTML & CSS, and here’s how I described it:
Ever wondered how a website goes from an idea to the Internet? In this workshop, designed for absolute beginners, we’ll explain what HTML and CSS are and show you how you can get started making your own website.
I’d initially thought I might be a little crazy to try to teach introductory HTML and CSS in two hours, but in the event, things went relatively smoothly, and both times we ended up with about a half-hour to spare. I wanted very much to teach the workshop because HTML and CSS were my own first experience looking under the hood of any kind of interface, and it was quite powerful for me. I was excited to show others that coding isn’t as hard as they might think.
I’ve been using an iPad for about six months now. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but it hasn’t been the life-changing device I’d sort of been expecting. I haven’t found that many apps that really take advantage of the specific qualities of the iPad: its shape and size, the multi-touch surface. (Some exceptions: Flipboard, for reading news, and Aweditorium, for discovering new music.)
I’ve been excited about one particular app, though, because it evinces such careful attention to the way that film scholars want to spend time with their medium. Film Study is a free iPad app that makes it easy and natural to take time-stamped notes on films as they play.
I don’t think it’s any secret (among those who care about such things) that the Film Studies program at Yale is at something of a crossroads. Film studies as a discipline has been increasingly turning into media studies, and Yale’s program, like a lot of programs, is having to decide how much it wants to participate in that shift. It’s been fascinating to be in the middle of this. There are strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but what I’ve really enjoyed is the fact that it hasn’t gotten personal, at least as far as I can tell; it’s a genuine intellectual debate about where film studies should go.
Where do I stand? Well, I’ll say this: film studies has given me a lot. Sometimes I’ll emerge from a discussion of Hitchcock or Truffaut marveling that I’ll never think about those filmmakers the same way again. And then I’ll go home and sit slack-jawed in front of my computer for hours on end, like I do every day. When I remember to come up for air, it’ll occur to me what a shame it is that we can’t turn that arsenal of analysis toward the technologies that define a large portion of my life.
I had to fill out an application recently that asked for a 600-word essay on how new technology has affected my discipline. Once I started writing, I was surprised by how much I had to say. So here’s what I wrote about film studies.
As you can surely guess from my long silence, the last few months have been really, really busy for me. I’m plowing through my dissertation, plus teaching, working, and applying for jobs. I wish I were the kind of person who could operate on no sleep.
One of the things keeping me busy was a guest lecture I gave for the class I’m TA’ing, Dolores Hayden‘s American Cultural Landscapes. Professor Hayden asked me to develop a lecture from a paper on chain stores that I wrote for her class a few years ago. I was happy to do it, since I think the material is really interesting, and I thought students would be interested, too. I always like putting together lectures, since the visual and sequential format helps me break through any writer’s block I might be inclined to have. Plus putting slides together allows me to indulge my technophilia.
I asked someone from the Graduate Teaching Center to observe and videotape my lecture, so I could get a sense of what I was doing right and what I needed to work on. I was really happy that reactions to my lecture seemed to be pretty positive. Watching the video, though, I can see some things I need to pay attention to. This was my first attempt at lecturing from notes, rather than reading a prepared paper, and in general, I think it makes for a more interesting talk for the audience. I’d like, though, to gain greater fluidity in my extemporaneous speaking, and to eliminate my habit of saying “Um” a lot. I also notice that the upswing in my voice when I end sentences makes me sound more tentative than I really am.
You can watch the video after the jump, although we made the mistake of dimming the lights a little too much — it’s very hard to see me. If I have time, I’d like to do a SlideShare version of the talk so it’s easier to see.
For me, teaching has become a real pleasure. I feel inspired by my students and I love the feeling of camaraderie that develops in a well-managed classroom. It wasn’t always that way, though. When I first started teaching, I couldn’t believe how much harder it was than I’d imagined. It was all I could think about, and I’d practically have a panic attack before class.
I think professors and administrators sometimes don’t realize how hard it is to start teaching, and how badly we grad students want to do a good job. Unlike K-12 teachers, we get almost no formal training, and what training we do have tends toward the theoretical or the super-specific. The assumption seems to be that we’ve been going to class for eighteen years; it shouldn’t be so hard to make the transition to teacher.
Oh, but it is. It really is. Some people fall into it without batting an eyelash, but we don’t trust these weirdos. For the rest of us, here are some things I wish I’d known when I started.
I spent a year and a half commuting between New Haven and Providence a couple times a week, and over the course of that time I developed a serious addiction to podcasts and audiobooks. For some reason, listening to recordings hits home for me in a really pronounced way. I noticed this when I absorbed a book — John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener — in three different ways: in print, on tape, and in its movie adaptation. All were good, but for me, the most intense, engrossing experience by far was the audio version.
I thought of this because I had an interesting experience in the writing class I’m teaching.
The dispute is about DVD encryption. Basically, it’s legal for documentary filmmakers to use snippets of copyrighted films in their own movies, under a provision of copyright law known as fair use. The weird part, though, is that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 makes it illegal for them to break the encryption on DVDs in order to get at the video.