Beyond Books And Journals: Engaging Students Through Multimedia Sources

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We academics are “book people,” so it’s no surprise that our teaching practice relies heavily on printed source material. However, many students are visual learners, and all students appreciate a change of pace. How can you integrate film, drama, and art into your teaching to enhance quality and achieve learning outcomes.

Beyond the obvious.

Anyone who was once a secondary student has experienced the desperate English literature teacher’s ploy of putting the film of the book on the syllabus in hopes that reading-refuseniks will be able to answer a few exam questions. At university level, a more useful tactic is ask students to look at both the book and the film side by side, each as a different kind of text, with reference to critical appraisals. This can help students understand concepts like intertextuality, visual languages, the impact of commercial considerations on art, and much more.

What you’ll find is that students are often aware of these things but lack the language to describe and discuss them. They have, after all, been viewing film and television al their lives, often without a chance to analyse the medium beyond the simple like/don’t like dichotomy.

History-based television is another area where viewing visual portrayals next to text can be illuminating. Look for sources where there is critical writing available about issues like historical accuracy, “Hollywoodisation,” and cultural impact. A great example is the “Peaky Blinders” series, which transposes real-life gangster stories from 19th century Birmingham into the 1920s, allowing the writers to create new narratives that touch on a variety of historical issues and figures. Birmingham historian Carl Chinn has produced short video commentaries that discuss the ways the series is accurate, and others in which is isn’t—but may nonetheless tell important stories about a city, a country and an era. This can lead into discussions of issues like art and realism,

Dramatic tension.

Playwright and director Philip Ridley has differentiated between drama and film by noting that in drama, a group of people are “trapped” in a room with the actors and the action, and if the production is successful they will feel like they have been part of the story (or at least complicit in events). Drama can bring an immediacy and engagement that no screen-based media can match, so consider ways that students can role play, dramatise or experience the impact of ideas or events.

Think of the way that modern British playwrights have dealt with issues like social class (Mike Leigh’s “Abigail’s Party”), railway privatisation (David Hare’s “The Permanent Way”) or societal breakdown (Ridley’s “Mercury Fur”).

Students might attend, analyse and critique professional performances, or stage scenes from relevant works as a way to better understand the motivations of real-life “actors” in historical or current events. They could also use role-play techniques or write short scripts to demonstrate processes or concepts, experiment with different forms of interaction, or tell their own stories.

Artistic license.

Art has had its topical and teaching side from the very beginning. Today, it’s fairly easy to find graphic novels, such as David Beauchard’s Epileptic or Joe Sacco’s Palestine, that use a mix of visuals and words to take readers deeply into the lives of others.

Students could try using drawn, digital or mixed-media art forms to make visible stories they want to tell from any subject, be it sociology or science. Efforts can be individual or cooperative. Creating visual products can make it easier to discuss why certain imagery is often associated with specific topics, audience reception, and the use and impact of stereotypes, tropes, storytelling techniques, and more.

For more inspiration and encouragement, I strongly recommend Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor, which gives visual form to Barry’s popular writer development workshop, Writing the Unthinkable.

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