30 December 2016

Humanities and Social Sciences through World Cinema and Visual Arts

This essay is incentivized by the global trends of digitizing and sharing of knowledge through the Internet, electronic devices and online courses. These trends, while potentially rendering the physically confined, text-based, formal style of university lecturing as slow, redundant, and costly, urge serious reflection on the quality of teaching and learning in response to the changing context of higher education. What can be done to coordinate the traditional role of a lecturer and the newly equipped self-learning capabilities of students?

Through teaching undergraduate courses at an international university in Japan, we have developed a course narrative that makes visual literacy a crucial tool for teaching and learning humanities and social sciences. Visual literacy denotes an education that makes visible what words aim to convey through using visual sources. In particular, we promote visual literacy by using world cinema and chalkboard illustrations instead of textbooks and presentation slides or handouts. In effect, the traditional focus on a selection of texts as well as the keyword-based lecture notes are maintained yet transcended into audio-visual texts and visually illustrated notes. In terms of films, they are selected thematically, arranged into different units within a course and shown to students during class time. They thus become the primary source of knowledge similar to standardized textbooks, while the activity of viewing films becomes a collective and systematic method of learning. At the same time, relevant concepts and information needed to study these films are customized into a set of lecture notes, written and illustrated on the chalkboard as guidelines for students. Rather than merely copy-pasting words, we aim to enliven the conventional activity of note-taking by making it more stimulating and motivating as students have to actively think about what they are taking notes of. This course narrative is currently used in 3 courses: Education and Society, Religion and Belief, Media and History.


The selected films play multiple roles. In the context of the social sciences they are used to illustrate socio-cultural concepts, while in historical contexts they blur the distinctions between dramatic and veritable truth. In the context of the humanities they expose students to some of the greater, and lesser, known works of world cinema. Films are shown in their entirety, but with frequent pauses to refer to concepts and themes. While selections may vary each semester, in Education and Society we have used films from Japan, India, West Africa, North America and Australia, which are selected for their dramatization of themes at the intersection of schooling and society. We often begin with the 2001 American film Finding Forrester, about a gifted young African American writer discovering an older reclusive white novelist who coaches him in writing. In addition to raising issues of social class, peer pressure, and racial discrimination, the film's mentor-protege relationship brings out tensions between standardized and individualized learning and allows us to extrapolate guidance offered in the film to our students for their own writing assignments. The 1986 Japanese film Burakkubodo, directed by Kaneto Shindo, dramatizes an incident of bullying at a public school in Japan. Shindo questions the politicized interdependencies between school and society, highlighting hidden dynamics of social class, and problematizing the one dimensional view of bullying often found on the evening news. However, the documentary style of shooting and editing also offers opportunities to discuss the fine line between dramatic and veritable truths. For the purpose of comparative writing assignments, the 1997 Canadian film The education of Little Tree is paired with the 1996 West African film, Keita! The heritage of the griot. Each depicts tensions between the global knowledge from mass schooling and the local knowledge of vernacular cultures by focusing on a child who moves in and out of both worlds. After the concepts and themes are explained in the lectures and illustrated through chalkboard art, the socio-cultural issues raised by these films are discussed in an online forum.



Among other issues such as talking speed, language differences or room lighting, the use of movies as "moving textbooks" adds another challenge to the learning activity by students. Having board notes as guidelines is therefore necessary because they provide an all-at-once presentation of the most important concepts and information, available throughout lectures to be referred to when needed. For example, as shown in the following figures, the board art for Keita! consists of all elements that a set of notes usually cover: film title and basic facts, new vocabulary that are used in the film or necessary to understand it, key concepts, major themes the film discusses, and guiding questions. These board notes are summarized based on the professor's lecture notes and then incorporated into illustrations sketched out on paper. The illustrated version is discussed for revisions and corrections before being rendered on the board. The nature of this method is particularly provisional because it has to be worked out on two different media—paper-ink and chalk-board—and unlike presentation slides or handouts, when the class is over the notes are wiped away. This aspect of impermanence can be quite demanding in being re-constructed every time but can also be a source of inspiration symbolizing the ever-changing process of perceiving knowledge. Furthermore, we have recognized more benefits than initially intended. Many students are seen to copy the illustrations into their notebooks, whereas some even improvise new drawings to reflect their own understanding of the materials. Visual literacy is also appreciated in helping non-native students overcome the language barrier and gain more understanding from the lectures. Since the chalkboard illustrations, including arrangements, fonts and colors, used in each lecture are unique to that content, it makes the concepts more memorable and distinguishable for students. Although at the beginning this method was designed to revitalize students' learning experience, planning the board art has become a learning opportunity for us as well because it helps visualize ideas, recognize previously unrecognized connections, and clarify the understanding of concepts.


Our understanding of visual literacy proceeds from an assumed existing visual sensibility among students but moves it from passive consumption to active understanding. We encourage this movement in a second cinema-based course, Religion and Belief, for which films are selected to illustrate religions in their cultural contexts and to highlight the relationship between religion as a corpus of ideas and a set of practices. We sometimes begin with the 1960 Bengali film Devi, directed by Satyajit Ray, which weaves a complex tale of how individual faith coupled with social power on one hand and communal expectations on the other hand are merged into a tragic misunderstanding. Furthering the theme of power, we compare the 1968 joint American/Italian production The shoes of the fisherman with the 2001 Iranian film Zir-e nur-e mah, both of which complicate the role of religious authority and the relationship between religion as an institution and the societies, both global and local, within which a religion is situated. While the scale and settings differ, both films focus on an individual in a position of religious authority struggling to reconcile personal faith and a sense of moral duty with social expectations and institutional imperatives. A second comparison illustrates religion as a set of practices by focusing on pilgrimages to religious sites, illustrating an often unclear distinction between tourists and pilgrims, with self-discovery as a comment element. Fukai kawa, the 1991 Japanese film by Kei Kumai based on a novel by Shusaku Endo, follows a three Japanese travelers to the Ganges in India, who on the surface appear as tourists but who are seeking redemption within. This is compared with the 2010 American/Spanish production The way, which follows four pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostella and which highlights the vagaries of the pilgrim's quest. These films are screened in the lectures with pauses to explain concepts and connect themes, and students are urged to develop a sociological way of understanding and speaking about cinema beyond its presumed role as casual entertainment.



Typically, the 95 minute length of each lecture is divided between lecturing and film screening. Therefore, except for the first film that is rather experimental to attract attention and test students' ability, two to three lectures are usually required to study one film. Though presenting different information as a film unfolds, the board notes thus have to grasp the gist of each part to ensure continuity needed to study the films wholly. Thought questions are most useful as a connector not only between different parts of the same film but also between films on the same theme. The said thought questions also function as pointers and hints for the writing assignment required at the end of each unit. Ideally, elements from all questions are organized into a single assignment topic question. The following figures are board notes for part 1 and 2 of Devi. Needless to say, not everything can be illustrated. The illustrations therefore focus on either the main theme or the key message the film conveys. In this case, it's the tensions that go into turning a private dream or vision of a deity into a public reality in a religion. It's expected that students will leave the lecture hall with a sociologically informed understanding of the films, instead of a mere impression based on individual taste. However, not all abstract ideas can be effectively illustrated in drawings, in which case it varies and really depends on the ability to select the most relevant point and to integrate it into the lecture. This method is thus far from eliminating text. Rather, it blends together words and pictures, taking advantage of both media to form a dynamic foundation for what we want to teach about humanities and social sciences.


A third course to which we apply this method is Media and History, which centers around memory and representation of the atomic bomb in American and Japanese cinema. We begin by comparing the initial works, the 1947 American film The beginning or the end and the 1952 Japanese film Genbaku no ko. The former illustrates a view from above, physically as that of the bomber looking down at the bombed and socially by centering on scientists, generals and politicians. The latter, directed by Shindo, illustrates a view from below, physically with the bombed looking up at the bomber and socially by centering on women, children and hibakusha. This viewpoint of above and below is carried over into subsequent films as the two cinematic traditions further diverge, and sometimes converge. A second comparison represents the emerging Cold War climate of fear and anxiety, as portrayed in Akira Kurosawa's 1955 film Ikimono no kiroku and Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove. The question of nuclear proliferation forms the basis for the 1979 Japanese film Taiyo wo nusunda otoko and the 1992 American film The Manhattan project, both of which depict an individual building an atomic bomb. As Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War recede into the past, later films struggle with the question of memory, as represented by the 1991 Kurosawa classic Hachigatsu no kyoushikyoku, which depicts three generations of Japanese recalling the Nagasaki bombing. By limiting the course content to selected American and Japanese films about the atomic bomb, we aim to sketch the history of the atomic bomb by showing how memories of a singular event become plural, while also providing opportunities for students to engage in analysis of how these themes are developed visually.



Our method so far is clearly not perfect; there is much room for improvement. Regarding the board illustrations, the challenges include time, arrangement, skill and style. The allowed time to render them before class starts is fairly tight (15-20 minutes) considering the prepared design has to be transferred onto the chalkboard in different sizes and tools. Often under the pressure of time, details get left out to prioritize text, which may result in less pleasant and effective visual literacy. That leads to a more personal issue of skill, which of course requires continual practice to improve, based on feedback from students. We only began putting this method into use roughly a year ago and it has been a relatively new and gradual process to develop and stabilize the essence of doing illustrations. Changes made through time can be seen in the following figures for the first part of Dr. Strangelove. Though generally seen as an improvement after a year gap, the difficulty was reported in reading the cursive handwriting. In most cases, it is the first time students learn about the provided concepts so clear and simple writing is preferred, which leads us to the matter of style. Illustration and lettering styles, though generally appreciated, can hinder understanding if one is not familiar with cursive script and pictorial notes. Some students further pointed out the difficulty in taking note of what's on the board and the lecturer's explanations at the same time. Likewise, a similar problem of multitasking is addressed in taking notes while watching films. We respond to these observations by suggesting that films and illustrations are not flat and fixed, but prone to multiple interpretations. We thus recommend practice and patience in order to acquire university level note-taking skills and make the best out of what visual literacy has to offer. However, while reminding students to take the challenges as a learning opportunity, we are always looking for ways to turn these limitations into a source of more creativity after each and every lecture.


Beyond the specific content covered in the courses, there are a few overarching themes that can be raised in this context as well, so in lieu of a conclusion we wish to reflect on some of those themes here. The three named courses are part of the Culture, Society and Media cluster in the College of Asia Pacific Studies. While a typical approach to interdisciplinary teaching is to give each branch of the cluster its own set of courses, we aim instead to move between sociology, cultural history and cinema studies. This is challenging and we by no means profess to have perfected a balance and so further reflection is necessary. We are also making an effort to offer course content that exemplifies diversity, in keeping with the multicultural climate of the university, so we carefully select films from a variety of cinematic traditions. Some films are by highly accomplished directors, such as Kurosawa and Shindo of Japan, Ray of India and Kubrick of America, providing another benefit of introducing students to some of the gems of world cinema. This bolsters the humanities-oriented offerings at the university. The diversity of the selected films and their presentation through multiple lenses invites students to develop their own thinking and writing, as well as their social interactions, along these lines. Finally, by screening the films in a large scale lecture setting, we strive to create a common experience among students, which we have found fosters social interaction even as contemporary university life becomes more atomized. Given these tentative steps, we hope that in addition to being applied to the specific courses mentioned above, what we have outlined here might also inspire others to take up similar approaches in their own university teaching, in particular in those instances in which large scale lectures are the norm. We further suggest that conceiving of teaching in this way, through blending the humanities and social sciences into an integrated comparative, multicultural, interdisciplinary, skills-driven framework, can offer an alternative to the unfortunate current trend of marginalizing those fields in higher education.

[The foregoing is by J. Progler, professor of Culture, Society and Media at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University (APU) in Japan, and Nhu Ngoc Nguyen, a graduate student in Culture and Society at APU. Progler's writing can be found online here, here and here, and Nguyen's artwork and writing is online here.]

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