Pleasure is divine in origin; humans just borrow from it, so I employ it where possible in the classroom. Back in 2006, when thinking about how to approach the English 102 research paper requirement, I thought, “Use movies since almost everybody watches them.” And truly, since then, I’ve only had one student claim never to watch movies, and a few others ask, “Can I write on a television documentary or popular TV series?” which works just as well for a research paper.
Students most often choose a film favorite that triggers lots of emotion and meaning in a personal way, so it’s easy for them to do a free-writing assignment to warm up where the emphasis is on letting anything and everything flow out onto paper. At the same time, the assignment encourages them to start thinking about features like cinematography, sound track, characters, and social themes as additional categories for analyzing film. When warming up like this, students stretch to describe movies in terms other than “I liked it,” or “It was awesome,” or “You gotta see it; it’s cool.” Getting into the challenge of how film scholars do critiques is helpful for establishing a future view of film that’s more descriptive. Then too, many of the syndicated movie critics write great prose and break films down in ways that students might not have considered.
One resource is the massive MRQE[i] data base of reviews on movies dating back to the early twentieth century. Using half a dozen such quality reviews can greatly enhance insights into a favorite film and builds in an educated way upon an already existing bond to a movie. Describing a movie’s power in more graphic and sensory terms deepens appreciation of the movie. Color, sound, and action dig deeper grooves in the students’ awareness when their pleasurable likes merge with pleasure in describing what they like.
As the research proceeds, students select favorite quotations from reviews they relate to and begin building a repository of material for their MLA citations. Having started with a free-writing assignment, followed by building this repository, students can begin to blend their original flow of thought with the reviews they have read. This allows for their voice to hold steady even as they integrate new ideas into their writing.
Part of this process also includes an assignment where students do a 100-word review of two student film research papers that earned an A in one of my previous courses. Many students from former courses have eagerly given permission for their papers to appear as samples on upcoming course web sites, and they love it when they think that future students will read and review their papers.
Each term, 12-15 such papers go onto the course web site as samples, and some of the best papers from past courses have been reviewed anywhere from 25-100 times already. That’s pretty impressive for a student to find out when serendipity moments come up to email or personally tell a former student about all the reviews.
Not only that, but some students strive to write a great paper when they find out that theirs too can go into the English 102 Hall of Fame and be posted in future courses.
Movies will be with us until the world ends, so why not bring students into the educational side of them and prompt stretching their categories for thinking about movies? It’s fun to describe film more richly as we relate to one of culture’s most popular forms of communication.
I can’t say that I eat popcorn when I grade the film papers. There’s no sense getting buttery fingers on those fascinating pages. But I often do read them in one of my favorite chairs with a cup of hot tea flavored with milk and honey.
I’d like to thank Dr. Karen Dougherty and Anne Stahl, my most pleasurable office mates and wild, erudite cohorts. I’d also like to thank Pat Riley. I had the pleasure of having my office one year next to his, and he is sunshine in the flesh.
Theatre image: By Fernando de Sousa from Melbourne, Australia (Shhhhhh) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons