ENG-L 295: American Film Culture

I have taught this course twice in the past five years. The first time, in Spring 2013, I centered the course around the concept of the “Other” in American film history and culture. Grounded in alterity theory, this course showed students how American cinema from the beginning has consistently engaged in representations of the other/outsider. Unabashedly, ENG-L 295: The “Outsider” in American Film Culture, was the most fun I had teaching in Spring 2013. This was also the first film course I had ever taught, however, which meant that I had to overcome some considerable anxiety and engage in extensive research and reading as I endeavored to design and develop this course. I am gratified to report that all of this hard work paid off in the end; this was perhaps the most successful—and certainly the most highly-rated—of the courses I taught in Spring 2013 (see below for qualitative course evaluations).

The course theme was so successful, in fact, that I went on to revise it for Fall 2016 with a slightly more focused lens: the figure of the zombie in American film culture. My primary goal in both sections was to marry a traditional film survey class with a cultural studies approach. I can safely say that my students—who were a diverse group of learners—thoroughly enjoyed this course. The second course explored the three phases of the zombie figure in American film culture by placing the zombie within its various historical contexts. First, we explored the zombie in classical-era Hollywood horror films, inspired by the Haitian voodoo zombie, such as White Zombie (1932) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Second, we examined how American filmmaker George A. Romero in his seminal Dead trilogy forever redefined “zombiedom” and gave zombies a distinctly political and social twist. Finally, we examined modern zombie films and their often dystopic, sometimes overtly-political positioning in contemporary cinema. Some students had never put together a teaching project or presentation such as the one they encountered in this course, and I credit that project with some of the very positive comments I received.

Students wrote at the end of the courses that “[Dr. Cook is] [a]bsolutely the best professor as far as caring about helping the students,” and “I really enjoyed this class—it made me want to start watching film [sic] that provoke thought [,] something I used to do often and with life getting busy I kind of stopped.” Another student opined,

Definitely one of the best instructors I’ve had (and that’s saying a great deal); [Dr. Cook] shows a clear interest in helping students succeed & is willing to go out of his way to make that happen. Excellent course; great selection of independent films ([I] feel like I have been exposed to a wide range of cinematic experiences; appreciated the ability to select my own film for the short writing project.

But without a doubt, the comments from students that I appreciated the most from this course were those that signaled an appreciation for the extra time and effort I put into helping a large survey-type course of some 29 students feel more like an intimate, seminar-style classroom: “He showed up early, showed us how to have better class discussions, and made the class enjoyable.” And from the same student, a nod to my availability: “He always had open office hours and met with us whenever we needed help.” I mention these remarks specifically because, at least to my mind, they indicate a key feature of my overall pedagogy, one that I have tried to hone to a fine point in my three semesters at IU Kokomo—namely, the way I have often found it necessary to help students learn how to become better, more engaged students, apart from (and in addition to) whatever the specific content of a course might be. I continue to work on and hone this aspect of my teaching through the concept of reflective practice—a pedagogical concept I have discussed elsewhere.

Giving students compelling and provocative readings, projects, and curricular content is vitally important, to be sure, as I detail in my Teaching Philosophy. But I also believe that when one is teaching at a regional, commuter campus like IU Kokomo, provocative course content is simply not enough to make a course successful; in some instances, one has to work hard to help students learn how to become students, whether this means coaching students through class discussions, meeting students “where they are” in one-on-one meetings, or even just showing a genuine interest in students’ ideas and writing projects. These might not be “flashy” or conspicuous modes of pedagogy; surely, “Writing Teacher Really Cares about Students’ Work” is not likely to make the front page of the website any time soon. But I have learned over time that this is one of my pedagogical strong points.

Course Evaluation Summaries (Qualitative)

Below, I list all qualitative student comments from each section of this course that I have taught—the semester is indicated at the start of each section. If I have only taught the course once, then the comments are from a single section of the course.

Spring 2013

“I really enjoyed this class—it made me want to start watching film[s] that provoke thought something I used to do often and with life getting busy I kind of stopped.”

“The assignments related directly to the theme of otherness and the films.”

“Dr. Cook constantly reminded us students that we could see him during office hours or shortly after class. He showed an interest in all his students, and he was ready to answer questions.”

“Dr. Cook is one of the best instructors that I have had at IUK. He has been the only instructor I feel comfortable asking questions and talking to.”

“He always had open office hours, and met with us whenever we needed help.”

“He showed up early, showed us how to have better class discussions, and made the class enjoyable.”

“[Smiley face]”

“I feel that the class discussion was great and interesting but I am usually to [sic] shy to speak and I feel he was not understanding of that when I received a class participation grade.”

“I feel that I learned quite a bit on how to look at films/culture.”

“I learned a lot in this class. It had very interesting material.”

“I really enjoyed the subject of this class and enjoyed learning about ‘otherness’ through films”

“I personally found the amount of reading was difficult due to the depth of the subject. The # of pages was a lot for how much time it took to really process and understand the text.”

“Absolutely the best professor as far as caring about helping the students.”

“Definitely one of the best instructors I’ve had (and that’s saying a great deal); [Dr. Cook] shows a clear interest in helping students succeed & is willing to go out of his way to make that happen.”

“Excellent course; great selection of independent films ([I] feel like I have been exposed to a wide range of cinematic experiences; appreciated the ability to select my own film for the short writing project.”

“A little less forum posting.”

“Very fair.”

“[Dr. Cook] seemed to care a lot.”

“Maybe taking a week of [sic] school wasn’t a good idea.”

Fall 2016

“Dr. Cook is the best teacher I have ever had so I don’t really know [what I liked least about the course or instructor].”

“This course was very interesting. I was never bored or wanted to skip class. Instructor kept it interesting, which lead [sic] us to become more fascinated.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] how to think critically.”

“He was excited about the material and urged us to get excited, too.”

“My group project grade suffered because of one person, [student name redacted].”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] to think constructly [sic] and ask questions always.”

“The way he puts a spin on the course material is amazing, and influences the learning experience.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] that zombies are not just shallow horror. It is dense with intellectual meaning.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] watching movies.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] how do break down large chunks of reading.”

“Interesting content, good teaching style. Made it a good environment for learning.”

“Maintaining a blog was a good idea. I don’t personally like maintaining a blog.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was the] critical analysis of films. And never to call films ‘movies’ in a scholarly context.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] all of the movies.”

“[What I liked least about the course was] he changes topics.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] origins of zombie.”

“Dr. Cook cares that his students learn.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned was] to relate cultural changes to societal shifts/situations.”

“We watched movies and learned about how zombies came about. Dr. Cook was a very talkative and knowledgeable professor.”

“How would zombies apply to a business degree? I know it’s for critical thinking but something less liberal would be nice.”

“I think my skills in critical thinking got better.”

“I liked the movies selected for the course.”

“A portion of the readings were lengthy.”

“I learned the origin of the zombie.”

“[What I liked most about the course was] the course and instructor!”

“[What I liked least about the course was] nothing.”

“[The most valuable thing I learned in this course was] the origin of zombies.”

***

 

Click here for the Course Syllabus on the “Other” in American Film Culture (Spring 2013); click here for the Course Syllabus on the Zombie in American Film (Fall 2016).

Click here, here, here, and even here for sample course materials, including a podcast series I developed to help students with the readings.

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