Years ago, I had felt confident that I knew what I could reasonably and responsibly do with film in my classrooms (although, from today’s vantage, I see my early enthusiasm as somewhat less-than-ideally-informed). Back then, I was afraid. Others were not. And when I learned that there were TAs in our program working with film, something moved deep within the sensorium. I sensed an intensive and profoundly visceral shift in, on, and through the body, and it seemed nearly capable of escaping consciousness (but no, I did not pass out like a groupie; i may, however, have been close). I am hoping to recapture this intensity for the purpose of articulating what it’s about, this affective intensity, and I hope that in doing so I am able to provide us with a sense of shared scenery, a sense of history for our film work in Composition. Back then, it was simply a feeling.
Back then, word had it that there was a TA in our program – I’ll call him John – who "just shows movies"' in his First Year Composition classes. "He shows a movie, and they talk about it. They do a little writing," I was told, matter-of-factly, when I asked about this bold, mythical being and his abilities as well as his audacity in pressing so successfully against our tradtionally text-bound borders. Naturally, I wanted in on the scam; I wondered how a TA could get away with such a curriculum. I was jealous. Could I do it? Who would find out? And if so, what could/would they do?
Over the years, I became emboldened to "use" film in my writing classrooms (I mean, we all know how little supervision TAs ultimately get; I had finally figured that out). I would screen a film that addressed some content-concern we had been discussing, and in this way, I reasoned, I provided additional motivation for critical thought/work on the essays students were writing on the matter. They could, I would say, use the film as one of their typical "3-5 sources." Often, introducing film into the process was a way of invigorating the classroom; students seemed able to express their perceptions of a film with ease. When asked to repsond to written discourse, the matter seemed far more complicated. And while we as writing teachers are certainly prepared to teach and fairly beholden to dealing with existing written discourse and practices in critical reading as we help our students enhance their rhetorical knowledge and skill, who was/is to say that a filmic text was/is/could be any less serious or engaging or problematic or academically valid than a print text? It seemed to me that some of the very best disucssions and some of the most seemingly authentic engagment on the part of my students emerged from within a classroom context where film was "used" or even central to the textual work we did together.
Over time, I came to see that some of the films I "used" were not ideally effective at advancing particular kinds of writing (writing as inquiry, for example, as opposed to writing as assertion, which, in a writing class using film often registered in the form of simple plot summaries, nods of pleasure or discontent, and surface-level analyses). So, I began to develop a more discerning practice when it came to choosing films for use in the First Year Composition classroom.
12 Angry Men became standard. I recall with a tinge of embarrassment an interview at Cal Arts. I was applying for a position as their Writing Program Coordinator and Director of their Writing Center, and I would be working directly with the fabulous Dick Hebdige. During the weeks leading up to the interview, I had been reading M. Scott Peck’s landmark self-help book The Road Less Travelled. Inspired by Peck’s insistence that most mental illness derives from dishonesty, I decided to bring more “authenticity” to the interview process, to avoid the stiff but rhetorically-informed posturing I had previously drawn upon as I suited up and headed into the traditionally awkward hotel suite-scenario. The Cal Arts interview was held on the Valencia campus – all 60’s minimalism and concrete and Dick Hebdige’s office with, as I remember it, a bright and incredibly powerful (aggressive and unexpected) red wall behind the desk (Hebdige himself, however, remarkably elegant, divine, really). I wore a fairly short black dress with a casual brown sweater, low-heeled loafers, black tights, and I was comfortable if not a little chic in my own minimal aesthetic (I dare say). I had prepared a paper in which I would discuss my approaches to teaching, inclusive of my highest hopes. Naturally, I cited Paolo Freire and bell hooks, and, eventually, I talked of film. I thought, the job is in Los Angeles, so why not? And, well, there was that honesty-work I had been doing. So, here is the point . . . I was beginning to talk of my 'magical find,' this most useful of films for First Year Composition, "12 Angry Men," . . . I said, . . . "the 1957, Henry Fonda version," . . . I said, . . . and here is the soul-cringing-memory part, . . . "do you know it?" . . . [oh, Lord] . . . heads shaking in agreement, stifled laughter as everyone sort of realized that I must be insane to wonder such a thing, nearly insulting it was . . . but they generously recognized that I must have been nervous. And I was offered the job, to my great honor, but for a variety of sad reasons, I could not accept it.
My departure here is meant to suggest that my work with film wanted to be about rhetoric, seeking alternative perspectives, and the visual (the black and white, lighting, and costuming in 12 Angry Men offer very simple and basic concepts for discussion of rhetorically effective visual choices), but despite my sense of the validity of the work, I was so frightened of moving beyond the traditional boundaries of what First Year Composition was supposed to be (written discourse) that I ended up asking a bunch of scholars who work in LA if they'd ever seen Lumet's classic film. That is to say, I as I spoke, I found myself not thinking, just as many of our students write things that make little sense because they are simply responding to expectations (this is what a student paper does) and not thinking.