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August 2000, Week 4


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Timothy Shary <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 24 Aug 2000 13:42:07 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (78 lines)
I've been truly amazed at the stream of comments that followed my casual
aside that "Exotica" might be "too provocative" for students, and the
productive dialogue has stirred up many thoughts I'd like to share.  I
know this will be a bit long, but please read on, and send further

        First off, the issue for me was about actually upsetting students,
not provoking thought or discourse in the formal sense.  Chris Ames
brought up this point very well: we have an obligation as teachers to get
students thinking and debating, and more dialogue is almost always better
than silence, or at least better than ignorance.  That doesn't mean that
we should deliberately bring mental anguish to our students, however, and
I would think that by talking to them we can learn their particular limits
and concerns, and try to find ways to stimulate them within those frames.

        But there is a more important political issue raging here that
gets at the heart of current problems with the college teaching business.
We would have no fear for our academic freedom if we actually had
true protection of that freedom.  Alas, many of us (myself included) have
neither tenure nor a tenure-track job, and have become but a growing
statistic on how the academy is exploiting the recent surplus of Ph.D.s by
eliminating permanent posts and expanding the adjunct and visiting market.
(I should say, if only for full disclosure, that I am otherwise quite
happy with my current teaching position.)  Because so many of us are
vulnerable to not having our short-term contracts renewed, students'
opinions-- from the films they don't like to teaching styles they
criticize in faculty evaluations-- are crucial concerns for our very
ability to keep teaching.

        And the fact of the matter is that the current generation of
academics is being conditioned to view the academy as a business, with the
students as our clients.  If we don't serve our clients' needs, as the
CLIENTS define them, we may well lose our jobs.

        So if we show films that offend some students, and that word rises
to campus administration-- especially by way of parents' complaints-- I
think that we could be in trouble.  And as some list members have pointed
out, this probably is more of a concern at certain schools compared to
others, but the bottom line is that if you don't have the protection of a
permanent position, many things you do as a teacher can make you
vulnerable to losing your job.  (Including expressing your frustration
with trying to find a tenure line.)

        Having aired this rant, and reflecting on my original message, I
don't think that our students today are really shocked by that much, and
thus provoking them has itself become a challenge.  I know my best
screening discussions have come after films that students either hated or
found disturbing.  If they like the movie or find it boring, they don't
say much.  Once when I was a grad student I showed Makavejev's "Sweet
Movie"-- with scenes of (often humorous) sexual and violent mayhem-- and
the following discussion was one of the best I've seen students engage in.
But I was a grad student whose job was not on the line.  I would not take
such a chance today.

        And yet, as I try to provoke them with films of great beauty and
occasionally mild controversy, the great majority are rather unaffected.
A quick glance over Hollywood's films of the past few years would tell you
that teenagers have already seen their fill of sex, violence, foul
language, etc.-- and filmmakers who have tried to use these elements to
prove points, such as Wertmuller or Anger or Lynch or even Bergman, have
in many cases lost their potency to our current young population.
Students have also seen digital technology render previously ingenious
camerawork and filmic creativity relatively mundane.  We wonder how high
we have to raise the stakes to keep our students interested, and this is
obviously a complex issue across all disciplines.

        Of course we should provoke our students, even in ways they often
don't like, because life, like art, if often about things we don't like.
Yet the true freedom of expression, and teaching, hangs by a tenuous
thread when these freedoms are not assured.

        Timothy Shary
        Clark University

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