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Today We’re Going to Watch a Movie In Class

posted: 4.2.12 by archived

When I was in high school and elementary school, one of the best sentences you could hear coming out of a teacher’s mouth was “Today we’re going to watch a movie in class.” Nowadays, I very rarely use film in my own classes, but I do try to assign writing projects in which students might choose to use film as part of a multimodal composition or remix. I also encourage students to create or repurpose images, particularly when I teach classes on the rhetoric of advertising, or on web design.

But as someone who believes in making my classes accessible to all students, I’m concerned about the fact that visual mediums can exclude people with impaired vision or blindness. You might say, well, if you have a class that does not include students with vision impairments, then you don’t have to worry. But I have never really thought this way. In my own classes, I never assume that everyone can see (or hear, or otherwise process) clearly and easily.Without my thick glasses (and even with them, a lot of the time), I would be excluded from a lot of highly visual experiences, and so I assume the same for my students. Plus, visual information is processed differently by different people—we all see differently, at different speeds and levels of depth, and vision interacts with our other senses in a manner unique to each of us. Moreover, I want to provide examples in my class that model accessibility as a rhetorical process and a cultural requirement, that show how making things more accessible can also, much of the time, make them much more interesting and engaging, too. I try to make access a critical and political necessity. That doesn’t mean I always get it right, it just means I try.

Sometimes it is simple. Most films now have subtitles, so I turn them on for students who may not be able to hear the dialogue, and for all of us to highlight and recognize the written composition that is part of the rhetorical mix. If students are making a film, they need to create their own subtitles, too—because Hollywood has to. But also because this can become a key rhetorical act: do you script the speaking before you start, or transcribe it afterward? Does your script change as you film, and if so, how and why? Does transcribing the video after it is done help you to analyze and reflect on it in a new way?

Also, if I am showing a film or image, I look for ways to visually describe what is on the screen. At last week’s Conference on College Composition and Communication, I learned some new techniques for doing this. I used to try and describe as the film was rolling. Now, to describe video, I will follow Abby Dubisar’s advice, offered in her presentation at the conference: describe what is going to happen first, and then describe a few important stills from the clip, and then let it roll. This allows you to stay out of the way while the clip is playing, but also shows that the description is not an afterthought—it comes first. And then the entire class can discuss the film when you are done showing it, and perhaps even expand on and revise some of the teacher’s description.

At the conference, my colleagues Margaret Price and Melissa Helquist also pointed me toward a few unique efforts to expand the rhetorical act of captioning and describing. The first resource is Universal Subtitles, a site where subtitling can be crowd-sourced. I strongly suggest that you consider visiting this site with students, discussing what the work of subtitling entails and perhaps even, as a class, working to subtitle a video. As the site states,  “subtitles make videos more powerful, more global, and more searchable.” They also make them more accessible. And the act of doing this writing can make students more attuned to each of these benefits. Overstream is another site where students can do this work and view some examples. There is also unique work happening on participatory description, wherein audience members might be involved in describing a movie, play, or performance while it is happening—sometimes utilizing social media.

If other people have ideas about captioning and description, or resources, please share!

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Categories: Jay Dolmage, Uncategorized
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3 Responses to “Today We’re Going to Watch a Movie In Class”

  1. Traci Gardner Says:

    Just found a great example to share when you’re talking about these issues.

    The details in the image’s description are great.

  2. Traci Gardner Says:

    Grr. Lost the URL. Let me try again:

  3. Jay, U. Waterloo Says:

    Thanks Traci — perfect!