Monday, May 7, 2007

Teaching in the Arts

I teach college film courses, but I never was a film student. The first film production class I took was the first one I taught. I learned how to make films by doing. As an undergraduate at Northwestern I hung out around the film department. I took all the film theory classes I could- those fun ones where you screen a film and write an essay about it. I took two great film classes that weren’t even in the film department. One was English Lit. class which combined film and literature. We would read Hemingway’s Nick Adams story, The Killers and see the Burt Lancaster film by the same name. We read Heart of Darkness and saw Apocalypse Now. It was a great class taught by one of my favorite teachers, Alfred Appel, that’s him at the top of the page. I run into Appel (all the students referred to him by his last name only) every few years and always tell him how much I enjoyed his classes.

The other terrific film class I took was run through the Art History department. It combined 20th century American art with literature and film. We would look at abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock, read Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House and see a film like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a great class and I learned a lot about a lot of things during those 12 weeks.

I can only say what works for me, but I wasn’t hurt by not taking filmmaking101. I certainly benefited from taking a wide variety of courses. I also got to learn film production by doing, rather than theorizing. It is something I try to teach my students today.

Recently I was asked to write a teaching philosophy. It’s a hard thing to do because I don’t like getting stuck in a pedagogical trap. If I have a philosophy it is "get out there and do it and learn from your mistakes. " Unfortunately, “just do it,” might sell a lot of sneakers, but it doesn’t look so good in academic circles, so I use phrases such as “experiential learning,” and the like. But what I really mean is just do it.

When I am asked about my teaching style I never know what to say. When I first began teaching I got a great piece of advice from a friend. She said, “You’ve got the job, now just do what you think is right.” And that’s what I try to do. No two of my classes are ever the same because the students are always different. I am reminded of baseball great Dizzy Dean when he asked about his pitching style, he responded, “You gotta dance with the girl that brung ya.” That’s what I do, teach to the students I have in front of me.

Teachers of the arts cannot make students any more creative than they are, just as a coach can’t make Michael Jordan a better basketball player. You can’t teach talent, but you can shape it and perhaps guide it. I know I aim to create an environment so students can learn from their mistakes and not be afraid of taking risks. As teachers, we must help students develop awareness about their own artistic process and their art. There is no correlation between being the best film student and the best filmmaker.



Beth said...

You sound like an awesome teacher - one that teaches the student how they learn. All teachers should do the same - it would make our educational system much more effective and useful. And, people would actually graduate...

PeterH said...


Thanks for the compliment. I'll let a student weigh in on what kind of teacher I am.


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