Media Artist in the Classroom

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 2 (Summer 2010)

Danny Plotnick

I’m a film teacher. I’m tech savvy. I show my students a lot of video clips. I know how to rock a DVD remote better than anybody. Yet, at a recent teaching job, there was no DVD player in the classroom. I had to show video clips off my Mac. I know my Mac inside and out, backward and forward, yet I rarely watch DVDs on it. I most certainly do not rock the DVD player application. When showing clips there are moments when I need to scan through a scene, slow shots down, or move frame by frame. With the laptop, I do this quite ineptly. The moment my awkwardness at the controls became apparent, all my students started yelling keyboard shortcuts at me. On the inside I was flustered, but I tried not to show it. I’m the teacher. I’m supposed to be controlling the classroom, and it all seemed to be going to hell in a handbasket. My students seemed to know more than I did, and we’re talking about something as simple as scanning through a DVD. Yikes. What’s the world come to? I can work a flatbed. I can thread a CP-16. I can cut negative. I’ve seen more obscure Eastern European films than they can ever hope to see. My films have been shown at the MoMA and on MTV. Yet somehow, when I’m standing in front of a class steeped in technology, my students often seem to know more. Welcome to teaching in the twenty-first century.

All kidding aside, my students don’t know more than I do, but clearly the paradigm of teachers holding and dispensing all the knowledge in the classroom is rapidly disappearing in many disciplines. So many courses are dependent on technology and computers, and students, more often than not, know how to use those tools better than many teachers. While this gap may instill a degree of trepidation in many teachers, the opportunity to learn from students and hold classes where information flows between students and teachers is incredibly satisfying.

I had a great teaching moment several years back. I had just screened Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders to a group of my high school film students. I was not really certain how that group would respond to the loose narrative and the film’s constant riffing on American gangster films, none of which the students had ever seen. To my surprise the kids loved the film. The following day, one of my students walked into class and said, “Did you know the dance scene in Pulp Fiction is modeled after the dance scene in the café from Band of Outsiders?” I did not know that. Obviously my student had spent some time trolling the Internet the previous night, doing a little informal research on the French New Wave. Informal research!? At their fingertips! How wonderful. “Did you watch the scene from Pulp Fiction?” I asked. Surprisingly, she said no. A high school student actually turned down the opportunity to go to YouTube. I was shocked. But her oversight presented an opportunity to go to YouTube in the classroom and use it as an academic tool, rather than a time waster to watch a kitten spinning around in a dryer. My students loved the moment — not only for the opportunity to watch YouTube on class time, but also because the lesson had turned into a collaboration between student and teacher. The student influenced the direction of the class that day, and I went with the line of inquiry. While watching the clips, one student commented on how much he enjoyed the music in Band of Outsiders, which led to a discussion of composer Michel Legrand, which led to some more YouTube time watching clips from the Legrand-composed Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One might argue that this was a tangent to the day’s lesson, but there are some important technological takeaways here.

Most high school students use YouTube solely for entertainment. And that’s fine. I use it for that, too. But as a filmmaker and teacher, I’ve found that YouTube is a great source of discovery for short films I’ve heard about but never seen, and it’s also a great place to do research, just like we did in class that day. During that classroom experience, my hope was that I showed students another way to use YouTube, as an academic tool. I do believe students are savvy enough to realize YouTube can be used in that way, but by incorporating the website into the formal classroom setting, the point is more effectively brought home.

Obviously, one of the great things about the Web is that there are so many ways to use all that it offers. And one thing that seems obvious to me as an artist and a teacher is that even though students and teachers use many of the same applications (YouTube, Facebook), we often do so in different ways and for different purposes. Teachers and students move in different networks, use and access information in different ways, and are looking for different experiences on the Internet. This makes sense given that teachers and students are from different generations. But therein lies the beauty of the Web from a teaching perspective. If teachers are receptive, they can learn from their students, as well as students’ learning from their teachers. Information about the Web can be pooled, ways to access information about the world can be shared, and, as a result, we’ll all be more well rounded at the end of the day. As teachers we have to be open to learning from students and recognize that information in the classroom no longer always flows from the top down. Ceding just a little bit of control isn’t necessarily a bad teaching technique. I think most students become more engaged when they become invested in the community of the classroom. What better way to buy into that community than by teaching within it?

At the end of the day, you can’t sweat the technology too much, because even if you don’t know the ins and outs of every new Internet app, you still have ultimate control over the subject matter at hand. You have a history with the topic, a deep-seated knowledge of the material covered in your courses, and you know all the tried-and-true methods of studying and gathering information. How information about the subject gets accessed may have changed, but the material itself hasn’t. And you know what? I relish learning from my students. I’m a teacher because I like to learn. I like what education has to offer. I like that I can learn about cutting-edge Internet materials from my students. That knowledge is ultimately going to make me a better teacher. No longer are all the interesting conversations at school going to be had in the teachers’ lounge around the coffee urn. You can learn a lot by watching YouTube with your students … really.

Danny Plotnick is a video instructor at San Francisco University High School, an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco, and a freelance director.