Teaching Cinema for Transformation

Teaching Cinema as a Transformative Medium:

                                                Towards a Pedagogy of Transformative Learning 





            This paper is an inquiry into a transformative learning pedagogy. Can cinema be transformative? If so, is all of cinema transformative? What kind of cinema has the most potential for transformation? What pedagogical philosophy can mediate transformative learning of cinema? How can we teach cinema to be transformative?

            In this discourse “transformation” is seen as a process whereby the person who has the transformative experience achieves a higher state of consciousness. The author assumes that cinema can be transformative. If a film penetrates the learned (through transformative pedagogy of cinema studies) audience’s mind and compels her to think during and after the cinematic experience, then, potentially, transformation may take place.

            We live in a postmodern age where most college students have grown up in a society that is heavily influenced by consumerism, materialism, and image consciousness. The adult learners (i.e., college students) of the so-called “traditional-age” have short attention spans and a special kinship to color and rapidly moving images. The pedagogical challenge in this “postmodern condition” (Jameson, 1999) is to facilitate a kind of teaching that not only recreates such elements, but also fosters transformative learning. Clearly, the traditional classroom cannot meet such demands. The paper argues for a learner-centered approach whereby the boundaries between the teacher as “authority figure” and the student as “recipient of knowledge” are blurred, and teacher and student, therefore, become co-learners in order to generate a sphere of transformative learning. We live in an audiovisual culture and indeed cinema with its mystical power can be the ultimate vehicle for social change in such a culture. In this discourse the very possibility of transformation is explored in hopes of a transformative learning pedagogy.

 Teaching Cinema as a Transformative Medium:Towards a Pedagogy of Transformative LearningIntroduction

            Is it important to study cinema? In a postmodern age where culture in itself has become a product to be bought and sold (Jameson, 1999), and form is increasingly dominating content, studying cinema is an absolute necessity. The increasing blurring of boundaries between different media along with the dependence of art, economy, culture, entertainment, and politics, on each other make cinema a powerful agent that can potentially transform us into a higher state of consciousness (Kashani, 2005).

            Cinema could easily be considered one of the pillars of the American culture-and by extension other cultures of East and West. Cinema is a medium that speaks to individuals and at once to the masses. History has shown that cinema, a socially diffused art form, permeates households, workplaces, schools, and other institutions with its accessible language of signs and codes. In fact, I argue that in the postmodern era cinema has built a bridge between the low-culture and high culture. Masses understand the semiotic language of cinema far easier than the theatre and many plays can easily be adapted to film form. The audiovisual culture of the present time reaches for cinema to learn, and to relate to the world.

            With this ease of language and merging of low and high culture into each other comes the danger of form dominating content. In the nineteenth century Friedrich Hegel foresees the possibility “form over content.” Marshall McLuhan (1967) prophesizes it in his famous The Medium is the Massage (cleverly misspelling message to point to his thesis). Twenty four years later, Norman Denzin (1991) astutely demonstrates that with postmodern cinema the language of film is without a center that while it might mock the past it also lends “quasi-reverence” for the icons of the past. I posit Denzin’s analysis crystallizes the necessity of teaching cinema with content. If a film is purely a story that is reduced to nothing but a stylistic gesture, therefore that film should be looked at in comparison to another film that is rich in content. If the students become aware of various dimensions of cinema (e.g., form and content) and the extent of the influence of such dimensions, then what they will need is critical thinking skills to understand these influences.

I teach an introductory cinema class at a community college, titled, Introduction to Film. This is a very popular class on campus for number of reasons. It satisfies a GE requirement for many students, it is required for film students, and generally speaking, it is a “cool” class. It is after all about film, and the students get to see some “cool” films. Needless to say, every semester there is a diverse group of students enrolled in this class.

A report from the frontier

Enter Ray. A 19 year-old Latino man who takes the bus to school every day and generally keeps to “himself.” Ray is definitely from the other side of the tracks. He does, however, have to come to the affluent side of the tracks to attend school. When I first noticed Ray, he had just walked into the classroom-a large auditorium that seats 150 people-dressed in casual athletic attire-fashionable by postmodern youth-and with proverbial headphones attached to his ears. This is not an unusual scene, to be sure. He was one of fifty students. Although a large person (tall and heavyset) he was hardly noticed by anyone during the first few weeks. He sat at the end corner away from the crowd. Generally speaking, I generate a dialectical atmosphere in the classroom where speaking up is not only encouraged but required. During those beginning weeks Ray did not utter a word. I had, however, observed him from afar, he seemed to be listening, and he was always there, albeit quiet and distant.

            One day after the class session had ended, while I was putting my notes in my proverbial overstuffed professor’s briefcase, Ray walked up to me with a sense of purpose. This was indeed our first face-to-face encounter. Up-close and personal, I could sense his large physical presence, though quite non-threatening. I realized that Ray had a sweet way about him and I could see a half-grin on his face.

He did not address me as Professor or Mr. Kashani, he just spoke, “I was thinking about my term paper.” “Oh, what about it?” I replied. “I want to write about Rocky.” We had just screened Rocky (1976) in the class and the discussion that had ensued was on the notion of the “American Dream,” the “Horatio Alger” myth and so on. So, I asked Ray, “Why Rocky? What do you want to say about the film?” Ray looked at me half-puzzled and said, “well, you were talking about the American dream, and I like this film.”

In a Zen moment (Low, 1996; 1989) I realized that Ray is looking for more epistemological stimulation. I thought to myself, “we must discuss this further,” so I pushed on, “So, Ray how many times have you seen this film?” Rocky (1976) is a very popular film among the so-called generation X and Y (Ray’s age bracket). “Lots of times.” Then I asked, “but had you ever thought of it in these terms, I mean the way the film promotes certain myths; the American dream, patriarchy, masculinity, necessary violence and so on?” “No.” And I asked, “do you know anyone in your family whose had a similar success like Rocky?” “No.” “Do you believe the Rocky myth?”

Ray paused for what it seemed like an eternity. I knew we were having a great learning moment. So, I deliberately decided to be Zen-like with the experience. He looked at me with that kind face of his and in a philosophical manner said, “I want to write about Rocky because I always feel like Rocky, the way he was in the beginning, alone, with no friends, nobody cared about him, nobody gave him a chance. So, I always fantasized about being like Rocky, you know, get the girl, money, fame and the rest of it. But I know it is BS. I always knew it was BS. I know lots of people who are like Rocky-as he was in the beginning-but they don’t have that once in a lifetime chance to get famous and have the American dream. This film does not tell me that society needs to change. It just says that society is just fine, we need to work hard, play by the rules, and get like Rocky. That’s BS. Society needs to change, so we don’t have a Rocky in the first place. That’s what I want to write about.”

I was taken aback. Ray had discovered his agency, and in an impressively articulate manner, he was making a convincing argument for social change. He was deconstructing a movie that previously had him mystified and bamboozled. Ray had a transformative experience. Ray had discovered his agency by way of experiencing Rocky in a different cinematic setting and paying attention to the discussions about the film. According to Erickson (1984), learning comes out of caring, “students learn what they care about and remember what they understand” (p. 51). In the pedagogical paradigm of social change professor and students learn together.

In this experience with Ray, I too had a transformative experience. I learned about confronting my embedded assumptions. Ray was an articulate and intelligent learner, and until then I had unconsciously been ignorant of the extent of Ray’s intelligence. Also, I learned that if a film is designed to indoctrinate the audience in a certain way, through a process of critical thinking and valuing the student’s input, a process of subversion can occur, and that film can become a tool for transformation. Respect was also paramount in this transformative experience. Learning is indeed interpersonal, and in this paradigm, all learners (students and professors) are respected. Children from affluent backgrounds generally get ahead. Does Ray have a chance? He does indeed.

What is Transformative Learning?

It is safe to assume that scholars and practitioners of transformative learning all agree that pioneering works of Jack Mizerow (2000; 1991) has created a theoretical framework for what is widely known as “transformative learning.”  According to Mizerow (1997) when an adult student consciously reflects upon her assumptions and beliefs and intentionally sets out to create a new paradigm to see the world in new ways. For Mizerow this shift of consciousness defines constitutes transformative learning. Mizerow is, correctly, considered the father of transformative learning theory. However, his theory relies solely on rational discourse to be the mediator of transformation. Looking at the recent work done in the academy one can confidently make the argument that there are other ways of conception of transforamtive learning theory. As Taylor (2005) points out there are a “significant number of divergent theories” being engaged in the field. A survey of works by Brooks, Cranton, Daloz, Kegan, Montuori, and O’Sullivan, et al. can be the testament to this vibrant medley of scholarship in the field.

Being mindful of diversity of conceptions and possibilities of transformative learning methods and theories, I find O’Sullivan’s definitions as one of the most succinct answers to the proverbial question of  “what is transformative learning?” O’Sullivan (2003) defines transformative learning as following:

Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our senses of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy.  (p. 327)

With the above definition O’Sullivan recognizes the danger of Eurocentric and Western-bounded thinking, and in turn offers a holistic explication of what transformative learning means.

Teaching Cinema as Transformative Learning

To be sure, not all of cinema has potential for transformation. For example most Hollywood films are designed to be agents of consumption. That is, a typical Hollywood film is made to be a make-belief product to passively entertain the audience and sell its products, namely, the fantastic myths, and many strategically placed-in the story- products. Moreover, in the age of globalization and late capitalism (Jameson, 1999) Hollywood as a system enjoys a world dominance that is unparalleled in history of humanity (Litman, 1998). One can argue that the “culture industry” (Adorno, 1969) has come full circle and in its interconnectedness with “military industrial complex” and multinational corporations the cultural imperialism of the globe is in full steam.

While in American cinema we can find films that have great transformative potential, very few “standard” Hollywood films offer transformative quality in their products. The product control in the system is extremely sophisticated. Many cinema studies textbooks that are written for today’s college students are influenced by the system to the extent that their content is implicitly celebratory of Hollywood. That is to say, endorsing the system.

Cinema studies is a discipline of its own in episteme with philosophy, psychology, history, economy, and the arts in general. With this vast array of multidisciplinary curriculums one might assume that cinema is taught in a non-traditional manner. I have been studying cinema for over a decade and teaching it for the past seven years. Furthermore, I have been participating in conferences, publishing papers, and generally speaking, keeping up with the latest in cinema studies. I have arrived at the conclusion that teaching cinema as a transformative medium is, in fact, swimming against powerful currents.

The traditional approach to teaching is prevalent in cinema studies. In the traditional approach the focus is on the professor. The lectures have to be well organized and well paced. The professor has to take the intellectual temperature of her/his classroom and maintain the needed level of student interest-a very challenging prospect, to be sure. In this traditional paradigm of teaching, teachers provide the “knowledge” and the students passively receive it (Huba & Freed, 2000). This methodology is what Freiere coined as “banking education” whereby knowledge is deposited in the student’s consciousness. Banking education leaves very little room for the student’s participation in shaping knowledge. The student can only be a receipient of the canons that are delivered by his/her teacher.  Needless to say, while learning can take place within this teaching paradigm, its potential for transformative learning is very low.

A Pedagogical Alternative

Understanding the students and creating a classroom environment that values students’ input are key ingredients for a transformative learning possibility. We can take a cue from Steven Covey (himself a professor) where he writes, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” (Covey, 2004, p. 5). We must first accept the postmodern condition and then deal with it accordingly. In his important book, Pedagogy of Hope, Paulo Freire (1992), posits two forms of postmodernity, a type of capitalist postmodernity, and its flip side, the transformative postmodernity. Freire defends “progressive postmodernity” (i.e., neo-Marxism), and rejects “conservative neoliberal postmodernity” (i.e., free market economy). I believe if we understand the postmodern condition with its “rejection” of everything, then as professors of cinema studies-who teach a postmodern art form- we can help to create new spaces where transformation and social change can take place. This pedagogical paradigm requires non-traditional teaching methods. That is, we must adopt a learner-centered approach to teaching cinema studies. To begin with, we, as educators, have to be willing to understand the special conditions that influence our students. In this manner we can be cognizant of each student’s form of intelligence and his/her adaptability to a modality that studies an art form that he/she has grown up with.

The Learner-Centered Approach

            In a learner-centered approach the teacher has to employ complex thinking (Morin, 2001), which is to say, the kind of thinking that facilitates the recognition of each student’s ability, aptitude, and need. Morin (1999) reminds us of a necessity for reform in thinking. He writes,

Clearly, the reform in thinking would require a reform in teaching (primary, secondary, university), which itself would require the reform in thinking. Just as clearly, the democratization of the right to thinking would require a paradigmatic revolution that would allow for a complex thinking to reorganize knowledge and relink the fragmented disciplines. Once again, we are faced with the inseparability of problems, with their circular or recursive character, in which each depends on the other. This makes the reform in thinking all the more difficult, and at the same time, all the more necessary, as only a complex thinking could consider and deal with this interdependent circularity. (p. 132)

            Once we recognize the interdependencies of humanity, accepting the fact that the “self” needs the “other,” and the latter needs the former, then there is no need for distinction between the “self” and the “other.” We all have agency, and we all can contribute.       

Within the sphere of complex thinking, in the postmodern condition, we must also embrace the concept of “multiple intelligences.” The traditional IQ test is no longer a valid medium of measurement of a student’s intelligence. This idea is especially paramount in an audiovisual culture whereby movies transmit ideologies and paradigms to people of various backgrounds and personal histories. There are indeed different categories of intelligence: linguistic, logical, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences (Gardner, 1993). Theoretically speaking we are all amalgams of the mentioned categories, hence the term “multiple intelligence.” In this paradigm each student has strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others. For example, a student with strength in spatial intelligence and weakness in linguistic intelligence would easily understand the concept of mise-en-scene- the French term that means “placement in the scene” (a cinematic technique for placement of visual objects in a scene to create a desired meaning). On the other hand the same student would have a hard time with understanding the latent meaning within a complex dialogue in a film.

In a learner-centered environment where there is a dialectical exchange between the teacher and student, the teacher can recognize this condition and help the student by further explicating the “meaning” of the words in the film dialogue. Operating under the assumptions of “complex thought” learning must be done in dialogical fashion. For example, when a student responds to a question by the teacher about a particular dialogue in film by saying she does not understand the meaning of that dialogue, the teacher can create a dialogue with the student by repeating the same dialogue (from the film) with the student and step by step, word by word, explain the meaning of the words and their connection to the premise of the film. Furthermore, this dialogical process crystallizes the holographic aspect of cinema. That is, the whole (i.e., film) is included in the part (i.e., the dialogue in question) which is included in the whole. If the learner who is at the center of learning process participates directly then chances of that learning becoming transformative are increased.    

What is Transformative Cinema?

I have been discussing cinema as an art form. I would like to further examine this concept. Is cinema art? Before I can answer this question I must qualify my answer with establishing a “definition” of art. While delineating “art,” in his famous essay, “What is Art,” Tolstoy (1898) writes,

Art is not, as metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetic physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity. (Neill and Ridley, 1995, p. 511)

So, to accept Tolstoy’s proposition is to accept that art is an act of communication and social interconnectedness. Cinema is an all-encompassing art form that employs photography, music, acting, choreography, writing, and architecture. Indeed, with cinema we have an art form that appeals to all seven categories of intelligence. Recent cutting edge scientific research indicates that our visual sense utilizes more than 50 percent of our brain sphere (Felberbaum & Kranz, 2005). Conversely, cinema-primarily a visual medium-is inherently engaging our bigger part of our brainpower, hence its great potential to be transformative.

Cinema communicates ideas and emotionally moves us. Within a cinematic experience once our emotions are evoked, if and when, we move to the next step and critically reflect on this communication, then-and only then-we can be transformed. However, for this transformative experience to occur the cinema that we are experiencing must have depth and self-reflection itself. Transformative cinema is the kind of cinema that illuminates-with audiovisual complexity-fundamental truths about human nature (Morin, 2005). I should like to expand on this notion of “fundamental truths.” In page 202 of his insightful book, The Cinema or the Imaginary Man (2005) Morin writes,

Film represents and at the same time signifies. It remixes the real, the unreal, the present, real life, memory, and dream on the same shared mental level. Like the human mind, it is also as much lying as truthful, as mythomaniacal as lucid.

In line with the Great Russian thinker/practitioners of cinema (e.g., Eisenstein, Pudovkin) Morin believes that cinema in its totality (i.e., shooting and editing) can turn the collection of images into a “reality” that is intrinsically a reflection of our fundamental truths. He writes, “Images alone are nothing, only montage converts them into truth or falsehood.” (Morin, 2005, p. 202) I must note that by “montage” he is referring to “editing.” The term “montage” is also used for different styles of editing in cinema. While discussing the reflexive nature of cinema and its direct correlation with our psyche, he goes on further to provocatively state that “if the cinema is in the image of our psyche, our psyche is in the image of the cinema.” (Morin, 2005, p. 203) Having studied cinema from various perspectives I agree with Morin’s assertion that cinema is analogous to the human mind. We can fantasize, dream, animate, and create paradigms with our minds, so can cinema.

Take for example the proverbial postmodern film, Blade Runner (1982, 1992). The film’s problematic encounter with postmodernism is indeed a reflection of our own difficulties with the very notion of postmodern. Director Ridley Scott’s 1992 version (i.e., director’s cut) does not have a so-called “happy ending”(as it was enforced by the studio in the 1982 version). There is no voice-over narration at the end to tie up loose ends and sooth our nerves. This film is a tech-noir science fiction about a dystopic future of replicants and corporate control of humanity. Scott’s ending suggests that the hero of the story might not be human after all. It is an ambiguous ending with a dream sequence that involves a unicorn, very postmodern, to be sure. At the same time that we are left with uncertainty (a staple of postmodernism) throughout the film Scott pays homage to the modern noir detective genre with the voice-overs and little guy alienation themes. Also, the film has the noir aesthetics that are reminiscent of classic form of the genre (e.g., low-key lighting, dark decaying streets, and convoluted characters). This is cinema doing the stuff that our mind does.   

Cinema of Good Faith

            Transformative cinema communicates its ideas in good faith. I use “good faith” in its existential sense. This begs the question of “good faith according to whose existentialism?” Whether we are considering the atheistic or the theistic existential philosophies, the notion of “good faith” is a common thread between both perspectives. Cinema is a subjective art and therefore, it deals with subjective truths. Soren Kierkegaard, who is generally known as the father of existentialism-a theistic existentialism-believed in “subjective truths” as essential to our existence with good faith. For Kierkegaard the actions we take determine who we are. Moreover, these actions are based on values chosen. To be sure, these values can not be grounded in certainty, but people accept them on faith. This is indeed a faith in the uncertain. Conversely, for Jean-Paul Sartre, who is generally known as the most influential of atheist existentialists, actions of good faith are generated by man/woman’s free will. In that sense actions that produce art (e.g., cinema), if produced with good faith have transformative possibilities. However, a movie that is produced in bad faith, can become instrumental in oppression and subjugation (e.g., most Hollywood films) of its consumers. How could that movie be transformative?

            In 400 Blows (1959) [the center of French New Wave films] Auteur, Francios Truffaut ends the film with a freeze-frame of his protagonist’s (a 13 year-old boy named Antoine) ambiguous expression (Kashani, 2005). Antoine is a misfit who wants to be free of society’s conventions. The last scene is that of Antoine’s yet another escape from a detention center. The freeze-frame is a gesture of good faith to challenge the audience to think about the uncertainty of Antoine’s future, and indeed the future of all of humanity. It is important to point out that the French New Wave filmmakers were heavily influenced by Sartre and therefore the notion of “cinema of good faith” directly refers to good faith as defined by Sartre.

            In contrast the last scene of Pretty Woman (1990) has the “virgin prostitute-Cinderella,” (played by Hollywood’s constructed “star” Julia Roberts) going to accept the Prince Charming’s, (played by another Hollywood “star,” Richard Gere) proposal of marriage. Seemingly, the movie is telling us that the woman (prostitute) has a choice and with her own “free will” chooses the successful handsome man, where in reality, in a gesture of bad faith, the filmmakers (i.e., Hollywood system) choose to have her “choose” the man. The central premise of Pretty Woman (1990) is that of woman’s agency depending on a man (Kashani, 2005). This is a film that, in bad faith, masquerades as a feminist film. I argue that 400 Blows (1959) has potential for transformation (as meant in this discourse) of all of its audiences, While Pretty Woman (1990) has potential for oppression of women.


Different Modes of Cinema Studies

The Survey Mode

            Cinema studies is a relatively new discipline. It is, however, a well-established discipline in the academy. To what extent are current teachings of cinema studies transformative? In the academy (North American academy) there are different philosophical approaches to cinema studies. There are those professors who do not wish to rock the boat and therefore, celebrate the status quo. That is, they take the survey approach to cinema studies, and put emphasis on the form rather than content of cinema. In this way of teaching, professors rely on films that are adherent to the film industry’s dominant paradigm. Needless to say, this type of pedagogy is preoccupied with American cinema (i.e., Hollywood). Whether taught in a traditional manner or a learner-centered modality, this form of pedagogy lacks depth and complexity, and as a result it can not be transformative. Indeed, conformity of this sort will never bring about transformation in anyone.

The Critical-Analytical

Another pedagogical approach to teaching cinema studies is that of the critical mode. Which is to say, it is leftist and preoccupied with Marxist analysis of the art form. In this pedagogical sphere complexity and depth of the art form are engaged and the professors look for ways of deconstructing Hollywood. There is a tremendous amount of transformative potential in this approach. The critical approach, which is not unlike the “critical theory” of the Frankfurt school, is partially rooted in the works of Adorno (1969), Horkheimer (1969), and Jurgen Habermas (1985). The critical mode also includes the analytical, which is to say the inclusion of psychological interpretation and tradition of hermeneutics. In this mode Freud, Jung, Lacan, Barths, et al. are useful-and common- sources to draw from.

Art for the Sake of Art

            Another approach to teaching cinema studies is that of the non-interpretative. To understand this philosophy it pays dividend to visit Susan Sontag’s (1964) influential essay, Against Interpretation. Most modern-and some postmodern-critics, teachers, and scholars of arts consider “interpretation” as a desirable and important part of our experience of art. I certainly put myself in that category-most of the time. In this essay, however, Sontag seeks to disrupt this way of thinking. Sontag argues, what really matters about art is not its content but its form, not “what it means” but “how it is what it is, even that it is what it is. This is not so much a validation of a kind of formalist theory of art, but a postmodern look at ‘looking at art.’” She argues that the urge to interpret typically reflects an urge to replace the work of art itself with something else.

In a deliberate fashion she makes her point,

It doesn’t matter whether artists intend, or don’t intend, for their works to be interpreted. Perhaps Tennessee Williams thinks Streetcar Named Desire is about what Kazan thinks it to be about. It may be that Cocteau in The Blood of a Poet and in Orpheus wanted the elaborate readings, which have been given these films, in terms of Freudian symbolism and social critique. But the merit of these works certainly lies elsewhere than in their “meanings.” Indeed, it is precisely to the extent that Williams’plays and Cocteau’s films do suggest these portentous meanings that they are defective, false, contrived, lacking in conviction. (Neill & Ridley, 1995, p. 462)

The Tension

 Against Interpretation is a very powerful essay. What is its merit here? In my teachings about cinema I look for perspectives that create tension between what I know (my training and studies) and have tendencies towards (i.e., interpretation) and what goes against my epistemology. This tension helps me to stay fluid with my epistemology and stay open to other possibilities. So, in that respect Sontag’s essay is extremely helpful to make my teaching transformative.

There are films that can be looked at through “content only” lens and other films that lend themselves to interpretation. For example Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is a beautifully cinematic film that invites different readings (e.g., feminist, historical, etc.). On the other hand Woody Allen’s Bullets over Broadway (1994) does not require interpretation, it is what it is.

With this essay Sontag (1964) has suggested that “in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” Many years later, she changed this stance to a degree. When Leni Riefenstahl published her photographs of the native Africans under the guise of “beautiful” images, most critics saw it as “art for the sake of art.” It was Sontag that courageously wrote a polemic essay hermeneutically reading Riefenstahl’s photos as “fascist art.” I posit that fluidity of perspectives and a polyparadigmatic pedagogy in cinema studies can foster transformative learning and change.

Explications of Pedagogical Perspectives

            According to Taylor (2005) transformative learning is “the most researched theory of adult learning.” Almost all scholars agree in the claim that Jack Mizerow (1991) has single-handedly put “transformative learning theory” on the academic map. When it comes to theoretical frameworks, inevitably, there will be varied perspectives on transformative pedagogy. Taylor identifies seven different perspectives on transformative learning as follows:

1.      Psychoanalytic, “framed within depth psychology”

2.      Psycho-Developmental, “progressive growth”

3.      Psycho-Critical, “a rational, constructivist view”

4.      Social-Emancipatory, “rooted in the work of Freire (1970)”

5.      Cultural-Spiritual, “Culturally relative and spiritually grounded”

6.      Race-Centric, “People of African descent at the center”

7.      Planetary, “looking at the totality of life’s context”

I believe that to teach cinema studies effectively, which is to say, to generate transformative learning, as educators of adult learners we must emphasize perspectives 4 and 7 in a combination. This is due to the socially applicable nature of these perspectives and keeping in mind that interaction with cinema is a social phenomenon.  That is not to say that the other five perspectives are of no use in this pedagogical model. Indeed, in the postmodern condition we have no choice but to adopt a polyparadigmatic approach to teaching in order to achieve transformative learning. Having said that I also posit that the very same condition warrants a necessary dominance of “social-emancipatory” and “planetary” approach to pedagogy. What I would like to call “pedagogy of social change.”

Pedagogy of Social Change

            In the traditional teaching paradigm the one person who learns the most is the professor. In order to prepare for a lecture the professor has to actively seek new information, prepare the canonized material, and develop a synthesis from the old stuff and the new stuff. To be sure, in this condition the professor will have great agency and attain a transformative learning for herself (Huba & Freed, 2000). This was indeed my own experience in my first two years of teaching. However, the traditional approach does not foster transformative learning conditions. The traditional approach is designed to generate a modality of order and control. If we accept the postmodern condition we will then recognize an exciting “complexity-based” approach to teaching that promotes creativity in teaching to build relationships between order and disorder (Montuori, 2003). We must embrace uncertainty and as Montuori has stressed “disorder” has a profound role in the world, and indeed in academia.

            The non-traditional approach will necessarily use improvisation in the classroom. This type of improvisation can not be approached before the professor has recognized the agency of his/her students. In the community college where I teach there is a diverse group of students in any given classroom. There is the privileged student that comes into the classroom in totality and position of power. This type of student does not need a helping hand by his/her professor to discover his/her agency. Then there is the underprivileged student who has been marginalized in the traditional classroom from the very beginning. He/she has agency. This is what Freirer (1972) stressed in his seminal work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The trick here is to assist this student to discover his/her agency. This will require creativity. Creativity in teaching cinema (a creative form) is informed by our epistemology (Montuori & Pursor, 1999) and in order to make this process transformative, there needs to be a subtle shift in our collective consciousness in education. Reality is not static and once a student discovers his/her agency then his/her reality will change. Also, this is the calculus for social change. That is, if we collectively have the shift and expansion of consciousness, then, we collectively transform.  

            Cinema is a powerful medium that emotionally affects us. We respond to any given film in a unique manner of our own. The role of the cinema professor is that once emotions are evoked, to engage each individual student. The professor then must coach the student to express his/her feelings. And in the spirit of Dewey’s “learning by doing” by way of injecting the intellectual material connect these feelings to a “new” understanding (Dewey, 1997). How do we do that? Interestingly enough, we can learn from other disciplines. For example, sports training modalities that work successfully for both the privileged and underprivileged student can teach us a lot.

Sports are performance-oriented disciplines. For example when I played collegiate soccer, I learned my dribbling skills by doing it. To be sure, there were instructions by my coach on the fundamentals of dribbling a soccer ball-always followed by demonstrations-but I did not learn the nuances of dribbling by memorizing the instructions. I tried different ways of dribbling in the actual practices and games, and through further feedback on my performances-from my coach-I transformed myself into a “skilled” soccer player. Feedback, to be sure, is an important element of improvisational and creative learning. That is, feedback from the professor to the student and vice versa becomes a form of teaching and assessing mode (Huba & Freed, 2000).

            I started this paper with the transformative story of one young man (Ray) to set the stage, so to speak. Here I would like to offer the readers another powerful story of consciousness expansion and transformative experience that has occurred in my classroom both for the students and me. Alas, it goes without saying that transformative learning can not occur in every class session along with every film screened. Nonetheless, I believe, mentioning examples of concrete experiences can usher in the assumption of this inquiry with new intellectual muscularity. That is the possibility of cinema studies becoming transformative.

Transformation of Laurie and others?

            This narrative involves Laurie, a 20 year-old woman from an affluent (over-privileged) family. During a discussion about feminist films where as a class we were deconstructing some pseudo-feminist films such as Pretty Woman (1990) and Thelma and Louise (1991) Laurie had claimed-with a natural sense of entitlement-that “Pretty Woman is in fact, a feminist film.” She had stated that because she likes the film and since she is a “free” woman and quite self-confident about who she is and what she can do about her life, those factors show that she, as a feminist, could tell if Pretty Woman was a “lie.”

A few weeks later, as a midterm exam, I assigned a number of films for the entire class to watch and write a reflective essay on their experience. The assigned films were the following:

·        Norma Rae (1979): based on a true story about a young woman fighting to unionize a Southern textile mill. Rather than indulging in the usual individualized heroics, the protagonist, Norma Rae (played by Sally Fields) creatively rallies her fellow workers for collective action.

·        Silkwood (1983): a film that presents a woman (played by Meryl Streep) as a bona fide leader. What is more, the movie shows Black and White workers overcoming racial barriers and working together.

·        A Matter of Sex (1984): A made-for-television film that realistically deals with women’s rights.

·        Pretty Woman (1990); a Hollywood patriarchal product that portrays women as subservient to men, though shrewdly masquerading as a feminist film by showing the prostitute (played by Julia Roberts) as the protagonist, hence the title.

Social scientists have been studying the influence of media on people. One study in particular has brought about strong empirical evidence that media are the primary influence in shaping children’s sense of sex roles and future aspirations (Katz, 1983). Laurie’s views on gender roles had been shaped by the heavy media influence, hence her initially strong belief in patriarchal portrayal of women. The authoritative images had occupied and oppressed her mind from childhood. So, what happened to Laurie after the midterm assignment?

During the discussion about the students’ reflections there were many interesting inputs from various students. However, Laurie’s words were powerful and absorbing. She was dressed in her brand name designer clothes, but her demeanor was absolutely different than the previous weeks. In an emotional and yet rationally articulate manner Laurie walked the talk. She admitted that by seeing these “other” films there was so much that has been erased, or kept under the rug in her society. She claimed that “her bubble had been burst.” In engagement with some of the other women in the class, namely African American and Asian students-whom she had not engaged with in the class discussions-there existed a new shift of consciousness. I construe that as a discoverer of field of mutuality and a collective transformation. Laurie was seeing her reality differently, and the “other” women were seeing Laurie differently. Teaching cinema in this manner had created a framework that enabled these individuals to engage with each other on a playing field that came close to being “level” for all. This was indeed an experience where the self and other had merged and the synthesis was discovery of new dimensions of their respective “realities.”



As professors do we strive for teaching that becomes an opportunity to inspire and empower? As a teacher, I see myself a “messenger” of knowledge and a co-learner. Accordingly, in my classrooms transformative learning can take place when the boundaries between teacher and learner are blurred and through a dialectical mode new epistemologies are created.

In my teaching I adopt a “social-emancipatory and planetary” view. Promoting an understanding that social and political forces shape the construction and utilization of knowledge, is central to my philosophy of teaching because it helps students sharpen critical thinking skills in order to enable them to break through epistemological limitations. Although all education is, ultimately, self-education, which is to say, the students must take responsibility for their learning, a teacher also has the responsibility to inspire the desire to learn.

We must come to class prepared and expect the same from our students. Mutual respect between teacher and student is paramount in this form of pedagogy. In this pedagogical sphere, therefore, it is crucial to cultivate learning partnerships between students and teachers. Conversely, the professor must recognize the agency in his/her students, which is essential for transformative learning to take place.

Through coaching, facilitating, creatively improvising (Montuori, 2003), and thinking in a complex manner and in planetary terms (Morin, 2001) we can make learning transformative. In this mode, system thinking can be quite useful. Is it possible to conceptualize cinema studies as a system? If we accept the interconnectedness of all things, then system thinking can be a very useful platform for transformative pedagogy. Can cinema studies be systematic? The tentative reality is that professors, however free to design their own curriculum, work within an educational system that is primarily informed and designed by Western epistemology. I am not an anti-theorist and do not advocate a trajectory towards non-system pedagogy. However, in order to have a system that can be an agent of transformation, an awareness and acceptance of other ways of knowing can help to create a pedagogy that is fluid and changes as society changes. The current reality is a globalized reality, which is to say, “globalism,” within a system of late capitalist globalization, is what the population of the planet is practicing. The trick is to subvert globalization with a form of globlaism that generates multicultural societies. Capitalism wants homogenized “multicultural” societies, so the Western powers can dominate and sell their goods (products and ideology). Planetary multiculturalism as advocated by thinkers like Morin looks for systems that transform people into finding mutuality and level playing fields. Can cinema studies be an effective agent in such a system? The answer is a resounding yes. 





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