I have been teaching an introductory course to International Relations and a separate Human Rights course for the past 12 years and have used film intermittently. I have also taught a freshman seminar on Film and Politics course. I wanted to combine the pedagogical tool of film more systematically within courses focused on international studies.
Introduction and Research Questions
Contemporary globalization takes place visually – whether it be images and videos transmitted by cell phone and webcams, public video surveillance, a protestor or journalist’s capturing of political violence then seen by millions, or the plethora of international films that document diverse global experiences.
Given the power of images to create meaning and expose and hide multiple realities, they can be important pedagogical tools for teaching international relations and more specifically human rights.
Images have a democratic quality to them: regardless of one’s language, level of literacy, or nationality, one can glean information and insight from them. As Murray Edelman chronicles in his From Art to Politics (1995), our perceptions of current political events stem from the images and stories that our memory recalls from art – films, books, paintings, and recreated events on TV.
I have started this project with the assumption that film can be used to enrich the classroom in relation to substantive content and student engagement, and also in terms of what perceptions and assumptions about global issues images construct for us. In this project, I have used five films in an introductory course in international relations (IR): – two related to IR theories, one on media and war, and two concerning human rights (Rwandan genocide and detainee abuse/torture).
In this particular research, I sought to ask the following questions, with the first one being the central question:
- Is feature film useful in an International Relations (IR) class? What is a film good at doing in an IR class?
- Do students see feature film as conveying or illustrating a theory or perspective or as teaching something?
- To what extent does film help students interpret or illuminate a theory or concept in IR?
- Do students feel engaged with and interested in the material through the watching of a related film?
While there has been some classroom research on the use of film and a great deal of literature on visual literacy and visual culture, there are very few studies dealing with film in particular, and less that actually have done classroom research. Many in academia deride the use of popular visual culture such as film in the classroom, skeptical of its educational benefits. I started, however, from the assumption that film has educational uses, which other scholars support. For example, Sealey looks at how education schools and departments are slow to embrace visual literacy and to see the educational benefits of film and images. Giroux looks at the importance of popular culture for pedagogical purposes. Similar to other “texts” that are used in the classroom, Film should be seen as a text that is “a coherent, delimited, comprehensible structure of meaning” (Hill and Gibson, 1998, 12).
The literature on the use of visual media in the classroom is diverse, both qualitative and quantitative, and cuts across many disciplines. Most of the studies conclude that the use of film and visual media in the classroom appeared to have a positive benefit in a number of areas: student enjoyment of the class, student understanding of the concepts, and student performance on assignments, e.g. exams.
The most prominent benefit to using film and visuals in the classroom seems to be in getting students interested in the material and engaging them (e.g. Burton 1988; Champoux 1999; Kiasatpour 1999; Rebhorn 1987; Sealey 2008; Tipton 1993). Others emphasize how visuals further students’ understanding of the material, illuminate an issue through case studies, and reinforce course concepts (Champoux 1999; Crawford 1999; Feldmann 1995; Jordan and Sanchez 1994; Kiasatpour 1999; Rebhorn 1987; Sealey 2008).
Another potential benefit gained by teaching with film and images is to promote cross-cultural understanding and to gain a more global perspective (e.g. Giroux 2004; Kiasatpour 1999; Sealey 2008). In my classroom experience before this particular research project, students became more engaged and interested and asked better questions when they were faced with dramatic foreign stories and images of faraway political and human rights battles. Future research will aim to look at this question in particular.
Turning specifically to research on the use of film in an international relations classroom (and particularly to teach international relations theory), there are a couple relevant studies, but they do not involve actually classroom research; these teachers discuss how they used film, the kinds of approaches and questions they asked, and why they believe it was useful. I aim for this study to take what these teachers discovered and extend it through the data that I collect.
Cynthia Weber is an international relations scholar who has done the most on the question of teaching international relations theory through film. Her 2001 article, along with a recent piece by Simpson and Kaussler (2009) both start from the premise that IR theory is abstract and difficult for students. Teaching it with just an introductory textbook is often not engaging enough. Weber explains how uncritically adding popular films to the IR classroom only leaves students even more directionless and less able to understand concepts and theory. Simpson and Kaussler concluded the following about the role that film played in teaching international relations theories and concepts:
Using films to aid simulations or role play is useful to encourage interest, help research, and illustrate aspects of international politics that may not be written in books or articles. For example, tension might be best shown through the medium of film than through academic texts. Films like Blood Diamond or Munich can convey a sense of crisis, urgency, emotions, and tension that books cannot” (2009, 425).
While Simpson and Kaussler claim that films can assist students in developing analytical and critical thinking skills, their research did not show this. Their tables listing numerous IR related films focused on what issue or concept is “illustrated” by the film – that is, to help students connect more and understand the dynamics of the situation through the film. While my research also aims to do this, I hoped to go beyond the illustration function to see how the film helped them interpret and make meaning or how it helped them see, as Cynthia Weber’s experience shows, how there are certain “myths” or “stories” that each theory assumes and these can be investigated and debated through a film, such as Lord of the Flies (for realist theory). I am particular interesting in this and future projects in understanding the role that emotion and personal narrative play in students’ learning through film (cf. Felten 2009).