Often when we write about our teaching, we discuss what works well in the classroom. Today, however, I want to reveal a consistent problem, a disappointment really, that I have encountered when using documentaries in my basic writing classes at Kingsborough Community College: Too often when I screen documentary films in class, my basic writers fall asleep or otherwise disengage from the viewing experience in some obvious manner.
At first glance, this problem might seem pretty mundane. After all, my students lead tiring lives and probably do need a chance to rest. But I don’t want to let my students off the hook so easily, particularly when I see that they have endless energy for other challenging aspects of my class. And I find it depressing that so many of my basic writing students seemingly cannot stay focused on a 90-minute documentary that directly connects to their writing assignment.
In particular, I am thinking of students in my English 92 writing course. Over the past three years, my English 92 has been linked with an early American history course. I work closely with the instructor of that course and we share one major writing/research assignment in a unit focused on slavery. For this unit, students are required to write a paper in which they design a museum of U.S. Slavery, explaining what historical content their museum will include and why. To reinforce the historical themes that my linking partner teaches, and to give examples of how these historical themes might be represented visually in a museum, I show “Traces of Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” Katrina Browne’s documentary about coming to terms with her heritage as a descendent of the largest slave trading family in the U.S.
I naively and repeatedly show this documentary to my 92’s with the assumption that my students will eagerly engage it, not only because it offers such a unique perspective, but also because it so clearly reinforces aspects of the high stakes writing assignment described above, which counts towards grades in both my writing class and their history course. I also assume that my students will appreciate the opportunity to watch a documentary as a break from the other kinds of demanding reading and writing work that we do everyday in class. For these reasons, it is always surprising to me how many students do not (cannot?) stay focused during the film. In most cases, they simply fall asleep. And if they don’t snooze with their heads on their desks, they show other signs of acute distraction–texting, leaving the room, studying for other classes, etc.
It is easy to discern the most obvious reason why my students may find this specific film boring: Traces of the Trade is largely about the history and guilt of rich white people. But I have seen my students react in a similarly sleepy fashion to several documentaries that connect more closely to their own lives. This includes RIZE, David LaChapelle’s exciting documentary about Krump and Clown dancers, two youth subcultures in South Central L.A.
The repeated experience of seeing basic writers fall asleep during screenings of documentary films leads me to believe that it is not so much the topic of the documentaries that alienates my students, but rather the form itself that puts them off. I really don’t want to give up on documentaries as an effective teaching tool, but I have yet to find a solution to this problem beyond 1) explaining beforehand that documentaries offer a different viewing experience from movies with clear story lines and 2) requiring that students take notes because they will have a quiz on the film after watching it.
And so, gentle radical readers, I’d like to turn these questions over to you: What experiences have you had when screening documentaries in your classes? And what ideas do you have about how to teach documentaries effectively?
By Jacqueline Brady