College experience on film: “God’s not dead”

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There is no doubt that using the university classroom as a setting for any film could be entertaining and thought-provoking. The film God’s not dead misses these results since it attempts to account for Catholicism and postmodernity from the perspective of the “persecuted” and “silenced” believers placing the actions in an unreal, aseptic, conspiracy-filled setting. In a true postmodern fashion it discredits the professoriate*, and in a modernist fashion it relies on easily swayable underdog (student) body.
Although the generous reviews on the web give the film a mark of 3/5, the comments and reviews accompanying this mark tell the producers that viewers need more than was given to them in the first film. Obviously, the producers did not listen as God’s not dead 2 is to be released in April of 2016!

In any case, without getting into the content of the film marred by logical fallacies, slow pace, few examples of real suffering, and, above all, an unrealistic, static, one-sided vision of the academia, let me simply outline in three points through which the college experience in this film illustrates the amazing desire of film makers not to show the really messy, interesting classrooms of today. My more than thirty-year long academic life allows me to base these comments on facts.

1. In the film, the professor acts in a god-like manner but he is really less than smart.

Even for entertaining or teaching purposes, giving voice to a technologically-stupid and pedagogically-unprepared prof is a mistake, a mistake that obviously makes the life of the student who opposes him so much easier. It does not take much to shoot down an easy target. The prof relies on puny little white boards where his minuscule notes can hardly be read, whereas his adversary (the student) comes prepared with all the technological bells and whistles which dazzle the 80 or so classmates. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that this philosophy prof is made to miss the mark of a great prof by having students sign the statement “God is dead” (as if signing something had a pedagogical value). If the producers and directors had any insight into really great teaching, they would have had the prof make the students work (yes, thinking is work) to decide for themselves, through great teaching strategies, through comparisons, through deep reading, through writing. But all of this takes time and is as far from the day-to-day experiences of the fictional students as is the nearest galaxy for us. The makers of the film obviously did not ever step into the contemporary classroom, where technology allows students to be on the web (rather than to pay attention to what’s happening in the front of the auditorium: yes, the prof is forced to entertain), where they eat, drink, talk, comment, ask questions, send e-mails, think about their jobs to which they have to hurry after the class, etc. etc., all a far cry from the attentive student body in the film. The most unethical feature of the fictional prof’s behaviour is his letting the student “teach”: the teaching  unions in the real world would surely either slap the real prof’s hands or have the student be paid for his “work”. This, aside from not only illustrating (wrongly) but above all strengthening the postmodern view that anyone can teach.

2. In the film, the student body is easily swayed.

For all its proselytizing aims, the film makers’ biggest mistake is to show the student body as superficially savvy as the prof. In real life, there would be lots of objections and there certainly would not be a unanimous decision which sides with the student. There would be comments which show that some students did not pay attention at all, there would be attacks ad hominem, etc. On the one hand, students (whether fictional or not) will side with anyone who subverts the perceived god-like powers of the prof. On the other hand, in the film, the students are made to sign a statement to which only one of about 80 objects, therefore they side here with those powers who give them marks, showing their pragmatic view of what they expect from the course.

3. In the film, teaching is talking and learning is siding with whoever seems more popular.

One thing the film got right: if you are a boring prof. who is not passionate about what you teach, you might just as well let a student do your job. So beating up a dead horse, so to speak, is easy. But the old paradigm, shown in the movie, of teaching as pouring some knowledge into the learner’s head is long gone, replaced by the teacher being a facilitator of learning, thinking, critiquing, especially in the humanities.

It is clear that films are entertainment, but nowadays people “learn” from multimedia products, so any film also carries some type of teaching, reinforcing or subverting ideas, likes, dislikes, tendencies, and actions. Given the three points outlined above, it is clear that something is wrong with a not-so fictional society which 1. accepts a piece of paper containing one’s signature as a statement of one’s beliefs; 2. makes teaching/learning a popularity contest. What is the conclusion as far as the college experience on film is concerned? This film is not the answer to the real need of a well-though out, profound depiction of academic life today, with all its messiness, challenges, and excitement.

 

*By the way, Willie Robertson: the phrase God’s not dead has four, not three words.

 

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Teaching

In May of 1994 I was invited to present a workshop during the “Springtime Teaching Refresher” at York University; i.e. the workshop was geared to my colleagues, members of the teaching complement of the university. My memories of this experience bring up murky ideas of the positives and negatives group work brings to language teaching, but just recently, while clearing out my university office, I found the letter of thanks from the Academic Director of the Center for the support of Teaching, which included the summary of my session’s evaluations (see these below the post). As usual, participants were asked to list two things which they liked (among which these make me proud: variety of actual techniques presented, generation of discussion and sharing, well organized and presented). They were also asked to describe two things which could be added or improved. And here matters start to be interesting. Let’s concentrate on the following, i.e. some of those things the participants felt could be improved or added:
• handout with outline of group activities,
• instructions need to be clear,
• reading exercise probably did not reflect the students’ experience.
As for the first suggestion for improvement, there is something amiss when my colleagues need a “handout with outline of group activities”. Either they do not know how to follow an organized talk without some type of written outline, or they do not think any workshop presentation is worth its salt if it does not include some type of a handout. This attitude of “must see things written down” is troubling, since instructors themselves give students predigested chunks which the students follow during a lecture (and, predictably, their cognitive world crumbles if the instructor strays from this outlined material). Needless to say, there is no meeting, no conference (no matter how learned), no presentation, where handouts are not present. What does it say about our culture? Cannot we rely on our memory any longer? Perhaps: perhaps I would remember more of my presentation if I had made and kept a handout for it… But this reliance on written bits reflects the fragmented chunks of information we are surrounded with. It is not that we no longer read, it is that we read bits without context, that troublesome and time-consuming framework which helps us make sense of the world. And, in any handout, the context is sorely missing. What is the upshot of this lack of context? As my experience in the past 35 years of teaching has showed me, individuals (especially those between 18-30) do not have the skills, patience, willingness to read anything that has been written/published more than 30 years ago – let alone before and during the Roman Classical Period, Middle Ages, Renaissance or the Enlightenment. Culture is therefore moving in the direction of a two-tier system where some people will be able to learn from and enjoy imagining the past and other will not. As one of my ex-colleagues tends to repeat, “We live in the new Dark Ages.”
The second suggestion surely conflicts with the approval the presentation received (well organized and presented) and reaffirms yet again the uselessness of session/course/workshop evaluations. Granted, the manner in which presentations of any kind are received by the audience transcends any quick-reply to questions on the evaluation sheet. Back to the fragmentation again, this time with a false sense of pride and security for the organizers: “We have written proof of the participants’ evaluative thoughts!”, which in the great majority of cases resemble the “like” button of Facebook. However, it is not always a question of the lack of time for the respondents to muse about the just transpired experience during a workshop.
The third suggestion for improvement of my presentation cuts to the core of what it means to teach at the university level, and what it means to teach nowadays. Teaching materials should “reflect the students’ experience”: that’s the slogan now. My question is why should they? Let me back up a bit, and say that any good (no need to be great) instructor can make anything he/she teaches, shows, relates, explains, demonstrates, etc. reflect the students’ experience. However, reflecting the students’ experience is not the purpose of teaching: that is simply an aid/trick used for the benefit of some students to help them grasp concepts better. One of the fundamental problems with university teaching now is due to this constant need to reaffirm the students’ experiences. And yet, that is not learning, that is simply helping students stay within their own individual bubbles, it supports their navel-gazing, endorsing the me generation’s understanding of the world. Teaching must be able to burst the individual bubble, to help lift the gaze outside of oneself, to learn about something brand new which is totally unlike oneself, unpredictable, amazingly and wondrously albeit dangerously different.
This is true for all types of courses, “Competency-based degree programs” included: these let students “breeze through courses” because they have a practical knowledge of the areas taught in those courses. The opinion that “[Competency-based courses] challenge the traditional belief that the professor holds all of the knowledge and that I must be disseminated in the classroom.” (from University Affairs 06/14, p. 31) shows a myopic, dim-witted and hollywoodian perspective on what professors really do.
How to stop this inopportunely unintelligent stance? First, by not using hand-outs. Second, by permitting students to make mistakes. Third, by forcing the students’ gaze outside of their bubble, outward. All of this with only a judicious use of materials that “reflect the students’ experiences”. Hopefully, this will aid in preparing a citizenry who can think on their own, who do not need (movie/sports) stars to lead them on the way to more consumerism. In other words, who look deeper into everything.

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The “social” in social media

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The basic meaning of the word “social” leads to ideas of society, groups, communities, common goals, joys and experiences. Social media facilitate sharing of certain communal feelings and tendencies. Does this sharing translate into engaged activities in the political, religious, and gender spheres? Come and join us as researchers attempt to answer these questions at York University 8-9 May 2014 during the second international conference entitled Social Media: Implications for Politics, Religions, Gender. Registration and other information is available here: http://socmed14.info.yorku.ca/.