Spaces (and times) of television

I’ve been feeling increasingly bad about neglecting this blog of late.  My excuse is that I’ve had various other small writing projects on the go: 1. After seeing and enjoying What Maisie Knew at the cinema (thank you, Hull Screen!), I wrote two pieces about it for Alternate Takes, the first of which is up, the second of which is coming soon.  2. I’ve been trying to get a healthy amount of initial content onto another blog, the one I’ve launched for the Film Studies subject team at Hull, Thoughts on the Screen (complete with awesome Saul Bass-inspired design, courtesy of WordPress).  3. I’ve just finished a double book review that will (fingers crossed) appear in the next issue of Critical Studies in Television.  4. I’ve started work on a co-authored article about how time works in The Simpsons.  So far my grappling with the fiendish time scheme of the programme has given me a deepened appreciation for what Fernand Braudel said about being an historian: ‘My great problem, the only problem I had to resolve, was to show that time moves at different speeds.’ 5. In my quest to revive for myself the lost art of letter-writing, I have marked sheets of paper with ink and sent them in stamped envelopes to members of my family!

Another thing that has disrupted my usual routine is that last week I attended the ‘Spaces of Television’ conference at the University of Reading.  The event was chock-full both of great presentations and of lovely friendly people, some of whom I already knew and some I’m delighted to have met.  I won’t attempt to summarise the things I heard, partly because there is already a great summary of much of what went on at the event on this discussion forum.  I did want to write a few paragraphs about what was for me the most exciting and inspiring session.

The session was presented by Dr Andew Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire.  Andrew was telling us about – and then showing us – what he did for his PhD research.  He set himself the challenge of taking the script of a recent episode of Doctor Who, and then re-shooting the script under the conditions that would have existed had the episode been filmed at the BBC in 1963!  This implies some significant restrictions with respect to both space and time.  Andrew was able to use some footage shot on location – but that footage did not have any synchronised sound.  Being able to cut away to this footage occasionally bought precious seconds, but for the most part, the action had to unfold so that it could be captured by the continually-rolling cameras within a relatively small studio space.  This calls for huge amounts of ingenuity when moving from one scene to another (how do you make sure your actors are ready?), and also when lighting sets that, because of the small overall space available to work in, are often very close together (your ‘night-time alleyway’ might well need to be very close to your ‘daytime living room’: how are you going to manage that?!).  And if you make mistakes, you had better recover from them fast and carry on, because recording won’t stop!  When we were then shown the final product that Andrew and his collaborators had produced, I was amazed by how close to a 1960s product it looked (to my admittedly not optimally trained eye; I have seen a fair bit of television from these period, but not masses).  The working practices implied, almost entailed, certain ways of doing things (for example, having lots of frontal staging, with characters huddled around and all facing the camera), and just like that, a past style was resurrected.

It was a great research project, but what it got me thinking about were pedagogical possibilities.  Throughout his presentation, Andrew kept on emphasising that the important thing for him was not the product but the process, and he kept coming back to the idea of ‘embodiment’.  I think he was absolutely on the money on both counts.  If one asks students to reflect upon why certain stylistic elements are present in a television programme, or a film, the first kinds of answers one is likely to get, in my experience, are answers which think exclusively in terms of the experience of a viewer – and often, answers which treat style as a symbol-system (there are shadows on the character’s face to show that he is not to be trusted).  Such observations can be valuable, and they certainly have their place.  However, finding ways of getting students to think like practitioners, and thus to think in terms of restrictions, and problems and solutions (to invoke one of David Bordwell’s very productive schemas for approaching style, and stylistic change), and so on, greatly expands their perspective.  Not only this: it helps them to move beyond seeing style as a punctuation marks or flourishes that occasionally rise to the surface, and to appreciate that style is a system, that nothing appears on screen without being put there, that every shot involves a huge range of choices, and that those choices are confined by the prevailing mode of production, which comprises technology, working practices, and much much more.  That is, practical, studio-based work can help students to pull things together, and to become better and more reflexive theorists (and historians) of style.

When I first started teaching at Hull, a colleague and I experimented, in a final year television module, with getting students to try to recreate in our studio facilities a short passage from a particular episode.  Whilst the process was interesting, I don’t feel that the students got as much out of it as they might have done.  I now think that adding the ingredient of giving them a brief that tells them that they need to abide by a particular set of production conditions could provide exactly what is needed.  That way, it will be clear to the students that they are not being asked to replicate but to adapt.  The result (one would hope!) would perhaps be that instead of feeling disappointed about failing to measure up to the original, the students would instead be encouraged to think through (both in the sense of considering in a sustained fashion, and letting a system become one’s lens of the world, to use an appropriate metaphor), to internalise, one might almost say, different styles and modes of production, the different aesthetic effects they achieve, and the different but not necessarily unequal merits of these.

To the drawing board…!

Reading and writing

I have gotten out of the habit of annotating books.  I started underlining and note-making in the margins when I studied GCSE English literature, and continued to do so during my A-level in the same subject, and in the books that related to my literature modules on my undergraduate degree.  One strong motivation was that during this period I sat many open-book examinations, and my annotations helped me to locate quotations swiftly.

Re-reading (any version of) any text includes as part of the experience a re-visiting of one’s former reading self.  With a well-annotated text, though, that aspect of the experience becomes both sharper and deeper.  One can read a precise record of what one thought about a particular word or passage (or what other thing/s one was prompted to think about when reading it), and get a sense of what seemed worth commenting on during that earlier reading.  (And what didn’t; I wanted to begin this entry with a quotation from a writer who noted that one of the things that most struck him upon re-reading a marked-up text of his own was that he had passed over in silence passages that now seemed wonderful to him.  I’m fairly sure that Wayne Booth was the writer in question, but have been unable to locate the quotation.  Perhaps if I annotated more thoroughly…)

In the case of famous intellectuals these matters can become ones of public interest.  I remember reading in an article by Carlo Ginzburg on ‘Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes’ a point which rests upon the author’s knowledge of things that Freud had in his library, and could therefore be taken to have read.  (Not a watertight assumption!  There are still more books than I would care to enumerate that remain unopened on my shelves.  [Which makes me think in turn of Gatsby, and D’Angelo Barksdale’s reading of a particular detail of that character’s character.]  A book cannot be annotated without having been read though…)  Freud’s library is still preserved; I’m sure others’ are too.  My point here is that for any dedicated reader there is surely at least personal value (and value for one’s interested descendants or other loved ones) in leaving material traces of the thoughts that accompanied one’s reading activities.

I say my habit of annotating books went away, and this is true; yet I am a rather prolific annotator of photocopied materials.  (And though I do not use them that much, I am also glad of and sometimes avail myself of the note-making possibilities afforded by .pdf files and most e-readers.)  So why not books too?  I understand and sympathise with the fact that some students endeavour to keep the books they buy unblemished with a view of selling them on later.  But I never really wanted to – want to – sell any of my books.  (When I was particularly hard up I did part with a few books that earned a good price.  [One of them, appropriately for the topic of this post, was Genette’s Palimpsests.]  I’m glad I didn’t have to sell many though – and in fact, I could really use right now copies of two of them I let go: The Practice of Everyday Life and Being and Time.)

I confess I am slightly precious about the appearance of my books.  When I transport them between work and home I will sometimes wrap them up, or more often sandwich them between two library books (!).  A related bibliophilic instinct is a reluctance to alter even with a deliberate and careful act the appearance of a nicely-presented object (and most books are nicely-presented objects).

But I’m thinking that these are not good enough reasons to continue to abstain from entering into a pencilled dialogue with authors in the margins of my books (I’m not a monster: pencil is a better choice than pen, and I still would never countenance annotating a book that was not my own).  I have known this in the past to be invaluable to the processes of both thinking and writing, and I intend to resume the habit in the hope that it will prove so again.

I’d love to hear from others about their annotating habits.

Curriculum design

Today I attended the University of Hull’s summer University Learning and Teaching symposium on ‘The Lost Art of Curriculum Design’.  Symposia and conferences often leave me feeling tired and cynical, so I’m delighted to report that this one has left me brimming with enthusiasm and a desire to implement and share ideas.

My university is planning a far-reaching process of curriculum overhaul.  One of the pieces of educational theory that figures in the process is that of ‘threshold concepts’.  It was good, then, to have Professor Ray Land – who, along with his colleague Jan Meyer, came up with the notion – present at the first speaker.  Land, with the help of a series of lovely images and metaphors, gave a vivid exposition and defense of threshold concepts and their potential power.  Such concepts are fundamental and transformative ideas which alter the perspective of those who obtain them, allowing them to think like, say, an historian, an economist, a literary scholar, and so on.  It has been suggested, for example, that ‘opportunity cost’ is a threshold concept within economics, and ‘signification’ is one for literary studies.

To make threshold concepts a key part of curriculum reform is a canny move in the respect that it appeals (in both senses) to the discipline-specific expertise of the teaching staff whose job it will be to teach the revised curricula.  They are the people best-placed to thrash out, as a subject team, what the fundamental and transformative concepts of their discipline are – what it means to think (in my case) like a film and television studies academic. (And a media and cultural studies academic… – threshold concepts, although they emphasise ‘disciplinarity’, are not an enemy to interdisciplinarity; Land has suggested that interdisciplinarity may be a threshold concept, and perhaps interdisciplinarity is a threshold concept within film studies.)  The process of thinking and discussion that this will entail will be positive in itself, as most reflection is, and is likely to have two salutary effects on the curriculum: it will probably become more focused on concepts rather than coverage, thus promoting deep learning and thinking, and it will become more joined-up, with individual module tutors having a heightened awareness of the programme as a whole.

Threshold concepts are powerful, but they are not everything.  To know that you want your students to attain these concepts is one thing.  Coming up with the learning activities, the broader learning environment and the modes of assessment that best facilitate the acquisition and the demonstration of the possession of such concepts is the real challenge.  Here, the work of scholars such as John Biggs, Noel Entwistle and Paul Ramsden, with their focus on ‘what the student does’ (the subtitle of Biggs and Tang’s seminal work), is absolutely essential.

A little coda: It is said time and again, and it is true, that teaching is not sufficiently recognised or incentivised in higher education.  Research, so the logic goes, is the key to career advancement.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a real shame.  However, in my three years of being at Hull, I’ve found it to be a great place to teach, and to pursue professional development in teaching.  And although I recognise the following feeling as partly a function of my own particular personality, I nevertheless find it hard to understand how someone can start to reflect authentically on teaching and learning and not be seriously bitten by the bug.  Teaching is a large part of most of our professional lives.  Why would we not want to be as good at it as possible, and to approach it with the same thirst for knowledge, interest in what others are saying about it, and passionate enthusiasm as we do our research?  This (as Glenn Burgess, our PVC for learning and teaching, was kind of saying in his closing remarks) is surely the real meaning of that idea that is often paid lip service to: an integration of research and teaching (which can be ‘teaching what you research’, but should be so much more besides).  One of my colleagues (@DrAmyMDavis) is a Disney scholar, and she once told me that Walt Disney used to say that he was more interested in his theme parks than his films, because the former were always changing, whereas the latter, once completed, were relatively fixed.  If our books are our films (and our articles our shorts), then our modules and programmes are our theme parks: structured experiences which we offer to our students, and try to improve upon and update year after year.

I’ll end with a quote which Ray Land included in his presentation as a poetic way of thinking about threshold concepts (and really, the whole of learning, and of life):

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
(Tennyson, Ulysses. Full text available here.)