Monday, February 3, 2014

Pedagogical Failures: Would You Show a "Satirical" Film as a Way of Encouraging High School Students to Discuss Racism and Slavery?

Satire is the most difficult form of comedy to master. It demands much of the performer's presence and story-telling ability; satire also requires contextual knowledge and information from the viewer which some of them may not have ready access.

Teachers are increasingly being tasked and burdened with the role of entertainer. Under the pressure to be "innovative", as well as orient themselves to a "student centered" classroom, educators across grade levels are forced to abide by increasingly draconian rules regarding testing and "learning outcomes" while facing the surveillance (and harassment) that comes with pleasing the "customers".

The prime directive for the business that is now public education is that parents and students are to be pleased and satisfied at all costs. It would seem that this dynamic is occurring both among public schools as well as elite private institutions as well.

For example:
The Dalton School, one of New York City’s most prestigious private schools, has apologized after screening a satirical movie about a world in which the South won the Civil War.  
The film, titled “C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America,” was shown to sophomores at a presentation of history projects on Monday. Its edgy and comical treatment of slavery quickly led to complaints, and on Wednesday, the school met with students and parents to apologize.

“C.S.A.,” released in 2006 and directed by Kevin Willmott, an associate professor at the University of Kansas, is presented in the style of a documentary, nearly 150 years after Ulysses S. Grant surrenders to Robert E. Lee, following the film’s conceit.

The movie is a hodgepodge of commentary by fake historians and altered footage, including an image of a Confederate flag on the moon. It freely uses racial stereotypes, with the not-so-subtle message that attitudes toward black people in the real world are not so far off from the imagined 21st-century Confederacy...

In interviews, Dalton students said that some felt the film was insensitive to the struggle of blacks and made light of slavery. 

In a statement on Wednesday, Dalton’s leader, Ellen C. Stein, pledged to redouble efforts to speak with students and staff members about race.

“We believe in the highest levels of respect and sensitivity for the diverse nature of our student body and community,” she said in a statement. “Monday’s screening should not have taken place and we sincerely regret that the film was shown.”
If one of the most prestigious private schools in the country is retreating in the face of intellectual cowardice, then matters do not boad well for public schools which have far less latitude and freedom than Dalton.

[There is much more going on here than a simple complaint about a movie. For those who know more about the Dalton School and this incident, please do chime in.]

I have used the movie The Confederate States of America in my own courses. It is a provocative and smart film. However, it is not a satire in the conventional sense; The Confederate States of America is a counterfactual that attempts to demonstrate the enduring power of white racism by offering up a world that should be very different from our own present--but of course is not.

In deciding to show the movie The Confederate States of America (or attempt other more "innovative" or "challenging" approaches to teaching), lecturers and instructors are governed by the vague catchall phrase and question, "is this pedagagically sound"? As we explained to me several years ago, the shorthand logic and question in practice is really, "can I defend what I am doing in this seminar if someone complains?"

Unfortunately, in the neo liberal present when education is now simply a good in the market like a McDonald's hamburger, academic freedom is being subverted by how the customer (read: the student and their parents) may take offense at being forced to confront uncomfortable truths.

I have made students cry in my classes by presenting information which they have found upsetting. I have faced formal complaints by students who have been angered by the fact that I show them, visually, the human costs of America's military adventures and how policy is not an abstraction. One young woman even cursed me because I explained that Rosa Parks was not a little old lady on a bus whose feet were tired, but rather that Sister Parks was a trained political activist, one with agency and choice.

The idea that black folks were agents in our freedom struggle was too upsetting for said student...and she was a young woman of color.

Screening The Confederate States of America for a group of students, at any educational level, requires a good amount of preparation and contextual knowledge about the American slaveocracy, and Jim and Jane Crow, for them to properly understand how "satire" is a device for discussing painful facts about our own country's past and present.

Showing a film is not a substite for rigorous teaching and learning in the classroom. And using a film like The Confederate States of America as a primer for a conversation about white supremacy in the present--if one has not properly prepared and trained the audience--is akin to how amateurs shouldn't try to disarm explosives using only secondhand knowledge gleamed from the Internet.

In both cases, matters will not turn out well.

Educational malpractice via the use of cinema is likely more common than not in today's public schools, colleges, and universities.

Teachers are often told that they should "meet students where they are". Perhaps, the movie The Confederate States of America was too far ahead of where the students at Dalton are at present? But is not the role of the educator to push students forward, to make them uncomfortable by challenging their priors?

Or is that an antiquated norm in 21st century America?


Learning Is Eternal said...

I Have seen this one. Another visual massage or cracking jokes 'on the slick' in the presence of your target.

It's just that the jokes are terrible.

While it is not Birth of a Nation I can see how this made students uncomfortable.

I still wonder what does anyone gain by participating in such films? Definitely not a standout resume-wise for future opportunities. But then again...

After C.S.A they should transition into the current season of American Horror Story to keep the ball rolling on that public exercise of desensitization.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

You're right about the drive to entertain students in the classroom...

Something interesting happened to me on my first day of student teaching. My host teacher asked his students in every class if I assigned reading homework, would the students read. 100% every class said "no" ... of course they would, you just gave them the option and encouraged it. This man was a Reagan worshiping conservative. He was incredibly versed in his high school history and could entertain with his very lively narrative.

There are a lot of ways to go about getting students more interested in the subject of history. "Meeting students where they are" sounds to me more like making learning student led and directed rather than teacher directed. This requires getting a lot of feedback about what students know and want to learn about your subject before just diving into the material and then testing them on what they have been able to remember at the end of the unit.

A lot of teachers like to show movies in lieu of busy work... I don't really care for that. Teachers can structure their classes in ways that students are working on things that are maybe not immediately relevant to material in the class, but encourage reflection on their part about the themes in the class.

If that were my class I might have shown clips from CSA (if I thought it was appropriate) and then asked the students to create skits, scenes, or posters or songs and poems about what slavery might look like if it was still practiced today. There would also be a lot of material about why slavery is wrong and how excuses promoting it were formed, what the world is doing to continue to perpetuate as well as undermine slavery, and my entire class would be centered on race in American history.

All I have found about this is the students didn't like the way slavery was satirized... I wonder if they didn't like the depiction of whites in the film, I'll try to watch it today.

Black Sci-Fi said...

The 1969 movie "Putney Swope" might have been a better racial satire for students. The humor is still, relevant, biting and too funny even after all these years.
The students rejection of "CSA" might be because there is a stark difference between laughing WITH you vs. laughing AT you. To wit: "If ya gots to splain' it, it ain't funny" "Blurred Lines", anyone..??

Learning Is Eternal said...

Putney Swope "Laying low in the cut." You right. To say it was made in '69 it speaks to future generations.

MaryK said...

Ain't no way these people could watch "Blazing Saddles" and have an intelligent discussion about desensitization.

MaryK said...

Not for me. C-SCOPE hemmed me in and left no time for discussion, provably the classroom method that left the biggest impression-- and that most fully engaged the student.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

I just finished about half of it before my computer gave up on loading the rest, it's on youtube. It's pretty funny and the history is spot on at every turn in the narrative. I'm guessing the students didn't like the fake commercials that were thrown in, but damn, they're pretty good.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

CSCOPE? I am not familiar. They create the units and lessons and map out the year for you? I'm not interested in something like that.

Black Sci-Fi said...

"Putney says the Borman 6 has got to have SOUL...Gots to have SOUL"
FM: "Baaaby, I dream about you every night"
Male: "Yeah? Just don't send me your Laundry bill."

Militant Brother: "Maaaan, that Swope is just a jive talkin', Uncle Tom walkin', pork chop eatin' sad excuse for a black man" "If he didn'thave that bodyguard with him, I'd be kickin' his ass"
Just a small sample of dialog from "Putney Swope"

Black Sci-Fi said...

"Putney says the Borman 6 has got to have to have SOUL"

chauncey devega said...

Bamboozled is great. I have shown that as well. If students are given a proper amount of reading and work, and then you lead up to the film lots of good things can happen. I am just a bit turned off by the "let's show a movie and then have a discussion about 'racism', 'sexism', 'homophobia' angle. Lazy thinking.

chauncey devega said...

C-Scope? goodness. Texas is the future in so many ways.

chauncey devega said...

CSA is a very good film. Not great, but certainly bold. I would check it out.

MaryK said...

Sure, if you expect dystopia.

chauncey devega said...

A neo liberal corporate dystopia.

Miles_Ellison said...

Before satire can be used as an educational tool, people must first learn what it is and how it works. Using satire without a fundamental understanding of it degenerates into hipster racist crap. Don't bring Kool Aid to a gin party.

Courtney H. said...

Unfortunately, so many students today have such short attention spans, that they expect to be entertained, instead of being taught to learn. I remember when I was teaching, that I was being told over and over, "keep the kids engaged, keep the kids engaged." I'm sorry, but it's not the teacher's job to "keep the kids engaged." The students are supposed to come to school expecting to learn. During my first year of teaching (I taught ninth-grade English/Language Arts), most of my students were so lazy and immature, that I told a colleague, "You can bring a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." You as a teacher can do whatever you can think of to teach kids, but the hard fact is, many of them don't want to learn because they just don't care. And that way of thinking comes from the home, not the teacher. However, it is always the teacher who is blamed.
I think that showing "C.S.A." was an innovative idea. There is a good way to show movies to teach. I agree with you that films can be used to enhance learning, but not replace it. Having context is so important, before showing a movie. Previous study of the subject helps to enhance the students' understanding of the subject at hand, and the movie (when used correctly) helps to enhance it even more.
Unfortunately, when I tried to be innovative, I was not supported. When I taught ninth grade, we ELA teachers taught an abridged version of "The Odyssey." I wanted to show the movie "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" since it is an updated version of the epic poem. I wanted to have the students complete a Venn Diagram comparing the two.. However, I was not allowed to do that, because the co-chair of my department and my mentor teacher kept sabotaging me (they felt threatened -- going into detail about this is another post altogether). A lot of petty, personal, prejudicial, and political crap prevents teachers from teaching to the best of their ability. And students lose, because they are not being allowed to learn outside the box.
Education in this country has become a joke.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

makes me shudder

Myshkin the Idiot said...

What to do about bad parenting... It's not all lower class kids being raised poorly, either, middle and upper income kids do it all the time. Some of my wife's most difficult first grade students have been from upper income families where the parents just enable the student to do whatever they please. This creates a huge burden for the teacher as the student doesn't relate well with their peers as well as constantly acting out poorly to get whatever attention they can.

There is a lot of good research out there about the positive affects of meditation in the classroom as well as getting kids outdoors more. Just being outside in nature can help kids focus in school better.

Colleagues can be some of our worst enemies. A lot of personal politics get in the way of positive teaching strategies. My wife deals with this again, petty crap that keeps the teachers divided in subtle ways... My wife says how can we expect students to get along and include everyone in their classes in their thoughts and actions when we go around bullying one another in such petty ways.

Courtney H. said...

Thank you for your response. And having just re-read your "lesson plans" for showing "C.S.A..", I think that the skits, art work, and other activities are a good idea. There are many different ways for students to learn, especially if it is student-centered-based.
I agree that all kinds of kids can act out. A lot of middle- and upper-class kids are among the worst offenders because they are used to having their way because of enabler parents. That rich kid who got 10 years of probation for driving drunk and killing four people in Texas is a perfect example.
I watched part of a program on PBS last year about a school in California or Arizona (I don't remember which state) where meditation was used during homeroom at the start of the school day. You're right -- the students became more focused on their work and on improving themselves. It made a big difference for these kids.
It used to be that teaching was different than most other professions, because everyone was focused on the kids. Now, teaching is getting just like every other job -- people are focused on themselves and no longer really care about the kids. A lot of principals, especially, care more about keeping their jobs than actually doing them. Too many good teachers (who are old-school when it comes to teaching and discipline) are being forced out, while the "yes men" and "yes women" are allowed to keep their jobs.
Your comment about bullying is spot-on. At the last public school where I taught, another teacher and I were literally bullied out of our jobs (supposedly because of budget cuts). Schools really do not care about bullying, period. So how can principals tell teachers not to bully students when they bully teachers themselves? So you know that they don't care about kids bullying kids. I'm really sorry that your wife has been subjected to this crap. Administrative bullying is a really serious problem in schools today. When an organization is screwed up, it happens from the top down.