At the beginning of every semester, we receive a list of expensive requirements: massive binders full of loose sheets, thin volumes that address the content of only a few lectures, and the occasional supplemental text that never seems to get any use. However, they are far from the only materials that professors use to deepen their students’ understanding of a subject. Across many departments at Penn, film and other forms of media are implemented as ways into analysis and discussion. They channel popular culture and arts in a way that books simply cannot replicate and relay that information to students in a captivating and immersive way. Well outside Penn’s cinema studies department, there are courses that take advantage of film as a cultural resource and incorporate movies into their syllabi.
Using film as a translation of culture into a readily understood medium is relevant to many of the area studies departments at Penn. Courses within the South Asian, Africana, and German Studies departments, among others, take advantage of film as a socio–cultural snapshot of the area or group being examined. In a course within the German studies department called "Berlin—History, Politics, and Culture," film is used in and out of the classroom as a means of unpacking the complex history of a city at the crux of 20th century world politics. In this course, students watch Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis, The Murderers are Among Us, and The Life of Others. Brooke Krancer (C '20), Social Media Editor for the DP and a student in the course, emphasizes the depth of knowledge these movies provided, remarking that “each film really spoke a lot to different things we learned in the course, like how people viewed Berlin after WWI, how the Nazis used propaganda, how German civilians psychologically dealt with the aftermath of WWII, and what Berlin was like during the Cold War.”
Given that this course is designed for students planning on attending a study abroad program in Berlin, the incorporation of cultural resources like film mirrors the kind of preparation some tourists use to gain familiarity with a foreign place. Movies provide meaningful ways into history and culture that may stay with viewers more effectively than lectures or texts.
Courses within Penn’s Anthropology Department also embrace film and the distinct cultural implications of filmmaking. This is particularly true of contemporary cultures where film and other forms of media are readily available to relay information of social, political, and cultural importance. In the anthropology course "Contemporary Native Americans," the rich diversity of the culture and experiences of indigenous North American communities is emphasized through film. Emmie Gocke (C' 21), who took the course last semester, notes that several forms of media, including clips from the films Grey Owl and The Last American Indian on Earth, documentaries, and movie trailers were “used supplementally to demonstrate the ideas in class.” She described that she “thought most of the films were interesting and provocative. Film definitely helped with the learning process because it showed many Native Americans talking about their experiences, as well as [demonstrated] artistic representations by native people.” Film and media effectively encapsulate pieces of popular culture, identity, modern life, and politics, which are crucial in understanding the complexities of a diverse contemporary community.
Sometimes the use of film in the classroom turns up in unexpected places. In the health and societies freshman seminar "Medical Missionaries and Partners," movies are used to illustrate the interaction between colonialism and volunteerism overseas. One of those movies is the 2009 science–fiction blockbuster Avatar. Chioma Duru (C' 21) recalls that the seminar “was an extremely thought–provoking class [that] made us analyze different systems in healthcare which impacted global health in some way. We also analyzed history, bioethics, and rhetoric, and how it was used to form problematic narratives in history.” Film is an excellent means of representing the narratives that are alive in a particular time and place, and for that reason can be used to challenge and inspire students across a range of disciplines.
For many Penn students, movies serve as an escape from the dizzying tempo of college life, and on occasion provide food for thought or an opportunity for discussion among friends. However, film has great potential to serve as a learning tool as well. Movies have the potential to reveal truths about their creators and subjects, as well as the dynamic sociocultural context within which they were created. For that reason, you may be pleasantly surprised to see how instructors and course designers have found ways to bring film and media into classes outside the cinema studies department, and the potential movies have to elevate study beyond the pages of a book.