My teaching style for my “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” first-year seminar course at the School of the Art Institute this semester has been relatively hands-off. I show students things in class, give a short 10-20 minute lecture, have students give presentations (you can see their handiwork here!), and then launch into discussion.
One way to conduct class discussion is to have a very specific set of interpretive moves you want to make, and to tailor your questions in order to guide your students through your own thought process. Sometimes I’ll do this type of in-class discussion. (My lesson plan on Bruce Conner’s A Movie details a lot of the points I like to hit up when discussing that film). I’m drifting away from that, though, in this particular class. I give students more work to do, in the form of blog posts and presentations. Likewise, I’m more fully embracing the seminar format in class discussions, allowing conversation to be guided by students’ interests, instead of carefully crafting questions to serve a particular road map.
This has lead to some really wonderful in-class moments that I wanted to report back on. I bristled at the thought of calling these “lesson plans,” given that such language gives me too much credit, and my students too little. Instead, they’re best thought of as the collaborative results of loosely-planned conversations, that hold within them the potential to become future, more strictly-planned lessons.
So, a disclaimer: This is not a lesson plan, not precisely. I did in fact teach Harun Farocki’s Parallels series for the final class session for my SAIC writing seminar “Moving Images and Arguments.” But since it was the final class, and since we were in a phase of the course in which my top priority was guiding students during revisions of their final essays, our discussion of the videos wasn’t nearly as detailed and rich as what you see reflected here.
Really, these are notes toward a future lesson, delivered under ideal circumstances. Although it was outside of the scope of my “Moving Images and Arguments” course, what I am most interested in about the Parallels videos are the connections Farocki draws between the videogames’ imperfect simulations of reality and the problem of philosophical skepticism. Although present to some extent in Parallel I (2012), the specter of skepticism is most pronounced in Parallel II (2014) and Parallel III (2014). I was deep in the midst of writing my dissertation in 2014, and didn’t end up seeing II, III, and IV until 2016. This was a shame, because problems of skepticism actually play a large role in the first chapter of my dissertation, and it turns out that I missed the chance to incorporate an analysis of these videos into that discussion. Parallel II and Parallel III form the main inspiration for this post, as a way of making up for that lost opportunity.
Back on Halloween, I posted a fitting lesson plan. For Thanksgiving, I guess I’ll go with a perverse one.
I taught Sink or Swim (Su Friedrich, 1990) in a week in my course “Avant-Garde Film and Video Art” devoted to the use of biography as argumentative grounds in film criticism. Since this course served as a writing seminar, one of my learning objectives this week was to get students to consider how they could marshal biographical details of an artist’s life into an analysis, without falling prey to the intentional fallacy by assigning the artist’s views and experiences too much weight. To this end, we watched some Joyce Wieland films, and I had students read Lauren Rabinovitz’s chapter on Wieland in Points of Resistance: Women, Power, and Politics in the New York Avant-garde Cinema, 1943–71. My plan here was threefold: 1) I wanted students to enunciate the specific sorts of arguments we could make about the films when we drew upon knowledge of Wieland’s status as a Canadian artist living and working in the US, her political commitments, and her status as a woman artist too often playing second-fiddle to her more-famous husband. 2) I wanted the students to acknowledge the scope and limits of what we can learn from these things, and to understand that a work of art’s meanings are not entirely determined by the artist’s biography. 3) I wanted students to recognize the difference between acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Wieland, versus acknowledging biography when dealing with a filmmaker like Friedrich, whose work tilts further into the genres of personal essay film and diary film. While one could imagine an analysis of Wieland’s Patriotism (1964) that doesn’t dwell on issues of Wieland’s biography, it is impossible to imagine and analysis of Sink or Swim that doesn’t acknowledge Friedrich’s biography. It belongs to a genre in which acknowledgement of the filmmaker’s lived experience is absolutely essential.