Not long ago, I encountered the term “flipping” to describe the pedagogic strategy whereby students are asked to engage in the active problem-solving in class that is normally reserved for time outside of lecture. The idea of flipping made me think about the dynamics of my own classroom and the strategies I employ to try to build and maintain student engagement during lectures. I teach film analysis in the English Department, and the skills I aim to impart to my students are those of visual close reading. It’s a substantial transformation that I ask of my students, who may have significant exposure to film in their daily lives but whose ability to articulate an interpretation of visual narratives is often limited to their own impressionistic responses. I aim to equip my students with the formal vocabulary and interpretive tools necessary to break filmic images into their component parts and to examine the relationship between those parts: to think about how images are constructed and arranged, the relationships built between visual sequences, the manner in which these are deployed to describe narrative action and simultaneously shape our reactions. In short, I want my students to learn to stop watching films and instead start reading them.
I know that I’ve succeeded, though, when I reach the point in the semester where I open class with some questions to get the interpretive ball rolling but find that my voice is soon completely drowned out.
The most thrilling class sessions, the ones that best exemplify the experience toward which I am building, are the ones where I do not know at all what will be said: the classes where students surprise me with their varied readings of the film text. My mission in every course is to build to a point where the activity of reading film becomes the activity of classroom learning, where I offer students clips from films we are discussing and they tell me how a given film creates a sense of meaning, isolating and interpreting in real time the technical elements that lead them to these conclusions. But getting to this state, I’ve realized, requires a degree of modeling and guidance that the notion of a flipped classroom doesn’t quite convey. In my experience (if I may be so bold as to coin a term), before you can flip a classroom, you first need to tilt it.
I rarely spend an entire class period lecturing without deliberate periods of interruption and engagement. Instead, I typically use my lectures to walk my students through particular interpretations of the films that we are studying, bringing them into the analytical process through a series of guided close readings rather than delivering those readings to them pre-packaged. These are classes where I have a particular reading of a film that I want my students to understand and where we work together to draw connections, building our interpretation one shot at a time. “What do we see in the frame here?” I might ask them. “How does this differ from the previous shot?” “How does it relate to the changes in the lighting that we just discussed?” My philosophy is to never approach the material on screen as being static, something I am presenting to my students with a pre-fabricated interpretation in hand. I want these materials to always be dynamic: something for students to engage with, to unpack, and to interpret together, in real-time. The classroom isn’t quite flipped yet in these sessions, but it’s getting there.
In the best cases, the fulcrum of these tilted class sessions keeps moving until we’ve gone from tilted to fully flipped: early on, I’ll heavily guide the discussion with questions and probing statements and will often take the lead in drawing connections between what different students have said. I know that I’ve succeeded, though, when I reach the point in the semester where I open class with some questions to get the interpretive ball rolling but find that my voice is soon completely drowned out. The students have learned how to recognize and how to name the manifold technical choices that each filmic moment presents, and they are practicing the art of interpreting them in front of me. We’ve gone from a tilted classroom where I guide them in the act of interpretation to a flipped one where they’ve come to lead themselves. When this happens, I know that they have stopped watching movies, and they have learned to start reading them.
Assistant Professor in the Department of English
In 2016, Donna was named an Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and was a recipient of the University of Texas System Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award. She also participated in this year’s Eyes on Teaching.